Second Sunday after Pentecost
It seems near impossible that one can read or listen to our gospel lesson this morning without recognizing the pitiable state of the poor, complicated man who encounters Jesus. Most often when I read Scripture, I like to place myself in the context and sit with it for a while. I want to let it breathe on me as I try to locate myself there.
Sometimes, I even imagine myself as the primary characters, including Jesus. What would I have done? How did I find myself there? Who are the other players mentioned and not mentioned and how are they being impacted? I try to pay attention to my own reactions and the emotions being invoked by the text as I read and wait. And why? It is a little exercise that I have done for years and highly recommend.
Luke tells us that Jesus is in the country of the Gerasenes, a town near the Sea of Galilee. The Gerasenes were Gentile people, “outsiders,” but Jesus goes there.
As he steps out of the boat onto dry land he is greeted by a deranged man who lives among the dead. That’s significant, isn’t it? The man does not live in a house like regular people. His home is in the cemetery. He goes around naked and out of his right mind, filled with rage and violence. He was kept under guard and restrained by chains and shackles but they were nothing against his grip.
Now, I’m not a mental health professional but it seems to me that in today’s world, a clinical diagnosis might include words like anxiety disorder, paranoia or schizophrenia, and depression. These illnesses are serious, real, and painful not only for those suffering but for those looking on who love them dearly.
But it occurs to me that this account might have found its way into the holy canon to demonstrate to us that there is hope and hopefulness even in the most extreme cases. I’m thinking that there is something here for us too. There is something for us who are undiagnosed living in a comfortable home, fully clothed with family and friends, freedom and work, choice and privilege. Those of us stressed and stretched by the ordinary wear and tear of life who sometimes feel weighed down and like we too are out of our right mind.
How often are we guilty of living among the dead? Guilty of being possessed with erratic outbursts? Seeing only the dark side of life, on a spiral with little to no joy or hopefulness?
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus healed the man and he fell down on his knees and began to shout even more loudly, “What have you to do with me, Jesus; I beg you, do not torment me.”
Perhaps the man had become so comfortable with his pain that it was preferred, or at least known and understood. He seemed to have recognized Jesus right away. What have you done to me?
We might ask ourselves: “What are those inner thoughts, feelings, spirits, attitudes, anxieties, fears that have been around so long that they have become normalized?”
Without some kind of inner core, some anchor for our soul, my friends, we will constantly find ourselves on the edge being torn apart by one thing or the other. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Now you may not believe that, but I suspect that some of your days are like some of my days – fraught with many voices raging on the inside and out. I have been around a long time and I was in church and Sunday school en vitro – in my mother’s womb. I know a lot of Scriptures and (I try to live by most of them). I preach the gospel most weeks but there are moments when I have no words. I can only shake my head and get silent and still for a while. How about you?
And then I pick up a psalm like Psalm 42 and place myself there too. I sing with the psalmist, relate to the psalmist:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” … Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me … Put our hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
We are given this lesson to remind us that divine love and healing hope are available to us and Lord knows we and our world need it.
Is there no balm in Gilead? That’s what we just sang. Is there no balm, a fragrant ointment, lotion, cream, or salve, no truthful potion or universal cure to heal our sin sick soul and world?
Do we not get tired and sick, sick and tired of all the hate, wounds and callousness toward human life? Does it not wear on you after a while?
Jesus speaks directly to the demon spirit: “What is your name?” The demon answered, “My name is Legion,” for I am many, innumerable. In those days, a legion would have been a unit of 3,000 – 6,000 men in the ancient Roman army.
These were hard times for the people being brutalized and exploited. Jesus healed the inner chaos and brokenness of a man crazed by the effects of violent Roman occupation on his physical, material, and spiritual situation.
What are those systems of oppression that are causing people to be in such a state and what are we doing about it?
Try as we might, we cannot put a band aid on the systematic cancers of our day – the cancers of racism, and sexism, and homophobia and exploitation of people.
And sometimes we cannot heal ourselves of these sores of our society because the roots are too deep and we benefit from them. We love our comforts and there is never enough for us – let alone others.
This kind of honesty is helpful I think. Perhaps that is the first step: clarity and understanding about who we are. I am legion in need of rescue, healing, help.
It’s not going to get better until we make it better. We don’t get to pick and choose the issues. The issues pick and choose us. They call to us; they cry out to us. Can we hear? The greatest tragedy of all and the thing that I fear most is that we will go back to our places of comfort and do nothing. That good people will be able to dislocate ourselves from reality, which is so easy to do because we all have our pain. That we might somehow be complicit with our ideologies and theologies and refuse to see things as they are. To ignore the signs of derangement and allow hatred to continue to spill out over and over again. To refuse to recognize that we are bound to each other.
Luke tells us that in the end the man was sitting at Jesus’ feet and he was clothed in his right mind. Jesus gave him back his identity; claimed him as a viable human being and not some wild creature running around surrounded by death. This is about more than physical healing, but also spiritual and emotional healing so desperately needed.
It’s the good news that we long to hear, for it is also the healing we so desperately need. Jesus crosses all boundaries in order to heal us. May we also be willing to cross all boundaries to do the same.
And in the end the healed man begs Jesus to go with him. But Jesus sent him away and said return to your home and declare how much God has done for you. And so he went – this time different – he went proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
This too is our work. We gather each week looking for some sign of God’s prevailing presence amid the chaos and mayhem, the brokenness and fragility of life. Is there a balm here?
We ask the question, but we also know the answer. We gather to say, “Yes, there is a balm!” There is a something here that can heal us. There is witness of God, and truth, and love that cannot be snuffed out, come what may.