*Sermon of 23 June 2019, preached at First Christian Church of Hampton. Feel free to comment on the sermon, which speaks to a text that has challenges for us in our contemporary understandings of both evil and of mental health. Alienation and loss of sense of “self” are in play and something to which most, if not all, of us can relate at some point in life. If anything calls us to compassion, it is this. Up front, I do not try to solve it all, as no one sermon even of indefinite length could achieve, but like most sermons… to give a place for reflection, for conversation, for permission to speak openly of those things which imprison and harm the spirit of people. Door is always open as well as all those “electronic” means of contemporary communication. Blessings in Christ, Vinson
Gospel of Luke 8:26-39 (New Revised Standard Version
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 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. 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”— 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.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 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. 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. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 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. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “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.
Jesus asked him, “‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” It isn’t his true name, but one descriptive of his present existence and what has become of him over an unknown span of time. To the contemporary readers of the Gospel of Luke, this name would have been highly descriptive of the magnitude of his woes, a Roman legion being some 6,000 men. So when he says he is Legion, it’s his way of saying, I have been overrun, divided, separated, fragmented and fractured. I am disrupted and overwhelmed; my life is broken into 6000 pieces.
We know nothing of what life he had once lived, what his work had been, who is loved ones were… or are. We only know his life is in 6,000 pieces and he is vulnerable, naked, exposed, and unclothed. He no longer lives in a house in the village, but in the tombs. He is both alive and he is dead.
Like the pain scale that doctors have us use during visits, I would imagine that most of us have been somewhere on the scale of disintegration and disruption, at some point in life, amid loss, suffering, disease, depression, or just having way too many things to manage that it’s overwhelming. Maybe we’ve been at a 3 or a 6. Maybe we’ve been an 8. Legion is at a 10. He is lost to himself, even to the point that a sense of individual identity has been overshadowed.
WHY DO I BRING THIS UP?
Could it be that this story, this event, is about finding one’s identify again having had it stripped away by illness? It is about when someone ceases to be who others think or even want them to be, and becomes the person God intended?
There’s much complexity to this text from Luke, who wants us to absorb a number of lessons and observations, I think. This journey across the Sea of Galilee, to the land of the Samaritans, is the only foray Jesus makes to what would be considered a truly non-Jewish land, a trip that only see one life changed – and yet sends that person forth as a witness. But first, they must get there, and in the preceding verses to our reading, they sail into a storm, awaken Jesus to lend a hand, with him rebuking the wind and sea that it would calm, and him chastising them as to their lack of faith – this first instance of Jesus having “power.”
They land upon a shore of several hundred yards looking up at cliffs: a place of caves, many used for burial of the dead, this shore three years before Luke would write his gospel, being where a Roman legion would slaughter some 1,000 rebels in the first Jewish Revolt, before laying waste to the nearby villages and all their inhabitants. It’s a somewhat parched and desolate place, even today. Here it is they encounter the man who calls himself Legion.
I believe that any understanding of what takes place has to be viewed through Luke, chapter 4. Immediately upon the conclusion of Jesus’ temptation in the desert by a devil, coming to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus opened Isaiah and read [Luke 4:18-19]:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“Release to the captives,” is a constant and recurrent theme in Luke, and Jesus power over demons is one sign of God’s kingdom breaking into human history. However, in our age, we’re not so sure what to think about this talk of demons, if we’re honest. Is there evil in the world? Yes. We know that is true, but how to describe it? I know I’ve encountered it in people, and at times I’ve come home and told Julie that I met someone and felt its presence. And, every time, that same person, often until then highly regarded, was in the naval brig within the week for horrific crimes. I’ve been in places where I could sense the presence of evil, and several times, been asked to do something about it. One military hospital had a history of suicidality among its military personnel, that IG investigations could never sort out, but which ended abruptly after a walk of prayer and scriptures read, late one night. I was even shoved in one home, as a cold presence exited a room and the lights then brightened, amid prayers and scripture reading. In quiet conversations with clergy friends, many have also had such experiences. Yet, more often, these same pastors agree that evil presents itself more in line with the best translation of what gets rendered as the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden story: “The Confuser.” – Often less recognized, but just as destructive, “The Confuser” is a spirit that sets people against one another. It might be in the form of a stealthy agitator, or a chronic complainer or nitpicker who continually sows seeds of discord, or who instigates a “let’s you and him/her fight” game, all of which is the opposite of God’s Spirit that builds community and trusting relationships. So, if I am a logical, well-educated person, I must affirm that there is also indeed evil in the world. There is a malevolence – clear at times, yet also sometimes well-camouflaged — that very intentionally dehumanizes, demoralizes and strips away one’s sense of self-worth, destroys identity, and denies both dignity and safety. YET, despite evil’s “tricks,” it remains incumbent upon us to recognize Jesus has authority over it and our faith can embolden us likewise.
