Proper 7C. 23 June 2013.
When I started my research on the reading from Luke this morning, I read one scholar's opinion that, as readers and preachers, we should not be so quick to dismiss demon possession as if it were a misdiagnosis of mental illness.
I would say that most of us would prefer to read it that way, because it explains away the problem—it gives us language to talk about it, and it allows us to say things like, "Well, nowadays we have medicines that can control that." But to do that is to patronize both the problem and the people of those bygone eras. Whether or not mental illness was in play misses the point that it was a living reality for those people at that time.
So instead of dismissing the problem as ancient and irrelevant to us, let us rather look with compassion on what seemed like an impossible situation. As Luke tells the story, Jesus as his disciples have arrived in the country of the Gerasenes. Notice that Luke helpfully writes, "which is opposite Galilee." In other words, Jesus has come into a land that would have been lived in, mostly, by Gentiles.
And I have to take just a moment here to talk about Gentiles, because I think we misunderstand Gentile as meaning simply non-Jewish. To my mind it makes more sense to think of Gentiles as being regular people—actually most people—who don't really observe any religion. They're not bad people; they may be very decent, moral, honorable folks, they just don't believe.
You will see them at weddings and funerals. They have a look on their face that says they're worried that someone is going to come up and say, "You shouldn't be here." If the funeral is at a funeral home, they might look up at the front and see a Cross, but they're not going to complain about it. They understand that the dominant religion is Christianity—and that's fine. In my experience, they really are nice folks. They just don't believe.
There was a man in the country of the Gerasenes who had demons. He was naked. He didn't live in a house; he lived in the tombs. He was tormented. We imagine him as dirty, impoverished, lonely, and just as scared as he was scary.
Now, again, it's easy to sort of jump to the idea that this man had a problem that he might have had some control over—maybe not enough to keep it together for long, but we want to say that he just let himself go. It's not like that. You have to enter the story as Luke tells it. The man was not able to control his actions. He has become possessed.
Please let that sink in, because it's crucial to understanding this story. He is possessed, captive, unable to control his actions or his words. I can't think of another way of expressing it, except to give you this analogy, but if you have ever fainted or had to vomit, that's about it. What you are looking at is a man, but that's not him screaming and throwing himself on the ground. That's the demon doing that.
The demon is screaming at Jesus, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me." He said this—says Luke—because Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.
Jesus asks the demon, "What is your name?" And the reply is, "Legion," because many demons—not just one—had taken over the man. The Legion had asked Jesus not to send them back to the abyss. The abyss being a place of death and hell. On the hillside a large herd of swine had been feeding.
So reading this as a devout Jew, you would be astonished and terrified by the uncleanness of a man who was possessed by demons who lived in the tombs, because it meant perpetual defilement. And then to hear of a herd of swine would also be a indication of an unclean environment. And Jesus is there in the midst of it all with his disciples.
Jesus gave permission for the unclean spirits to come out of the man and into the swine, and when they came into the swine, the swine—now possessed by the legion—ran into the lake and drowned.
The swineherds, which are like shepherds but for swine, ran off and told what had happened to everyone, and they came to see. And they found Jesus and the man who had been possessed, sitting with Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were terrified.
All that happened was terrifying. The possession, the power of Jesus to end the possession—or at least, redirect the possession into animals that then caused the animals to die, the man who had been possessed and unclean, even by Gentile standards, was okay. It's all simply terrifying. And what do the people do? They asked Jesus to leave. They were scared.
The man wanted to come with Jesus. Well, of course, he did! The man didn't want to be possessed in the first place. If he goes with Jesus, Jesus can protect him. But Jesus tells the man to return to his home, as a kind of living symbol of what God can do. And the man does that. He went away proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
It's a very chaotic story really. Though it is a miraculous story of redemption, it is also grotesque. I don't know what it says about anything that the demons didn't want to be sent to the abyss, but they wanted to kill the animals. I don't know what it means that they were unable to kill the man. There really are a lot of questions that linger around this story—such that the event likely traumatized that community for years. Surely the farmer who owned the swine would have been upset for a long time—it was a financial loss. (Pause.)
My father has a saying just before he undertakes some project of organization. He says, "Let's try to bring a little order out of chaos." In modern physics, this could be understood somewhat ironically. If you have heard anything about fractals—the concept that even within seemingly chaotic systems there is a measure of order. Perhaps at the level of God's own consciousness, this is understood, but at our own particular level, we are limited.
The power of God is the power of being order. Jesus is able to free the demon possessed, because he can be order at such a high level as to have dominion over the chaos. The Legion obey him because even they themselves are unable to control the chaos of their world. Theirs is a world of disorder and pain; Jesus's world—the Kingdom of God—is world of redemption and healing.
Jesus is able to bring order to the chaos, or perhaps, to see the order in the midst of the chaos, and to command it.
We may never know the specific possession that took over the young man's life in the Gerasenes, but we do know what it is to be overtaken: by situations outside of our control, and by internal thoughts that seem beyond our control. Again, this is not to dispel or explain the power away from Luke's account; but to find the text's relevance in our lives.
I have often borrowed an expression from the Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, "that some people put their lives together with short pieces of string." We all do to some extent, though we may not want to admit it. We all bump up against the boundaries that contain us: financial, emotional, situational, relational, intellectual.
I remember when Karin and I were new parents that one of the first things, in fact, the first thing that we needed to do was to instill in our children a sleep schedule. To regulate rest, and then to keep to a meal schedule, little routines that give structure. A child begins to learn by the rhythms of a parent that this is the time to eat, this is the time to play. Bedtime was a process, not a moment. It still is. The process of bathing, changing into pajamas, reading from books, offering prayers, and tucking in at night. And though that process as varied in minor ways, it is still essentially unchanged for the last seven years.
A child may have a temperament that adapts well, or they may still fight and fuss, but rhythm is a powerful tool of comfort. Even on the worst of days, the child knows: this is when my body will be fed, cleaned, read to, kissed, and given rest.
To this day, when I am trying to go to sleep at night and can't seem to quiet my mind, I will close my eyes and imagine that I am in my bed in Bridgewater with the lights off. And my father—who was always, when I was a child, the last to go to bed—is brushing his teeth in the hall bathroom. He turns off the light, pulls the door to, and as he walks to bed he whispers in the direction of my room: "Night." He didn't know whether I was awake or not, if I had heard him or not, but I heard him every night. And every night, he said it.
And if I need a final benediction, a blessing over my life as I try to quiet the demons, as I try to sleep—even to this day—there is nothing more I need than to call to mind the sound of my father's whisper. It represents order the midst of chaos.
We outgrow the home of our childhood, but we never outgrow the need for order, and the love that it imparts. Jesus is that order. The one who is able to comprehend chaos, and oppose its tyranny without fear.
Jesus is able to give you peace for your anxiety, calm for your troubled mind. Jesus knows the difference between what possesses you and who you really are, which is a child of God—a treasure born of God's own love.
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