SERMON 6/23/19 Proper 7 Pentecost 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
Today’s gospel reading on the surface may seem like another simple encounter with Jesus. However, there is a lot more going on in this story. There is a man possessed by demons, the fear and anxiety of a village, a miraculous exorcism or healing, a porcine (or swine-like) tragedy, and the mission call of the one who was healed. Deeply embedded in this story however, if we listen closely, we may find we too need healing, we may experience renewed healing, and we may discover our true calling as Christians.
First, there was a man possessed by some force within (and/or without him), which caused him to behave in ways outside the norms of society. He was afflicted, as Scripture tells us, by Demonic possession, which has perplexed many scholars over the centuries. Some have said, “Demon possession was the first century equivalent of mental illness, and the person who was possessed by many demons was severely mentally ill.” (2) The demoniac was someone who needed to be healed by the grace of God in Christ.
Next, you have an entire village, whose fear and anxiety about the man’s unique ailment, caused them to cast the man out of the community and treat him as “less than.” Their treatment left him bound to perpetual incapacity, social insignificance, and possessed by a lack of wholeness. The villagers had some degree of emotional or mental impairment themselves and like the demoniac, they needed to be healed by the grace of God in Christ.
We all need Healing
How many of us need to experience healing? Most of us are not 100% whole, 100% of the time. Most of us have suffered or do suffer from some emotional ailments: sadness over the loss of ability to do what we used to do, anxiety over something happening in our work life, or maybe depression over a major unexpected life change. There are many of us struggling more than we want to acknowledge, accept, or address. Yet even when afflicted, we may forget compassion and empathy, then fear leads us to single out others who are different from so-called norms, and then isolate them from a community that is intended to be a place of grace and care.
The Suffering may cause Suffering
The ancient people in today’s story were not familiar with the science we have today about the human psyche. For instance, (at any given point) about 20% of Americans are experiencing some form of mental illness today, and at least 50% of these illnesses go untreated every day. The same percentage of people suffer from normal physical illnesses like the flu, or arthritis, or food poisoning. Yet, society stigmatizes people who suffer from these disorders, despite the fact that at any given point, most of us have walked this journey of pain. Those suffering, may be the ones, who cause suffering.
We are seeing a shift in our society like a time in our recent past. We are again shunning and labeling folks because they may be different, and by our actions, we cause suffering. We diminish the dignity of the diversity of God’s people, just like the people of Gerasene did to the poor man afflicted by his own demons. Listen close for the nuance and complexity of this gospel story, because in it we will find Jesus’ mission, and the church’s mission, which is to refocus our efforts on exorcising the demons that bind all people, and keep all people from what God desires for all of us.
The Spiritual Realm
On the surface the story seems “other worldly” or “spooky” or maybe a miraculous healing “fairy tale.” We want to both rationalize the man’s behavior we hear about in today’s gospel, and scorn the possibility that there is some connection to the reality of the spiritual realm.
Clinton Arnold’s Christianity Today article asserts, “Christians from other parts of the world—including Africa and Asia—have witnessed these phenomena and engaged in struggles with spirits.”(3) Why then do we dismiss the possibility of evil personified, agents of that evil, and the struggle between good and evil? We have no problem with the truth that God’s Spirit indwells in each of us and guides and nudges us to goodness, joy, and peace in our lives. However, the struggle within us makes us forget that sometimes the potential for evil, for creating suffering, injustice, and pain also resides in us.
At the heart of the gospel story today is that one person’s difference, one person’s uniqueness, caused an entire village to treat him as an outcast, and Jesus restored him back to the community, then sent him to bring healing to the community that cast him out. God desires for God’s people to be whole, and ultimately our own healing in Christ, will lead us into mission, so we might serve as the vehicles for healing in others.
The Exorcism, Healing and Restoration
When the Gerasene man saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me. “(4) How many of us, do not recognize that we need the spiritual healing Jesus provides. Jesus’ exorcism not only cast out that which bound the man and kept him from wholeness, but Jesus through that man would also cast out the indifference and prejudice of the villagers as well. Jesus knows we all need healing and we all need exorcism in our lives, in order to find the wholeness God promises.