As for this situation described in Luke, however, I also must acknowledge that in olden times and sometimes even now, mental illness was confused with “possession” of the spirit. In looking at the description of the man as it compares to the current psychological Diagnostic and Statistical Manual standards, I have to wonder whether that is the case here, in this tortured man, whom others had sought to “manage” and, failing that, had instead then chosen to confine,– with only mixed success.
But, whether we are talking about evil or other destructive powers — or when we are talking about mental illness – in either case, it is the experience of dehumanization and loss of identity that is worthy of the compassion of Christ – who was sent “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s no wonder, then, that the word used in verse 36 of Jesus having “healed” the man, is frequently used in Luke and translated as “saved” – because being saved from such turmoil is restoration indeed. Jesus cured not just the disease itself, but the larger illness of being isolated– restoring him to his community. I sometimes think that self and societal isolation is the most dire plague of our age. It is no wonder we see so much mental illness, and anger, and high rates of self-injury these days.
If Jesus comes ashore into the land of Legion, he comes at the behest of his Father, as a rescuer to ALL mankind. To the downtrodden, the incarcerated, the isolated, the ill, the disillusioned, the lonely, the anxious, and the struggling, Jesus brings understanding and THE presence of unity, wholeness, and integration – the true image of who we are and who we can become, as those created in the image of God, something which can neither be lost nor destroyed.
If Jesus comes unafraid of the tombs in which this man lives, he brings a peace that is not repulsed by the man’s nakedness or appearance – seeing beyond chains and shackles, unchallenged by the guard – for Legion has no authority over Jesus.
If “…the man 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?’”– it should reassure each one of us that even if one is experiencing Legion’s sense of being lost and broken, something remains that can recognize the divine one who saves. Even amid this chaos, in spite of what gets covered over or denied or forgotten – Jesus is the truth-teller of who we really are and gives us back to ourselves. Christ reveals the original beauty of our creation, standing before us with a truth that challenges us where our lives have become fragmented and distorted, in the ways in which we are not true to ourselves, and in the times when our identity has been lost and shattered.
If the same folk who had him bound in leg irons and chains, and had placed him under guard… which he had broken and freed himself from… weren’t excited for him – it is the reminder to the rest of us to make way for those who have been healed. They, after all, had known who he was, where he lived, and had devoted time and expense to control him. People and communities learn to live with brokenness in others, they get used to it, they normalize it, they may isolate it, but for sure, they will go about their own business… their own lives… as long as it’s “over there” and out of mind. This is what societies do, that is what we do, if we are honest. We fill the prisons with such, offering no way back. We institutionalize and we marginalize. We keep the healed at a distance, an impediment to reintegration. It’s just easier. But Jesus crosses the sea and comes to our shore, healing and thus upsetting things, disturbing what has been accepted and challenging us to SEE people.
Let’s be honest, Jesus meets this man in the barren places of life and circumstance, an alternate reality of a man convinced his name is Legion, when Jesus knows otherwise, It is because Jesus knows a truth: THE truth about him that the man cannot know for himself, a truth that returns him to himself. No wonder then that he is found by the crowd seated at the feet of Jesus, the posture Luke specifically uses for those who are more than just followers, but among the select group of disciples of Jesus. So if the crowd asks Jesus to depart, he now appoints this healed man, as one of their own, to “declare” and to “KEEP. ON. DECLARING.” what GOD had done for him!
At some point in life, we may well know what it is to be Legion. Some more than others. It is our story, and yet there is that counter story of how our life was put back together, how we were given back ourselves, and how we were seated at the feet of Jesus. I don’t know what in your life has shattered you, or caused you to say “I don’t know what has come over me.” Or, “I’m just not myself today.” Anxiety-laden thoughts course through our minds with conflicting thoughts and voices, and we can lose our bearings. It is, as another has observed, “a place and time of separation, loneliness, and isolation. We are exiled from ourselves and each other.” I know when I have been there, life has been shattered, and I have felt like Legion.
It is to this very place Christ comes. This is the Gospel story, and the call as discipleship when Jesus says: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Let our grateful voices loom large as we proclaim the good news that Jesus has rescued all believers from chaos and to stand with others in their experience of being Legion!