Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Unclean Spirits, Swine and Jesus

A Sermon for Luke 8:26-39

Who was Jesus expecting to find when he and the disciples finally got off of that boat?  Were they expecting a scene out of the movies – people gathered in the arrivals area of the airport with signs and flowers saying “Welcome Home!”?  Perhaps the more subtle typewritten placard with a name typewritten in all capital letters being held by the driver from the car service company.  Or, did this band of travelers look more like those tourists who stagger off overseas flights, bleary eyed from a lack of sleep looking for the baggage claim sign and directions to the train into the city center or taxi line – -all written in a language that is not their own?  When Jesus and the disciples finally reached the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they probably looked like those travelers.  This had not been a smooth crossing – – this is the same trip during which the famous “stilling of the storm” incident occurred.  So you can imagine that when they landed, Jesus and his people were tired, wet, and cranky.

And their welcoming party left a lot to be desired as well – there were no flowers or signs.  When Jesus and his disciples got off the boat, they were met by one man.  The text tells us that he was a man of the city, a man who was possessed by demons. First of all, he is naked – the demons that possess him keep tearing off his clothes.  He appears to talk to himself, when he is speaking to those who possess him.  He is probably dirty and grimy – -demons don’t like water.  He has to be shackled at night to keep him and the citizens of the town safe; when he escapes he wanders through the tombs and catacombs.  This is not someone you expect to end up as an evangelist, as a missionary, as someone who would speak to his community about the transformative power of God.

Yet, it is because of the transformative power of God that he is able to do such a thing.  This man was not always this way.  We do not know much about him.  Who were his parents, what was his childhood like?  Did he have brothers and sisters?  All we know is that somehow he became possessed by the demons – -and there were many.  His life was changed for the worse.  He was unable to hold a job, he was unable to keep his house, he was even unable to speak for himself.  The community he lived in would shackle him so that he would not hurt himself, or hurt them, and he could not be contained.  Do you think this is who Jesus expected to meet when he got off the boat that day?

Jesus and his disciples have entered into a new territory.  And as my high school English teachers would so often remind their students, where a story is set makes all the difference in the series of events.  Can you imagine if Batman were set in Arizona, or if Kevin Costner tried to build his Field of Dreams in downtown Manhattan?  The setting of today’s story is critical to understanding what happens when Jesus and his disciples disembark from the boat.  This was not a Jewish fishing village where the customs were known and the people familiar.  This was a Gentile community, a place with different norms and ideas.  Jesus was in a land where he was in the minority – he was different.  The land he is in is “opposite Galilee.”  It is opposite anything he has known, and really is a place where Jesus steps out beyond the familiar and confronts what is opposite the life found in him. He crosses the sea to show that no one is beyond the reach of God’s transformative power.  This is Luke’s only record of Jesus ministering in a place that is primarily Gentile —  a place where he is not what is expected, not what is appropriate, and ultimately, not liked.

That day he did something that was not liked by this community – -he saved a man.  The NRSV translates it as healed, but in the Greek, the word that is used is one that is translated as both healed or saved.  Jesus took this dirty, wandering, possessed man and restored him to who he was before.  He gave him back his life, and he did it with the help of some pigs.

It was the pigs that really upset them.  You see, the demons were bargaining with Jesus.  They did not want to go back into the abyss – back into the sea.  The ancient tradition and culture of this region held that if the demons went into the sea, if they went into any water, they would die.  Simply being cast out of a man and into some unclean pigs was surely not a bad compromise in their mind —  they still got to live and have power over something, they still got to demand and control and rule by fear – -just through pigs rather than people.  So when Jesus says “sure, go inhabit the pigs” it seems like a good thing.  And in Jesus’ mind probably was too.  In the Jewish tradition, the pigs were unclean.  So to cast out the demons – and there were many – into the pigs was not so bad.  It just made unclean animals, demonic unclean animals.  The pigs all rushing into the sea and drowning – that was an additional bonus.

