For the victims of Charleston, Orlando, and all the others in between...
Luke 8:26-39 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
One year ago, 9 African Americans were shot and killed while attending a Bible Study at their church- in Charleston S. Carolina. The shooting was an act of terrorism and a hate crime- the young male who took their lives was a homegrown terrorist- he had learned and cultivated his hatred and white supremacy in the land of the free- home of the brave. His training had been quite comprehensive- as the sin of racism is woven into the fabric of our nation… it is overt... it is tacit… it is systemic… it is institutional… it is corporate… and it is individual.
One week ago 49 people in a Gay Nightclub in Orlando, Florida were shot and killed- and over 50 more wounded- in another act of terrorism- another hate crime. The young male who took their lives was also a homegrown terrorist- he had learned and cultivated his hatred of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities in the land of the free and home of the brave. His training was also comprehensive- the sins of judgmentalism and exclusion of the queer community is woven into the fabric of our nation… it is overt… it is tacit… it is systemic… it is institutional… it is corporate… it is individual.
The text today is about a person filled with demons. The demons caused his mind to be damaged. She was unable to think clearly and rationally. He was “deranged.” She hadn’t worn clothes in a long time. He had no home but lived among the tombs. She spent her days among the dead. He was bound in chains. She was under constant watch. The demons would often cause him to break the bonds and run into the wild! He was feared. She was threatening.
Jesus speaks not this person, but to the demons- and asks their name: “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. ‘Legion’ is a Roman militaristic term; in this case it refers to the multitude of ways this person was being oppressed by the government and by society. Here is a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually on the margins; and like most people we have chained up, he reminded them of their own demons- and of the fact that we aren’t all that much different on the inside. How frightening that is- and oh so intimidating.
“But Jesus heals him… The demonized man is saved, the naked woman clothed, the one out of control in their right mind and submissive to Jesus, the one living among the dead now commissioned to proclaim the gospel to the living. The demoniac changes from a condition of complete derangement to that of wholeness.”[i]
And the demons? They enter a herd of pigs and hurl themselves off a cliff- gone for good! Wonderful! All is right with the world!
Except… the people watching were terrified; and they go into the city and into the country to tell people what happened... and when the people come and see, “they were afraid” (vs. 35)! So “the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear” (vs. 37b). Instead of embracing Jesus and the miraculous healing power to heal the rest of their community, (including themselves) they ask Jesus to leave. And that isn’t so hard to understand. We like having our demoniacs chained up outside the city. We like the power that comes with marginalization- we like knowing who is in and who is out- we like when we’ve got them under control- hell we’ve been demonizing people and keeping them oppressed for centuries. So when Jesus heals- when Jesus breaks the chains of oppression (Legion) that is keeping this person a prisoner- people can’t take it.
It takes you right back to the civil rights movement, doesn’t it? We see a people group we want to control- so we give them traits that are not human- not normal- and we back it up with science, and with religion. Then we make laws to segregate, to subjugate those we’ve chosen to demonize. And God knows we do it through every aspect of our society- it is overt… it is tacit… it is systemic… it is institutional… it is corporate… it is individual. And it includes the church! Historically and contemporarily, we refer to people in those groups as “sinful”…“broken”…“a danger to the greater good.” And worse, the church backs their hate up with scripture. For centuries the Bible has been used to condone slavery, segregation, oppression, and demonization.
The problem is of course, that Jesus heals- there’s the rub- and so as each people group that our society has kept chained up outside the city (naked and dying), struggles for equality- and begins to gain some power, the rest of the city is seized with fear! And that fear is honed and shaped and nurtured and cultivated into hate… and it’s acted out through violence.
Since the Charleston shooting approximately 32,100 people have died by gun violence.[i] 32,100 people! The notable ones end up in the news, and they get our attention- until they don’t. But let me break that down for you; 32,100 people is 90 people per day. 90 times each day someone is the victim of the fear we’ve created- and every time it happens we get once again poked in our blind eye- every time it happens it interrupts our complacency and our sense of well being… every time it happens it jars our self-righteousness. And the bloodshed and pain are so excruciating and so frequent, that our society now functions in a perpetual state of grief- and we all cycle through grief’s stages daily- shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance… acceptance? Yes- we start to look at these numbers and think of them as normal! NORMAL!
How many more people have to die before we look in the mirror and realize that we are the ones who are now in chains living in the tombs! All of us! We’ve shackled ourselves to walk daily among the dead, naked and deranged- desperately in need of healing that can only come from Christ!
But… in order for Christ to heal us… we need to be willing to watch our demons plummet to their death off the side of a cliff! We need to let go of the things that we think make us powerful and superior- we need to let go of our greed, our competitiveness, our need to judge and slander; we need to let go of the notion that we are somehow more holy than someone else- or that we have the “right way.” Actually, church, what we really need to do is allow God to be God and stop trying to do the job ourselves.
But let me tell you the end of the story- because we need to go out of here hopeful today.
When the healed one asked if they might come with Jesus on the road- get out of this crazy place and away from the crazy people who had kept him shackled all these years, “Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (vss. 38b-39).”
And when I first saw this it seemed harsh, because who among us doesn’t want to swoop in and scoop up every hurting oppressed person and get them out of their situation. But that isn’t the way it works. The plan instead is, once your chains are broken- one you feel the freedom that can only come through Christ, you go back into the community and proclaim how you were liberated! We, my friends, become the visible, vocal reminder of what God has done, and what God can do!
And yes, people will try to get rid of you- they would love to see you back in outside the city so they don’t have to see your beautiful face walking through the streets every day, reminding them of their own sin. But when they try to stop you, don’t you let them! When they try to suck you into their fear mongering, don’t you buy in!!! You keep walking with your head up, keep praying in the churches and going to bible studies and welcoming visitors who aren’t like you- keep teaching the word and welcome them anyway! You keep going to the club and keep dancing like the loving, free, queer, non-conforming person you are! And then fight! Fight for your life- fight for all of our lives; fight against the fear, against the hate, against the oppression.
Because once Jesus has healed you- you don’t stop at YOU! Once you are healed in the name of Jesus it’s your responsibility to go back and liberate the rest of the community. In the words of scripture- “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free!” This is not optional- it’s our mandate! And I hear you whining already, “It’s too big for me- I can’t do it- I’m afraid of what might happen to me… what if I get hurt?” STOP THAT! Find a new tune- because that is the same crock of fear that keeps us all in shackles! We can do this- together- we can do this if we unite behind the spirit of the Living God- we can do this if we join in walking forward in boldness and courage, instead of cowering in fear and dread.
We can do this! We can do this right where we are- right in this community- by being who we are every single day- by being a reminder to this community and beyond, by being a visible, vocal sign of God’s healing- and we aren’t going away. ***********************************************************
[i] National average annual deaths caused by gunshot in the US since 2009- http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2016/jun/12/7-things-know-about-guns-and-gun-violence-after-or/ [i] Linthicum, Robert- Essay on Luke 8:26-39 ttp://www.rclinthicum.org/fullset/RCL_Cycle_C_Ordinary_Time_12.pdf [ii] National average annual deaths caused by gunshot in the US since 2009- http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2016/jun/12/7-things-know-about-guns-and-gun-violence-after-or/ [iii] Linthicum, ibid
Photos: 1. Our church chancel the Sunday after the Orlando shooting and one year after the Charleston shooting- 49 luminaries and 9 lanterns 2. A picture drawn by Katherine Simpson, 6 years old, and an advocate for justice.