Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old
Was strong to heal and save;
It triumphed o'er disease and death,
O'er darkness and the grave.
This is the classic structural opening of a lament Psalm. It begins with reminding God of what happened “back then” – back when God showed power and strength. In a lament Psalm this would be followed by asking “Where are you now God?” I know that I’ve been asking the question “Where are you now God?” this week in the wake of the shooting at Pulse in Orlando which left 50 people dead (including the shooter) and another 53 seriously injured. Where were you God? Where are you now God?
Make no mistake, the actions of Omar Mateen were not of God. They were the actions of a troubled, sexually conflicted man from a traditional Afghani culture – a culture where shaming your father by admitting you are gay is worse than death and masking your suicide by cop under the guise of a pseudo-religious martyrdom is imaged as the only way out. God was not in the actions of Omar Mateen no matter what some Christian extremists want to say.
I can say where God did show up. God showed up in the long lines of volunteers willing to donate blood. God showed up in the police officers, medics, doctors and nurses who cared for the injured. God showed up for those who claimed the dead and comforted their loved ones. God showed up here at Grace Church on Monday for candlelight Compline and prayer and again on Church Street in Frederick where I was privileged to stand with religious leaders from the UCC, Unitarian, Jewish and Muslim communities – all standing together to support the LGBTQ community and commit to ending gun violence. Our gospel reading today reminds us there is no place at all where God will not show up and no limit to how far God will go to heal us.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac is told in all three synoptic Gospels with some minor variations. Luke closely follows Mark’s telling of this story. Jesus crosses over to the region of the Gerasenes, across from Galilee. He is squarely in Gentile territory – an “unclean land” according to Jewish tradition. He is met by a man possessed by demons, a state of ritual uncleanliness. Luke tells us he is often naked and according to Jewish law, looking on a naked person makes a person ritually unclean. In other words, God in Jesus is showing up in all the so-called “polluted” places!
Jesus attempts to cast out this man’s demons and they respond by naming him as “Jesus Son of the Most High God.” Naming is powerful. It is an attempt to gain control over another. Notice how the demons know exactly who Jesus is and in many of these stories, they attempt to gain control over him by naming him as “Son of the Most High God.” Jesus responds by asking the demons’ name and the reply is “Legion” – a reference to the size of a Roman army unit numbering between 3,000 and 6,000 soldiers. This man is possessed by countless demons.
In our enlightened, scientific modern culture, we often dismiss demon possession as something from an ancient time – Stone Age people trying to explain mental or physical illness. Surely we are past that, aren’t we? Well, no … no we are not past that and we are fools to think we are. We, both individually and as a culture, are possessed by demons – and make no mistake, they are legion. Here are just a few:
- Violence is one of our demons. Our violence explodes in words and actions – in our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, on our streets, in churches and nightclubs. It also manifests in our addiction to war. My children, who are now in college, have only known our country as one at war – they have no conscious memory of our nation at peace. Violence possesses us – it is a demon.
- Fear is another demon. We are afraid of people who are different – whether they are immigrants, ethnic/racial minorities, or LGBTQ. Fear is the demon which drives our xenophobia, our homophobia, our transphobia, our cultural misogyny. It feeds the demon of our violence.
- Selfishness is another demon. We are quick to demand our rights for what we think is our due but divorce those rights from responsibilities towards the greater good of the community.
- Avaricious greed is another of our demons. Putting corporate profits ahead of public safety and the good of the community intersects with our selfishness to place a price tag on our lives and commoditize our worth.
It is, though, right into the midst of this polluted mess that God shows up in the person of Jesus. At the request of the legion of demons, he orders them into the herd of swine (yet another unclean element in this story). Now in seminary, we remember this as the “deviled ham” story – and we hear the swine rush into the lake and are drowned. The symbolism of the unclean animals becoming clean in their death by water would not have been lost on Luke’s audience, although we tend to feel sorry for the pigs today.
We now hear that word gets out and the people come out to find the formerly demon-possessed man clothed and in his right mind – and this terrifies them. What seems to be great news of liberation is terrifying to the people. Why? Well, likely they have spent years using this guy as their scapegoat, writing him off as some crazy so they didn’t have to look at their own sins. Now that he’s been healed, who will the people hid their sins behind? This healing destabilized their ability to make excuses.
We Christians live in a paradoxical reality for we are both the demon possessed man and simultaneously through our baptism we are received into God’s grace and called to be healers and reconcilers to continue the work of Christ. How can we do the latter if we are the former? Let me suggest the key lies in the pattern of what Jesus does in the story. First he finds out the names of the demons. If we refuse to name our demons, both the individual ones and the corporate ones, we will remain bound to their powers and react out of them. This only perpetuates the demonic activity and its destruction. We too need to name our demons. I’ve given you a few to consider today and naming them is the first step to being healed of them. We need to know and acknowledge them before God in order to face them honestly. When we do, we allow God’s power to enter our lives, especially through this community here at Grace and the Sacraments of the Church, to release us from them. This is the liberation and transformation which Christ promises to all of us and there is no limit to how far God will go to find us and set us free.