July 21, 2019

“Deviled Ham” Luke 8:26-39

 

So last year, I began planning for a possible trip for our congregation. I had planned to bring a large group of folks from our church across the sea to a foreign land- Scotland. My hope was that we would go together on this mission to learn of Scottish church history and the history of the Reformation as well. We ended up with a small contingency instead of a large group, but that’s OK. We had a wonderful time in a foreign land. Now the Scots are “said to speak the English language”. Yet, at times I seriously questioned that notion. Studying the different brogues of each region of Scotland before leaving would’ve been helpful. In addition to the language issue, we noticed the people in Scotland definitely are of a different culture-they are for the most part, very polite, not quick to respond, a bit reserved. It is also a place where they eat haggis-which some of us might label unclean, to say the least.

 

Well, just before today’s story, Jesus decided to take the disciples on a trip as well- across the Sea of Galilee to a foreign land, also on a mission. After at least 8 miles of rowing, calming a storm and calming the disciples, they all ended up on the foreign shore of the Gerasenes and the city of Gerasa.   Mark and Matthew’s version locate this landing a bit further south than Luke’s gospel, to the area of Gadara. Either way, wherever they landed, in this case, fortunately, they didn’t need to study a foreign language, for this was a Greek, Hellenized city and part of the Roman Empire. Jesus and the disciples spoke Greek, although perhaps there was a bit of a Gerasene brogue to the Greek here. And the culture was different from Jesus and the disciples. For example, they herded pigs, which Jesus and his followers would have never done because in Jewish culture, pigs were unclean.

 

As Jesus and the disciples stepped out of the boat, they encountered someone who was not in his right mind- a naked man with shackles on his wrists, living among the tombs.  He is called the Gerasene Demoniac by most theologians. We had a lively discussion at the Back Porch Bible study last Wednesday regarding mental health and the Gerasene Demoniac. Was he just mentally ill? It certainly sounds as if schizophrenia was a possible diagnosis in today’s terminology since there were many demons in him- many voices. And, if demon possession was what they called it back in Jesus’ day, does that kind of possession exist today? Is that what mental illness is all about?

 

Having people in my own family who struggle with mental illness, I can say it is difficult for me to see anyone’s diagnosis as “Demon derived.” And yet I do see the evil regarding struggles people have with ill mental health. Ill mental health robs the individual of the self, limits one’s ability to function, and can cause one to be ostracized from society. Relationships break down, opportunities vanish, and even physical well-being deteriorates. Mental illness extracts a fearsome toll from those who love and care for its primary victims as well, including social isolation and financial distress. Rev. Jason Chestnut, ELCA pastor, who writes a blog about his own struggles with depression says, “Depression lies to me. It is relentless. It tells me I will always feel this way, that I’m not deserving of help, that I am a burden, a waste — that my life is thoroughly hopeless. The demon of depression tells me that this is my fault. It tells me that I am utterly alone.” So, whether it is a personified evil or not, ill mental health is in itself evil in many ways.

I will also say it is difficult for me to read in today’s story how instantaneous the Gerasene Demoniac was healed. That certainly is not the experience of most people who suffer ill mental health. So, I have no definitive answer to clarify the mental health/demonic possession issue. But I will say this: Jesus saw this man as a valued human being in need of healing. Jesus spent time with the outcast, loved them, valued them and brought healing and hope into their lives. This means that all of those who struggle with ill mental health are deserving of that same attention from us, we who follow Christ. So, rather than run from those who suffer afflictions of the mind, or just not speak about them, we are called to include and value them as beloved people of the kindom of God.

This man was not included in anything or valued by anyone in Gerasa. He was totally ostracized from the rest of the Gerasenes. Clearly, the people in the city did not want to be associated with a man so possessed they could not control him. They had tried to protect him and themselves by binding him with chains. But it did no good. He broke the chains and rambled around the tombs. Possessed, he was far stronger than any help or imprisonment.

