GOSPEL Luke 8:26-39
Jesus’ mission includes foreigners, and his authority extends to the casting out of demons. Some who witness Jesus’ work are seized with confusion and fear, but the man who was healed is commissioned to give testimony to God’s mercy and power.
26Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As 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. 28When 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”—29for 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.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now 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. 33Then 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.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then 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. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
37Then 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. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“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.
Several of my colleagues across the country have reported that they received pushback this week for daring to speak the words white supremacy in the prayers of the church. “How dare you politicize the gospel!” “Don’t bring that stuff into church!” “We run the risk of offending members with that sort of language!”
These are just a few of the comments made to Lutheran pastors in the last week.
In our epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul names the deep divisions of his society — between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male, and female — and names the truth, that in Christ these divisions are to be overcome. Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people and shut us in just as surely.
The demonic are those powers and forces that work against God, and God’s good creation. The forces don’t usually show up in supernatural forms or with mystical dimensions of terror – but present themselves as something sympathetic with our needs or a solution for the desperate. A scapegoat for our fears and anxieties. A distortion of reality that consumes and possesses a person. Starting with a small divergence from the course, a veering of road from the way of God – when the forces of evil begin to try to convince you that there’s no way you can get back on track – or that the road you’re on is actually the real way.
“Think of how addiction overwhelms individuals and families; how racism shape-shifts over time between explicit and implicit forms; how anger consumes; how envy devours; or how sexism creates pervasive cultures of degradation. We may or may not call addiction or racism “demons,” but they are most certainly “demonic.” They move through the world as though by a kind of cunning. They seem to resist, and sometimes co-opt, our best attempts to overcome them. And as we make those attempts, the experience can be less like figuring out an equation and more like wrestling with a beast.” (the salt project)
While I work to be anti-racist and I am aware of my privilege in our society as a youngish, cisgender, white female, it is also generally my job and my calling in the church to name sin and name demonic influences and proclaim that the church of Jesus Christ stands firmly opposed to those things. Because judging by the state of our country, we need to be reminded of that as often as possible.
All the same, as the church does Jesus’ work, it is also good to remind ourselves as often as possible that we are not Jesus. There are things we have gotten wrong, as the church. The church has participated, unknowingly or unwillingly or perhaps with full cooperation in the demonic forces that cut people off from community, and focus on differences and distinctions and labels, rather than diversity, inclusion, and the gospel of freedom.
Juneteenth celebrates both the historic emancipation of the slaves in our country AND the ongoing struggle of people in our country for freedom and LIFE. Pride Month celebrates the ongoing struggle of people in our country for freedom and life itself. These are life and death matters – not simply rainbows and parades and protests. Between health care inequalities, gun violence in communities and racially motivated violent crimes – our black neighbors die at higher rates. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider, make a plan for, and attempt suicide versus their peers. These are death dealing forces. Jesus stands against death dealing forces and we must stand with Jesus.
Back in the Gospel of Luke, the disciples have already had a brush with death dealing forces in this chapter. As they crossed the sea into the gentile territory of the Gerasenes, a violent storm cropped up. The chaos of open water, and unpredictability of the weather out there is a regular image in scripture, recalling the power of death and chaos that still reigns in our world. The disciples feared for their lives in the face of such power, and Jesus rebukes both the wind and the water, calming them instantly and then casually asks the disciples where is their faith? Is their faith in the power of chaos and death? Or in the power of God?
Jesus stands firmly on the side of life and freedom, wherever death dealing powers and demonic forces make their stand. He stands with both judgement and mercy. He sees the possessed man as a person, and not just another bad actor. He asks his name and as only Jesus can do, sets him free.
Together, these texts recount the journey of faith from bondage to freedom, from separation to unity, from death to new life. True freedom in Christ frees us from what has bound us – then binds us together as siblings in Christ. Amen.