Sermon for June 24, 2007
based on Luke 8:26-39
I still remember, after many years, the day I opened a door and entered Ward 7. It was called "Women's Locked" -- and it was part of the mental health care facility in Cherokee, Iowa. This was part of my training to be a pastor. some students go to nursing homes. Some go to hospitals. I ended up (with several others) in Cherokee. It felt strange, that first day, to walk in and hear the door close, and lock behind me. I had to remind myself that I had a key. And it felt strange because I saw things -- and heard things -- that had been outside my experience until that day. Oh, it's not that I had never encountered mental illness before. I had seen the bag ladies on the bus, and the people who hng out at hte bus depot, using newspapers as blankets. I had worked downtown, and on occaison I would walk by someone talking to himself or herself, in a loud voice. And of course, I had heard of people who were a little "touched" (as they call it) -- sometimes because of sad experiences they had had. I had heard of one man, a WWII vet, who couldn't keep the seasons straight and hwo wore a heavy coat in the summer, and sandals in the winter. But these were things I always saw out of the corner of my eye. I was simply an observer of human nature then. Now it was another story. I walked into the ward, and I thought I had entered another country. And I also knew that this time I wasn't simply an observer. No, I was there to engage in conversation -- to a certian extent, to develop relatinoships. But that wasn't easy to do. Because, I'll admit it: I was afraid. I wanted to keep my distance. I didn't wnat to be touched by the women of Ward 7.
I wonder if this is how Jesusand his disciples might have felt when they first entered the land of the Gerasenes. First of all, they were in Gentile territory -- a strange and unfamiliar country for them. It was a land of unclean animals and a lan of unclean people they were stepping into. And then -- one of their first sights upon entering is thisw wild man who has been living in the tombs. He runs up to them and falls at Jesus' feet, and he even knows Jesus' name! That has to be disturbing to the disciples, who I imagine, like me, want to keep their distance. Even the people who know him, the people who live in the city, want to keep their distance. this man isn't just a little "toched." He is out and out crazy.
A bible study group last week flat-out called the story "weird." I suppose that they were talking about the herd of pigs, and their untimely demise. A Jewish audience might have thought this stor funny -- or apt. The unclean animals receive the unclean spirits, and are destroyed. but certainly to the swineherds who witnessed the event it wasn't funny. It was frightening.
Frightening too is the man himself. He is filled with demons. When asked, he says his name is "Legion." But what does that mean? Luke's readers would have understood a "legion" in terms of the Roman army -- a legion contained 5,000 - 6,000 men. and they would have understood hte compariosn: just as the Roman legions were occupying Palestine, so was this man Occupied. He had been taken over by another Power -- and not for good. Like those haunted by war, those marred by childhood experiences -- he is occupied by forces that are bent on destroying him. He is "touched." And no one wants to touch him.
But what is the most frightening thing of all in this story? Is it the sight of the man, running through the tombs? Is it the sight of the herd, going over the cliff? No, it's the sight of the man, clothed and in hisw right mind, sitting at thefeet of Jesus. When the people of the town see this man, formerly filled with demons -- now touched by the power of Jesus -- they are sezied with a great fear! -- and they ask Jesus to leave them. Here they see this hopeless case of a man, formerly shunned and kept away from the community, and he's clothed and tlaking and he's even making sense -- and the result is that the people are so afraid of Jeuss that they want him to leave. Which he does. Kind of. But we'll get to that.
To me, that's the most puzzling aspect of the story. I can't for the life of me figure out why people would witness this spectacular healing, this spectacular display of power, and then ask Jesus to leave. what's wrong with THOSE PEOPLE... is what I want to say. Aren't they happy that this man is put right? Now he is not longer "touched" by demons -- he has, instead, been touched by Jesus, and the people seem to be happier with him as a crazy man running around naked, someone they old shun, and lock up, and talking about, saying, "I'm not perfect, but at least I'm not like him." You see, they want to keep their distance. -- they don't want to be touched. Just like me -- and the women of Ward 7 -- women's locked.
thinking about my own experience, I think I understand a little of what the townspeople feel when they see the formerly possessed man, now perfectly sane and sitting with Jesus They used to be able to keep him separate, keep him at a distance, and believe that they were different. He's crazy, we're not. He needs help, we don't. He's homeless, we're not. He's poor, we're not. He's 'legion', occupied by the forces of evil. He's a sinner -- we're not. That's what they have been able to say to themselves. They have been able to keep their distance. they haven't been touched -- they haven't touched him. and that's all right with them. Because they are allowed to keep their illusions about themselves.
Oftentimes when we confess our sins in this place, we use this phrase, "we are in bondage/captive to sin and cannot free outselves." do we really know what we are saying when we say these words? We are saying that we are occupied by a power which is bent on destroying us. And that is true of us as individuals, and as a community as well. It might be easy for us to see this in the lives of those bound by poverty or homelessness, fear or loneliness. It might be easy for us to see this bondage in the lives of those "touched" by war, or disease, or abuse. And it might be easy for us to see this bondage in the lives of those whose personal choices have been different than our own. But the truth is, we are not so different from the wild man, who was haunted by demons. We too are in bondage to sin... And if we allow ourselves to be touched by him, we might come to realize that.
If you think about it, it's not such a surprise that the demon-possessed man wants to leave his life behind and to with Jesus. The surprise is that Jesus tells him, "no." Jesus tells him to stay behind where people are sitll afraid of him, and be a witness to what God has done for him. Jesus tells him to stay among the people who might still think he's a little crazy. He is to stay and witness to the power of sin -- and to the power of God. He is to stay and be the presence of Jesus for them and the power of God touching their lives.
That first day I came to the Locked Ward, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't sure how to approach another person. I didn't know what to say. I was afraid. But a young woman there approahced me, and sat down to talk to me. She treated me as if I were her pastor. she talked to me about her life, and aobaut her fears, about what it was like for her to live in this place. I'll be honest -- at first, she didn't make much sense. but she approached me every tie I came on the war, and after awhile, I learned to hear her, and to understand her. I understood there was a connection between us. We were two sinners, bound by sin, forgiven by God. We both had fears, we both had hopes. We both had experienced failure, and success, love and sorrow. I had been touched by her life -- and by others.
I used to go to a certain nursing home about once a month, and do a church service there. I would pray and sing and play the piano, read scriputres and give a short message. I noticed the first time I was there, a younger woman sitting next to a very old woman, singing ad worshiping with her I found out at the end of the service, this was one of my parish members. she came out to be with her mother-in-law every week. At the end of the service, the veryfirst time I came, she introduced herself to me, and she gave me a piece of advice. She said, "Don't just conduct the worship service and leave. Take time to touch them. You need to touch them. They need to be touched." So, on her advice, I went around to everyone there, and introduced myself, and shook their hands.
"You need to touch them. They need to be touched." This could be said of all of us -- homeless and living on the street, lonely and looking for community, hungry and looking for ameal to share, grieving and living among the tombs. The truth is -- we all need to be touched. We all have fears that bind us, and forces that occupy us, and sins that cling to us. We need to be touched and we need to touch others -- to tell them that god is with them, to witness to the love that will not let us go, but walks right into the cemetery to set us free from sin and death.
"Go and tell others what god has done for you," he tells us. If we do, people might think we're a little crazy. But that's all right. We need to be touched. By Jesus. and by one another. AMEN
For two other takes on this text, see
What's the Buzz?
A New Order