Eventually the demon, we are told, had driven him away from all people and into the land of the dead. He roamed naked among the tombs. The naked, wild man fell at the feet of Jesus screaming, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Luke 8:28).

 

Now the disciples still were not sure who Jesus was, for they had just uttered, “Who is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25) after he had calmed the storm. Yet they met someone who knew exactly who Jesus was- an unclean spirit or group of spirits named legion (for we are many) inside this man.  This spirit(s) proclaimed Jesus was, in fact, Son of God, Messiah. I wonder if any of the twelve made a link at this point between their experience on the Sea of Galilee, this spirit’s proclamation and, the next scene when Jesus casts the unclean spirits out into the swineherd? Just a chapter later, Peter declares Jesus is “The Messiah of God.”(Luke 9:20) So for Peter, perhaps he had connected the dots.

It is interesting to note a few other things about this story. For starters, unlike almost every other healing miracle Jesus performs, where someone asks him for help, the Gerasene Demoniac was not asking for help, or for healing. He was asking Jesus to leave him alone. 

Second, unlike most of the other stories of Messiah and his followers, instead of being in known holy territory, Jesus and the disciples were in an unknown, unclean land- The tombs were unclean, the place of the dead. The pigs were unclean and a source of food for the Gerasenes, which in turn made them unclean. And we are told that it was an unclean spirit, inhabiting the soul of an unclean man. This unclean spirit knew who Jesus was and was rightfully afraid.  There was a lot of uncleanliness going on in this story.

So Jesus prepared to cast out this group of unclean spirits, even though the demoniac had not asked for his help. Another interesting thing to consider-There is this rather unusual part of the story-the unclean spirit(s) negotiates with Jesus! I cannot think of any other demons that were able to bargain with Jesus in scripture, although I think the negotiations end up not working so well for them.

 If they could no longer inhabit this poor man, whom they made unclean, might they inhabit the unclean pigs instead? “Why of course,” Jesus agreed. Perhaps this caused an “unclean” overload and the demon-filled pigs rushed into the lake (Hence the name of the sermon-one of my favorite sermon titles;).

The pigs drowned and the spirits found themselves just where they hoped that they would not go-the abyss, the bottomless pit where they join the fallen angels and spirits “kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6).

The Gerasene Demoniac became just a man in his right mind. He was released from the chains of possession and the deep darkness that clouded his thinking.  You might think the crowd who had gathered would be thankful for Jesus getting rid of the problem of this formerly sick man, now in his right mind. Yet the crowd that gathered, having heard the stories about the amazing things taking place among the tombs and at the lakeshore did not rejoice. We read in fact, they were fearful. Why? Theologian Sarah Heinrich, Professor of NT, Luther Seminary Writes, “What we do not understand, what interrupts our relatively orderly lives, even if it is for someone's good, frightens us. How can this be? What might this be? Where does this power come from? What if it turns against me? What does this power want? All good questions that make science fiction movies so fascinating and scary. These are the questions of the demoniac's townsfolk.”

Another possibility- Perhaps some of the swine herders were part of that crowd and were just a bit disgruntled that they had just seen their entire livelihood drown before their very eyes, not to mention losing an important food source for the surrounding people in the city and countryside. Rather than embrace Jesus, they too may have begged him to leave them alone. So Jesus and the disciples left Gerasa.

When Jesus got into the boat to return across the lake the man asked to “be with him,” which is a way of saying that the man wished to become a follower of Jesus. But Jesus told the man to go home and tell others what God had done for him. Instead, he would be the first missionary in the land of the Gerasenes, telling others about his healing and his encounter with Jesus. And so, “he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39). This was by no means an easy mission, for his own healing brought about financial disaster and food scarcity for the people of the city and beyond.

