Sunday, June 23, 2019

Proper 7, Year C, 2019 (Annual Church Picnic)
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Several months ago the vestry and I started looking forward to events for the summer time.  One of those was the Annual Picnic.  I asked our Junior Warden, Jeff, to book the park area where we normally have the picnic.  He came back with news that the dates were very limited due to other bookings, and we selected the one that worked best.  A few weeks ago Jeff and I were discussing what meat the church would provide for the picnic and we decided that Arkansas smoked pork was just the right thing.  It was all set.  We are going to be up at pavilion number two, on the cliff overlooking the lake.  We’re going to have smoked pork.  It wasn’t until this week I read our lessons for today and after reading the Gospel really saw God’s sense of humor at play.

While the coincidences are quite amusing, the story itself would have been rather terrifying.  Imagine if someone came running up to us all here today, naked, dirty, wild, screaming.  The possessed man isn’t just screaming nonsense though; he sees and knows Jesus to be the Son of God.  This passage is immediately after Jesus has calmed the storm and walked on water.  The disciples ask, “Who is this that the storms obey him?” and then it leads right into the demoniac knowing exactly who Jesus is.  While the disciples are struggling to understand who this is, the demons that possess this poor Gerasene recognize the Messiah immediately.

That recognition is one of the reasons why this story about Jesus isn’t just another healing story.  A lot of times in our Post-Enlightenment world, where everything must be rational and nothing is outside the realm of science to grasp, this story is dismissed as Jesus healing a mental illness.  Let’s be clear: Jesus heals the blind, heals the hemorrhaging woman, brings people back from death.  These events are called what they are.  It does us no favor if we say that the people of Jesus’ time just didn’t understand mental illness and had to talk about it in terms of demons.  That’s not what’s going on here.  This story is about real, evil, demonic forces possessing this man, and Jesus exerting his command over them. 

Yes, there is probably some poetic license being taken by the author of Luke.  The demonic entities name themselves as, “Legion”.  That word would have been instantly recognizable to the original audience of Luke’s gospel.  The first understanding is the size.  A legion is a very specific number of soldiers gathered together in a group.  A legion was nearly six thousand soldiers.  This poor man is practically bursting at the seams, full of demons.  The underlying word play is also that, by calling itself Legion, and by Christ exerting will over it, it’s a statement that Jesus is triumphant against the occupying Romans in a metaphysical sense. Every good story contains layers of meaning and inside humor, this is no different.  There are different scholars who offer many thoughts about the symbolism of the swine herd, from the animal standard of Roman divisions to simply connotating that it isn’t a place of observant Jews.  One could even spend time wondering why the demons choose to still dive to their demise in the lake instead of Jesus sending them back to the abyss.

While I may be pushing the limits of polite, modern, Episcopal sensibility by telling you that dark forces do indeed prowl the world and you do indeed need to remember that, I’m not trying to scare you or concern you.  The second piece of this is to know that Jesus Christ conquers these forces.  They are powerless and at God’s mercy to be dealt with.  We know that Christ is conqueror of all Sin and Hell.  But it’s not just that Jesus casts out these demons.  This story has a second half to it that’s just as important.  After the swine dive into the lake and drown….and let’s be clear that no one better go chucking any of our smoked pork into the lake today…people from the area start showing up to see what has happened. 

The people showing up presumably know the previously possessed man.  They probably know have seen him ranting, maybe helped restrain him with the chains, told their children never to go to close to the cemetery lest they encounter this creature.  The possessed man has been turned out of society, has been regulated to the edges of existence, has had his humanity, what little was left, completely denied by others.  So when these people show up and see this man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and seemingly in his right mind, they don’t know what to do with this.  They have removed this man from their lives, and now they confronted with his full humanity, his restoration to society by Jesus. 

This is the sort of thing that shows the values and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.  People are restored to their place among society.  The same thing happens with all the people that Jesus heals.  He turns the values of the society on its head by simply readmitting these people as whole and worthy members.  I know I’ve mentioned before I have a very visual imagination.  This story always plays out for me with the possessed man first running around naked, covered in dirt, hair knotted, ratty, probably have a few leaves or twigs tangled in, and then when he’s at the feet of Jesus he’s clean, nicely dressed,  his hair has been oiled and combed.  Imagine what a stark difference something like that would be to the average villager who had known of and seen the wild demoniac that prowled the cemetery.

This is all too much for the people.  They ask Jesus to leave.  The power they have seen is too much.  The values they hold have been turned upside down.  I think that’s a moment worth reflecting on.  Where do we find ourselves?  I pray that none of us ever have to experience being in the place of demoniac.  But what about the people that have seen something that’s too much.  What do we do with the power of Christ in the world, when the values of the Kingdom of God flip what is known and comfortable to us on its head?  Do we rejoice in the power of God’s triumph?  Do we want Jesus to just leave well enough alone because that’s not the way we’ve done things, or worse we have to see the full humanity in someone we have relegated to edges? 

This story is about acknowledging the darkest forces that prowl around us, and our victory in God whom we worship and adore.  Where do we find ourselves in the midst of the healing, the saving, and the blessing?  Can we rejoice when we encounter it?  Or will we ask Jesus to maybe take it somewhere else?