This sermon is built on the readings for Proper 7 in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
We are a people shaped and formed by stories: stories that define who we are as individuals, stories of our childhood and our growing up, stories that define who we are as families and communities, stories that define who we are as a people and as a nation. And a people that are defined by its stories cannot help but revere its greatest storytellers. People who can shape our lives and out thoughts and our understanding of the world by their use of words and their ability to convey a moment in time, a space, or relationships draw our praise and our esteem.
Luke, the gospeller from whom we heard this morning, is one of our greatest storytellers, a true craftsman. But some two thousand years after he wrote his stories down, after his community recorded their experiences with Jesus of Nazareth it might be a little difficult for us to appreciate his true craft. Our culture, our society is so different that we might miss the subtleties of his mastery. It will be well worth our while to go back and examine his artistry and to see just what it is that Luke is telling us in his story this morning.
Jesus and his disciples are in a boat and they travel across the lake, the deep waters. Now for the people of Israel chaos lurked beneath the surface of the water, there was the threat of extinction there, the unknown, the unknowable, powers that moved without our understanding… And so to be out on the deep water was a scary thing. Luke’s original audience would have appreciated the danger to Jesus and his disciples and their trepidation would have increased when they heard Luke say, “opposite Gallilee.” Luke is making sure his audiences knows that Jesus and his disciples are traveling into the land of the Gentiles, a place that was unknown and unclean, a place that was hostile and unsafe. As if that weren’t bad enough our “landing party” reaches the other side and they find themselves amongst the dead, among the tombs, where a madman, a man possessed, screeches and howls. This man refuses to wear clothes, he has been repeatedly bound by shackles and has broken free, bloodied and bruised by his struggles against the chains. The demoniac swirls across the beach and confronts Jesus and his disciples. Luke’s audience must have been terrified. If this were a contemporary movie the sound track would be thrumming. The walls of our surround sound theater would shaking with the noise and we would be filled with dread as Jesus looks into this man’s eyes and asks him his name. Then the bombshell drops. This person is so tormented by the voices screaming within his head that he has lost track of his own identity. With no name to share the demons speak on his behalf, “’What is your name?’ He said ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him.” Luke’s audience would have been shaking with fear around the table or around the campfire as this story was told.
Having brought us right to the brink Luke now begins to unwind the conflict and pull us back from the edge. Jesus who has stilled the waves on the lake, who is working to help people to understand who he is, who in this section of Luke’s story is demonstrating his power and authority casts the demons out. They go into a herd of swine that rushes down the hill, across the field and off the cliff into the lake where they are drowned… still a scary moment, but in the end all has come out well and we can relax. The man who had been lost among the dead has been set free from the demons that beset him and the demons have been vanquished!
Luke has done a fabulous job of drawing this picture for us, of pulling us into the conflict, of establishing the tension and then resolving it. He has established Jesus as the Son of the Most High God; even the demons know him by name. But Luke is not finished with us yet. It is here in this moment where everything shifts, Luke’s true mastery is revealed, and we see that story that we have just heard is really a set up for what is about to happen.
The swineherd run into the town and they tell people what has happened. Everyone comes rushing out to see for themselves and they find the man who had been naked, mad, and living among the tombs, clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet. Luke tells us that this was the moment that people became afraid. I think that is really key for us. They are not afraid because the swine have run off the cliff into the water. They aren’t afraid because their way of living has been destroyed or because their meat supply for the coming season is gone. That’s not why they are afraid. They are afraid because this person who had been lost, whom they had chained and set guards over, who had been cast out, and who was living apart from them amongst the dead had been restored to them. They are afraid because they are being confronted by a new and challenging reality.
In the letter to the Galatians we hear Paul say, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The people of that region knew how to manage the reality that they had been living with. They had a way of keeping themselves safe from people who were mad, who were dangerous, who were “other.” First they tried to chain him but that didn’t work. They set guards over him and that didn’t work. Then his alientation became so great that he removed himself from their presence and was living amongst the dead… For the people of the region, his community, it was a safe and comfortable arrangement that allowed them to ignore him, to shun him, to live as if he didn’t matter. Jesus has come into their midst and turned their safe and manageable world upside down. This is the true import of today’s story.
It would be much easier and more comfortable for us to focus on the healing of the demoniac and the casting out of the demons. That part of the story holds out great hope and promise and it doesn’t call us to behave or to think differently. But if we have read the scriptures and don’t find ourselves challenged in some way then it is likely that we haven’t heard the whole story. The demoniac who has been healed says to Jesus, “Please take me away from this place. Let me be with you. You have restored me to health, reconciled me to myself, and restored my identity. Let me come with you where I will be safe, and loved, and secure.”
Jesus says “yes” to this same request over and over again in the Gospels. He heals people and they ask to follow him and he says, “Sure. Come along.” But this time he says, “no.” He tells the demoniac, now healed, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Jesus gives him a vocation, he calls him to be an evangelist, but much more than that he calls him to be a manifestation of the new reality in Christ Jesus. Day after day this person, now restored, will confront the people who had cast him out, who had set him aside. He will challenge their understanding of the social order, the hierarchy, and the ways in which they had set themselves over and against one another. This person will live in their midst and force them to confront a new way of being.
There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; there is no longer black, white Asian, Hispanic; there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer union or management or even heaven forbid… Republican and Democrat! There is no distinction that stands in the light of God’s love.
Luke is trying very hard to shock us into a new reality. Luke’s goal is to have us leave this place this morning, proclaiming how much God has done… for us. We come from a variety of backgrounds, a variety of places. We come into this place with different stories; stories that create and form our personal identities; stories that create the identities of the families from which we hail; stories that create and form us as Christians, as children of God and as people of the Light.
God calls us to leave this place proclaiming that good news and by our lives to demonstrate and make manifest this new reality. We are all one. We are all one in God’s sight and we are called to recognize, to live out, to manifest that dream and vision for all of creation; helping to bring it to fruition here and now. Amen.