This morning’s sermon – posted before preached!
The townspeople knew all about this man. At one time he probably lived among them.Very likely he grew up as a boy and young man in their town. But over time they began to see something change in him. Perhaps they saw it all coming over months and years – they probably agonized over his decline – perhaps they struggled with what they could do to help him or his family. But he slipped slowly out of the community, onto the periphery of society
The one who was once a boy in their town now lives among the tombs – out in the wilderness – on the outer margins of human community – alienated and alone. He is a picture of inhumanity. He is a picture of life at the bottom of a terrible downward spiral.
It’s not like the townspeople had given up on him even now. Sometimes they tried to restrain him, for his own good. And from time to time they succeeded, but no more. Now when they bound him he would tear apart the bonds. Now he represents how far a person can fall from a life that is good and fulfilled.
One of the heartbreaking details of this story is that this man has no name – or seems to have lost his name. He is called Legion. But that, of course, is not his name. That is a name imposed upon him. That name Legion represents the destructive power that has him in its grip. He has lost his identity. He is not himself.
How do we get into this story? Very often getting into any story means being able to understand the experiences of those who are described. So in this case we may have a hard time getting into the story for the simple reason that many of us have never encountered this level of brokenness. This man behaves and lives in a way that we might associate today with a most severe and untreated mental illness of some kind. Certainly some of us have encountered or worked with individuals who suffer in this way, but most of us have only very limited experience of such realities. And so for many of us it may be difficult to understand the narrative simply because the experience described is so foreign to us.
We come to the narrative. Jesus has just come across the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. They disembark from their fishing boat onto the land and into a wilderness area – and almost immediately they encounter the man from the tombs. He approaches and throws himself at the feet of Jesus. He cries out: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you not to torture me.”
Jesus speaks to the possessed man and demands of him: What is your name? But the man does not, cannot reply. The only response Jesus gets is from the demons that possess the man. “We are Legion.” The only response Jesus gets is the whining reply of demons intent only on saving themselves. “Send us into the pigs,” they snivel. “Don’t destroy us, Jesus.”
For whatever reason, Jesus grants the request, and in the next moment of the story we see in the clearest terms what had been the destructive intent of the evil spirits all along. We read in the text: “And the unclean spirits came out of the man and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.”
In the mad rush of the pigs down that steep embankment – in the mad rush of the pigs to their death – we see what had been happening to this man for so many years. His life was being driven over a cliff in just the same way.
Is it human nature, or perhaps it is especially in our modern human nature that we are preoccupied with chaos and destruction? It’s like we can’t turn our gaze away from violence or trauma or chaos. We can’t stop looking over into the opposite lanes of the highway, staring at the remnants of a car crash. We can’t turn off the television when they repeat the same video footage of a disaster over and over again. We have celebrities in contemporary society whose only claim to fame is the train wreck of their lives. It’s like we’ve lost the ability to avert our eyes. I can only imagine that if we had been present that day with Jesus, everyone would have had their cell phones out taking pictures of that cloud of dust, and that herd of 2000 pigs thrashing down the embankment to their death.
But if we stand transfixed at that momentary destruction, we will miss something astonishing that is happening just out of the corner of our eye. The man who had lost his identity; the man who had lost his name; the man who was in the grip of inhumanity – there he sits, at the feet of Jesus. Indeed, a few moments later, by the time the townspeople arrive, it will be possible for the gospel writer to say: “And when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” Never mind the disaster of the pigs – turn off the cellphone cameras – and just gaze for a moment at this astonishing scene. Perhaps even go and sit beside him there. Discover that he is himself again.
The next words that we read in the gospel may very well surprise us. We read these words about the townspeople: “And they were afraid.” And that’s even before they had heard the whole story. Once they hear the whole story of what had happened, here’s what we read: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them for they were seized with great fear. So Jesus got into the boat and returned.”
It is difficult for us to get our minds around this story of Jesus in the first place because most of us are so removed from the experiences of the man we refer to as the Gerasene demoniac. But there is an added difficulty here. The added difficulty lies in the fact that in our culture we have ceased to believe that such radical healing and transformation is possible. As we listen to this story with our modern ears and as we filter this story through our modern minds, we will be asking ourselves: “How is it possible that someone who was so very broken and so very sick – how is it possible that this man was suddenly healed?” In our culture we have been taught a deep skepticism about such a possibility of healing – and that skepticism has lodged itself deep in our hearts and minds – we have been taught to trust only what has been scientifically verified by multiple researchers. To believe anything else is foolishness and the height of irresponsibility.
