Sermon - 19th June 2016
Better the devil you know
Scripture - Luke 8:26-39
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Like many of the stories in the Gospels, today’s episode involving demonic possession, exorcism, transfer of demons into a herd of pigs, and then a suicidal dash of the pigs over a cliff into the lake, doesn’t really fit with the culture of 21st century city life. Take it at face value, and the story seems like little more than a historic fable which we can quietly allow to drift through one ear and out of the other - a story of its time, with its significance confined to the beliefs of its day.
But, delve a little deeper, and there are aspects of this story which we can see being played out in the very midst of our 21st century lives.
Let’s start with:
Safe and unsafe spaces
This is the only story in Luke in which Jesus deliberately goes to Gentile territory, and it serves as a kind of prequel to the times when Jesus' disciples will be sent to be witnesses "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
The towns around Lake Galilee were divided broadly into the western side, which were largely Jewish, and the eastern side which were largely gentile. Jesus could not have known what kind of reception he would get in the town of Gerasa in the gentile territory. In fact he walks into the middle of a local drama, deals with it in a way which unnerves to local people, and is eventually asked to leave. But Luke leaves us with a postscript: Jesus sends the nameless man home, where - in Luke’s narrative - he becomes the first missionary to the Gentiles.
In time, Jesus’s disciples will go to outsiders who suffer from every kind of problem. They will be sent in the power of Jesus, whose salvation is for everyone. The grace of God reaches beyond every barrier, and the mission of Jesus's followers is to take the healing and liberating love of God to broken and desolate regions, to those whose lives are bound by forces they cannot control.
The language of our baptism reflects ideas of resistance to Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness in whatever ways they present themselves. To be baptized is to commit to going to the ‘opposite side of the lake’ with Jesus.
So, there is our first challenge: shall we be followers of Jesus who take the healing and liberating love of God to broken and desolate regions, to those whose lives are bound by forces they cannot control, to step out of our safe spaces into potentially unsafe ones? Is that what it means to follow Jesus?
Now let’s think about:
Cleanness and uncleanness - ideas which often play out as ‘worthiness and unworthiness’, or ‘deserving and undeserving’
At the centre of today’s story is an outcast. To the Jewish law of the time, as a gentile in a land where the raising of pigs is basic to the local diet and economy, he is an outsider to the people of God, and his home in the tombs is a perpetual source of uncleanness.
As someone afflicted by demons and demonstrating particularly shocking behaviour, he is homeless even among his own people. His life is entirely out of his control. When Jesus asks, "What is your name?" he replies, “Mob” - other translations say "Legion" or “Multitude” indicating that the influences upon him were many.
We don’t know how the Gerasene man fell into his pitiful state, but he is not unlike the lost, destitute, homeless people today, who wander our cities trying to survive from day to day. Many of them are mentally ill, unable to live a normal life with a job, family, home, or basic necessities. They are at much greater risk of being victimized by assault, rape, and murder. They are today’s "unclean" and are unwelcome in many communities. They are so excluded from what passes as normality that very few are able to return to any semblance of ordinary life. Every city has them: they are today’s Gerasenes who are constantly tortured by their demons. Even though they are lost in the depth and chaos of their problems, the Gerasenes are our neighbours.
The story reveals much about the love of God, not least because it touches on Jesus's healing as bringing about a restoration of individual identity. Oppressed by too many forces to count, the Gerasene man has lost himself in the chaos of their noise and has ceased being a self, an individual, a person. So he spends his days raving alone in the wilderness, a danger to himself and others, separated from his community and even himself.
How many in our communities are similarly overwhelmed by the voices raging at them from inside and out, denying their identity and driving them to places of extreme loneliness or despair? In this church we have heard people speak of being lost; of being overwhelmed by forces they can’t control; of being chained and imprisoned - both physically and mentally; of being denied their true identity as children of God whom Jesus loves. Today’s Gerasenes are our neighbours.
And then let’s think about:
Priorities and resistance to change
According to ancient Middle Eastern demonology, evil spirits cannot survive in water. Demons are unclean, and pigs in Jewish culture were unclean animals. So when Jesus gives the demons permission to enter the herd of pigs, and the pigs rush off the hillside into the lake, the demons plunge to their own destruction along with the pigs.
It’s tempting to think that the removal of a legion of evil spirits is worth the unfortunate loss of the animals. But to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The people of the town are understandably afraid and, despite the miraculous healing, they want Jesus to leave.
Jesus's presence and power does disrupt the social order. While they were unable either to cure or to contain the demon-possessed man, the villagers of Gerasa at least were accustomed to him. He knew his place and they knew theirs—or, more accurately, they knew his place, out in the unclean parts of the town. Perhaps understandably, they are alarmed when he comes once again among them, even though he has been cured, because the social order to which they have become accustomed is utterly upset.
There is a subtext here: Luke is reminding us that the coming of the gospel brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt economic and social arrangements. The good news will not seem good to everyone. Sometimes disciples - even Jesus himself - will need to "shake the dust off their feet," because their message will not be welcome (Luke 9:5; 10:11).
We sometimes prefer the troubles we know to the risk of changes that we do not know, and there are times when the salvation of some creates hostility in others. The scene of the pig farmers who beg Jesus to leave their country anticipates a later scene in Acts in which the exorcism of a slave girl deprives her owners of their source of income (Acts 16:16-24). On many occasions, the Christian mission had a financial impact on communities, creating hostility among those whose financial world was shaken by the impact of the gospel.
We often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not know. Communities and organisations - even churches - take a false sense of security from the dysfunctions they have learned to cope with, and they fear what change—even change for the better—may bring.
So, here is a story of a missed opportunity to bring about change by those in the community who have felt Jesus' presence and power. They even had the living testimony of the one who had been healed and restored right there among them. Did anything change, I wonder?
As with many Gospel stories, our challenge today is to lift the meaning of the story out of the detail of the narrative. And having done that, our further challenge is to reflect on:
- whether we will take the good news of God’s kingdom into the unpredictable and less comfortable parts of our communities - that ‘opposite side of the lake’ where we don’t know what kind of response we will receive;
- whether we will bring healing and inclusion to people who are called unclean either because they are chained to patterns of destructive behaviour that we find difficult to handle, or because irrational custom, practice and religious tradition have declared such people to be, in some way, less than equal to their neighbours;
- and whether we will send Jesus away because his message is too disturbing and disruptive to our commerce, our comfort zones and our stability; or whether we will invite him to stay and teach us to be the agents of those changes which will bring the Kingdom of God a little closer.
Luke is not telling a story about demons and pigs: he is sharing a profound truth about what happens when rejected and marginalised people encounter Jesus; when evil is seen for what it is; when healing becomes a reality; and when love drives out fear.
But that same profound truth also tells us that there’s no going back to how things were, unless we are willing to send Jesus away.
If we are to walk with Jesus into the mystery of God, and bring about the Kingdom which is breaking into our world with every step we take, our communities will change, our church will change, and we will change along with them. And if that is not a priority that we are prepared to accept, then the alternative is to send Jesus away and return to the demons with which we have grown comfortable.