Healing a Legion of Demons
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
June 19, 2016 Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 46; I Kings 19:1-15; Galatians 3:26-28; Luke 8:26-39
The shooting in Orlando is still ricocheting with confusing questions and contradictions. Was it an act of terrorism or was it the act of one very troubled young man? Was it a hate crime against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, or was it an act of outwardly projected self-hate by a man who was ashamed or afraid of being gay in this society? Was it an attack on America by an Afghani radical Muslim, or was it an explosion of pain from a victim of racism, bigotry and bullying who felt America never embraced him as he longed for it to do?
All that we know for certain is that he was a hate-filled, violent man, with demons that drove him to boast falsely of terrorist connections and to beat his wives and to threaten to copy other mass shootings and finally, tragically, to fulfill that threat.
The world has changed in many ways since Biblical times, but we still have people like the man with many demons in the gospel story, people who are driven to hatred and violence that they cannot contain. We still have a social system that divides Jew and Greek, male and female, rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, just as Paul had in his day. We still can say with the Psalm, “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter.”
The good news is that while we still have the same troubles we also still have the same source of help.
God is our refuge and strength,
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea….
As some of you have heard, the Rev. Alan Parker died suddenly this past week at age 64. He grew up in Danbury, and was the pastor of the Craftsbury church. He was a strong leader in the Vermont Conference, and many across the state are grieving the loss. One of the things going around on email as we try to comfort one another is a quote by the Vermont writer and preacher, Frederick Buechner, who said, “The grace of God means something like…: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.”
Confronted with a national tragedy or a local one, we look for comfort, we look for meaning we can still make of life, and we look for a way through life that can overcome, by God’s grace, the demons of divisiveness and violence and hopeless despair.
We are here today because for almost 2000 years Christ has offered comfort, meaning and a way to people like us. Christ leads to the vision of oneness that Paul expressed, saying “you are all children of God.” Christ leads us to the outer and inner peace the Psalm expressed, saying,
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear
and burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!’
The gospel of Luke expressed the comfort, meaning and way of Christ in the highly symbolic story that we heard today. On the surface it portrays the miraculous healing of a man who was possessed by demons and driven to violent self-destructive and anti-social behavior. The story shows Christ’s power to heal and bring peace to the most troubled hearts. That hope comforts us when we are hurting. The story also shows us a way to serve like Christ to bring the same healing and comfort to others, which gives our lives the greatest meaning they can have.
There is even more to the story, though. The first clue that the gospels are working at a symbolic level comes from the geography. Jesus crossed the lake to the Gentile side. The realm of God he was working to establish was not for Jews alone. He wanted to heal all divisions, restore to beloved community all outcasts, and make all on earth one.
Another geographical hint of symbolism is that the town where the story takes place is thirty miles from the Sea of Galilee, and yet the story takes place on the seashore. The choice to make the possessed man a Gerasene was a stretch that had to be intentional, and it links the man to a town with a history as violent as his own.
Not long before the gospels were written the people of Gerasa rose up and captured a group of King Herod’s leaders and killed them by drowning, a detail echoed in the drowning of the herd of pigs in today’s story.
Then during the Great Revolt of the Jews against the occupying Roman army the Roman General Vespasian sent a legion into Gerasa where they completely burned and plundered the town and executed one thousand of its young men.
The earliest readers of the Gospels would think of these recent stories when they heard that the man was a Gerasene. That association would be clinched when the demons identified their name as “Legion.” Legion was a word brought over into New Testament Greek from Latin, and it had only one meaning. It meant a large unit of the Roman Army.
The possessed man is a symbol for his invaded and oppressed homeland. He has no clothes, like the naked landscape after the scorched earth policy of the Romans. He lives in the tombs, like the survivors of the Roman invasion living in a bloodstained land of ghosts. The symbol on the flags of the 10th Roman Legion that occupied that area was a boar, so the image of the herd of pigs rushing into the lake to their death was transparent, and if that wasn’t clear enough, the gospel story uses military words to describe the herd and the way they charged the lake.
The possessed man kept breaking out of his chains, as the Gerasenes and many other Jews kept rising out of their oppression to strike back. And yet the only one the man hurts is himself. His violence is futile.
The lesson of the story on this symbolic level could be summed up by the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy…. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
People tried to control the man with violence, but that made his demons only stronger. The Jewish revolt tried to drive Rome out with violence, but that only brought down upon them the brutal massacre of their young men and the destruction of their homes. Violence only multiplied violence.
Jesus came along with another way. He came with compassion and love. He came with the courage to name the truth. He came willing to expose himself to condemnation and rejection if that was what it took to break the cycle of violence and restore people to sanity and unity.
The conclusion of the story is that the man is clothed and in his right mind again, he has become still and knows God, and he begs Jesus to let him be his disciple. Jesus tells him instead to return home to be reunited with his community, and spread the word there of what God has done for him.
The gospels give us permission to read this story on many levels. On a personal level, if we have confusion or fear or hatred or violence in our own hearts, or if we feel like strangers in a strange land in our society, we can find comfort in the assurance that Christ, the Prince of Peace, can heal us and help us find our place within our society. We can find meaning in the struggle to overcome the demons within and around us. We can choose the light of Christ’s love as the way out of darkness.
On another level, we can look at a society that has produced the violence of one mass shooting after another, and produced the fearful, hateful racism and bigotry that have attacked one group after another, and we can find comfort in the assurance that Christ gives us the power to heal whole empires. We can find meaning in serving as instruments of peace. We can throw ourselves more completely into the way of Christ’s love and little by little transform the world into something more like God’s realm.
The church is a source of hope to us because it works for the good on both the personal and social levels. It helps us be still and know God, it heals us, it welcomes us no matter who we are or where we are on our journey and gives us a place in our community, taking “the love we find here out into the world around us” as our Identity and Aspiration Statement says. The Statement ends, “We dream of being a church that shines like a lighted window into the community, a beacon for social justice, increasingly engaged in works of mission and widely known for generously serving those in need.”
We can find meaning in this church’s role as a leader promoting healthy communication and beloved community. We can find comfort in the Christ-like powers of healing and forgiveness we have been learning to wield. We can rejoice at the mastery we are gaining of a whole new way of being and set of tools we can use in church, at home and everywhere else. Each time we have the courage that Jesus showed to step into a violent or unjust situation and work like him to heal and restore it to peace and health, we are doing something real to prevent future Orlandos.
William Vories was an architect and Christian missionary in Japan in the early 20th Century. He wrote our next hymn, Let There Be Light, Lord God of Hosts. I will end the sermon by reading the last three verses.
Within our passioned hearts instill
The calm that endeth strain and strife;
Make us thy ministers of life;
Purge us from lusts that curse and kill!
Give us the peace of vision clear
To see our brothers’ good our own,
To joy and suffer not alone:
The love that casteth out all fear!
Let woe and waste and warfare cease,
That useful labor yet may build
Its homes with love and laughter filled!
God, give thy wayward children peace!
Healing a legion of demons in the world begins with peace in our own heart, in the stillness where we know God and we know our true oneness with all people and all God’s creation. So let us be still now and allow the rhythm of our breath and the letting go of our thoughts open us to Christ’s loving, healing touch. Let us pray in silence…