The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Sunday, June 19, 2016
Proper 7, Year C: I Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
So this is one of the gospel stories that at first glance is sort of hard to know what to do with. How’s that for a relatively understated opener?
It’s a strange little story isn’t it? Almost comical in some ways, at least if you let the images of the story hit your somewhat sophisticated, twenty-first century self. Demons and voices and swine?
Jesus and his disciples had just arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which (in case you were wondering) was just opposite Galilee. And as they arrived, there was an unclothed man, who met Jesus as Jesus was stepping out on to their land. Now this somewhat unusual and undoubtedly surprising, “Welcome to our country,” experience also included a demon who spoke right up as the man shouted out to Jesus. When asked his name, the answer was “Legion,” meaning the demons were “many”. And so this was a complicated demon at that.
Then Legion, after having revealed themselves and having talked a bit with Jesus, left the man and entered into a herd of swine who (unfortunately for them one could say) happened to be walking by on a near-by hillside. And then the swine, having become the new landing place for Legion, ran themselves into the lake and drowned.
And the people were afraid, which makes some sense. And the man was healed; I like that part. And that’s sort of how this little story played out. There was a greeting by a complicated demon. There was Jesus talking to them and giving them permission to leave a man. There were some swine who hit on some hard luck. There was a healed man and a confused people.
And so then if I go a little deeper I have to say that right beneath the humor of this, there is something like a very sad sort of hurting. This man had been tormented by Legion for a very long time. He didn’t live in a house, he lived in the tombs, the story said. He had spent much of his life “under guard and bound with chains and shackles,” but even those chains couldn’t hold the demon and so the man was often driven by them into the wilderness. And in the wilderness it was extremely hot and in the wilderness it was extremely cold. The wilderness was a lonely place and there were wild animals there and so this man was probably on some very deep level, afraid too.
So after this is a strange story, but before it’s a healing story, it’s a hard story.
And since we’re together this morning and being present to hard stories is easier when you’re not alone, I want us to sit in the hard place for a few minutes. Besides, the truth is, we’re already there.
We are being greeted by demons on an all too regular basis. And that’s not typical language for me; in some ways it’s really not very Episcopal language nor is it what one might call a “sophisticated” analysis, but I’m coming to believe the language fits. Last week we had barely stepped on to the land of Sunday morning when news of the shootings in Orlando greeted us in our news feeds, if we were lucky to have that kind of distance. Others, not so lucky, were greeted by demons when they danced.
And one year ago this weekend a congregation in Charleston was greeted by demons, presumably because they had spent their lives fighting that kind of evil out in the open of this world. That shooting took place in a church whose gospel proclaimed truth and justice and peace. As these shootings seem to do, they tend to find people in places that should be safe, that should literally be sanctuary for them. Maybe that’s how demons work. There were the children in Newtown, the children, teens and young adults in their neighborhood streets and playgrounds of Chicago, the students at a university in Virginia, the people dancing in a gay bar in Orlando, the movie goers in Colorado and so many, many more.
Now I want to be very clear that I don’t believe that the shooters themselves are the demons. One of the most important messages of this gospel story is that hidden beneath the demon, even a legion of demons, there was and there is a human being. Someone who for whatever reason or circumstance became the place in which the demons landed, or were planted, or were placed. I can’t say that I understand how evil works and I think we’re fooling ourselves if we do, but I absolutely believe that the man in this gospel story was suffering. And I can only believe that our modern version of this man – out of control, unstable, not yet having found the help he needs to be in this world, driven to the wilderness… I have to believe that the modern version of this man is suffering too. And so were and are the people around him.
So these stories are disorienting at first, strange and almost unreal. And some of us, like the disciples in this gospel did, still have the luxury of being surprised when the morning’s news brings a demon’s greeting. But then like this gospel, the stories become real and obvious even from a distance, because so many layers of hurt are exposed and revealed to us all.
And so if we’re going to follow this story through to the end (which is what we are called to do,) if we are going to follow this story through to where the healing happens, we have work to do.
We need to name the demons and in this story they actually named themselves. They are legion. They are many. And they are complicated. Which makes this the hardest kind of work we’ll ever be called to do. And not only because demons are complicated but because at some point, if we’re honest while we do this work, and full present when we do this work, we’ll start to see the demons in ourselves too.
Now there are several dimensions to this process of healing and some are relational, deeply and intentionally so. It’s not a coincidence that many of the victims in these stories are minorities or those who have been labled as some sort of “other.” We really aren’t really all that good at reaching across divisions with understanding, let alone with gifts of compassion and love (the second understatement of this sermon.) But remember the people of Galatia from our second reading today. They were coming together as one and they were reaching over very strict and ancient divisions to do so. And Paul helped them to hack through their divisions without hacking through each other. It’s possible. At some point there is neither Jew or Greek, Christian or Muslim, slave or free, gay or straight, white or black, male or female. There are just children of God each and every one of us and each and every one of “them” whoever the them happens to be. The people of Galatia managed. So can we.
There are also pieces of this healing process that are legislative. As a country, as a society we have work to do. In some ways we are the hurting man in this gospel story. We are naked, exposed to some very hard truths not the least of which is our all too common tendency to seek violent answers to human questions. This is an uncomfortable place of self-reflection but it’s also an honest place to be. If nothing else, we can see from here that we can do, that we need to do better than this.
Finally, there are dimensions of this healing process that are very simply and profoundly made of hope, a stubborn, passionate hope that is grounded in prayer. And the prayer is individual and communal prayer. And its Chrstian and Inter-faith. Our gatherings matter. Our vision of peace and unity matters. Our stories in which healing happens matter.
Now there is a “bigness” to all of this work that can be intimidating or at times even stifling, but remember that in the gospel, and in our lives and in our world, grace is legion too. That’s the good news: grace is legion too! Don’t ever forget that.
Did you catch that the demons in this story asked for mercy? I think that’s one of the most important lines in this whole story. It’s almost like they didn’t really want to win, or maybe more accurately, they knew that in the grand scheme, they didn’t stand a chance. Even the demons begged for mercy. And so this morning and every morning we sit in a place that is hard, because we are human and we are here in this world. From here we hear the whole story – the whole strange, hurting, healing story. And we grieve. And we listen. And we hope and we love and we pray. And then we put both feet on the ground and we do the work we have been called to do, the work of releasing the demons.
We set to the work of releasing the demons, so that the people living with them, and that would be all of us, can be free.