Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7C] - June 23, 2013 (Luke 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29)

There’s a lot that’s disturbing in this gospel story, isn’t there? It certainly is one of the more elaborate and dramatic displays of Jesus’ power in the entire New Testament. I think we could add disturbing to the list of descriptions for what happens. Jesus ventures into what is essentially foreign land—the country of the Gerasenes—across the border into the area where few of his own Jewish people live, and has a very wild encounter that involves a naked possessed man running at him from the tombs and then some pigs running down a hill into the water. A huge crowd shows up from the cities and the country…and then Jesus leaves.

One of the first things that I suspect disturbs us about this account is the demon-possessed man. Modern people don’t always know what to make of demon possession, and yet is comes up so often in the New Testament. To us it seems to be a feature of a long-distant time, an aspect of a culture that we view, rightly or wrongly, as more superstitious or less-educated than ours. We want to know more about this strange guy and what really is wrong with him. In fact, he disturbs our sensibilities as much as his demons do. We’d like to diagnose him on our terms, beyond what Luke or Matthew or Mark would have known, and somehow re-define Jesus’ interaction with him. Do we understand his condition as a medical one nowadays? Mental? Psychological? Then we wonder why we don’t seem to encounter as many demon possessions in our day—almost as if it’s a taboo subject for the modern church. It’s treated more or less as something for Hollywood’s horror movies to address.

Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac woodcut
For a long time, theologians and historians have looked at accounts like this one and argued that demon possessions were, in fact, more common in the time of Jesus because Satan and his minions, suspecting their downfall, were throwing everything they had at Jesus. This view is bolstered by the fact that as you read the gospels chronologically, demon possessions actually get less frequent. And it would stand that trajectory continues to this day. However we view these things then and now, the concept of having your soul possessed by something that is actively evil and beyond your control is disturbing.

Another thing that many of us I bet find disturbing is this part about all the pigs. I mean, what did the pigs do to deserve this, right? They’re just standing there, minding their own piggy business, and the next thing we know they’re taking off the cliff like lemmings. And what about the innocent pig farmer who loses his whole head of livestock? That disturbs us, too.

It reminds me of the story from Cairo, Egypt, several years ago when the world experienced the swine flu outbreak. Believing incorrectly that swine flu could jump directly from pigs to people and fearing that all pigs carried the virus, the predominantly Muslim government in Egypt ordered an immediate cull of all the pigs in the country—which were one of the economic mainstays of the Christian minority. It turned out to be a disaster for everyone because the pigs, as anyone who lives in Cairo should know, were the cities chief garbage disposal workers. It was a mess.  Trash piled up everywhere. Food was rotting in the streets. The government’s rash decision interrupted a serious status quo. In this story, Jesus seems to play some kind of similar role in the destruction of animals and property alike. Swine are dirty, filthy animals...a great place to stick everything we don’t want. Let these little piggies run wee-wee-wee into the Sea of Galilee and destroy the demons forever!

Egypt culls its pigs
Again, this story conflicts with some of our modern, sophisticated sensibilities, but we forget that as Lord of all creation, Jesus holds authority over the beasts of the field. We also get hung up on the fate of those poor little piggies over there—which would have been sacrificed eventually for food anyway—forgetting that right here before our eyes a human being has just been freed from a terrible condition.

However, our disgust and dismay over the demons and the pigs could cause us to overlook what is truly the most disturbing part of this story: the people of Gerasene reject Jesus. We should be disturbed that these people see the man finally clothed and in his right mind and they are afraid instead of thankful. We should find it disturbing that Jesus comes to release people from the horrible forces that enslave them and the people are seized with great fear instead of great joy! The people of Gerasene present us with this peculiar scenario where the possibility of life in Christ is frightening, rather than liberating, where the results of Christ’s grace are rejected and feared, rather received and enjoyed! Maybe those Gerasenes aren’t so different from modern people, after all. They, too, are more concerned about the pigs that went down the hill—and that Jesus might then send their whole economy downhill—than they are about the arrival of God’s kingdom!

