Sermon - Second Sunday After Pentecost (6/23/2019)
Is. 65:1-9; Ps. 22:19-28; Gal. 3:23-29; Lk. 8:26-39
Oh, those poor pigs! There they were, grazing on the hillside, minding their own business, when a legion of demons descends upon them, and they stampede right off the cliff and drown in the sea. The poor pigs!
A legion of demons – a legion was a Roman military term, it referred to a unit of around five or six thousand soldiers. A legion of Roman soldiers was a fearsome thing in first-century Israel – a legion of demons, maybe worse. For first-century Jews, living under Roman occupation and trying to maintain their identity by keeping kosher, which meant among other things staying away from pigs – I’m sure to a first-century Jewish audience, the story of a legion of demons being cast into a herd of pigs and drowning in a lake, probably came across as subversive and even maybe a bit comical. But to twenty-first century ears, it comes across more tragic. Those poor pigs!
A legion of demons – a huge collection of dark and scary forces, forces that make people feel like they’re not themselves, forces that push people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. You can think of them as literal demons like out of The Exorcist, or as primarily psychological or social forces – but either way, to be in the presence of a legion of demons feels heavy, dark and oppressive. I don’t know about you, but to me it feels today like a dark and heavy time. There’s something in the air that feels oppressive and not right. People withdrawing into themselves, people withdrawing into tribes, drawing lines, not being who we want to be, not acting the way want to act. We might not all think of it in the same way or give it the same name, but I feel it and I think a lot of you do too.
Pigs are intelligent and sensitive animals, and pigs can feel the presence of a legion of demons just as we do. They know, instinctively, that something is wrong. They turn to their neighbor and see that their neighbor also senses something wrong, and that just makes their own fear and apprehension worse. Before long, the pigs have whipped themselves into a uncontrollable frenzy, and they start to stampede. Even if they see that they’re about to go off the cliff, they can’t stop themselves.
One difference between human beings and pigs is that human beings have developed some more sophisticated mechanisms for better controlling the dark forces in human society. Generally, human beings find a scapegoat – someone to blame for all their problems, and they drive all their demons, all the dark forces, all their fears and anxieties onto some Other. Like a bully who masks his own insecurities and weaknesses by pushing them onto someone else, human societies decide that it’s better to let one person die than have the whole people perish – and so all the deep anxieties and fears people feel get pushed onto one person or one group. It’s the gays, or the immigrants, or the Muslims, or the Republicans, or somebody – that’s where the problem is, over there. This is how humans avoid the fate of the poor pigs. And the thing is, it often works, at least for a while.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive on the far shore of the Sea of Galilee at the beginning of today’s gospel reading, they are greeted by someone Luke calls “a man of the city, who had demons.” In some ways this man barely seems recognizable as human. He does not have a name; he wears no clothes; he sleeps not in a house but in the cemetery, among the dead; he is thought to have superhuman powers, breaking free of the shackels and chains the townspeople put him in; he shouts uncontrollably at vistors rather than engage them in conversation. And yet he is a “man of the city,” someone who was once part of a community, a kid they went to school with, perhaps a relative or a family friend, someone everybody once knew.
And somehow, the city has come to find its identity as being other than the raving homeless man outside their gates; the safety and health of the city is the mirror image of the man with demons they have excluded from their society to – so they think – keep themselves human and sane. And we know this by their reaction when Jesus frees this man from his demons. When the people of the town see him sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, are they happy for this miracle done to their former citizen? Do they say – Wow, Jeff is himself again! Thank God! We’ve been trying to help poor Jeff for years, we tried everything we could think of. And now look at him! Thank you so much, mysterious visiting rabbi. Um, there is a bit of a problem, we didn’t have any insurance for those pigs, we’re going to need to sort this out, but hey, the important thing is, Jeff is safe and sound again.
No, that is not how the people of the town reacted. Instead, we read: “Then all the people … asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear.” The people of this town did not think that the healing of this man was a good thing to celebrate, but a strange thing to fear – as though they were somehow invested in having someone to look down on, someone to define themselves over against, someone to act out all of the chaos and rage and dark powers that had always been present in their community but that they never had to face because, well, they weren’t as bad as Jeff, now, were they?
But now what? Can they live together again with Jeff, now clothed and in his right mind? Can they forgive him for what he did under the influence of the demons? Can he forgive them for excluding him as ruthlessly as they did for so many years? And can they be a community together without having a bad guy to blame? The thought fills the city with great fear. And they want Jesus to go away. As quickly as possible, don’t worry about the pigs, just leave – now. And as Jesus and his disciples get back into the boat, this man who has been freed looks at the disciples of Jesus, and asks if he can come with them. I’ll follow you, too, Jesus. I’ll follow you wherever you go.
But get me away from these people. They don’t know what to do with me, now, clothed and in my right mind. I’m not the black sheep of the town any more. They can’t take out their problems on me any more, and what are they going to do? And of course Jesus tells him no. Go back to your family, go back to your friends, go back to your community, and just tell them what God has done for you. And so, perhaps, the healing of one man becomes the beginning of the healing of an entire city.
And what would be the point for this man, now, to follow Jesus anyway? Where is Jesus going? When Jesus returns to Galilee, he will soon depart for Jerusalem, where he will be the one of whom it is said: Better that one man die than the whole people perish. He will be driven out of the city, stripped of his clothing, brutalized and dehumanized, and left amid the tombs. Tombs from which he will rise, clothed with majesty and glory – but the man of the Gerasenes has already risen, is already back from the tombs, clothed and in his right mind. And so are we – as Paul says in today’s reading from Galatians, all of us who are baptized have been clothed in Christ, restored to right relationship with God. And so every kind of division, every tool of the devil that divides humans one from another and defines human beings over and against one another – male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, and on and on – all of these, Paul says, are no longer of any importance in the community of Jesus Christ.
This is the power of the gospel to defeat all of the dark forces, the oppressive fears that drive us apart from one another, even in our days. Jesus is powerful enough to free us from a whole legion of anxieties and hatreds and falsehoods and the self-defeating stories we tell ourselves. So that, clothed in Christ, in our right mind, knowing we are all beloved children of God and fellow heirs with Christ, we might go back into the same confused and broken world from which we came. To tell people what God has done for us, how we have found wholeness and healing and peace in Jesus, and let God do the rest.