Traditional Sermon Pentecost 2
Our Gospel reading this Sunday is one, that at first glance, sounds like the beginning of a scary story. It was a dark and stormy night, as 12 students and their teacher sailed across to a land unknown. Usually this is where my imagination cues the fog and the creepy music.
They get out of the boat and their welcoming party is a naked man, screaming at the top of his lungs, with chains wrapped around his arms and legs.
Okay… I’m waiting for the guy in the hockey mask and chainsaw to jump out now. Because that’s what happens in scary stories. In fact, the first time I heard this Bible story from the Gospel of Luke, I couldn’t believe that it was actually a Bible story at all.
I went to church pretty regularly as a kid, and I had never heard the story of the Gerasene man inflicted with a demon. The first time I heard it, I was attending a Catholic church’s youth group meeting. I even had the chutzpah to question the nun leading the meeting.
“Are you sure this is in the Bible?!” I asked incredulously. (Yeah…pastor’s kids can get pretty incredulous about stuff like this.)
I later learned that in my church’s tradition, this story wasn’t in our lectionary–it never showed up on a Sunday morning. It was never taught in Sunday School. It seemed like the church in one way or another didn’t want to visit the scary place that Jesus journeys.
When I first heard this Gospel reading, I was a teenager, and quickly connected to the disciples. I thought the disciples were crazy to get out of the boat in the first place. I would be the one in the boat who would be grabbing the oar, setting sail and yelling behind, “See you back on the other side. I’m hightailing it out of here!”
But through the years, whenever I encounter this reading, I realize that in truth, I’m not just one of the disciples in the boat…I’ve played the part of the scared townspeople and even played the part of Legion himself.
There was a time in my teenage and early twenty years that I daily felt tormented by something I couldn’t control.
It seemed to take over at the worst times–going on field trips and family car rides, trying to hunker down and write that big paper for school, or just picking out my outfit for the day.
I would try to make choices for myself, but the thing that seem to imprison my brain would fight me…threaten me… tell me that I was doomed. Doomed if I chose a certain color to wear.
Doomed if I didn’t touch something a certain number of times.
Doomed if I used my left hand rather than my right.
Doomed if I didn’t wash my hands the right way.
And I knew that this tormentor wasn’t what I wanted to be… but I didn’t know anything else. It seemed like I could only hear this tormentor’s tales. And I wanted to keep the tormentor a secret.
Tell no one about the tormentor and maybe I could be like everyone else…or pass and pretend I was like everyone else.
But secrets lead to silence and silence leads to shame.
I can tell you that in my story of wrestling with inner demons, I encountered Jesus along the way.
The first time Jesus told my inner demons to take a hike was at summer camp when a bunch of us teenagers were talking about the things we wrestle with–and I realized that I wasn’t the only one trying to keep an inner tormentor quiet. I think it was the first time I realized that I wasn’t alone…and so many of the kids around felt free to share.
No secrets. No shame.
Tormentors hate it when we’re honest and we speak truth.
But that’s how Jesus works. Jesus is truth.
Remember his words to us, “where 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, I am there. You are not alone.”
Another time Jesus told my tormentor to take a hike was when a college counselor directed me to a doctor, and placed in my hands medication. Yes-the incarnational work of Christ can be experienced through serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. Trust me!
I came to realize that the tormentor could never steal my identity.
I am not the thing that inflicts me. None of us are.
I am claimed by Christ, forever a child of God, never alone, always wrapped in the mercy and presence of my Lord.
I think the power of our Christian community is that we are claimed by Christ and we can speak truth to the legions that threaten to steal who we are.
Together we speak truth so that no one feels that they are the only one, so that silence doesn’t become a pall over truth, and shame doesn’t take over. As St. Paul writes, “For you are all children of light, children of the day.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5)
God’s work is about shining light in those dark places in our lives. And telling our tormentors to take a hike.
But God’s word also convicts. And in reflection, I realize that I have played the part of the scared townspeople, as well.
You would think that having been tormented by my own inner demon, I would more easily recognize when another is in the same boat…or in our Gospel story…the same tombs. I specifically recall a time I failed to be the community that someone needed.
I didn’t show up.
I didn’t walk with that person when that person needed the face of a friend and the presence of Christ.
At the time it was too messy, too complicated, and too close for me.
And I just didn’t show up. I was scared. I left that friend to be by themselves in the midst of their torment, in the midst of their tombs.
By the grace of God, Jesus did show up for my friend.
Jesus showed up in the uniform of a local police officer who saw my friend out alone at night and didn’t want her to be alone.
Jesus showed up again for my friend in the hospital community of doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and in group counseling sessions.
And Jesus told her tormentor to take a hike, so she too could hear the truth that she was not alone. She could experience that she was loved, valued, precious.
When my friend came home, Jesus showed up again, and this time–I had the courage to show up as well. And I got to witness the power of community, and health, and wholeness manifest and magnify in my friend.
As Jesus tells the man from Gerasene, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you,” my friend did the same for me. She witnessed to me the transformational power of Jesus showing up and telling her tormentor to take a hike.
Who knew that Christ dons the uniform of a police officer, the scrubs of a nurse, and the sweatpants of a fellow member in a counseling group. But again, where two or three of us gather together–Christ promises to be there.
The way the Gospel writer Luke describes the healing of the man from Gerasene, to our modern ears it sounds fantastic in some ways, spooky in other ways.
It may cause us to avoid this story.
Or to label it as something trapped in the pages of ancient texts.
Whether we use words like demon, legion, illness, disorder, addiction–the struggle is real. And Jesus showing up and telling our tormentors to take a hike is real, as well.
In all honesty, I don’t know which part is more miraculous–the healing of the man or his engagement back into the community. But nonetheless it’s holy work–accomplished in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
You are claimed by Christ. Beloved.
You are forgiven by Christ. Forever.
There is nothing you can do or place you can go that beyond Christ.
No one can steal that identity from you.
Whether this day you are living in the town or finding your way back from the tombs, you are part of this body–the body of Christ.
And when we are the church, we are the body of Christ living out this story together.
When we all speak the truth that each one of us is in one way or another afflicted, broken, need of wholeness, then we leave room for healing in ourselves and also leave room to rejoice with members of Christ who are being healed.
When we find the courage to speak about the things that can torment us, when we are the community that shows up and witnesses to the ways that God is at work, we become blessed by seeing the very face of Christ in and among us. Amen