Sunday, June 20, 2010

Proper 7

Luke 8
26They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes,[a] which is across the lake from Galilee. 27When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" 29For Jesus had commanded the evil[b] spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. 33When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39"Return home and tell how much God has done for you." So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

Teenagers are either aliens from another planet or the only modern example of demon possession.

Okay, teenagers are an easy target: one day you have kids and everything is fun and nice and the next day this strange creature is in your house, eating your food, and occupying your child’s room.

If they are aliens, their planet is far away. Sleeping all the time can only indicate traveling many light years to reach our world. Or maybe it’s coming from some alien time zone, if aliens even have time zones.

If it’s demon possession, you might get the occasional glimpse of the actual child, because even demons need a break now and then. Demon union rules. Maybe there will be a candid moment when the child says “I don’t know what got into me,” and your search for the truth is getting closer. Or maybe they will do a Flip Wilson (without knowing who Flip Wilson is) and finally tip their hand by saying, “the devil made me do it.” You have all the proof you need.

But then they grow up, and you wonder if you imagined the whole thing.


I’m never quite sure what to do with demons in scripture.

It’s tough to know what to say. It’s tough to preach something that has moved from the spiritual realm to the scientific realm, never to return. Nowadays we have Wikipedia, and a quick look at the entry for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (standard reference of the American Psychiatric Association) led to a page on ‘psychosis’ which led in turn to a page on ‘hallucinations’ which led to this definition:

Hallucinations may [include]…more meaningful experiences such as seeing and interacting with fully formed animals and people, hearing voices, and having complex tactile sensations.

30 seconds, no medical degree, and I’ve diagnosed the Gerasene demoniac.

Which brings us a measure to comfort. It brings us a measure of comfort to take everything that hints at Jesus’ unusual relationship to the natural world and set it aside. It moves into the category of archaic belief, along with the ‘flat earth theory’ and the quest for alchemy.

And this is progress, I suppose, but the kind of progress that makes me feel a little sad, and the text a little diminished. It not that I want to return to a flat earth, or ascribe to God the things that we now know properly belong to us. It just seems a little sad.

We are left with other options. We could go with allegory instead, imagining that the passage has symbolic meaning—if we can find it. Maybe the demon possession represents the human condition, or some kind of profound loneliness. Maybe the demons represent some long neglected need that is seeking to get out and be heard. Or maybe not.

We could go with Karl Marx and an economic interpretation: the demoniac is actually a ‘wage slave’ alienated from meaningful work, and maybe the loss of all those pigs represents Jesus triumph over the ‘owners of the means of production.’ Or maybe not.

We could look at an inter-religious angle, with Jesus’ journey into Gentile territory ending in a mixed way. Targeting the pigs, and allowing them to drown, reminds us that Jesus was Jewish and carried his Jewish assumptions with him on this early mission trip. It would take a few decades of negotiation before any sort of compromise comes regarding unclean things and the early church.

There may more ways, but none of the above seem to capture the passage and allow it to speak.


Speaking of teenagers, you may have discovered the one effective way to break through the alien/demon mystery and truly understand your child: and that is through conversation. It might sound a little sneaky, but I have discovered that if you talk to them long enough, they let things slip. A word here, a tone there, a bit of information divulged even before they know they’ve said it. Sometimes it’s just in the topics they bring up, and the kinds of things they are thinking about, that give you a window on their alien/demon world.

So too in scripture. Jesus loved to have extended conversations. And we are blessed with several of these recorded in scripture: the woman at the well, with the adversary in the desert, and here with the Gerasene. In each case, the conversation reveals much about the life of the person before Jesus, the nature of Jesus ministry, and the needs of those looking in.

The first and most startling is the question of Jesus’ identity. The demoniac recoils in terrors and says “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” How is it that the disciples struggle to understand Jesus, the crowds struggle to understand Jesus, but the demons get it. Here are a couple more:

Mark 1.24b: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
Mark 3.11: Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God."

However you conceptualize the demons, whether they are allegory or symbol or motif, they understand Jesus as a mortal threat, the very opposite of whatever purpose they have in the world.

The next conversational lesson speaks to compassion. Confronted by demon voices, Jesus begins with the question, “What is your name?” Only Jesus would undertake this mission of casting out demons and try to get to know them. Luke says, “The demons begged Jesus to let them enter [the swine], so he gave them permission.” Again, to the demons Jesus is a mortal threat, but to Jesus, the demons deserve some understanding, some compassion, and even the opportunity to perish as pigs rather than return to the abyss.

The final part of the conversation, the ‘next steps’ part of the conversation, follows the very understandable desire to stay with Jesus. The new former demoniac wants to join the growing crowd of disciples and followers, leave this place, and begin a new life. But Jesus has another purpose in mind for him: “Return to your home,” Jesus says, “and declare how much God has done for you.”

There is a little twinge of the unfair feeling here, the culmination of dramatic encounter that would seem to logically end in setting aside whatever life he had to follow Jesus. To the Garasenes, this man was a terrible nuisance, escaping his chains and having to be captured again and again. It stands to reason that would want to make a new life.

But God has another plan for the former demoniac. This man’s very existence is a testimony to the things God is doing through Jesus, and ‘taking him on the road’ would make him little more than a footnote in the annals of a healing ministry. He could follow from town to town, telling people that he was formerly possessed, and some may even believe it. But back home, in the very region where he was tormented, his life becomes an ongoing message.

And here is where the conversation continues. Most of us, and I hope all of us, can name things God has done in our lives, and things God is doing each day. The Spirit moves among us and reminds us of all the things God has done to create this community of faith, to strengthen our life together, to give us comfort and hope. But we don’t take it on the road. We remain here, in this town, to declare to the people of Weston what God has done for us.

God invites us to make our lives an extended conversation: to pray and praise God, to talk with Jesus each day, and give voice to the Spirit of hope and compassion, now and always. Amen.


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