Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and did not live in a house, but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then 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. And they were afraid. 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. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Pent5 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 6-19-16
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, who loved us first, in Christ, Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.
There I was, just minding my own business, when all of a sudden this guy walks up to me, from out of nowhere and says, “Come out of him!” And he’s looking right at me. Now, I knew who he was. I mean, I was pretty messed up at the time, but that much I understood. This guy was different. He walked with authority. And he wasn’t afraid of me. I had lost count of how many nervous breakdowns I had had. But it didn’t matter to him. He walked right up to me. The people of my village had long since left me for dead. I was more a ghost to them than anything. Their chains could no longer hold me. Whatever demons tormented me from within – they burst the bonds without. My clothes were in tatters – it was easier to just go about naked. What’s the point, anyway? Too many voices in my head had driven me to despair, to the point of bruising myself with rocks and banging my head against the tombs. “Let me in,” I cried, “I’d rather be in the grave than endure another moment of this torment.”
When night fell, I would roam the city looking for scraps to eat from the garbage of my neighbors. I must’ve been a sight. Understandably, they were afraid of me. And I played my part well, shouting back at them obscenities, cursing to the top of my lungs. Sometimes, all it took was an evil stare, or for them to get a good whiff of me, and then they’d leave me alone. Eventually, it became clear that fear had become the unwritten rule between us – that we should never speak to one another. Ever. It was just easier that way. So we kept to ourselves, mostly… until that day. “What do you want with me?” I shouted. (or was it the voices in my head?) “We know who you are, Jesus: the Son of the Most High God!” Why is he talking to me? Doesn’t he know that I’m dangerous? Maybe if I growl a little louder, or foam a bit at the mouth… no, he’s not buying it, and he’s not running away. In fact, he’s coming closer. He wants to talk to me. “What is my name? What kind of question is that? Don’t you know who I am? I’m your worst nightmare, Jesus. Everyone in town knows me. My name is Legion, for there are many of us in my head … so many that I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m nobody and everybody, what do you think of that?”
He just kept looking intently at me and I knew this was a losing battle. So, I begged him to go easy on the evil spirits. After all, they had become a part of me. “Send us into those unclean pigs over there, Jesus. Don’t send us into the abyss.” So he did and they left me that very instant. The pigs went crazy, just like I had, and rushed over a cliff and were drowned in the sea. Their owners were devastated and ran into town to tell their friends what had happened. All at once a curious calm came upon me. I felt hungry and exhausted. I felt just fine – finer that I had in years. Jesus gave me a bath and combed my hair. He helped me find some underwear and clothes. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. But I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d be back – those spirits. He didn’t seem to mind, he just handed me another piece of fish, “Eat up!”
Soon a crowd arrived from town and they saw me sitting there in my right mind talking to Jesus. “Hi guys,” I waved sheepishly. “Sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused. All better now, thanks to Jesus.” They just stood there with their mouths wide open, staring at me. And, if you think they were afraid of me before… the looks on their faces now betrayed a new kind of fear – a fear that Jesus was giving me back to them – that they would have to learn my name and deal with me as a person, not some filthy, raging lunatic. They were afraid that I just might snap again at any time. “Can we trust our children around this man?” Sometimes fear prefers the chains of isolation over the hard work of reconciliation. I could see some of them weren’t buying it. They begged Jesus to leave, so he got back in his boat.
“Take me with you!” I cried. “Don’t leave me here. No one understands me like you, Jesus. No one sees me for who I really am except you.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “They will. It won’t be easy, but they will. Go to your people. Tell them everything God has done for you.” So I did. And, guess what? I got my life back. I came out of the shadows, thanks to God. I found a place to live and got a job tanning hides to make leather into shoes. Yes, I still get some strange stares now and then. People who refuse to accept me for who I am. But others have taken me in – new friends who treated me like family.
And they know my name.
The story of the possessed man from Gerasene happens to fall on this 5th Sunday after Pentecost. It is one week after the horrific massacre in Orlando which, to date, is the largest mass shooting in modern-day history.
Just imagine all the people represented in that terrible event and ask yourself: Who is my neighbor? The shooter was a Muslim, who pledged allegiance to ISIS. It’s also been reported that he had mental illness. The victims were from the GLBT community and were mostly Latino. And the media, politicians, the NRA, gun control advocates, are all trying to have their say as we set up camp to engage in debate.
What we often fail to ask, though, is: What is your name? Who, in your life, has it been easier to ignore out of fear? Who have you kept at an arm’s length because you just don’t want to deal with that person as a person? Who do you know who is hiding in the tombs, tormented by demons, unwilling to come out and re-join the community? Maybe it’s even you, yourself.
Is it time for us to learn more about the faith of Islam – more than what we hear from politicians and pundits? Last summer, Lutheran Social Services, in conjunction with Luther Seminary, produced a new study guide called: My Neighbor Is Muslim. It’s a free download that can be found online. Other churches in our synod have been using it as a resource to become better informed about our neighbors and what we might learn from one another and how to coexist amid our differences. If there is enough interest, I would be willing to lead this in a future study group.
Is it time to rethink our beliefs about mental illness? And instead of building more prisons to house criminals (many of whom have mental illness) what about ways to rehabilitate and help people toward healing. Many people with mental illness are veterans, suffering from PTSD – which is treatable with medication and group therapy.
Is it time for us to reach out to the gay community? To say “no more” and to say publicly? I know a pastor who shared with me his daughter’s ‘coming out.’ He said, ‘The day she came out…we went into the closet. At the urging of a colleague of mine, this week I decided to contact 5 or 6 friends of mine who I know are gay (or who have children who are gay) and I sent them this message: “I’m thinking of you, especially, this week after the horrific events in Orlando. I see you, and pray God’s protection on all who live in fear of such senseless violence.” Most replied back with a simple thank you but one said the message brought tears to her eyes. She had been deeply hurt by her church – not in what had been said, but in what hadn’t been said. That her son had full value as a gay person, as much as anyone else. Sometimes, we in the church, say nothing in order to keep the peace. But that silence can be loud to those who are struggling with sexual identities. So is it time for us to say, “We see you? And we welcome everyone to the love of God?”
When Jesus cast out the legion of demons from the man of Gerasene, it was his own people who took on his chains – chains of fear. They begged Jesus to leave. Only the healed man wished to go with him; but Jesus sent him back to his own people. People who didn’t know what to do with him. But as people of faith, we know what we must do. As Paul said to the Galatians in our 2nd lesson: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave or Free, Male and Female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus. We are all related. May this be our legacy in this time and place: that we loved those society had cast out – that we turned the walls between us into tables of reconciliation – that we looked into each other’s eyes and learned each other’s names. And may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds together as one, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.