From the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) gospel
for Sunday, 24 June.
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost C
Grace and St. George’s, June 24, 2007
The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:38-39)
Why did Jesus cross the lake? To get to the other side, of course. And it wasn’t an easy business. To properly understand today’s gospel, we need to remind ourselves of what Jesus went through to get to the other shore:
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:22-25)
So today’s gospel really begins with a long and dangerous journey across open water in a small boat, a journey no sailor would take lightly. Even for Jesus, who had power over "the winds and the water", this was not a simple boat trip, because he was going somewhere no Jew would normally go. The people on the far side were gentiles, non-Jews and therefore people to be avoided. Even the name of the place, "country of the Gerasenes", simply means "land of the foreigners". For Jesus to cross over to foreign parts was like a western film where the hero saddles up and crosses the Rio Grande into Mexico, or heads out into Indian country. In the films, these scenes tell us that the hero is set on something serious, and probably dangerous. Clearly Jesus is set on something serious to go through a storm to get to the badlands. So why did Jesus cross the lake? Because he knew that an outcast on the other side needed him.
Years ago the software company I worked for brought its staff down to Los Angeles for a big conference. The reward was a trip out to Universal Studios, which they’d rented for a late-night party after the tourists had gone home. Free rides, free bars, free cigars – we were to be pampered. We boarded air-conditioned buses and climbed up into the dark Hollywood hills. From my window I noticed fires lit under one overpass, and in the light of the flames I could see dozens of people milling about. Is that a movie shoot? I asked the person beside me, who knew LA better than I did. No, he said, those are just homeless people. They live out here.
I remember thinking, what would happen if our bus broke down here, if our two groups were somehow forced together. Us, prosperous salesmen in our khaki dockers, golf shirts, leather loafers and cellphones, and them, the shadow people, burning trash in oil drums. How would we see each other? What would we say to each other? Would we be safe? It was a frightening thought.
The people on the far shore who knew the possessed man were clearly frightened of him. They had tried everything – arresting him, locking him up, even putting him in chains, but it was never enough. Perhaps it was easier having him out in the wilds, among the graves where the dead would not complain. We no longer think in terms of demonic possession, but the homeless, the mentally ill and unstable, they are still frightening. We prefer to keep them out of sight and out of mind whenever possible. When we do see them, our instinct is to kind of mentally cross ourselves and say "there but for the grace of God go I".
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the possessed man is not the demons but the simply and sinister mention that he was "a man of the city who had demons" (Lk 8:27). A "man of the city" means that this guys wasn’t always a naked madman living amongst the dead. Once he was a member of society, maybe with a house and wife and kids and a job. Once he was, well, once he was like one of us. But then the demons came.
Do you have to believe in demons to accept or understand this story? Well, it depends on what sort of demons you believe in. Perhaps not the supernatural kind like the ones from the Exorcist films, and not demons with names like Legion. But how about the kind from the farmhouse and the suburb and the office, the demons with names like Casino and Internet Pornography, or Depression or Eating Disorder. Those are pretty familiar demons. You probably know someone who had a good life until the demons came along and took it away, leaving a person you barely recognize anymore.
A friend called me last week to talk about his sister, an alcoholic who is so ill that she’s been caught drinking suntan lotion or tearing open those little packets of handi-wipes to suck on the wet tissue. She’s lost her nursing job, lost all interest in her appearance and hygeine, and hides from her family, who despair of her. As my friend told me, "I can see my family at her funeral, walking away from her grave. And then he asked me what words of comfort I might have for him.
Frankly I’m not sure I served my friend very well, because any words of comfort I tried to dredge up seemed pretty small in comparison with the size of his despair and his sister’s problem. But over the last week, as I’ve lived with today’s gospel, it seems obvious to me that my friend’s sister is like the possessed man, a lost person living in the land of dead, possessed by her demons. So I guess I would tell my friend this.
I would tell him that the Saviour who crossed an open lake in a tiny boat, who broke every rule to go to the badlands because he was interested in one outcast, and so that same Saviour is going to be just as interested in his sister. I would tell him that the Saviour who had the power to still the storm is a Saviour to be reckoned with. I would tell him that even the devils of hell knew they were beaten by this Saviour and gave up without a fight. And I would tell my friend that this Saviour has the power to help his sister, and to help all of us with our own addictions.
These are big things to say, big promises to make, and they make us uneasy. It’s tempting for us to walk away from them. But I would note that there are people in the story who are also frightened by it. Why do the people want Jesus to leave? It has more to do than their lost income because of all those lost pigs. I think Jesus himself frightens them, because they can’t accept that one man can do such things. To believe that Jesus can have this sort of power is just too challenging, and so they ask him to leave. I think that when we balk at the promises of our faith, when we doubt that "at the name of Jesus every knee will bow", then we run the risk of being like the people in this story. We don’t know how or when Jesus will help someone like my friend’s sister, but we must never stop praying in faith that he will help such people, that nothing and no one is beyond the power of God to help them.
Finally, there is the possessed man himself. He wants to travel with Jesus but he is told to stay and tell everyone who Jesus is and what Jesus did for him. It couldn’t have been an easy assignment. He was healed, back in his right frame of mind, but he had to live with all those people who used to be scared of him. We don’t know what became of him, but we perhaps we can see a bit of ourselves in him. Perhaps you and I were once healed or made clean by Jesus, and now have the chance to tell people that good news, even if it makes them uncomfortable, even if it’s not fashionable to be a Christian in some circles. But this story reminds us that Jesus doesn’t want us to be silent. And if we were once healed or restored by God in some way, how can we not want the same for all others, even the ones who frighten or disturb us, the ones we prefer to ignore.
Jesus wants all of us, you and I and my friend’s sister and the shadow-people under bridges and up in the hills. He has the power to call us together and restore us all, and maybe he will do so, one day when we stop saying "There but for the grace of God go I" and we say instead "Here, by the grace of God, are we all". Amen.
©Michael Peterson+ 2007