"What God Has Done"
During the Sundays after Pentecost, the lectionary gospel lessons focus on who Jesus is. In the past weeks, we have encountered some people who recognize and honor Jesus: a Roman centurion, a woman of questionable morals, and now a man possessed by many demons who lives among the tombs.
Hmmm…. Did you wonder? Are these the kind of people you’d expect a rabbi and his disciples to associate with? And how did they recognize Jesus for who he is, when the disciples and a lot of other people are confused?
Here’s the context. Luke tells us, “One day, Jesus got into a boat. He said, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake. He doesn’t really say why he wants to cross over to the other side. But they set off in the boat.
While they were sailing, Jesus fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. The disciples wake Jesus up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!”
Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves. They ceased, and there was a calm.
Jesus said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then, is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
The disciples still are not sure who this man Jesus is. Yet quickly they meet someone who knows exactly who Jesus is.
That’s where the story we just heard picks up, as Jesus and the disciples arrive at the country of the Gerasenes, which is on the opposite side of the lake from Galilee, in Gentile territory—not a place a Jewish rabbi would normally venture.
Once they get out of the boat, Jesus is met by “a man of the city”-- a young man who no longer dwells among the living in the local town.
It seems the people in the land of the Gerasenes didn’t want to associate with a man so possessed that they couldn’t control him. They had tried to protect him and themselves by binding him with chains, but that hadn’t worked. Eventually, the demons had driven him away from the community and into the land of the dead, and he was roaming naked among the tombs.
According to Jewish tradition, this young man was not only dangerous to himself and others, but religiously unclean, because he was possessed by an unclean spirit, living in an unclean place. As David Lose puts it, this is the very last place Jesus should be-- which, when you think about it, is where God often shows up. In moments of profound doubt, grief, loss, or defeat. And even among those who may have had little interest in God.
Luke tells us that after this encounter with the man in the tombs Jesus and the disciples sail back home again to Galilee, which seems that the point of the trip across a stormy sea was to meet “this unclean man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean and forsaken environment.”
This man isn’t looking for help. He doesn’t ask to be healed. But as soon as Jesus saw the man he knew that he was possessed, and he ordered the spirit out.
When he sees Jesus, this naked, unclean man falls down before him and shouts 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.
It’s a strange story. I can’t think of any other story in which demons were able to bargain with God.
The demons begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. Could they enter the herd of pigs that were feeding on the hill? Jesus agrees, and the demons came out of the man and enter the swine, and the herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and all the pigs drown.
I told you it’s a strange story.
The man has been released from the chains of possession. Like the woman at Simon’s house in last week’s gospel lesson, he is still at the feet of Jesus. But now he’s “clothed and in his right mind.” But the crowd that has gathered after they heard what’s been going on doesn’t rejoice. No. They’re afraid, and they beg Jesus to leave them alone.
What do we do with stories of unclean spirits and demon possession and deliverance? There are people in our world who continue to believe in the possibility of demon possession. But most of us don’t experience demons in the way they’re described in the Bible.
What I’ve noticed is that all the “demons” Jesus confronts in the gospel stories have a few things in common. They cause self-destructive behavior in the person. The person feels trapped in that condition. And they separate the person from living normally in the family and community.
I think for a lot of us, it can be helpful to understand “demons” as forces that have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be. Understood this way, demons can be a way of describing how it feels to be possessed and powerless by addictions or mental illness or anything that brings torment to individuals or families or communities. It could be a way of describing destructive habits or obsessions, overwhelming anxiety.
The way the gospels tell it, delivering people from demon possession is a central area of Jesus’ ministry. He encounters people who are bound, and he sets them free. It’s part of how Peter describes the Gospel message in Acts 10: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
At the beginning of this chapter in Luke, Jesus is accompanied by the 12 disciples and certain women “who had been cured by evil spirits and infirmities,” including Susanna, Mary Magdalene, and many others.
The gospel stories tell us that the people who are instrumental in Jesus’ ministry have been healed, set free, and delivered through their encounters with him. I think in our own time, many people are like the man in this week’s Gospel story: they’re oppressed or imprisoned by whatevertra degrades and demeans life—our lives and others… by whatever voices tell us that we deserve to be overlooked or silenced… all that convinces us of our unworthiness…all that keeps us from living as free and fulfilled persons. But then Jesus comes along and asks, “What is your name?”
The story we heard today isn’t just about an exorcism, but transformation. The man goes from being naked to being clothed… from being out of his mind to sitting at Jesus’ feet, in his right mind… from living in the tombs to preaching in the city and telling people how much God has done for him.
We live in fearful and sorrowful times. Last Sunday we woke to hear that a gunman had walked into the Pulse Night Club and killed 49 people and injured 53 more. A few days ago was the one-year anniversary of the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre, when 9 people were studying the Bible and praying when a white supremacist whom they welcomed into their midst shot them. Brothers and sisters--beloved children of God— were killed because of who they were.
When we tune into the news, we’re bombarded with bad news in our nation and around the world. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel trapped and hopeless about the destructive chaos we see around us.
Because they are our brothers and sisters, part of God’s family, we can’t turn our backs on the pain and suffering and injustice. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment is two-fold: to love our God with everything we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mark 12:28-31; Matt. 22:34-40) We can trust that Christ, who is our peace and has made us one, is breaking down the walls of hatred that divide us, and entrusts us to a ministry of reconciliation. (Ephesians 2:14)
The good news is that there is nowhere that is forsaken by God. There is no place God is unwilling to go, to reach and free and heal those who are possessed or broken or despairing. God loves all people: male and female, young and old, gay and straight; black, white, Asian, Latino, believers and non-believers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs… the list goes on. God loves the world. (John 3:17)
In the wake of violence and tragedy, I believe God is always among those who are in the greatest pain and need. This challenges us to prayerfully ask, “Where are we willing to go? Whom are we willing to love? In what ways can we embody God’s love to those in the greatest need?”
Friends, we worship an awesome, loving God. God is with us, working through us to seek out those in need, to share God’s grace and mercy in word and deed, and to witness to the hope we have in Jesus.
And that, my friends, is good news!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2016
 David Lose, “God in the Shadow Lands,” at in the Meantime. http://www.davidlose.net/2016/06/pentecost-5-c-god-in-the-shadow-lands/
 David Lose, “God in the Shadow Lands,” at In the Meantime.