Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Galatians 3:23-29 and Luke 8:26-39
In Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I never Knew, he tells the story of a friend who works with the down and out in Chicago:
A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter - two years old! - to men... She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly believe her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable - I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there?? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse...”
Yancey goes on to note that ironically it was just this type of person who used to flock toward Jesus to find healing and grace, not run away from him. The more desperate a person felt, according to the Gospel writers, the more they would seek out Jesus’ healing power. People would bring their sick and dying to Jesus because they knew that he would lovingly help and heal them. So the question is, why do so many people today think of the church as the last place to find love and healing power? Why will people go just about anywhere else but church on a Sunday morning? I just read that only 15% of French attend worship regularly. It’s now only 41% in the US… Could it be that the way that we treat people has become critically different than the way Jesus loved people?
In our Gospel lesson we read a strange yet powerful story of Jesus’ healing power, of a desperate man who falls down before Jesus as probably his last hope of liberation and redemption. He had demons, Luke abruptly writes. And we’ll get back to the demons in a minute, but the effect that they have on this man is terrible. He has been running around as a naked madman on the fringes of society for a long time. Luke says also that he was living in the tombs in the country of the Gerasenes. Such details are important. This man was living on the outer boundaries of acceptable society, especially for the religious people of Jesus’ day. It was believed that over in the Gerasene area across the Jordan and sea of Galilee were where evil spirits and idol gods resided. In the holy land of Israel, Jews were free to roam, but many dared not cross over the region of the Gerasenes. And as you know, the place of the dead for Jews must always be located outside of the city walls - it is not a clean place for anyone to be for any length of time, let alone live. People had tried to restrain and calm this man down, but he would always break loose (amazing power that those demons have). And wildly dashing about naked is not the best way to integrate into a community...
In so many ways this story just sounds bizarre. Today we would lock this guy up and shoot him full of clozapine - he’d be sedated and shuffle around the rest of his life away in a psychiatric ward. There are plenty of people for whom therapy will never be the answer. There are many people for whom there seems to be no help.
But Jesus asked, “What is your name?” There is an important process toward liberation and restoration which begins with naming. When we can begin to name that which controls us, we are then able to ask the Lord to free us, to give us the strength, the courage, the patience to live beyond the tomblike existence of what binds us. If we began naming more contemporary demons, the list might include: Pride, greed, anger, alcoholism, abuse, bulimia, depression, loneliness, lust, pornography, adultery, control, fear, jealousy, racism, nationalism, guilt, shame... Such demons are all around us - they are indeed, legion... The demons of today may not have Dante-esque red suits and pointy tails, but they still can prod us to the brink of breakdown and despair, whether it be in our inner being, or in our relationships at home, school, church, or among the nations.
Naming is also important in the service of baptism. We ask those who come forward, “What is your name?” or like today in the case of infant baptism, we ask, “What is the name of this child?” I am not implying in any way that they are little demons (although there are times)! Rather, naming is a pre-requisite for transformation. Paul uses the image of being “clothed with Christ” to talk about our new baptismal identity, our new relationship to God and one another. All the external labels or inner demons which confound us and alienate us don’t mean much because they have now been covered with the baptismal waters, the Spirit of Christ.
I always make the sign of the cross on the forehead in baptism. It’s a practice that the church borrowed, I was taught, from the Roman army. When a man became a Roman soldier, he was branded, marked by the sign of the emperor on his forehead to show that he now owed allegiance to the emperor. The sign of the cross on the forehead is an external sign of the one to whom you now belong, the One who bought you with the price of his precious blood, who calls you to put on his very nature and being.
But recognition and transformation do not come without conflict. As Jesus approaches this man, the demons recognize who he is at once, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me...” This is a kind of irony throughout the gospels, as the disciples and most who come after Jesus do not recognize what even the demons do - the truth of Jesus’ identity. The demons know that Jesus cannot only torment them, but Jesus can destroy them and their influence. So the demons beg to be set loose on a herd of pigs. A Jewish audience would laugh out loud at the irony inherent in this story - of course pigs are for the Jews unclean animals, but did you know that the Legion of Roman soldiers who were assigned to guard Jerusalem had an animal on their coat of arms. Guess what it was: A Pig! A wild boar! So there’s a double entendre here in Jesus sending the legion of demons into the pigs, who hurtle themselves to their watery death. Jesus has authority over not only the spiritual forces of the world, but the political and economic forces as well.
You see, we tend to think that this is just a story about some lunatic. But it is also a story about some communities. It is a story for all of us who recognize a deeper reality in the world - deeper than just our personal situations, but which affects the politics and economics that many so meticulously follow in the news. There are deeper forces at work in our lives and in our community. And when we dare to speak of it, when we dare to let Jesus actually rule in our lives and communities, transformation takes place. Change happens. Maybe that’s why the people who saw Jesus’ power were so afraid. Fear is a natural and common reaction to the Lord’s intrusive and surprising power. God’s radical creative and redemptive love defies our common sense and disorients our rational faculties and bottom line calculations.
This story of the legion is addressed to those of us who like this man seem to be helpless before the demons that convulse us and throw us to the outer limits of community. But it is also for us as a community who at times seems to be helpless and incapable before the legion of demons which wreak havoc in our world and pushes so many people to the outer boundaries of society. The gospel asserts unabashedly that Christ alone can cast out our demons. Christ alone can set us free to be clothed with a different humanity, clothed with the compassionate, forgiving, accepting, gracious, loving and healing presence of our Lord.
Paul goes so far as to say that we are all one in Christ… All. That means that any category that you may use to separate yourself from others is spiritually speaking, trivial.
In Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “you are all children of God through faith!” As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Could we also say, “there is no longer Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, straight or gay, black or white, young or old; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus?”
On this day when we celebrate and acknowledge our volunteer ministry partners, I think it is important to remember that all of us are given gifts for ministry and mission. That means all of us, even those people who at first you may scratch your head and wonder, “How could God possibly use them for Kingdom work in this world?” They are so needy! They are so messed up… How could God bless the world through them?
The beautiful ending to our gospel text is that the strange demon-possessed man is redeemed and restored. He becomes the first missionary to the gentiles! He no longer lives for himself, but as an ambassador for the Kingdom of God!
Friends, I invite you to reflect with me as you go through this week: Can you name that which keeps you from giving praise and thanks to God? Or as we think of our church, can you name anything that may keep us from being a welcoming, loving, healing community for all people, even the strange outsiders? We know here that Jesus Christ has authority over all, and that we are one in Him. So what do we need to do – what do you need to do – to put on Christ, to bow down before the Lord and let him set us free to live, to love, to celebrate life together, and be the church he wants us to be?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Referenced June 22, 2013: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_attendance