Holy Trinity, Year C, June 23, 2019
Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The man possessed by the demon had two problems: First and most obviously, the demon. The demon—or legion of demons—who tormented him and possessed him and led him to hurt himself and prevented him from living any kind of life. The second problem was the community of people around him, who were more interested in trying to control him and avoid him than they were in trying to help him.
People are afraid of those who are different, especially those who are mentally ill. This was true in Bible times, and it is still true today. People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crime, but still when we hear of a terrible crime like a mass shooting, we assume the perpetrator must have had a mental illness despite the fact that they’re almost always perfectly sane. We turn old insane asylums into haunted houses and horror tours, scaring ourselves with stories of the creepy people who were confined there in days past, despite the fact that virtually all of the horrors in such places were done by the doctors and nurses and guards, not the patients themselves. But it’s easier to lock up or shun people who are different or mentally ill than it is to love and support them. In general, it’s easier to use other people as scapegoats than to face the dark things in us and our society.
So it should not surprise us that the man possessed by demons in our Gospel reading had lived with a terrible choice: he could be chained up, or he could be homeless, living outside society in the cemetery. His own people didn’t want to give him any kindness or help. Either he was bound up like a prisoner, despite having done nothing wrong but be sick, or he was shunned and excluded and left to fend for himself in the graveyard. Those were his only two options, and both were pretty terrible. As far as we know, he had never hurt anybody, or done any damage besides breaking the chains they put on him. And the demon possession would have been horrible enough on its own, but the only things his community did were to make his life more painful than it had to be.
And then Jesus came. You know, it’s funny, but in the Gospels the people who are most likely to know who Jesus is are the demons? The religious leaders in society didn’t; even his own disciples only occasionally showed any awareness of who Jesus really was. But the demons knew, and were terrified. They were terrified because they knew Jesus would not leave them alone. They knew Jesus came to heal the people they tormented. They knew they could not continue on hurting people if Jesus came near. And so too, this demon was afraid. And it was right to be afraid of Jesus.
Jesus asked the man’s name and healed him, cast out the demons so that for the first time in years the man’s mind was his own. He took a bath and got dressed. He could talk without the demon speaking for him. He was saved. Not because he was anything special or good or unique, but because that’s what Jesus does: Jesus saves people from the things that torment us, whether that is demons or sin or illness or injury or hunger or any other force. Jesus came to bring good news, to release those held captive, to liberate those oppressed, no matter who or what is holding them down.
And the people of the town, the man’s family and neighbors, came and saw what had happened. They saw him safe, and sane, and whole, and free. And they did not rejoice. No, they were afraid. They were happier with him sick than healthy. They were afraid of change. They were afraid to welcome him back among them. I am sure that at least some of them loved him and were happy, but most of them were not. Like an alcoholic’s friends who would rather he continues to party than get sober and recover, they liked the dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns they were used to better than a new and better way of living.
In this story, the demons of the Legion are afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast them out. The people of the town are also afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast demons out. It’s not that they like the demons, but rather that they’re used to them. They’re used to fearing and being suspicious of the man who had been possessed. They’re used to being able to do terrible things to him and telling themselves that he deserves it. They’ve spent years locking him up and abusing him and ignoring him and his needs whenever possible. They don’t want to have to look him in the eye and account for how they’ve treated him. They don’t want to welcome him back and make him part of the community. They don’t want to change. And so instead of letting Jesus cast out their sins as he cast out the demons, instead of allowing him to heal them of their pride and fear and resentment and selfishness as he healed the man of his demon, they attack Jesus. They cast him out. They don’t want to change, even if that change is for the better. They are more comfortable with their sins and their demons than they are with being healed and saved. And so they try to kill Jesus.
This is another thing that hasn’t changed since Jesus’ day. We still do not want to change even when that change would be better for us. We would, by and large, rather stay in familiar-but-unhealthy patterns than open ourselves to the saving and healing power of Christ in our lives. And most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that’s what we’re doing. Do you think the people of that village were honest with themselves about why they drove Jesus out? I don’t. I bet they made up all kinds of reasons. Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus was an evil magician, and that’s why he had power over the demon. Maybe some of them convinced themselves they were mad about the money lost by the pigs’ owners. Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus came to town to destroy their crops and livestock and getting rid of the demon was just a side effect. Maybe some of them convinced themselves of other reasons I haven’t thought of. But the fact is, it was seeing the man—their relative, their neighbor, a man whom they should have loved and cared for but chained up instead—that made them fear Jesus. And so they cast Jesus out rather than letting him heal them, too.
Some people, reading Bible stories like this one, argue about whether the demon was a literal evil spirit or just some form of mental illness. I don’t know that it matters. What matters is this: there are things in us that hurt, there are things that destroy the good life God meant for us. And sometimes those things are present in individual people, like in that man, and sometimes those things are present in communities, like in the community that did not want him to be healed. And whether those things that hurt us are demons or illness or social forces or our own habits, God has power over them and can heal them.
Some of that healing takes place in the here-and-now. Sometimes miracles happen; sometimes God works through medical professionals and therapists and medication. Sometimes forgiveness and spiritual healing take place even where we think nothing good is possible. But sometimes we have to wait. Miracles don’t happen on command; they don’t happen every time we want them. If so, the community would have been healed of their fear and anger instead of casting Jesus out. I don’t know why God doesn’t heal every wound in this world right now with a snap of his fingers. But I do know this: there will come a time when Christ will come again, and the dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and everyone and everything will be healed and made whole, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.
I don’t know when that will happen, but I have faith that it will happen. I have faith that even when healing is not possible in this life, it will come in the next, and God’s power will triumph even where hope seems futile. And I also have faith that God put us here for a reason. I have faith that God is working in us here and now, that even though there are times when healing is not possible now, God is at work. Even though there are times when we reject Jesus, God is still at work. Even though we turn away from God’s gift of healing, even though we so often prefer the fearful life we are used to over the grace-filled life of freedom God offers, God keeps coming to us and offering healing and forgiveness. Thanks be to God.