Sermon for June 23 2019 | Pentecost 2
A man with many demons, shouting at the top of his voice; a man running naked through the cemetery, terrifying the easily-startled; a wild man chained yet strong enough to break his bonds, scampering into the wild only to scare the living daylights out of the farmer in his field. What do we make of this story filled with suicidal pigs, unclean spirits, and demons whose collective name is Legion, a reference to the Roman occupation force in Palestine? At first hearing, this seemingly bizarre story sounds more like inspiration for the popular television show, The Walking Dead, a series that follows the desperate attempts of a family and their friends to secure a safe place to live after a zombie apocalypse has washed over the world.
And yet, if we look closely, we discover a key phrase in this remarkable story that sheds light on its seemingly strange character: “When they came to Jesus, the people found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind,” in his right mind. At first we might conclude that the source of fear and madness is the man himself, possessed by a gaggle of troubling and tormenting spirits. But, then, we might ask what Luke only alludes to: How did this poor soul become a tormented and tormenting figure?
What comes to mind is the work of contemporary psychiatrists who write compellingly of the power of family to produce mental instability. I am thinking of a relative who was told repeatedly throughout childhood that she was worth nothing and would never measure up to what, in fact, was an impossible standard for anyone to achieve, a beloved relative who spent years in mental institutions desperate to be clothed in her right mind. What comes to mind is the work of biblical scholars and theologians who point to the power of society to create instability and disorder in human life. I am thinking of those university students of mine whose attention span diminishes every year, who cannot stay focused on one task because they suffer with a fragmented conscience. After all, they have been told and told repeatedly that they must “multitask” constantly if they are ever to achieve anything in life. They have been told that they must master every new social media platform if they are to succeed in life, whatever “success” might mean. And it is these students who recognize clearly the pain they and their children – if they ever have children – will suffer due to social inaction in the presence of climate change. It is these young people, aware that the current economic model works at best for the few, who are victims of societal wounding, a wounding that paralyzes, depresses, and tempts one to consider suicide. Indeed, colleges and universities across the country do not have sufficient staff to assist the unprecedented number of students who suffer debilitating mental distress. I mean if walking into a school now means the ever present possibility of being shot by another student, who would not experience ongoing distress? Is it any wonder, then, that The Walking Dead is one of their favorite programs: for who among us does not yearn to dwell in a safe and secure place?
What do you and I encounter in this story? Is it not the petition for some sense of order, for health and wholeness in life and, yes, in society by a man whose life is disordered, fragmented, pulled in many directions?
And, then, why did Luke include this story in his gospel, his narration of the good news of Jesus? Was it not to invite those who gathered for the breaking of the bread to recognize that they were called to be a community of safety and security for people fleeing familial and societal wounding?
Did he not include this story as a reminder that Christians and the Christian community are called by Christ to be a healing presence for those who have been wounded by religion itself? Indeed, I am mindful of those in this parish who have come here to find healing from the wounds inflicted by other religious communities and their leaders – leaders who have said “your doubts and questions are not welcome,” who have said, “if you’re a woman, a racial or a sexual minority you will always be second class if not excluded,” who have said, “our community only wants high achievers, winners, the wealthy and the well-respected.” I ask: Are we not called to be an alternative to “punitive exclusive religion,” reckless in our welcome to the stranger, the refugee?
But more than that: does Luke not include this story in his gospel as a challenging invitation to you and to me to call out those social values and practices that actually produce disorder, ill-health, instability, and intolerance? I mean we find no one in the story willing to come near this troubled and suffering man; no one willing to call out the forces that produced his misery; no one willing to protest the colonial power named Legion that weighed oppressively; no one, well, except Jesus. So, then, I wonder: if you and I are called, baptized, and communed as disciples of Jesus Christ, would we not also be drawn into his practice of calling out, of naming, those social values and practices that produce misery for our friends here and our neighbors out there?
That can be a risky thing to do, especially when it might mean telling the truth in love to a relative, a colleague, a fellow parishioner, a government official, or a corporate leader. But, then, did God fashion us to remain silent and passive in the face of tormenting and troubling spirits?