I think the reason we find this so disturbing is because the Gerasenes’ reaction to Jesus can so often be ours. They aren’t the only ones who balk at the new world of freedom that Jesus’ love brings about. Like them, we just learn to cope with the demons we have. We feel it’s somehow safer that way. Rather than confronting and exorcising those harmful things with which we struggle, we ignore them or rationalize our behavior through them. And, like the Gerasenes, we get used to the people at the margins. We have a place for them in the tombs, don’t we? “Out of sight, out of mind.” Day in and day out, we grow very comfortable with this status quo, with a world that divides people into races and ethnic groups and genders, with systems that assigns labels based on abilities and disabilities. Anything that upsets that, even if that thing brings new life and new direction, is primarily seen as a threat, not a gift.

Yet that is precisely what Christ’s presence is about. Jesus arrives on the scene and immediately begins liberating people from captivity to sin. You can hunt through the New Testament and you won’t find one single story where Jesus binds someone up or leaves someone wounded. Everywhere he goes he overthrows the powers that harm God’s people. In fact, like in today’s lesson where Jesus ventures into foreign land, Jesus seems to go out of his way to make people whole, to free them for a life lived to God. Jesus’ defining moment will involve going out of his own way to die like a criminal in order to set us free from the power of death.

Haven’t you noticed how we even normalize death these days, as if it’s just another type of demon we just learn to make a place for, a feature of the status quo? We say it’s just part of the circle of life or come up with any number of coping mechanisms that actually help numb us to its awful reality. But Jesus did not come to help God’s people cope with death. He came to conquer it, and with that conquest give us access to a new kind of life that breaks the shackles of all that holds us back and frees us for a life of love and service and unity with all humankind.

This is precisely what the apostle Paul hammers home to the congregation in Galatia when we hears that they have started to re-introduce some of those shackles back into their community. Contrary to the freedom the gospel of Jesus had brought them, they have begun thinking of each other once again in terms of all these distinctions. But no, Paul tells them: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This community of Jesus’, where there are no distinctions and where people view each other in terms of their humanity and not in terms of their demons, interrupts the world’s status quo. It’s often such a radical interruption that even the church has great difficulty in modeling it. And yet the people of God are sent out into a world that often values swine more than people, that is quite comfortable letting people live in squalid places as long as they’re out of the view of everyone else. 

That, to me, is the last great disturbing feature of today’s reading: this man begs to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back into the midst of his scary country. Jesus commands him to return and declare rather than follow and learn as a disciple. And he goes, a missionary that goes to live this freedom with the hope some of that freedom in Christ will start to rub off in the country of the Gerasenes.

Stephen Ministry logo
Perhaps that is one way to view the Stephen Ministers we commission today. Theirs is a ministry of healing, but they come not as exorcists who come to drive out our demons of loneliness and fear, but instead like that healed demoniac who has experienced God’s grace himself. Clothed now in Christ, in their right mind, and sitting at the foot of Jesus, these brothers and sisters in our midst are sent into a world that is hurting in order to proclaim what God has done. Granted, our Stephen Ministers will be caring for the people in our congregation, people who are not rejecting Jesus, but people who, like all of us in some way, are bound by the shackles of grief or some other pain. Stephen Ministers go to announce in gentle and careful ways—often just by attentive listening—that wonderful release in Jesus’ name. They will come among us to interrupt us with God’s grace, to further ease us into this new reality brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection. And as they do it, they will help get rid of one of the greatest distinctions that still remains among the people of any church: namely, that there are those of us  here who have all our stuff together and those of us here who don’t. We’re all in the same category on that account, sitting at the foot of the one who puts our stuff back together.

Oh, there’s so much to be disturbed about, isn’t there, in this story? And yet, if you think about it, the people of God—whether they are officially commissioned as Stephen Ministers or not—end up being the disturbers of the world’s fake peace. The church often finds itself in the country of the Gerasenes. We want so badly to escape from these hostile surroundings and let Jesus take us elsewhere, but in the end, we are sent to make interruptions of grace in God’s name, pointing against all odds to the One who does set people free, pointing against all the world’s odds to a new status quo which may initially seem disturbing, but in reality is liberating and beautiful.



Thanks be to God!

"The Exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac" Sebastian Bourdon (1653)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.