Sunday, June 19, 2022

Set Free

June 19, 2022
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 8:26-39[1]

Jesus took a trip to the other side. The country of the Gerasenes, in the region east of the Sea of Galilee, was not a Jewish community. The occupation, first by the Greeks, then by the Romans, had resulted in a culture quite different from that of Israel. An outpost of the Roman empire, there were shrines to many gods, and there were pigs.

The man they encounter has lost his identity, consumed by the demons that haunt him. Who he was, and who he becomes, remain largely unknown. Because of his condition, he is outcast from the community, living in the tombs outside the town. This was not the first time that Jesus engaged with someone that the rest of the world rejected. This was not the last time that Jesus would connect with an unknown person, redeem them, and make them an instrument of revealing his glory and his identity.

When Jesus permits the legion of demons to enter the herd of pigs, which promptly rush to their destruction, the man is restored to health and, at least potentially, to the community. That community, though, responds with fear so intense that Jesus has no choice but to leave. The people were afraid when they recognized that Jesus had the ability to change their circumstances. Even if things would be better, they couldn’t handle the idea that things could be different.

The man, restored to humanity, now tries to remain with Jesus, yet Jesus sends him back to his own house. He will be the one who tells the Gerasenes, and by extension the Gentiles, the story of God’s saving work.

In addition to the story of healing, and the rejection of Jesus, there is a political undercurrent. Shortly before Mark wrote his gospel, there had been an attack by Roman soldiers on a town named Gerasa. More than a thousand people were killed. Mark apparently took this story of exorcism from the oral tradition of Jesus purposefully set it in Gerasa. If this was the case, he wanted his readers to think of that Roman attack. He was linking the Jesus story and the recent massacre.

The Latin word “legion” meant only one thing — a Roman legion, a large division of imperial soldiers. The term “herd” used for the swine was commonly used to refer to military recruits., and the pigs “charge” like soldiers down the steep bank into the lake.

Pork was a staple in the diet of imperial troops. Jesus sent the legion of demons into the unclean food they ate and they destroyed themselves. They drown like Pharaoh’s army, chasing Moses and the Israelites across the Red Sea. The man who had been occupied and tormented by the empire was liberated. The enemy was vanquished, he was restored to his right mind, and now can live as God intends. Tell everyone, Jesus told the man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” Marks readers might interpret this as Jesus saying: “Tell your neighbors that God is going to throw Caesar’s army into the sea.”

Why would the people in the story, the Gerasenes, be afraid? Why do we fear change? I think it may have to do with the comfort of keeping things the way they are and the fear of losing who we believe ourselves to be if we change. It’s often easier to claim helplessness or adopt a fatalistic attitude than to do the thing we don’t want to do, even if change would be better. That’s why we may find it so challenging to hear the truth. There is a comfort in being controlled by the “legion.” We can claim that identity that absolves us from responsibility for what is happening around us. We can stay on the periphery, not necessarily safe, but comfortable in our complacency.

A UCC minister, the Rev. Cheryl Lindsay, had a conversation after the mass shooting in Uvalde with someone who said, “I just don’t know what we can do.” She immediately thought of at least half a dozen things that can be done to reduce gun violence and mass shootings. They have been documented and reported for years. They’re supported by large majorities of Americans. But they would require change.

I think of the similar situation we find ourselves in with climate change. We know that it is happening, and that it will have devastating effects on millions of people. There are many things that could be done to slow or mitigate the effects, but they would require changing how we live as a whole society. As individuals, we’re trapped into thinking, “I just don’t know what we can do.”

Would it take a miracle? Do we need the legions that hold us captive to be cast out? Like the man freed from his demons, it would be good to find ourselves sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in our right mind. That is the hope of salvation and the promise of re-creation. Even if we have to return to the community that cast us out, which still lives in fear of change, we are sent declare how much God has done for us. It is becoming who we are and who we’re meant to be. Liberation is possible, in fact it is at hand. It would be a miracle. And that’s the miracle we need right now.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.