The Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz
Westminster Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2016
I don’t know about you, when I think about preaching, there’s nothing more fun and unexpected than the passage on the Gerasene demoniac. From a purely literary standpoint, this is a great story. Jesus travels a ways to Gerasa, significant because it had a strong non-Jewish presence, foreshadowing his ministry to people who are not Jewish, and met a man possessed. This story contains elements specific to Jewish sensibilities – pigs (unclean), tombs (unclean), naked (probably not a good sign). To have a human being chained, where the dead are buried, naked, and guarded denotes serious social and religious isolation. We don’t know anything about this man except his current condition. We don’t know how Jesus heard of him. We don’t know how long the demons have possessed him, we don’t know how hard the community tried to keep him and themselves safe and in their midst before he came to the tombs.
But we know he no longer identifies himself by the name given him by his family. He is wholly subsumed by his demons.
This is the only possession encountered by Jesus in which the demons are multiple. “Legion,” they are, and they know exactly who Jesus is, they know him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” Legion, of course, is the same name used for Roman forces. A legion was five or six thousand soldiers of the occupying imperial power. Instead of asking for healing, like most of the people Jesus encounters, this man, the unclean of the unclean, begs to be left alone.
Jesus does his thing, of course. When the demons realized they had no choice but to evacuate the premises, they asked to enter the swine, and when Jesus gave his permission, that’s what they did. Rushed right into a herd of pigs, who subsequently drowned themselves.
While primarily vegetarian, I do not support the waste of perfectly good apparently free-range pork and I feel for the swineherds who raised these pigs and just lost maybe years of income. The swineherds run and tell what they have seen all over the region, and when the people hear, they come to Jesus, and find the man clothed, in full possession of his faculties, seated at the feet of Jesus.
They are terrified. As Jesus takes his leave of them, he sends the man out, back to his home, to declare how much God has done for him.
It’s a great story. I never really thought about much before deciding this would be the perfect text to preach from for today. I took it as another healing story, but with the added fun of pigs.
In our contemporary reading of ancient texts, in which we might be tempted to explain demonic possession as the way the ancient world understood mental illness, or perhaps as one of those stories that hold truth, but not historical fact, or as simply a way to help explain how Jesus’ ministry eventually expanded beyond its original Jewish audience to include the Gentiles, scholar Justo Gonzalez thinks we should reclaim the acknowledgement of and respect for the demonic that Jesus had.
Let’s review the evidence.
Where is the demonic today?
Our demons are Legion.
- In our society, we ensure access to all manner of guns meant to fire a ridiculous number of bullets with one pull of the trigger.
- We criminalize people suffering with addiction.
- We discard people who are too poor, condemning them to prison over the inability to pay petty fines for minor offenses many of us have committed at one time or another.
- We do not provide enough to eat for every child. We do not make sure every person has a place to live that is safe and stable.
- We allow the government of this country to use drones to drop bombs on other people in other countries.
- We allow the government to, effectively, colonize land that probably shouldn’t be ours.
- We maintain a society that shapes children so as they grow up, they maintain rape culture, allowing all of us to believe boys and men are entitled to girls’ and women’s bodies.
- We participate and maintain a toxic culture of masculinity that diminishes the emotional lives of men, enforces gender binaries, and inflicts violence on the rest of us who get in the way.
- We make possible a culture that does violence to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people through what we say and whatever we leave unsaid.
- Our legal system and culture and often our religion erase, make invisible, imprison, diminish, and discount Native Americans and Native Alaskans, Arab Americans, Latinxs, African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Muslims.
- We suspect immigrants of being malicious, accuse people who demand equal rights of wanting to be treated like they’re special.
- And then we declare this system of white supremacist heteropatriarchy and its enabling form of capitalism sanctioned by God, reason, the market, legal precedent, inevitability.
Is this story about mental illness, a misunderstanding of how our brains work? I don’t know. Should I keep an eye out for literal demons? I don’t know.
What I do know is this. We must take these demons seriously.
We, too, have people who become outcasts. We, too, have demons inside us, whether they be individual, or collective. We, too, may be disturbed by the outsider sent to proclaim what we thought was our gospel.