So what then, can we take from today’s story? How might it apply to us? Our main character in today’s story is the Gerasene Demoniac, although we really shouldn’t be calling him that anymore, since his encounter with Jesus freed him from what possessed him. Let us call him the Gerasene disciple instead. The question that arose for me as I contemplated the main character in the passage is this: What possesses us as it possessed him? What evil intents keep us from following Jesus? And, like the Gerasene Disciple and the crowds, when confronted with what possesses us, do we want Jesus to intervene or leave us alone?

A number of years ago I stumbled upon a show on the National Geographic channel about people who live a minimalist existence up in Alaska, “Life Below Zero.” One person on this show in particular really stood out for me-Sue Aikens, a solitary person some 500 miles away from any other city, town, or person in northern Alaska out on the tundra, who owns and runs the Kavik River camp. Sue lives by herself, hunting, trapping, repairing her structures-The only real possessions that are important to her are her very minimalist buildings, her snowmobile, and her hunting rifle. She doesn’t shop for food-she shoots, cleans, stores, smokes and eats her food. I think she would look at my life and smirk at all of my comfy possessions. Sue and others on the show remind me that possessions don’t really satisfy us, not deep down. They can, in fact, become a trap for us. We need that newest latest pair of shoes, car, computer, smartphone, appliance, etc., because we think they will make us happy. Yet for Sue and the others followed in the show, they all seem pretty happy and have very little around them.

We also discussed the issue of possessions in the Bible study last week. We talked about how we learn from an early age that acquiring stuff matters. And so we do so throughout our lives until we get to a point where we need to downsize our lives and move to smaller living spaces. Gail Johnson noted how freeing it was to let go of so many of her possessions when she had to downsize.  Or, as in the case of my friend from high school, Allison, who lost everything in the Paradise fire last year, once it is all gone, you realize the important things in life aren’t things at all.

So consider, what things possess you? If Jesus were to stand before you today, from what possessions would he want to free you? The 12th century Cistercian Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Theirs is an endless road, a hopeless maze, who seek goods before they seek God.”  I admit to being surprised to find a quote on the problems of possessions dating back to the 1100s. Apparently, it was already an issue for the person of faith. A more recent sage, the late George Carlin said, “Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.” So then, as you consider your own possessions, are there possessions which possess you? What possessions do you need to let Jesus free you from?

And although I have not to my knowledge been demon-possessed, I certainly have given in at times to those whispers from the dark-to see those who are different from me as the enemy, as suspect. This is also a form of possession. People who don’t think, act, dress, drive, vote or look like me are bad, evil, and misguided. Those whispers from the shadows can affect our view on others and upon this world in which we live and possess us if we aren’t careful. We certainly see that happening in our politics right now, as one side of the aisle demonizes 4 women in congress on the other side of the aisle, women who may not look or talk or think like they do. Scripture can be a great reminder to keep us from being possessed by such thinking.  Jesus said, “Love your neighbor, as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:31) And Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “Seek that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” German theologian Albert Schweitzer said, “We have to carry on the struggle against the evil that is in humankind, not by judging others, but by judging ourselves.” Are there thoughts, ideas, whispers, beliefs which possess us and keep us from seeing others as neighbors?

Finally, we must consider whether we want Jesus to intervene and free us from those material goods or evil thoughts which possesses us, or like the Gerasene Disciple at first and like the Gerasene crowds would just assume have Jesus leave us alone, thank you very much? When you let Christ enter into your life, that means following Christ’s ways and teachings, seeing others as Christ sees them, and being Christ to others by what we say and do. It means recognizing when we are being possessed, and then lifting up to him those places where we are imprisoned in chains, and asking him to free us.

 

We give thanks today for the story of the Gerasene Disciple. In so many ways, he is a reflection of us as we sometimes are-in chains by what possesses us. He also is an example of how we can become through the power of Jesus- free from our possessions and in our right mind. God be with us, as we seek help to free us from whatever it is which possesses us, so that we might be truly free to serve Christ, proclaiming how much he has done for us. Alleluia. Amen.

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