Fear Divides, Love Unites
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
First Presbyterian Church | Auburn, AL
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 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. 28 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"— 29 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.) 30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 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. 33 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. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 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. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 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. 38 The 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.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
In 2018, 17 out of every 10,000 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness - over half a million people. And according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the ones most likely to experience chronic homelessness are also struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, a physical disability or — quite often — some combination of these.
In today’s gospel story when Jesus asks the man for his name, he says, “Legion” which means, “many”. Many demons. Many trials. Many years of being ostracized from his community. Many reasons to be suspicious of anyone who might cross his path. The man’s affliction is complex and it’s clear that over time, the people of his hometown have dealt with him by not dealing with him, relegating him to the tombs with no clothing, chained down away from “polite society”.
Six summers ago I led a group of college students on a mission trip to Washington D.C. and the primary focus of our trip was understanding homelessness in a new way: not just “how can we help?” but why does it happen, who does it happen to, and what a Christian response looks like.
On this trip, most of the people we encountered on the streets were treated similarly to this man. Their demons were many, their stories complex, and no two stories were exactly alike. “Legion” for some of them was made up of a troubled childhood, a couple of bad decisions, and shockingly expensive rental rates in D.C. “Legion” for others was the combination of mental illness, little access to healthcare, and a substance addiction. No one issue could be pointed to as “the” cause of homelessness for any of the people we met on this trip.
But they were treated similarly. Rules were enforced in the areas we toured that had been put into place to keep them chained away from the rest of us. The individuals who had been homeless for awhile knew which spots were OK to linger in for a few hours and which ones to avoid. In certain locations they were barred from sleeping or asking for help. The official word from the D.C. Business Improvement District discouraged anyone from offering money to someone asking.
In this story as Jesus approaches the man, there’s no need for introductions. The man recognizes Jesus immediately. But did you notice what he says to him?
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
Some have claimed that the demons are the ones doing the talking here, scared because they know Jesus is about to drive them away. But I think it’s just as likely that these are the man’s words. He’s been sentence to a life of isolation, why wouldn’t he think Jesus is here to torment him, just like everyone else he’s encountered in his life?
“What are you going to do with me?” the man asks. And then Jesus does something no one has ever done - he helps him.
On that same DC mission trip we met a man named David, who was not homeless, but spent most of his time with those who were. He had once lived in one of the expensive brownstones on Capitol Hill but now shared a small apartment close to a church where he coordinated a free breakfast and bible study for any and all who showed up each day. He got to know their names and their needs. David was not Jesus, but the way he approached individuals that most people wanted nothing to do with was Christ-like in every way.
Throughout Luke’s gospel, the coming of God’s kingdom consistently looks like the upheaval of social arrangements that have long allowed the powerful to ignore the cries of the poor. Luke’s gospel is “the peoples’ gospel” and in it, Jesus’ ministry repeatedly breaks down barriers and challenges the status quo.
In this particular story, the man who was once chained down naked and kept guarded away experiences life-changing grace and compassion. In offering him help and healing, Jesus sends a message to the Gerasenes that nothing is beyond the redemptive love of God.
So, it makes sense that once the man has been shown such love that he would never want to leave Jesus’ side again. Now that the shackles are off, the last place the man wants to stay is the community that for years has treated him so poorly. But instead, Jesus informs him, he now has a responsibility to this place.
“Return to your hometown and declare how much God has done for you.” Jesus says to the man. Become a witness. Tell your story. Let people hear about how down and out you were and how it was Jesus who crossed over the boundary set by society and how God’s grace became the bridge that brought you back to life.
One of Henri Nouwen’s most famous books is “The Wounded Healer”, in which he explores the idea that it is through our wounds that we ultimately relate most clearly to one another and the God who redeems us through Jesus. The “good news” we share can often best be shared by telling the stories of our scars alongside those whose wounds are still open, offering them hope that one day they might not be so raw . These stories of redemption can become our greatest sources for testifying to how God has been at work in our lives.
In the case of our mission trip, one might think that the wounded were the homeless, and that in this story it’s them who would be called to testify to how these nice Christians fed them breakfast and spent time with them discussing Scripture. And perhaps that might be true for some of them. But just as powerful an experience to me on that trip was the witness David offered us. His demons weren’t mental illness or homelessness but the experience being overwhelmed in a corporate world that taught him his life was all about professional success and financial gain. That world had isolated him from who God was calling him to serve and be in his community.
The grace David experienced was the courage he received to cross over to the opposite side with Jesus and offer those shunned by their own community help, compassion, and dignity. Then, instead of leaving Capitol Hill, he stayed to tell his story and declare how much God had done for him.
Each of our stories is filled with a legion of layers - but the God who comes to us in Jesus sees right through all those layers and knows us only as beloved children. When we become recipients of that love, we owe it to the world to testify to the life-changing power of God at work in our lives. To take the stories of our transformed wounds to those whose lives are bound by forces they so often cannot control.
When the chains that had once shackled him were finally broken and the demons cast out, the man did not flee the city but instead went straight back into it. And instead of using this as an opportunity to shame those who had treated him so terribly, instead his message was one of joy — telling them what Jesus had done for him. I like to imagine that the next time someone came into their midst plagued by demons, this man’s story would cross their minds and help the Gerasenes respond not by bringing out the chains, but instead with the same humanity Jesus offered.
This was David’s story. Instead of becoming bitter over the wounds inflicted upon him in his previous life, he freely shared the story of his transformation with all us visitors coming to learn more about the plight of homelessness in the U.S. And instead of giving us instructions on how to practice compassion, he simply showed us by doing the same thing Jesus practiced in his ministry: approaching the ones deemed “dangerous” by society, treating them with respect, and offering them a reason to believe that someone saw them as worthy.
There is no way of knowing this, but I believe that at some point, if not already, one of those men or women who received David’s kindness is now telling the story of how they experienced God’s grace in the compassion of a stranger. And perhaps their witness will continue to spread the good news of the God we know in Jesus Christ, wounded healer, Son of the God Most High.