This sermon, offered at The Church of the Atonement in Fish Creek Wisconsin, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 7C in the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here
In today’s Gospel reading Luke the Evangelist drags us right into the middle of what, for the disciples and for Luke’s readers, would have been a real nightmare.
On the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in a country populated by a foreign people, people who looked different, who spoke another language, people who neither valued or observed their religious traditions and customs, Jesus and his disciples are confronted by a man, bloodied and bruised by the chains used to bind him, who can’t even speak his own name because he is so tormented by the demons that afflict him.
In just a few short sentences Luke has set up a horror story better than most of the movies we’ll find on late night TV.
Now I don’t know where a boat trip across the water to a foreign land, populated by people who look different from us, people who speak a different language and worship differently than us, people who have spent time among the dead bound by chains would rank on your hierarchy of horror…
Come to think of it… I guess there are a lot of people today who do in fact find that pretty scary prospect…
But the demons, I think that the demons we encounter in this story have to rank up there pretty high on our list of scary stuff.
Now, that may be a hard line to swallow, talk about demons in church can make Episcopalians pretty squeamish, but just let’s just run with this for a few minutes.
We could spend a lot of time talking about what Jesus and his contemporaries meant when they referred to demons. And we could spend a lot of time talking about what we mean when we say a person is tormented by demons, and yes we do still use those words… but I’m not sure that either of those conversations would result in consensus or even general agreement. I am however, willing to bet that we could all agree just what those demons, whatever they are, just what the demonic, whatever that is, do to people and to communities where they manifest themselves.
Luke describes it pretty well. This man that we encounter today doesn’t live in a house. He lives in the tombs. He is separated from his family, from the community into which he was born, and is living with the dead. If the demons weren’t enough to drive him from his home, to disrupt his relationship with the people around him, his contact with the dead makes him ritually unclean and so people now want to do everything they can to avoid him. This man’s demons, the demonic within him have alienated him, driven him from his community. They have ruptured his communion with the people whom he loves and whom we may suppose once loved him. That should sound familiar to all of us. We’ve all seen that happen. And we all know that it gets worse!
When Jesus asks this man his name he can’t answer. The best that he can do is offer the number of demons that were torturing him… Legion… “Legion” was a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman Army. Those demons, the demonic, had obliterated his very identity, he no longer knew who his own name, he had lost his sense of who he was. The demons had ruptured his communion even with himself.
And now unable even to utter his own name this man is alone, in the dark, living among the dead.
It’s important to focus on the effect that these demons have had on this man rather than on the demons themselves because it is the person, the child of God standing before him with whom Jesus is concerned. He is much less interested in the demons than he is in the person in need… And by placing the emphasis on the effect that the demonic has on people we are better able to see just what it is that Jesus is does in the midst of a terrible nightmare like this.
Luke tells us:
“Then the people came out to see what had happened, 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.”
Sitting at Jesus’s feet. In his right mind… By casting out whatever it was that was tormenting him Jesus has called him to remember who he was, Jesus has given him back his name, identity. He has restored this man to communion with himself and, as he sits there at Jesus’s feet, with God. In so doing Jesus has given him the opportunity to be restored to communion with his family, with his community, and with the world around him.
That’s not really surprising because that’s exactly what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to teach us a new way of being together, a new way of being in communion with God and with one another, a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Communion, community, establishing the kingdom of God… that’s what Jesus is about. Bringing God’s vision, God’s dream for creation to fruition here and now.
Confronted with this broken community and this man who was estranged, alienated, cut off from himself and the people around him… Jesus was bound to do something to reconcile them all, to themselves, to one another, and to God.
So now I have to ask… What do you think? Did it work? Was Jesus able to restore this person to the life God wanted for him? Was Jesus able to bring this tormented person back into communion with himself and with his neighbors? The Gospel leaves that question unanswered. We know that the man, having been relieved of his torment, wanted to follow Jesus and Jesus sent him home to tell people all that God had done for him… but we don’t know how he was received by the people who had cast him out. Luke leaves us to wonder…
But while Luke doesn’t tell us the conclusion of the possessed man’s story… he does tell us something about the way the people in the city and the surrounding countryside responded to what Jesus had done. And their response leaves us with some pretty profound questions…
Luke tells us:
“Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”
Why weren’t they ecstatic that one of their own had been healed of the demons that tormented him? Why weren’t they celebrating the fact that someone who had been lost was found, that someone who had been living among the dead was now restored to life? Why in the world would they be afraid and ask Jesus lo leave? Why weren’t they lining up to bring others to Jesus to be restored to the life of the community?
Maybe, maybe it was that herd of swine that rushed down the steep slope and was drowned. Maybe the financial cost of saving someone, of rescuing them from the demons that tormented them, of restoring them to communion with themselves, with God, and with the community was just to high. Maybe they weren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice for someone else’s sake.
Maybe they were afraid of the way that restoring this person to the life of the community might change the dynamics of the community itself. How would he fit in? What would he expect from them? Would his presence in their midst call them to change? How were they supposed to relate to this person whom they had so recently tried to bind with chains?
And speaking of those chains… If this person were restored to the community how would they live with the fact that they had, for years, tried to imprison and chain him? If it was actually possible to restore someone like this to communion with the community… why didn’t they seek help for him, why didn’t they do all in their own power to heal him? Why did they compound his misery by tossing him out and locking him away?
They were seized by fear and asked Jesus to leave. It seems pretty clear that the demons in this story were having an impact far beyond the individual person they were inhabiting. They asked Jesus to leave them.
Let’s be clear.
The threat posed by someone who is tormented by demons is real. That person may be a Gerasene who lives among the tombs or they may be a tortured, self loathing, hate filled person with an assault rifle. Either way, the immediate danger that person poses to us is real.
But the story of the people of Gerasene’s response to Jesus healing, Jesus restoring, Jesus reconciling someone who had been identified as a threat reveals an even greater danger.
God calls us to communion with God and with one another; a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like and that’s what Jesus came to bring.
The real danger in outbursts of the demonic and the terror they cause is that we will all become infected.
That rather than work for reconciliation and communion we will build walls that further divide us.
The real danger in moments like this is that we will hold tight to what we believe is ours, refusing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect ourselves and our children because we deem the cost too high. The danger is that we will pull back into our entrenched positions, allowing the status quo to continue to consume the innocent.
The real danger in a moment like this is that we will find ourselves too afraid to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves because someone has labeled that neighbor a threat.
The real danger in moments like this is that we will become so fearful and defensive that we refuse to examine our own culpability in our failure to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.
If we succumb to these dangers then the Demons, the terrorists, have won. Demons and terrorists aren’t nearly as concerned with their immediate victims as they are with the ripple effect of their deeds. Their real goal is to infect entire communities with terror, fear, anger, and hatred; to disrupt our communion with one another and with God. To make us forget who, and whose, we are.
We have to remember who we are and whose we are. We have to remember why Jesus came among us and what he taught us. We have to remember the promises we make every time we renew our baptismal vows. We have to fight to keep loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves because…
Because the greatest danger of all,
in a moment like this
is that we will be so seized with fear
that we ask Jesus to leave…