It was the pigs that really upset the townspeople.  The swineherds watched in disbelief as their livelihoods vanished, drowning right before their eyes, and they ran to tell the others.  Remember, this is a Gentile city.  Pigs are not unclean here.  Pigs are commodities.  They are bought and sold; they are eaten and used for all sorts of things.  They are an economic force in this community.  Without the pigs, the swineherds no longer have jobs.  Without the pigs, families have no food. When the residents of the city arrived, they saw two things: a stranger who had caused the problem, and the man who had been a known quantity in their community as someone and something different.  He was no longer possessed, he was no longer Legion.  He sat at the feet of Jesus, dressed, in his right mind, and ready to speak with them.  He has been saved and his identity returned to him.  Not everyone likes it when Jesus comes to town and shakes things up.  The good news of the restoration of one man is not good news for them all.

Jesus was feared after the healing – -feared because he had upset the norm, changed things from the way they were to something else, and then left the healed man there in the middle of it as a reminder to them all of the power of God to transform.  The man wants to go with Jesus.  He begs Jesus to let him follow him, to work with him, to proclaim the news of his restoration, and Jesus says no.  Jesus tells him to stay right where he is.  Jesus wants the healed man in this city to be a constant reminder of the transformative power of what can happen when you open yourself up to God.  Jesus wants him to stay right where he is and proclaim the good news to this community of faith that is afraid of the power of God.  The man is called to be a living, breathing, walking, talking, un-possessed testament to the redemptive saving power of Christ.  Jesus calls each of his followers to follow in a unique way.  We cannot generalize that Jesus demands each follower do exactly the same thing – -each calling from Jesus is unique.  In this case, he was called to go back to the city and remain there to witness to the Power of God.

Jesus exercised his authority over the demons, but not the people.  They ask him to leave because he has disrupted the social order.  He has changed things.  They liked it better when the man who was possessed was possessed – -they knew how the world worked that way.  They knew how to take care of him and what to do with him.  He knew his place and they knew theirs.  Life was good.  They preferred the devil they knew to the one they didn’t.  And often we do too.  What are our demons?  Not just in our own lives, but in our church life?  What do we prefer because we know it, when we are faced with the possibility of something that we don’t know?  What are the names of our demons?  What are the demons that prevent us from fully recognizing how Christ is at work among us here?

Ponder that for a minute.  Notice, I am not asking “who” but “what.”  What are our church demons?  Some of you may be sitting there thinking “surely we don’t have any!”  Some of you may be thinking “wow, she got brave today.”  Some of you may be sitting there with a list going through your mind.  It is a valid question.  For, to see the transformative work of God, sometimes you have to see what God may be starting with, what God may be working with.  In 20 years, when visitors came back to the town, did they look at the man who was once possessed and know his story, or did he have to say to them, “let me tell you about the day I was saved by Jesus.”  In thinking about this, I remembered the children’s books by Roger Hargaves – -the Little Mr. and Miss series.  Little Miss Chatterbox or Little Mr. Grumpy or Little Mr. Happy – -each emotion or character trait was given a shape – -some triangles and circles and each character had a story told about them.  Do you remember these books from when you were a child, or remember reading them to a child?  Well, what would we name our demons?  And I mean OUR – -I’m as included in this as everyone else.

I named our first demon “Mine.”  This demon exists in every church.  “Mine” like to rear its ugly head when we forget whose we are and who we serve.  “Mine” is the demon that tells us that we claim and control and own specific ministries and programs and parts of the church.  You see, this pulpit, it’s not mine – -it belongs to Jesus. The kitchen, it’s not yours individually, nor are the playground, the busses, the Bibles, the communion ware, the instruments, the specific spaces used for specific things, the programs, the classes, or anything else on, in or as a part of this building yours.  In fact, even the building does not belong to “Mine.”  It is all a part of what we have been given by God for the common work of God.  And we can all usually remember this about the physical pieces and parts, well most days anyway. “Mine” likes to come out to play when we claim ownership of a ministry or program and do not seek to find ways to hear new voices or include others who wonder if God may have different plans for us. We may say we want it, but then our actions fail to follow through. “Mine” lies to us when it says that we possess the church and a program or a ministry.  “Mine” tells us that if we cannot have it our way then we should not do it at all, or criticize others who want to do it differently.   “Mine” does not tell the truth that we all serve God here, that what we do is for the honor and glory of God, and that it is not “Mine” but God’s.  Each and every part, tangible and intangible.

