A sermon based on Luke 8:26-39, for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, which this year happens to fall on Juneteenth as well as Father’s Day
We’re entering “ordinary time” or the time after Pentecost. The Revised Common Lectionary readings in this season turn our attention in church to gospel stories about the life and ministry of Jesus, or possibly to the narratives of the Hebrew Bible.
This story, which we could describe as an exorcism, but which most call a healing, takes place after a harrowing journey across the big lake we usually call the Sea of Galilee, in which Jesus has demonstrated his power to command the wind and waves – to the frightened astonishment of the disciples. And it comes right before another story in which Jesus revives a little girl who’s died, and heals a woman with a serious chronic disease on the way. Episode after episode in this part of the gospel of Luke impresses on us that Jesus has power and authority like the disciples have never seen over the conditions of daily life.
So we’re picking up the story in Luke after Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee.
What would we say this story is “about”? The NRSV titles it “the healing of the Gerasene demoniac,” King James calls it “a demon-possessed man healed,” Eugene Peterson’s Message version introduces it as “the madman and the pigs.” The emphasis in all those readings is on the man, on his affliction – what’s wrong with him; and on healing it. That’s certainly what captures our attention – this is a dramatic, memorable story that shows what Jesus is capable of, the difference Jesus can make in a person’s life. But a lot happens in this story, actually, more even than this healing or exorcism, and the more we listen to the story, the more we will, I think, realize this story is about more than the healing of this one individual, dramatic and important as that is.
In fact, if the editors of our Bibles didn’t tell us this is a “healing” story, I think we would be inclined to call it a “liberation” story. This man, this human being who meets Jesus when he comes ashore – and Luke emphasizes this humanity, in fact, by using the generic word for “human being” several times in his telling of the story, using the word for “man” just at the beginning and the end – this human being who comes up to Jesus is dramatically unfree. If we said he was oppressed, we wouldn’t be exaggerating. If we thought of him as a representative of enslaved humanity, we wouldn’t be wrong.
So, I’m inclined to think of this as a story about freedom – although there is also a lot of fear in the story, so it makes almost as much sense to say it is a story about fear, and there is a lot of power being exercised in this story, too …
Whatever the story is about, it is odd. We have probably heard it so often in church, we might not notice how really odd it is.
The journey across the lake comes out of the blue. Jesus doesn’t give any reason for it, so we don’t know what prompts this journey over to foreign territory, this region of the Gerasenes. And we can’t tell from the story whether Jesus accomplishes his purpose there, assuming he has one. Was he planning to meet that man with the demons? Had he felt a call to do that healing?
Or, was something else on Jesus’s mind? Was he hoping to teach something to the disciples, for instance – who must be present for this whole story, but who never say a word the whole time.
Or maybe Jesus had the Gerasenes on his mind. But if Jesus was hoping to do something good for the Gerasenes, the mission certainly doesn’t seem to have succeeded. These Gentiles don’t strike us as very friendly, or forthcoming. They don’t seem to celebrate over the sudden freedom of the unfortunate man, they’re afraid of Jesus, and they phobically send him on his way. Their behavior is especially odd in the context of the gospel of Luke, which usually presents its Gentile characters sympathetically.
Do we ever wonder why they react the way they do? Why the Gerasenes chase Jesus, with his power for good, out of their territory?
Could that be what they’re afraid of: Jesus’s power to free people – which is also, as we must sense, the power to change people. Maybe they can’t celebrate the healing of the man possessed, can’t celebrate what is, really, the liberation of the man possessed, because they’re afraid of what it might mean for them. What it might cost them. Maybe they can’t see that the benefits will far outweigh those costs …
Unlike the man himself who meets Jesus in the land of the Gerasenes.
He has been in this condition, the narrator tells us, a long time – literally, “an ample time,” “a long enough time.”