So perhaps the easiest thing for us to do, along with the townspeople, is to just send Jesus away, back into his boat. We can wave goodbye, we can let him disappear from sight, and then we don’t have to sort out who he is and what has just happened. We can let Jesus’ disciples row him out into the sea, letting all of the hard questions go with him, so that we can return to our settled points of view about what is and is not possible in our world. That way Jesus can also become for us a safer figure – someone vaguely kind and good who might have some moral lesson to teach us along the way of life.
Dorothy Sayers has written about what is referred to as the domestication of Jesus, which is perhaps fitting here. She writes:
The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, never accused Him of being a bore — on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certifying Him “meek and mild,” and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious ladies.
In our context we have been taught that we can manage our own lives and being, thank you very much – never mind the supposed miracle worker. But of course the story the gospel writer is handing on to us from the oral traditions of Jesus – this story is not intended as so much decorative art to hang on the wall of our soul. The gospel writer is saying something about Jesus. This story of the Gerasene demoniac, as we call him, is set along side several other stories of dramatic happenings. Just before this story we see Jesus calming the seas with a command of his voice. Immediately after this story we have a story about Jesus raising a little girl to life, and the story of him healing a woman of a flow of blood.
The gospel writer is describing Jesus as someone unique – someone with a capacity to bring healing and wholeness beyond what we could have imagined. And the healing of the demoniac is of one piece with this wider narrative – where the singular grace and power of Jesus leaves people astonished at him.
If we wish to, we can choose to extract some general principle from this story – as if the story is trying to teach us that there is a God out there somewhere that wants to bring healing to our lives. But the gospel writer is not offering general, disembodied principles. The gospel writer isn’t pointing to a God in any general sense – he is pointing to this first century Jewish man, through whom God is doing something astonishing and fear-inducing – through whom God is doing something we never imagined possible. In Jesus God is reaching out to those who are broken – bringing restoration and wholeness. In Jesus, God is touching the marginalized of our world, going to them in their places of marginalization and pain in order to bless and restore.
We may never have known the kind of grief and suffering the Gerasene demoniac knew – but we have all had our own wilderness experiences. We all have our own moments of grief and pain. We may be in the midst of such a moment even today. There is in us an awareness of our own inhumanity – if by inhumanity we mean that we do not always experience what Jesus referred to as abundant life.
We may be in a relationship in which there is animosity or hard feelings – in which we feel unappreciated or forgotten or taken advantage of. And we are looking for healing in that relationship, for reconciliation and a new beginning.
We may have our own struggles with mental health challenges – with a general feelings of stress, or with anxiety, or with depression. We are looking for healing, for a sense of peace and for freedom to go about our daily life with greater ease and joy.
We may feel trapped by our own behaviour or attitudes – struggling to get beyond our own ways of relating to others that we know are hurtful or disrespectful or even destructive. We are looking for healing, for a new strength in living a more gracious life.
James Quentin Young in an artist in Minnesota, now retired from 32 years of teaching art in public schools. In his work he creates pieces of art from old wood, metal, and found objects. He has been an early advocate for recycling and renovating discarded items. He was an artist at the CIVA conference I attended a few weeks ago.
There is something so perfectly true to the gospel that James Quentin Young creates his art from old pieces of wood and metal and things he finds along the way. There is something so perfectly true to the gospel that he creates things things that are rough from use in the world yet so beautiful. There is something so perfectly true to the gospel that he finds things marked by their passage through the world and then gives them back to us in a new and deeply meaningful configuration.
With this particular cross it is also particularly true to the gospel that it is a hinged cross – as if the cross is a door that opens onto new vistas of life and meaning – as if beyond the door of the cross is a shared resurrection in Christ – in the one whom Paul refers to as the first fruits of those raised from the dead.
The narrative of Jesus is a narrative of new life – new life that he uniquely gives through his life, death, and resurrection. And saying this is not going to solve all of our modern challenges around how exactly the healing of Christ appears in our lives. Sometimes God may act powerfully and decisively and instantly in human lives. But we can and should acknowledge that the God creation – the God who gives our world in and through Jesus – is a God who heals us through so many means. Part of the answer to our modern dilemma is certainly to say that God blesses us with therapists and friends and sometimes medications that help us along the way.
But at the same time, perhaps we do best if we not try too hard to solve the modern dilemma in the first instance. Perhaps we do best to prayerfully seek, and prayerfully meditate on the one who goes to the margins with healing and grace. Perhaps we do best if we prayerfully seek and meditate on the one who comes to us in own wilderness with healing and grace. Perhaps we do best if we prayerfully seek and meditate on the one who goes to a hinged cross, that through him we might discover abundant life into which he leads. And then, in a response of joy, we might go with that man of the Gerasenes, go back home, and speak of what God has done.