Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 12C, June 19th, 2016
1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
You know what’s interesting to me about our Gospel story? There are lots of healings in the Gospels, and several other cases of Jesus or his followers casting out demons. And some of those healings and such take place, as this one, in Gentile communities. So it’s not the healing of the possessed man that catches my attention. Nor is it the question of whether the man actually had a demon, or whether it was some form of mental illness that they didn’t understand in those days. I’m not sure whether or not I believe in demons, but I do absolutely believe that if they exist, Jesus Christ can cast them out; and if it wasn’t a demon, well, Jesus Christ is absolutely capable of healing mental illness. So while some people get passionate about that question, I’m not one of them. And some people really feel for those pigs—either horrified that innocent animals were sacrificed, or upset about the financial loss to their owners. But the people in the story didn’t seem to care about the financial loss, so why should I?
What interests me about this story is the reason the Gerasenes get upset. They weren’t mad that their pigs had been killed. They weren’t happy that the man was healed. They were afraid because he was healed. They didn’t like it! You and I, we read this story, and we think, oh, wow, how wonderful! But the people of the town—the ones who had known this guy all his life, his family and friends—they didn’t think it was wonderful. They saw the man healed, and they were seized by great fear, and they asked Jesus to leave. They didn’t want his healing touch among them. They liked things the way they were, thank you very much. And if that was a terrible life for the man possessed by a demon, well, they didn’t care. They were quite willing to chain him down and keep him under guard all the time—and that couldn’t have been easy or cheap. But that was fine. They’d pay the cost, whatever it took, no matter how much it hurt him. But have him healed? No, that was a problem. To see him in his right mind, wearing clothes, ready and able to be part of the community? Uh-uh. No. That was frightening. That, they did not want. Or, at least, they might have said they wanted it, until they actually saw it right in front of their eyes.
The Gerasene reaction doesn’t surprise me, because I know how the mentally ill and disabled are treated in our own society today. The most popular option, by far, for how to deal with those who cannot take care of themselves for whatever reason is to lock them up and throw away the key. We’re kinder and gentler than the Gerasenes were; we lock people up in facilities with comfortable furniture and padded rooms and high doses of sedatives and antipsychotics, instead of binding them with chains and shackles and consigning them to live naked in the wilderness. But given options that will improve their health and quality of life, we generally choose not to use them, just as the Gerasenes sent Jesus away. Every study ever done shows that community-based care for the mentally ill and disabled—whether home health, group homes, or other alternative—is both better for people with mental illness and disabilities, and cheaper for the community. And yet, the only kind of care a lot of people want to fund is institutions that lock people away from the community. It’s the same with education. Putting children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms with appropriate support and accommodation so they can succeed is usually better for them. They learn more, both life skills and educationally, than if they’re off by themselves in a Special Ed classroom. And the other kids learn to be kind to those who are different. But there is strong resistance to programs that do that. Children with disabilities, adults with disabilities, the mentally ill. We’d rather lock them up away from the rest of the community than have them in our midst. We’ll pity them and use their stories for our own inspiration, but we don’t actually want to have to see them and deal with the reality of their lives on a daily basis.
I think it’s because we get uncomfortable with things that are different, especially things that remind us how much of our lives isn’t due to our own hard work and what we deserve, but rather to things we can’t control. We want things to be normal. We want people to be normal, too. Because normal is easy. Normal requires no thought, no special effort. When everything is “normal,” we can go through our lives quite comfortably without ever once asking any questions which might make us change our minds, hearts, or actions. But when we allow people who are different into our midst, we have to accommodate their needs, and sometimes change the way we do things. We have to build relationships with them that might change how we see them, and how we see ourselves. It’s a lot easier—and a lot safer—to not include them. To lock them away, chain them up, put them in special programs so we never have to see them or deal with the reality of their lives.
In Gerasa, they chained up the man with a demon. I don’t know how dangerous the demon was to them—maybe they had no choice. But I do know that in today’s society, we lock up the mentally ill because we think they’re dangerous, and every time there’s a mass shooting the first question we ask is “were they mentally ill”? This is despite the fact that virtually all mass shootings were committed by men who were perfectly sane, and that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than commit it. We are far more dangerous to them than they are to us … and they are the ones who get locked up. As a culture, we would rather make mental illness a crime than provide the resources and support they need to live decent lives.
So Jesus healed the man with a demon. His community had done everything they could to exclude and confine him, and Jesus freed him. Jesus freed him from the demon, and in doing so he got rid of any justification for them to mistreat that man. And when the Gerasenes arrived they saw the man healed, clean, dressed, looking “normal,” ready to rejoin the community. And that made them uncomfortable. That made them afraid. That made them want to reject Jesus, send him as far away as he could get.
They didn’t want the man healed, because then they’d have to include him. This man they’ve chained up for years, this many they drove out of their midst, this man they did terrible things to in the name of protecting themselves … now they’ve got to face him. They’ve got to deal with him. Now they have to face what they’ve been doing to him all this time, and ask themselves if it was really necessary or if it was just easier for them to make him a convenient scapegoat and shove him away. Their lives were comfortable, with him possessed. Nice. Predictable. And now that’s not true anymore. They would rather have easy certainties and normality than healing. They would rather have easy certainties and normality than the salvation and life that come through Jesus. If loving Jesus and hearing his word means accepting someone they have excluded? Goodbye, Jesus, don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. And it was probably made worse by the fact that that man—the man they’d excluded and hut, the man they wanted to keep possessed and in chains—was the man Jesus sent to proclaim the Good News to them. It wasn’t just, oh, sure, he’s not possessed anymore, so he can sit quietly in the back as long as he’s not too loud so we can continue to ignore him. No, that man had a message to preach, about what he had experienced. And it was a message they would rather not hear.
How often do we do the same thing? How often do we blame and exclude those who are different because they make us uncomfortable? How often do we as a community choose to exclude and demonize people rather than giving them the support and accommodations they need to be able to live whole and happy lives? I know that for mental illness, most people in North Dakota suffer without ever getting help, and if they do get help, it’s usually not enough. We don’t fund mental health; we don’t work to make sure we have enough counselors for the size of the population, we don’t make sure our teachers have enough training to spot and deal with problems before a child’s course is set. And then people turn to drugs and alcohol because it’s the only way they know how to cope. It’s easier to sit here and shake our heads and wag our fingers, and call the cops when things get out of hand, than it is to provide services and support that might actually bring some healing.
We worship a God who heals. We worship a God who casts out demons. We worship a God who comes to bring life, abundant life, abundant life for all—especially those we’d rather ignore or exclude or forget about. The temptation is always to be like the Gerasenes, closing our eyes to their needs and preferring normality to the possibility of healing and wholeness. May we, instead, be God’s hands and feet in the world, working towards healing and wholeness for all people.