Sitting next to “Mine” is the demon that shows up lots of other places too – this one is called “Us.”  “Us” shows up in the form of groups that do not always realize that they do not make room for others.  “Us” like to do lots of things together, but that does not mean including people who are not part of “Us.”  I figured out pretty quickly that the fastest way to find a new family on Wednesday nights is to see who is looking for a place to sit, or who is sitting at a table by themselves.  “Us” tells us that the groups we have are just fine and do not need anyone else to join them, or that someone else will make a place for visitors.  “Us” is what causes us to bristle if someone sits in our seat, rather than welcome them to worship.  Fellowship and community are good, and we can excel in those areas, but when “Us” inhabits our being, sometimes it is hard to see that there are folks who have not found that here.  When we listen to the demon named “Us” we cannot see that there are folks who have lots of different connections, or are new and have very few connections.  When we are possessed by “Us”, we exclude rather than include.

And the biggest, baddest, demon of them all? “Fear.”  “Fear” fuels all the other demons that we have, named and unnamed.  “Fear” tells us that we will not have enough and so we should hoard rather than share.  “Fear” tells us that things will not be done correctly if we do not do them ourselves, instead of asking for help.  “Fear” likes to toy with us and tell us that if things are different or new, it will be bad.  “Fear” is the loudest demon of them all.  It drowns out all the ways God calls us and challenges us and encourages us to be faithful disciples.  “Fear” is the voice that says “yeah, but….”  My sister and I used to hear about the Yeahbuts.  When we would respond to my mother with the words, “Yeah, but what about….”  Mom’s response was “Yeahbuts only come at Easter.”  “Fear” likes to talk about the Yeahbuts, and the what if’s and the we cant’s.  “Fear” likes to drive us into hiding and encourage us to draw in, rather than follow the call of God to look out.

When we listen to the voices of the demons rather than the voice of God, we forget that the transformative power of God has been at work in this church since it’s inception.  Everything we have was once new, everything we cling to was once an idea, was once a way God was speaking to us.  Did you know that this was not the first home of our church?  That we were not always called First Presbyterian Church?  Every program, ministry, building, and group we have at one point in time was new.  And now, in addition to their other functions, they serve the purpose of the man who was healed – -to remind us that God  has the power to transform us.  Think about it – every major decision of this congregation has a story behind it.  There were people who were for it, people who were against it.  “Mine” and “Us” and “Fear” all came out to play in the decision making process – -they do in any church.  Whenever Jesus is at work, things change.  And now we have ministries like a preschool and an After School Program.  We have an education building and Presbyterian Women and a youth group.  We had an amazing Vacation Bible School this week, and I imagine at some point in time, we had to deal with “Mine” “Us” and “Fear” as it developed over the years – -just as we did with all of the rest.  Yet, each of these serve the same function as the man who was healed – -they remind us that God is at work among us, calling us to trust and step out in faith.  To look to God to continue to heal us and to be at work within us as a community of faith.

It was the power of God, working through Jesus that healed the man.  We don’t hear much about what happened to the community after Jesus left.  We don’t know if the man was tormented because of his role, or if he was respected.  The good news for him was not good news for everyone at the time.  The community had to find new ways to rely on God, they had to find new ways to what they had always done.  They had to look at themselves, and perhaps name their own demons.  But, given that the ruins of the city still stand today, given that their story is still told, we know that they went on.  We do know this – – the man who was healed was told to stay and testify to those who were there about what God had done for him.  He told them what Jesus had done to him – -it is an important distinction – -he told about what he knew. He told about what he experienced.  He knew that he had been healed by Jesus.  He knew that Jesus had cast out his demons and restored his identity.  What do we know about the work of the triune God among us?  What do we testify to?  As we name our demons, we can also name how we have been healed.  As we look around, we see the reminders of how God has been, and continues to be at work among us as a church.  May we continue to seek Jesus at the shore now and always.  Amen.