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Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
2 pentecost, Proper 7C, 2019
The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo
Not a second passes after Jesus steps out of the boat onto dry land before a demon possessed man meets him. Everyone in Gerasa knew the man, and no one knew what to do with him. He wore no clothes. He made his home in the tombs and not in a house. His community tried to restrain him by binding him with chains and shackles, but that didn’t work. He always broke loose and ran out into the wilds. Something uncontrollable was at work in him. He had no power over it and neither did the towns’ people. The demon cries out to Jesus, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus Son of the Most Hight God?” This question posed at the outset of the story is the question that the story itself will answer.
Jesus asks the man his name. The reply comes, “Legion, for we are many.” If Jesus asked any one of us our name we would probably tell him the name we have been called all our lives: Betty, Tom, Susan, Bob, William, Abigail – a name like that. But what if Jesus asked you your name and your demon answered for you. What if you gave your name as “addiction,” or “cancer,” or “greed,” or “fear,” or “guilt,” or “perfection.” We all struggle with something. We all know what it is to do battle personally with a force that opposes God’s goodness and love. Indifference to these struggles, or denial of them can cause us to step back and give these forces more power than is theirs to have. This is when they may try to name us, when they may become not the thing we struggle with but the thing that defines us, or the thing that we are.
The man in our Gospel story is known as Legion. His demons define him. They are many. It seems that they are as many as a Roman legion which was 6,000 roman soldiers. What could and would one Roman soldier do against one unarmed person? How much more could 6,000 soldiers do? This is the enormous power of the force binding the demon possessed man. This is what defines who he is.
Gerasa where this story takes place was invaded by Roman forces. One thousand young men there were slaughtered, their families imprisoned, the city burned, and the surrounding villages attacked. It must have been horrific to live through. I imagine that anyone who did would carry deep in their bones the constant and intimate knowledge of the power of evil to maim and destroy. If you had this kind of knowledge what would it be like for you to see the Gerasene demoniac healed and set free? Might such an event suggest to you, that the power of God to heal is even greater than the power of an invading Roman Legion.
In more recent history, in 1960 In Sharpeville, South Africa 69 People were massacred during a demonstration against racial oppression. The police shot protestors in the back as they fled. Additionally, 180 people were injured, fifty of them were women and children. You might think there would be demons in that town among the tombs. You might think that demons with names like hatred and bitterness would have roamed those streets in the mothers and fathers left behind and that despair and grief might never take their leave of widows and orphans. You might think that such things would be passed down to future generations.
Yet when Pat and I worshipped in a church just a block down the street from the massacre site; joy, peace, and love met us the instant we set foot in the door. It appeared that the demons had been cast out years ago. I hadn’t been able to imagine the elation of African Anglican worship until I saw it for myself. The intonation of one note led to singing layered deeply with rich harmonies. Some people shouted for joy or rang cow bells or pounded drums. They all danced a lot. For example, when they processed the Gospel Book into the aisle for the reading of the Gospel, they could not contain their joy. They began singing and started pouring into the aisles and dancing, and this continued for thirty minutes. We tried to sway along but we could not entirely let go of our reserve and the same was true for the bishop who stiffly grooved over to us and said, “This is how we welcome the Word of God.” Imagine that! Thirty minutes of rejoicing just because the good news of the Gospel is about to be proclaimed. In fact, they had so much rejoicing to do in church that three hours could barely contain it all. After, the bishop told me that for enduring so long I was due a month of sabbatical and three years off purgatory; but I didn’t feel that I had endured anything. I felt more as if I had just bathed in the sea of joy.
But how does this happen? How does the bitter turn sweet? How does unbearable grief yield to unspeakable joy? What is the power that can set us free to move out of a hovel among the tombs into life among the living? We’ve all seen it. The addict on the edge of death finds freedom to return to life. The cancer patient comes to perceive the smallest of graces and to feel deepest gratitude for them. Generosity asserts its power over greed. The courage to act even when afraid drains fear of its power. Forgiveness overcomes guilt. God redeems one thing in a perfectionist’s life and suddenly they become able to see imperfection as something that is ripe with grace filled possibility.
Jesus sets foot in Gerasa and the demons cry out to him, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, the Son of the Most High God?” It’s quite clear what Jesus has to do with them. His relationship to them is one of power and authority. What the towns’ people of Gerasa could not contain with shackles, what the man possessed by Legion could not begin to fight on his own, Jesus overpowers simply. And just for good measure, so that we know the demons are not only cast out but also cast away, Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs that immediately rushes into a lake and drowns. The demons are gone, never to return.
This is an entirely strange story for us if for no other reason than that we would are not inclined to call another person demon possessed. We just don’t think that way anymore. Plus in the world of our imaginations, much with the help of Hollywood, we speculate that if there were such a thing as demon possession it would present itself in a supernatural, grotesque, terrifying way. But when we think of a demon as a spiritual force that opposes God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s peace, then we realize such forces are not otherworldly. They are right here with us. We don’t have to live in a small town in a Stephen King novel to encounter them. Nor do we have to live in Gerrasa and meet Legion.
We know what it is to feel powerless in the face of our weaknesses, and to feel powerless in the face of our nation’s and the world’s most complex and frightening problems. We see forces at work that oppose God’s goodness and love. We feel powerless but are we helpless?
This story intends to tell us that this kind of powerlessness is not helplessness. That help can come to us when it seems that there is no help in sight. That power lies in the love of God and that this power is always greater than anything that tries to oppose it. Will we welcome this power is the next question of the story. When the people of Gerasa saw that the demoniac had been healed they were afraid and they wanted to send Jesus away. Trusting and welcoming this power then becomes our challenge. Will we welcome the power of God compassionate and active in our lives and in our world. Will we welcome the power that can overcome all evil. What would it look like for us to welcome it, to summon it, to trust it?