And what a terrible condition. He’s naked – which tells us a lot. We might imagine that he tears his clothes – or maybe people just can’t get close enough to him to dress him, to care for him – but this makes him exposed, vulnerable, and it separates him from the human world, from society. He’s been chained, bound, guarded, kept under lock and key – the people around him act like jailers. But when he manages to escape the chains and the shackles, he’s no more free. He’s driven by the demons – those emblems of the oppressive forces in our world – who control his mind and actions, into the wastelands in the area – empty, isolated places. He doesn’t live in a house – with other people, with a family, in a place of nurture and sustenance, but in “the tombs” –– the word literally means memorials or monuments – and not in a good way, but as the place of the dead rather than the living.
We think this human being, who’s been cut off from all the comforts of human life and denied the exercise of his humanity, desperately wants to be free. He comes up to Jesus, after all … although he, too, expresses fear – there’s so much fear in this story, seriously.
His fear is that Jesus is going to torment him. Maybe, torment is all he has known …
At least, it seems to be the human being who’s saying this, and who says “what have you to do with me?” or … something like that, he’s not speaking entirely clearly at this point. Then again, maybe it’s the demons, the oppressive forces, drowning out the voice of humanity, saying something like “mind your own business.”
It is Jesus’ business, though.
And at this point, Jesus listens. It would be easy to skip over this listening, on our way to the climax of the story, but that would probably be a mistake. Because this listening Jesus does, this probing conversation he has with this representative of humanity, or with the legion of demonic forces, or both at once, this brief but insightful interrogation, reveals a great deal. And this listening does, indeed, seem to be a component of Jesus’ power in this story; certainly it figures in how Jesus exercises his power in the situation.
Because the text tells us, he’d started to order “the demon” out of the man, this is what triggers that fearful exclamation of resistance. And Jesus seems to recognize then that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. So he asks questions and he listens. And then we might say he conducts a negotiation for the prisoner’s release – because now we learn that the demonic forces of oppression are many, and they have their own fears. They don’t want to be sent to the abyss, whatever that means, they beg Jesus for a substitute earthly host, which Jesus allows – it’s a kind of compromise which does, and this is the great thing, secure the liberation of this suffering human being. By shifting their frenetic compulsive destructive energy to that herd of pigs.
Some of us may feel a little sad for the pigs – but hopefully, we feel far happier for this human being, this person, this man, who now gets to take a calm breath, gets to feel some peace, can sit still to listen to Jesus, can once again enjoy the freedom and dignity of his humanity. This change in status really does qualify as liberation.
We see Jesus has the power to overcome fear and to free, and practically speaking, to bring this man back from what has been, in effect, a kind of death into the fullness of life. That’s good!
So it seems odd that the Gerasenes, faced with this power of life over death, this power to free people from bondage, this power to bring order to what had been chaos in the man’s life, would refuse to let it go any further. They see what’s happened, they see this man enjoying an experience of real peace and joy, and they are seized with fear – almost the way the man was seized by those demons – and they tell Jesus to leave the area.
Now the text doesn’t spell out exactly what’s going through their minds. We have to surmise, and that’s always a little dangerous, because it often says a lot about us, and what we think, and the assumptions we make about the world, more than it necessarily tells us what was actually going on in those Gerasenes’ minds and hearts. But I think it’s safe to infer they don’t see this liberation as an entirely good thing. Because if they did see it as something great, that they wanted more of, surely they would have wanted Jesus to stay on, to use that power some more … but instead they’re afraid of it, and want to get rid of it.
We thought the man was unfree – and he was. But now we have to suspect these Gerasenes are unfree, too, just less obviously – less obviously, most of all, to themselves.
Jesus’ exercise of power has changed things. There are no doubt some costs to that change. Someone is going to have to pay for those pigs, for one thing. That could be going through some Gerasene minds. More importantly, we don’t know what it will take to welcome and re-integrate this newly freed human being back into the community. Maybe some of those folks never liked him anyway. Others will have gotten used to relating to each another without having to consider that person, except to find ways to keep him out of the picture – chained up, out of sight out of mind. Now they’ll need to deal with him just like any other whole human being.