Webster defines exorcism as adjuring (commanding) or getting rid of something troublesome. In our baptismal rite, we ask candidates/sponsors: Do you renounce: Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, etc. Exorcism as we know it does not include a rite of incantations and holy water to exercise a demon per se, but it is the sanctification God brings about, when we decide to turn from the forces that would turn us from God, and this is where our healing begins.
So, whether the Gerasene demoniac wrestled with personifications of evil or he suffered from mental or emotional ailments is not the point. Whether the demons literally left the man, ran into those poor swine that ran off the hill to their demise, is not the point of the story either. The point is that God in Christ works in us to make us whole, so we might become effective witnesses of grace in the world, sent out to restore God’s people (all people) from the abyss of pain, suffering, social disdain, and indignity.
Effective Witnesses and Workers of Grace
The Apostle Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We forget Paul’s words today, and sometimes we fail to be Christ’s vehicles of healing. We actually through inaction or actions, bind people into an abyss of oppression, violence, degradation, and inhuman treatment. Let me give you some examples.
God’s children, who by their own choice (right or wrong) have come to reside in this land, most running from circumstances none of us could ever imagine, and yet because of our fears and anxiety, we have created circumstances in which, they live as animals in cages. God’s people are suffering because of a status label we have given them, a label that thwarts the truth that we all are the common humanity that Paul described. God’s people are being possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity, and as followers of Jesus we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.
God’s people, people who have the courage to claim their true identity and orientation have been forever treated as “less than,” made to believe their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” infringe on the rights others, as if freedom were a pie and there were only so many pieces. God’s people are possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity and as followers of Jesus we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.
God’s people are made up of ethnic or racial diversity and beauty, but because the fear of the community, some people are treated as second-class citizens, made victims of violence, and treated as scapegoats for all that is wrong in society. God’s people are possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity and we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.
God’s people need medical AND mental health care, often beyond their financial means, and yet as a nation we fail to provide the resources to make possible wholeness, dignity, humanity, and healing for all people. God’s people are possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity and we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.
If there “are no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” then we have a lot of work to do my sisters and brothers. We Christians are not called to be merely a voice, or advocates for the oppressed, we are called to be thwarters of injustice. We have been given the God-given mission to bring healing action and wholeness to all of God’s people, to unbind the shackled, and to return the outcast to wholeness. As people who have been healed by God’s inexorable grace, we are called to be instruments of healing for all people.
Partnering with God
The Gerasene man wanted to remain by Jesus’ side after his healing. Jesus told him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” Our healing that began at our baptism is not for our benefit alone, but so we might be instruments of healing for others. People around us are still suffering from the “demons” of the spirit, the devils that bind them in the physical, mental, emotional and social abyss, but we who are here today have a healing story, and most of us can recall when Jesus met us in our pain, suffering, depression, anxiety, bad memories, (you name it) and healed us and restored us.
So, if we have been healed, then our faithfulness will not be measured by how often we gather at the Master’s feet to receive the benefit of his healing power. Our faithful discipleship will be measured by the courage we have demonstrated by going to tell the good news, going to be the good news, and going to bring the good news to others. Our faithfulness and healing will be demonstrated by how we (like Jesus) exorcise the demons of oppression and hatred, made possibly by our work to restore dignity, justice, and healing to all people.
The point of today’s healing story is this, the Gerasene man was healed, then he “went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him,” and brought healing to the same village that had cast him out; the healed became the healer. My dear sisters and brothers, we are called to be like him and so, Jesus commands us who have been healed, Go, “return and declare how much God has done for you.”
(a) https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers (2)http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_modern_demons_depressed_and_dysfunctional.htm
(3) Arnold, Clinton E. “Exorcism 101: What Can We Learn from the Way Jesus Cast out Demons?” Christianity Today, vol. 45, no. 11, Sept. 2001, p. 58
(6) Wainwright, Jones, Yarnold, Bradshaw, 133.