Most you know that the scripture readings we use on Sundays come from an official listing, a lectionary. Sometimes there are options between two readings—but usually this is only with regard to the Old Testament, the Psalm, and possibly the Epistle. The Gospel is usually the same. Even using the appointed readings, the preacher, of course, has some wiggle room.
Today, I am tempted to focus on Isaiah—God’s amazing speech to the nation that has forgotten God and forgotten how to listen for God. Or, we could focus on Psalm 22, the section we have today that comes as comfort in the midst of trouble, the same psalm we say together on Good Friday, in the spirit of Jesus who sought God’s comfort even at the cross. We could spend today (and a month of Sundays) on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and its message of tolerance, welcome, and unity in Christ. But there is an old tradition always to center one’s sermon on the Gospel of the Day. So, on this sleepy, muggy summer Sunday, I invite you to join me in coming face to face with demons.
St. Luke is careful with his placement of this story. Jesus has already been busy revealing the power of God in creation. Jesus has just calmed the storm after he and the disciples were out fishing and the boat was almost capsized. Jesus has healed people here and there, leading up to this story. And after this story of demons, we’ll hear about how Jesus faces down the demon of death, and heals a little girl, in what works as a sort of early skirmish before the final battle in Jerusalem.
Today’s story is sad one, in many ways. There is a man who is not in his right mind, not in his own mind, certainly not of one mind. He can’t keep clothes on. He can’t keep up a household. He’s homeless, living in near the tombs, probably in caves. People probably passed him by every day. Though we don’t know his name. We sort of know him. This man must have seemed to the Gerasenes like so many people appear to us today—those who live not in natural caves, but the caves made by overpasses, abandoned buildings, and alleys. Their problems seem overwhelming. Often, we do what we can. We say a prayer. We give an occasional dollar or two. We might buy a sandwich, but we wonder, “What’s to be done?” Is it a matter of public funding? Is it a matter of healthcare? Is it a family problem? How might God not only want to heal, but how might God already be with those who live in caves?
Walter Wink is a theologian who thinks and writes about the way demons enter not only individuals, but also institutions and structures. Wink points out that one way the demonic works is by rigidly classifying those who are “in” and those who are “out.” Jeffery John (dean of St. Albans Cathedral, England) uses this idea of Wink’s as he writes, “The profundity of this miracle story [of the man possessed] is shown in the fact that Jesus goes out to heal the very one…who is the symbol of the alien oppression…Jesus steps outside the territory of Israel into ‘unclean’ territory, heals the most untouchable of the untouchables, and makes him in effect his first apostle to the other Gentiles.” [The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p. 84-97]
When Jesus encounters the man, Jesus responds with equal parts love and power of God. Jesus engages the man to learn about his condition. Jesus is able to determine the name of the man’s demon, and then Jesus calls the demon (who is really many demons) to come out of the man.
Then, an even stranger thing happens. The demons talk back to Jesus and try to bargain with him. They beg him to send them into a herd of pigs. The pigs then become possessed, run over the cliff, and jump into the lake. Whoosh, splash, thunk. They die. In Matthew and Mark, there are other versions of the same story, but unfortunately, they have the same ending for the pigs.
We could obviously look at this story from a number of perspectives—that of Jesus, the healer. That of the man who lives among the caves. We could perhaps even look at the story from the unfortunate perspective of the pigs. But what fascinates me about this story is that in each of the Gospel accounts, the reaction of the people is the same. The people respond with a mixture of anger and fear. They beg Jesus to get away from them.
But shouldn’t they be grateful for the healing? Shouldn’t they focus on the man who now is not only able to keep his clothes on, but able to rejoin his family, live with others, and be a part of the community? Isn’t Gerasa better off with a few less demons? And the whole community made healthier? And yet, the scripture says “All the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” I wonder about what they were afraid of.
One group that was probably both afraid and angry would be the owners of the pigs. The pigs were their livelihood, their means of subsistence, their trade, their food. It’s probably a little like those in the Acts of the Apostles who get mad when Paul heals a slave-girl and they lose the income they were getting through her. But the fear of the herders alone doesn’t really explain the reaction of all the people.
Another group that might have been afraid would be those people who had simply gotten used to living with demons. They were content enough. The demons were a part of their reality and they had structured their lives in such a way as to dodge the demons rather than face them. Some of the braver souls might have even flirted a little with the demons. They might have sought out the demons to befriend them, to engage them, to remain in conversation with them. But the demons were still demons, a fact the demons know even when the people forgot. When Jesus comes into town (and into their lives) speaking truth, exposing duplicity and casting out demons, he not only makes the demons uncomfortable. Jesus makes people uncomfortable too, because he breaks the peace.
A third group that might have been afraid of Jesus, afraid of God, and afraid of the miracles going on around them might be those who actually understand that what Jesus begins, he will not himself finish. Maybe they understand that those who are called to follow Christ are also called to share in the ongoing work of healing, and truth-telling, and casting out of demons. Jesus makes this clear in his charge to the healed man, “Return to your home, and declare throughout the city how much Jesus has done for you.” What Jesus begins, we are called to complete.
The alarming truth that we all know is that the demons aren’t just tucked away in the scriptures. They are alive and well. If not named, exposed, and confronted, they destroy relationships, families, and churches.
Sam Wells [vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square] writes about his own experience of dealing with people in the parish who have, in a variety of ways—some explicit and some more subtle—felt the disruption and dis-ease of demons. He notes that, as a pastor, he sometimes meet people whose homes and personal stories are riddled with spirits or demons, and people who ask for rituals of cleansing or exorcism. Wells says he tries to go with an open mind. As he thinks about these various people and experiences, he senses a pattern. “The people involved are often possessed by fear,” he says. The person of whom they are afraid is sometimes dead; sometimes it is their own self they fear; sometimes it is a person all too real, all too much alive and all too close — who yet can’t be named. I see my role as listening to their fears until the point is reached when it is time for me to ask the equivalent of Jesus’ question, “What is your name?” Sometimes I ask, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” in an effort to elicit a name for the possessing fear. My role is to restore in the person a true sense of his or her own power, and to witness to and offer appropriately the power given to the church through baptism and Eucharist, scripture and prayer.”
This ministry of listening, of naming, and of healing is something we all are called to—not just the ordained, not just those who are “good at listening,” but each of us, in our own way. But as Father Wells knows, we reach a point where our ability to offer healing and comfort needs the help of a higher power.
“Sometimes,” he writes, “I sense I am dealing with a person who has internalized the crisis of a family, community or society. For such a person, empowerment is not enough. A whole range of relationships, habits and contexts are sick. Personal healing is not the issue, for the person is exhibiting the ills of a whole society — a whole world. The violent transformation of that world is portrayed in this story from Gerasa, the country beyond the sea: many die to save one. But the ultimate transformation takes place on this side of the sea, in Jerusalem: one dies to save many.” [The Christian Century, June 15, 2004, p. 18.]
There were some demons over which the disciples were powerless (Matthew 17), and it will be the same for us. But we are called to continue the healing work of Christ: to say our prayers, to call upon the power of Christ, and to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in discerning the demons. But let us never forget our own calling as Christ’s disciples: to raise up, to offer healing, to speak the truth, to cleanse and to assist in casting out demons. Let us risk making people uncomfortable. Let us risk breaking the peace, as we welcome all into new life in Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.