Friday, July 8, 2016

Pentecost 5; The Man Who Had Demons and Jesus' Healing

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:18-27
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Jesus’ Healing and the Body of Christ.

Today’s Gospel is a rich story, a story about healing and forgiveness.  It is a story about community and social isolation.  It is about forces, illnesses, powers—and we’ll call them demons—that separate us from one another and from God.

I want to work through the story carefully and talk about all the characters, because I think that in the richness of this story, we have an opportunity to see in a new way how God works.

Let’s begin with Jesus and disciples.  They travel to Gerasenes, a place opposite from Galilee.  They cross the sea in a boat, extending their ministry out of their home town.  When they reach the shore, Jesus is met by a “man who had demons”.  I think it’s important to see this wording.  The man is not a demon—he “has demons”.  We refer to people with illnesses or diseases this way.  He has TB, he has depression, she has Alzheimer’s, she has a skin disease.  The person is not their illness, but the illness enters them and takes control of some part of their body or mind.

And what happens to the man who has demons—he is excluded from his community.  He is from Geresenes, but he is forced to live in the tombs.  When he is suffering the demons, he is locked up, but with unusual physical strength, he gets out of his bonds.  He goes around naked, and certainly this will make him unwelcome in society.

When the man approaches Jesus he names him as the “Son of the Most High God.”  Jesus is recognized by the one who has demons.  This is important because we know that a theme in Luke’s Gospel is healing and inclusion of the most excluded people—the sinners (like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears in last week’s Gospel), or the tax collectors.  So here we have a man who is cut off from his community, and he recognizes Jesus as the Son of God. 

Jesus responds by asking his name, “Legion” for many demons had entered him.  It is interesting that one who is so isolated from community is named “many”.  In his name, the man is connecting his identity, his name, to the demons that had entered him.  He is saying that he is not alone.  The man is connected to others who are ostracized and separated from society.  He is connected to others who suffer from demons. 

I think about the people in my caregiver support group.  Many of the patients that they are caring for are suffering memory loss.   One of the features of memory loss is that people become isolated—they can’t participate in families easily, they can’t take care of themselves.  Because they can’t have logical conversation, they can’t follow the news, or books, gradually, they find themselves alone with their caregivers.  But of course they are not the only ones suffering this illness—they are legion.  Many, many families have someone who is suffering memory loss.  Likewise we might think about people who have cancer or other illnesses, who are isolated by their treatments.  But when they can’t participate in community or family activities, they might identify with others who have their same illness.  When we suffer mental illness, depression or anxiety, we might find ourselves unable to engage in community for a time.  But we are “legion” because mental illness affects many, many people today.

The man in the Gospel begs Jesus not to torment him because Jesus has commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him.  So on one hand the man has approached Jesus and recognized him as the Son of God—the one with the power to heal.  But on the other hand, he afraid of being tormented.   I think about people who suffer addiction and how they might have similar feelings.  On one hand, they would like to be free of their addiction, on the other hand it is very hard to let go of the addiction because it protects them in certain ways.  What role does the illness play in our lives, how does it become part of who we are?  How would we separate ourselves from our pathologies, our sicknesses, our troubles?  This is a tough issue to contemplate on our own—together we can ask how our “demons” protect us from other frightening issues.  Maybe when we focus on our illness, we protect ourselves from the fear that no one would notice us if we didn’t need care.  Or maybe when we are isolated by our treatment, or our illness, we are protected from the fear about bad interactions with family or friends.

And maybe the man who has demons is pointing to his own healing.  When he names himself Legion, he is identifying with others who also suffer demons.  Does he begin to address his isolation by noticing that he’s not the only one who is suffering?  And the torment that he fears is named as being thrown into the abyss.   The abyss is the place where the demons would be totally alone.  The demons beg Jesus to be allowed to enter into the swine.  Jesus gave them permission.

This seems to me an important detail—instead of commanding the demons to leave the man, Jesus gives them permission to go.  They enter the pigs and drown themselves.  Jesus the Son of God the Most High gives permission for the man to be healed, for his illness, the illness that has isolated him and kept him from society to leave him.  What does it feel like when God gives us permission to be freed from whatever is holding us in chains?    We have in the story, the man breaking free of his bondage with extraordinary strength because of the demons.  But the man is not freed when he breaks out of his bonds.  When the demons leave him and enter the pigs, he is freed because Jesus gave the demons permission to leave.  In our prayers, we might pray that our illnesses might leave us.  But I think more important that healing in a physical sense, in this story we might hear a prayer for release from isolation.  We might ask God’s permission that whatever is keeping us from being truly connected to one another and to God might leave us.  Can I let go of anxieties?  Can I let go of my resentments?  Can I let go of the rules that bind me?  What are the ways in which I’m being held back?  Can I have permission to let those things go? 

Next in this story we meet the swineherds.  They run and tell the people or Gerasenes that the man who had demons has been healed.  The people come to see this healed person and find him clothed and in his right mind and they become afraid.  What is frightening to the people of Gerasenes?  It seems that they are afraid, or awed by the power of this healing.  What has happened in this story—Jesus has brought the man back into society.  He is reunited with the community.  What made him a pariah, what kept him ostracized has been let go, and now he is part of the community again. 

And maybe this is an aspect of the lesson that we can explore.  How do we comfort ourselves by keeping some people “out”.  What if the ones who are unacceptable in society were allowed to rejoin us?  When we see people who are suffering mental illness, we shy away from them.  We would like them not to be out on the street, we would like people who are suffering addiction not to be sitting on the sidewalk and blocking our way.  Even illnesses like cancer or memory loss—it can be hard to be with people who are out of touch with the rest of society for whatever reason.  If healing is about reintegrating them, how is this a fearful experience for us?

When the people come to Jesus and tell him that they are afraid of this healing that he has done, he leaves.  Jesus does not confront the people and tell them that they are wrong to be afraid.  Instead he gets back in his boat and leaves them to themselves.  But the people or Gerasenes are changed.  Because of this healing, now they must accept the man who has demons back into their midst.    The demons have been released from the man, but the community is also freed in a new way.  The community has now taken the man back among them.  He is no longer living the in the tombs.

And so in this story we are given an opportunity to explore God’s healing work as emancipatory work.  This is a story about curing demons, but if we look at what Jesus does, we may understand a new way of healing for us as a community.    God steps out and reaches the most ostracized among us.  God asks, what is your name and in that dialogue the man knows himself to be one of many, not alone.  God gives the demons permission to leave.   And with that permission, the man is freed in a new way—instead of using his own strength to break free of the bonds, he is found again clothed and in his right mind.    The man who is healed wishes to go and become an apostle of Jesus, but Jesus is clear—the work that he must do now is the work of building up the community he came from.  It is his job to share the healing in spite of the fears of the people around him.

And so it is with us.  We have an opportunity to ask Jesus’ permission—let our demons, our illnesses, our pathologies, or whatever it is that is binding us up—let these demons go.  And when they do, we are called to share the new life, the Good News with others so that they too may find God’s healing here.

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