Sermon: Luke 8:26-39
The gospel of Luke opens with Jesus born among and sheltered by ordinary folks. He knows the daily grind of their lives and the sweat it takes to work and survive. He saw the woes of the sick and downtrodden. He knew something more of what they needed than what the priests and purveyors of law and judgment were able to give them. It says that he would be taking an “ax to the roots of the trees that have not born fruit”- that don’t bring life. Jesus is moving on a quest. He is moving from place to place, and people group to people group, taking a fine cut to the root of structures and walls between God and people, between people and each other – religious, political and social structures that stood to benefit a privileged few and exclude and harm the many less-privileged. Or, the “small people” as BP exec (Carl-Henric) Svanberg might call them. Ultimately, Luke is a story about Jesus and the “other”.
Many of us know about these sorts of structures. My husband Aram and I show up at House as much as we can, feeling nourished by the beauty of the liturgy and the hearts of the people – you. We came out of an interesting church culture – much more evangelical. To be fair, so many there are truly good folks but the culture that they soak in is a boundaried place – full of structures and walls and certainties. That does feel safe for a while. It gives you a sense of identity. You remain safe if you don’t push the boundaries.
For years I was feeling: “This is too small, I can’t breathe. It is distorting who I am” because I had to cut off parts of myself to fit in. Outside the church, I dealt with quite a different population – prostitutes, addicts, various forms of tax collectors and more. Just to note: they were present in that church culture too – they just had to hide or be all fixed in some way before they could be really accepted. Church became a confining space, where people I cared for deeply were suffocating. It took me years to realize that I was suffocating too. My voice and many of my friends weren’t truly welcome. We weren’t excellent. I felt powerless and unknown, except for what they wanted me to be. I was desperate for a different sort of encounter with Christ, where we could be freed from the walled-in confines of a faith that was far too small for far too many of us to fit into.
So here is this Jesus, moving on his quest – taking an ax to the roots of soul killing systems, moving through the regions in seemingly random meetings, eating and drinking with the wrong crowd, touching unclean people and letting them touch Him, talking to women, and in general, rocking the status quo and shaking their walls and foundations. And in one way or another, people are transformed by their encounter with him. Even the loneliest outcast or the worst sinner is offered the unflinching welcome of God and restoration back to a full place in community. Jesus gave them himself, but also each other.
In this part of the story Jesus sails to another country to the region of the Gerasenes, probably of the ancient city of Gadara – a Greek settlement. It’s “opposite” of Galilee, I wonder if that’s metaphorical as well as geographical. They were opposite in that they were truly the other to Jesus’ culture, non-Jews, and we know this by historical ruins and by the fact that the text says they raise pigs. And interestingly, the word Gadara means “walled off”.
Travel took a long time then. It was unlikely the Gerasenes had heard of Jesus. His picture wasn’t being circulated on the internet. But as soon as he arrives someone knows him right away. That man is called a demoniac – full of demons- what does that mean? Was he mentally ill, ravaged by addictions that forced him towards self-destruction? Did he have Tourette’s? Was it supernatural? I can’t discount that – having been to Africa in places with witch doctors and people I respect who’ve seen apparitions. What we do know is that he was tormented and alone. He was solitary – cut off from relationships with others, perhaps cut off from himself.
But this man “recognizes” Jesus- calling him the Son of the Most High even though he’s not particularly happy to see Jesus. When you are filled with shame, it’s so hard to be caught in the light. And the text says that the demons were talking to Jesus. How often when we feel threatened or ashamed do we speak out of something false in ourselves? A false persona or a mask perhaps, or a frightened, defensive place? Even so, it is those who are most desperate, those who finally get it that they are powerless to help themselves that are the ones who find God. That’s the first principle of AA. My life is out of control and I am powerless. Desperate people find God.
So the story goes, Jesus addresses these demons that he carries and sends them away into a herd of pigs. The pig-herders watched their bacon literally run off a cliff. Of course they tell everyone and all the townspeople come out to find Jesus and the now healed man, fully clothed and in his right mind. They seemed to barely notice him. They became afraid and turned on Jesus and told him to get out.
The Greeks had a religious system of a whole pantheon of gods. If you pleased them you were blessed, and if you didn’t, you got calamity. Very clear cut, walled off, certain. In their view, this man must have been displeasing to the gods, because he was suffering. It’s classic Greek dualism – we’re good and he’s… not. At least I’m not him. You can’t be both sinner and saint in this thinking. Somebody had tried to care for him and tried to restrain him to keep him from running off naked into the desert but ultimately in their view, they needed him to be the demoniac and draw the wrath of the gods so they could be ok. He was the bad guy, their human sacrifice to the Greek pantheon, their scapegoat. But now, Jesus allowed their herds, their livelihoods to run off of a cliff. Perhaps they saw this as divine judgment. To see this calamity happen meant perhaps that the gods were not happy with them. Everything was going along fine as usual and now it’s all upside down, how did this happen? Their gods had given them a way to make sure their lives worked. They didn’t have to feel powerless. There is a strange comfort in having gods that can be manipulated. Certainties feel safe. Jesus is a problem.
The healed man begs Jesus to allow him to go with him but Jesus tells him but to go back to his house, your own, and tell everyone what God has done for him. Jesus leaves them a preacher! And Jesus restores him to a place of “we”, back to community again. But I can’t help but wonder, what will that be like for him? Where will he go? Do you think the townspeople might hold a little grudge? And they didn’t exactly rejoice at his healing – they were more concerned about the change in their lifestyle. But the text says he just does it. Maybe that’s how we know he’s truly healed. He has room in his heart for those who made him “other”.
I was in a coffee shop a few days ago working on this sermon and a man from my old tribe was there. I didn’t know him – he never went to my church but his language and attitude were sorely familiar. He was loud and presumptuous. He was all about the god who wants us to be “better than” and to be “winners” and who has tens steps to get us there. There was no escaping his voice in that room. I considered texting Nadia and telling her that I was having homicidal thoughts during sermon prep and did she still want me?
Then I reluctantly realized that he was my sermon illustration – and I am a Gerasene. For I am fine when he’s away from me, caught in his walls and structures. But I have walled him off too. Do I need to be able to call him a bad Christian to see myself as good? And if he ever becomes desperate, if he ever recognizes his powerlessness and loneliness, can he come to me? Are my walls too high? Will I rejoice in his healing or will I fret over the fact that his presence causes me to change, to shift and make room?
A few moments ago we read Paul’s words to Galatia that have troubled every generation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek (no special culture, religion or nationality), there is no longer slave or free (no station or status of life), there is no longer male or female (no gender or sexuality or element of personhood); for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” No more dualities. I don’t think this is about stifling our uniqueness, but bringing down the walls so we can see and receive the ones we sit across from at the Table to the meal he has prepared for us. Making room for someone who is different in any form changes us. The word “all” is a very serious word, indeed.
The Gerasenes sent away Jesus, the one who’s Gospel could help them take down the walls that kept them enslaved to the fear that cut others off. There will always be something or someone to come along to disrupt our comfortable lives and worship. There’s always something to tempt us to demonize another. May we have the courage to be desperate and powerless enough to ask Jesus to please, please stay.