We, too, must be freed from our demons. And when we are freed, we are sent to proclaim what Jesus has done for us.
Proclaiming what Jesus has done for us is not because everything has been simple or uncomplicated. This is not a shallow proclamation. This is not something all of us can say easily.
We proclaim because life has been hard. Not all of us have been banished to live among the dead, bound with chains, possessed. Not all of us have struggled with mental illness, with living under a repressive colonial government. But all of us, as individuals, as families, as a church, have had our hearts broken open over and over again. We have seen suffering. We have lived suffering.
And it is this suffering from which emerges the deepest joy. Not because suffering is good. Not because I think God uses suffering. Not because we are made stronger or because we are unbreakable. No. Those of us who have been reduced to cowering on the ground in grief and torment and terror, if we make it out, we know what it is to go from naked to clothed, possessed to in our right minds, from chaos and disorder to going out to share the good news of what has been done for us. We know how good news can be difficult to believe, hard to hear, not exactly what we want, but usually what we need.
We who hear this story have no reason to turn away from hope.
It is turning from a myopic focus on our own fears about decline, our fears of not speaking prophetically enough, our fears about becoming too political, our fears about how much we lose in this time of rapid social change, to the news of what God has done for us.
If you recall from the Scripture for today that the demons do not just depart. They do not dissolve into the atmosphere. They have to relocate. In this world of the Scriptures, evil is not erased. It moves.
Being a Christian is not living in some fantasy world of butterflies and unicorns. Demons do not simply disappear. Being a Christian, struggling with our faith, struggling to find the will to be part of a community that can be exasperating, is to see a world full of demons, to know these demons better than we would like to, and know exactly what we are up against. It is to stare death, chaos, and disorder in the face and proclaim the gift of life, God’s presence, the power of community, in the same breath. It is deciding to live resurrection.
Hope is the queer community showing up at Pride. Hope is being brown and gender nonconforming, and leaving one’s house every day. Hope is the young black person protesting police brutality because there are beautiful people out there who deserve to live. Hope are the parents of children playing in parks or walking back from the convenience store or listening to loud music, and the family members of people attending a Bible study, killed by a white supremacist, a wanna-be cop, a police officer, an angry middle aged man with a gun in his car, showing up to vigil after vigil, Congressional hearings, rallies, crying out for justice, for concrete change, for other people’s children. Hope is the woman who goes out to a party with her friends and has the audacity to dress up and drink and have a great time. Hope is the family fleeing violence in another land, hoping to reach safer shores through impossible conditions. Hope is the legal team fighting to defend Native American sovereignty against the broken treaties and promises of the U.S. government. Hope is showing up to church in the Pacific Northwest.
Hope is showing up to a Presbyterian General Assembly in 2016, with membership down, with the negative voices saying we have lost our way, in the midst of one of the most polarizing U.S. election season in recent history, with an intricate parliamentary procedure that is mysterious to most rational human beings, and believing the Holy Spirit will do its work in spite of and even perhaps because of all of us. After all, if a Gentile possessed by Legion can be freed and sent even before Jesus’ ministry was officially open to non-Jews, if someone who lived chained and naked among the tombs can be restored to community, I say we who sit here with our doubts and fears and grief and brokenness and tiny glimmering hopes have no excuse.
Go. Get out of here. Do your work.
Care more about saving lives than retaining members.
Refuse to be held hostage by xenophobic fears and bureaucratic excuses that prevent us from welcoming more refugees
Refuse to be held hostage by a gun culture propped up and fed by gun manufacturers, who care more about the bottom line than about our beautiful children.
Become a thorn in the side of those who feed the demons.
Become the elderly women who have been standing on the corner of Washington Street and MLK Drive in Atlanta, protesting the war since the early 2000s.
Make it easier for people to exercise their citizenship.
Make it safer for queer people to gather.
Teach your children you don’t have to know what gender someone is to treat that person like a human being.
Make this country really free for Muslims and Sikhs who want to live without being harassed, or their places of worship vandalized.
Aren’t you sick and tired of holding vigils?
When you return to your home, don’t pretend like anything is the same as it was. Name the demons. Declare how much God has done for you. Go.