So, Jesus’ liberating power has disrupted the status quo. God alone knows what else Jesus might do here.
The Gerasenes don’t say “what have you got to do with us” – “mind your own business.” We aren’t told they’re living in the dead past of their memories and their monuments. They don’t announce their fear of some torment to come. But something makes them reluctant to risk whatever the changes that accompany liberation from bondage might bring. The Gerasenes may not even be “comfortable” with their bondage; they might be very uncomfortable – just, accustomed to it, enough to make them hold onto it, rather than welcoming this chance for more complete liberation.
In other words, while this IS superficially a story about the healing of a demon-possessed man, it’s also a story about freedom, and fear, and the connections between them. The fear of others’ freedom, and the fear of our own. And about power: the power to make free, and the power to pursue, or to accept, that freedom.
That makes this, ultimately, a story that can question us, about our own choices, and our own responses to Jesus, and to our neighbors.
That story seems particularly appropriate for today. In addition to being Father’s Day, or as the PC(USA) planning calendar would prefer, Men of the Church Day, today is also Juneteenth. As we probably know, Juneteenth is the anniversary of the last liberating announcement of emancipation, to the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, by Colonel Gordon Granger, on the 19th of June, 1865.
Actually, almost the last, because slavery was still legal in Kentucky and Delaware until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, December 6, 1865. And then, there were still other enslaved people in Indian Territory, who were finally freed in 1866. Still, Juneteenth is a big day in United States history and in the history of the progressively wider recognition of that inalienable right to liberty with which all human beings are equally, we believe, endowed by our Creator. After a long time, in fact, an ample, long-enough time, it was proclaimed a new federal holiday, “Juneteenth National Independence Day,” just last year.
But as I presume we all also know, from our study of history, not all the people of the United States have wholeheartedly celebrated that liberation. There have been a lot of Gerasenes among us, who have displayed that same fear, and that same reluctance to welcome liberation, and those same efforts to banish the power to free – which we believe is at root God’s liberating power – to the periphery of daily life. Foot-dragging in the wake of emancipation has indeed characterized us as a nation – and not only in the south. The more we investigate the specific commitments and practices that hold us back from celebrating that freedom, and from extending it, and from embracing a more complete freedom for ourselves and our neighbors, the more we realize that we can often have more than a little in common with the Gerasenes.
The perspective of this story seems, clearly, to be on the side of the liberated human being.
Jesus’ instruction to this newly-liberated person is instructive for us, as it must have been for his first disciples: tell people all the good things God has done for you. Publicize the good. The power to overcome fear, including the fear of freedom, grows from making known the goodness that comes from freedom. Telling that story. Overcoming people’s fear by whetting their appetite for the good.
Encouraging people to welcome liberation, and the change it brings, is also a practice of discipleship – an important one, it seems.
We probably know that when we ourselves feel oppressed, whether by external or internal forces, we can find healing in Jesus. That healing may take the form, practically, of the solace of community, or of having friends who care about us and steer us towards wise counsel that helps us expel or silence the destructive or self-defeating messages that keep us stuck in life-denying habits or commitments.
What we probably also need to know is how, in what way or ways, we still share some sentiments with the Gerasenes: how, when, where, are we reluctant to celebrate liberation, and to welcome it into our own lives?
Christ’s disciples have a share in Christ’s power and authority to respond to fear, and to liberate. If the disciples learned anything from watching this episode unfold, it might have been that exercising that power depends on listening, both to those who are in torment, and to those who are the compulsive and fearful agents of torment and oppression; it depends on listening, and on identifying options for change. And sometimes, proclaiming all the good things God has done for us has to come first.
Listening, and speaking out, and the wisdom to know when to do which, look to be three powerful tools in the service of human liberation. Let’s learn to use them, and let’s be alert for opportunities to share in that liberating work with the human beings we ourselves meet … and are.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Mosaic, exorcism of the Gerasene, unknown sixth-century AD mosaicist of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons