Preached this morning at Boonville Presbyterian Church. The text for this sermon is Luke 8:26-39. Readers will notice some overlap with this week’s Bible study discussion.
I’d like to start this morning with a brief exercise in imagination that will help us set the tone for our gospel reading:
Imagine, if you will, a graveyard on a dark night. Thick fog winds its way through the tombstones and obscures anything more than twenty feet away. Off in the distance, you can hear a wolf howling at the moon. Bats are flying over your head. Thinking at first that you are alone, your stomach jumps when, suddenly, a human figure appears out of the fog, walking toward you. There’s something strange about this person: something about the way he moves or the look in his eyes: something sinister, something inhuman, something evil… and he is getting closer!
Now, you might be curious why I’m describing a scene that belongs in a film by Alfred Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan. I begin with this little vignette because I want to try and establish the mood for this passage. When we hear the same Bible stories year after year, it can be easy to overlook the emotions that run so deeply beneath the surface of the text. In case you couldn’t tell from the spooky scene I just described, the primary emotion being communicated in the beginning of this particular text is fear.
The author of Luke’s gospel sets the spooky tone by laying cultural clues that readers in our place and time might not be able to detect. We heard first about tombs and evil spirits. Most of us can probably understand how those things could be spooky. But what about the pigs? There’s nothing inherently frightening about pigs! Well, in Jewish culture, pigs were considered to be ‘unclean’ animals. In the Torah, observant Jews are forbidden to eat pork products. With that commandment came a cultural stigma around swine. Good Jews never raised pigs on their farms and they avoided contact with pigs whenever possible. While our contemporary society (as a whole) does not have an official system of ritual uncleanness, we do tend to associate certain animals with certain rituals. For example, Reindeer are associated with Christmas, Turtledoves with Valentine’s Day, and creepy-crawlies like bats and spiders with Halloween. The presence of these animals triggers certain associations with specific emotions. If you put bats and spider webs into a night scene of a movie, people know they’re supposed to be scared. It’s the same scenario with today’s gospel reading.
So the scene is set. I can almost hear the theme music from the movie Psycho playing. The narration could be read by Vincent Price.
The action begins as Jesus takes his disciples to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, into a region called the Decapolis, which was populated by non-Jews. This was a frightening prospect for any Palestinian Jew at that time. They were traveling beyond the pale of their known territory and venturing into a land populated by people that Jews associated with invasion, oppression, and evil. They were leaving a society defined by their own culture and religion and entering foreign territory. They were crossing some very clearly defined boundaries between “us” and “them” in ancient Jewish society. Jesus’ disciples had no idea what to expect from this experience. They were consumed by an intense fear of the unknown.
These strangers in a strange land have their fears confirmed initially as they encounter exactly what they expected to find in foreign territory: evil and insanity! But Jesus remains unphased by this dramatic display. In an equally dramatic display of miraculous power, Jesus casts the demons out of this tortured soul and into the nearby pigs.
There is much that could be said about exorcism itself at this point, but I would rather us focus on what is taking place relationally between Jesus and this person. What Jesus does is separate the problem from the person in this situation. The evil that the disciples so feared has been condemned and destroyed, but the person has been healed. This person, who was “demonized” at the beginning of the story becomes “humanized” by the end.
After the Legion of demons has left the man, we are told in verse 35 that he is “sitting at the feet of Jesus”. While this might not seem like a big deal, let me assure you that it is a very big deal. In ancient Jewish culture, to “sit at the feet of a rabbi” was to become a disciple or student of that rabbi. By placing the man in this position, the author of Luke’s gospel is trying to tell us that, not only was this man delivered from the power of evil spirits, but he (a non-Jew!) was welcomed as a disciple of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi. This would have been unheard of at that time. More than this, we read at the end of the story that Jesus “sends” this man back to his own people with instructions to tell others what has happened to him. In a way you could say that Jesus ordained this man as the first apostle to the non-Jews! Isn’t that amazing? The very person, who was once a deranged foreigner, has now been accepted into the community of disciples and then sent out to carry the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. From the disciples’ perspective, he went from being one of “them” to being one of “us”.
When I look at the world around us, I cannot help but notice that there are still a lot of “us and them” divisions taking place. We still like to draw lines in the sand and divide ourselves into categories based on race, gender, politics, religion, etc. We tend to think that this world would be better off without “those people” (whoever “they” are for “us”) messing things up for the rest of “us”. What we fail to realize in those moments is that we diminish ourselves when we let our fear of the unknown lead us to “demonize” those who are different from us. If we keep drawing line after line in the sand, we will eventually find ourselves very much alone in this world. What we so desperately need is for the Spirit of Jesus to work another miracle and separate the people from the problems in our hearts and minds. Only then can we embrace the truth that our differences enrich us.
The apostle Paul put it like this in his letter to the Ephesians:
“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:13-19)
The struggle for inclusion and equality is ongoing in society and the Church. A few years ago, a friend told me about a woman he knew who desperately wanted to gather with us for worship at St. James Mission. However, she was unable to do so because of a paralyzing fear. You see, this woman is Roman Catholic. Years ago, she attended a wedding at a Protestant church and was summarily excommunicated by her priest. She is now afraid to attend any Protestant services for fear of being excommunicated again. Likewise, I am sad to say that I still encounter Protestants (even pastors) who refuse to recognize their Catholic sisters and brothers as “real Christians”. When will we stop allowing our fear of the unknown to lead us into drawing lines in the sand between “us” and “them”? Didn’t Paul say that Christ had “broken down the dividing wall” and made us “one new humanity” and “members of the household of God”?
Still, in spite of the long journey ahead of us, I can see signs of hope even now. During the last century, prophets like Martin Luther King opened our eyes to the point that the vast majority of Christians now embrace the truth of racial integration. In most mainline denominations, women have begun to join their brothers in the ordained leadership of the church. The Ecumenical movement has paved the way for Christians of various denominations to come together in celebration of the truth that we are all sisters and brothers in the household of God.
I can see one such sign of hope in this room right now: An Episcopal priest leading worship for a congregation of Presbyterians! Not long ago, this would have been impossible. Our ancestors in seventeenth century England (called Anglicans and Puritans) fought a bloody Civil War over the differences between our respective traditions. Yet, just over 300 years later (which is not that long in the grand scheme of things), here we are this morning!
Friends, this is a cause for hope and celebration. What this says to me is that Jesus is still working in our lives to separate people from problems in the Church and society. Little by little, our lines in the sand are being washed away by the incoming tide of God’s all-inclusive love. To be certain, there will be difficult days ahead for all of us as we wrestle with questions of biblical and constitutional interpretation. Our fear of the unknown will almost certainly tempt us to draw lines in the sand between “us” and “them”. There will be times when each of us will be tempted to demonize one another and say, “We would be so much better off without them!”
Friends, let us resist that temptation (and the fear that goes with it). Let Jesus lead us into this spooky and unknown territory. Our eyes have only to behold as the people we once thought of as deranged strangers turn out to be fellow disciples of Jesus. Once we learn how to work out our differences in that Spirit, we will truly be ready to do as Jesus said: return to our homes and declare how much God has done for us. Amen.