Sermon – Pigs Might Fly

Here’s the sermon that I preached on Sunday morning.
(The video is also available on the Cathedral website).

Because of the peculiarities of the clergy rota and the fact that we’ve had one or two special things going on like baptisms and hosting visiting preachers, it feels like a long time since I’ve been in the pulpit preaching. Indeed, I think it is about eight weeks since I stood here.

Whenever I have a break like that from preaching and I sit down to write something new I tend to find my mind goes all blank. This game is actually easier if you play it every week.

And as I sat this week, my mind went back to one of the people who taught me how to preach. He was someone who used to go around listening to students preach most Sundays and could tend towards the caustic in what he had to say about them. “Ah,” he used to say, “the traditional Scots sermon – three points, a poem and a death bed scene”.

I don’t have a deathbed scene but let’s take three points – which today will be three ways of reading the story. Firstly looking at it at face value, then looking at it as an allegory and finally looking at it existentially.

But let’s start with a poem.

Anyone who has enjoyed Richard Holloway’s ministry will recognise this one straight away. He used to quote it a lot. However, it isn’t by him but by Edwin Markham. I’ll give you it in the inclusive language version:

They drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in!

Yes. I want to take a look at the gospel reading this morning by looking at it in the light of the second of our three little words which we put on all our literature. Open. Inclusive and Welcoming. Those words have called us together as a congregation for seven years now and still they seem to have value and meaning for us as a congregation.

Let us start by looking at this man in the gospel through the lens of the second of those words – inclusion.

For it seems to me that this story is a brilliant example in just a few words of describing a shift by which someone who is an outsider becomes an insider.

This is the first way of reading the story and fairly naive. It takes the characters in the story at face value.

This man is an outsider. What we would recognise as mental illness has ensured that he lives on the very edges of society – in the tombs. Literally living amongst the dead.

Tombs in the middle-east are still today sometimes the place where people end up who are at the very edges of society. To say someone was living in the tombs is simply to say he was amongst the marginalised. He was outcast. He was alone, except for his voices. Clearly no-one knew what to do with him.

He meets Jesus. Jesus tells the demons to go. They enter into the pigs who drown themselves as a consequence. And the man goes about praising what Jesus has done apparently able to re-enter society. He goes from being an outsider to being included once again amongst the community.

So far so good. Using this reading, we can take this story at face value? But does that pan out if we keep thinking about the story? A number of things make me feel very cautious about this. Some things don’t ring true. Not least is the fact that pigs don’t drown. If pigs end up in water, they can swim. (Trust me, my best procrastination technique to stop me from writing this was watching swimming pigs on youtube).

More troubling though – can I read this as though this man was really possessed by demons who were capable of leaping into pigs anway? I don’t think I can. Not really. I can understand that as a language that describes people’s encounter with troubling behaviour and mental illness. But seeing someone who is mentally ill as being demon possessed is adding to stigma not relieving it. That may describe what it looks like but it doesn’t describe a reality.

So, I struggle with a literal reading. It isn’t usually a good way to read the bible

So, secondly, can this be an allegory. I read a fascinating exposition of this gospel this week in which the herd of swine represented the local roman soldiers (remember the use of the word legion – a very roman way of referring to a military force. The idea was that there were no actual pigs on the local hillside. (That’s quite a lot of pigs in a land where people don’t eat pork in any case). The idea of this reading was that there were in fact Roman Soldiers camped on the hill outside the town and that Jesus is in some way referring to the pigs on the hill in the same kind of way that people disparagingly refer to policing forces the world over as “the pigs”.

The idea is that this is a story told by those trying to stir up some kind of political storm. Jesus is presented as the person who can make the Romans go mad and dispose of themselves. The story becomes a story of a political faction – those who wanted Jesus to lead a rebellion against the Romans (we know there were such people) which has somehow found its way into the gospel.

I find it interesting but not terribly compelling. And so I leave it there and move to my preferred way of reading it.

Those who have heard me preach about demons in the gospels before will be able to guess what I’ve got to say about this idea. For me the story can be interpreted simply by asking what the demons of our society are called.

No doubt there were those who believed that the Roman legion was demonic in first century Palestine.

But what is demonic now.

And I think that the things I find demonic are, by and large, those things that exist in society which exclude people.

The obvious ones that trip of my tongue first tend to be racism, sexism and homophobia. But there are plenty more. What are our demons and what are their names?

Stigma about mental illness – calling people demonic – that’s one of our demons that needs to go over the cliff. Stigma about HIV status is another.

Where are the demons in this city and what is their name. Only by knowing their names can we begin to exorcise them.

Sectarianism is one that we are implicated in as Christians in this city but which we talk about far too little.

One way of praying with this story this week might be to try to name as many demons worthy of being drowned as you can.

Try it.

Name those demons.

And with each one you can name, repeat Edward Markham’s epigram:

They drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in!

This week the Scottish Government will publish its plans to bring in equal marriage – a campaign that I’ve been involved with pretty much from the start. When I first started banging on about it, a good friend heard me saying that one day gay and lesbian would be able to get married and said quite emphatically she believed that pigs might fly.

Whether or not you agree with me about whether the law should be changed, the fact that the government will publish this bill this week is an astonishing reminder of what a small number of people can do when they put their minds ot it.

So this week, as I stand and read this morning’s gospel, I see pigs flying from a cliff representing all kinds of demons that need to be drowned.

And whenever you hear anyone being cynical about removing stigma, removing prejudice, removing exclusion and tells you it is more likely that pigs will fly…

Remember Jesus’s story of the Geresene swine.

Together we can change the world for the better.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen


  1. Michael Kalmuk says

    On May 28, 2003 my partner Kelly Montfort and I were the first same-sex couple in the world Anglican communion to have a legally sanctioned same-sex blessing and literally two months later, two men in Ontario won their legal battle to be legally married. A few years have passed (10 to be exact) and now same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, many of the United States and various other countries. The pigs are flying and the world has not yet come to an end as the result of this scandalous news! Be true to your hearts and bless this change of attitude. It is all part of our never-ending quest to be tolerant of our differences and to try to love one another a little more. Our ancestors would probably not understood why this is so important. Our children’s children will wonder why there was so much anxiety over people loving one another.

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