Sermon – June 23, 2019 – Second Sunday after Pentecost

Naming Names 

The writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts is a skillful storyteller, carefully arranging the incidents in his story to give them the most impact.  And while the story we just heard is dramatic enough on its own, it becomes even more so when we notice that Luke has placed it immediately following the account of Jesus calming a raging and furious storm at sea.  “Who, then, is this, that he commands even the winds and the waves, and they obey him?” his disciples ask.[1]

And as soon as the boat they’re in reaches the other side, which is the land where Gentiles dwell, Jesus has no more than stepped down onto the shore before a wild… creature, a man possessed by demons, shows up and falls at his feet.  And if the disciples struggle to know who Jesus is, the demons have no problem recognizing him: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg, you, do not torment me!”  Their question is not about Jesus’ identity, but about his intention toward them.

Did you notice as we read the scripture that by this point in the story Jesus has already commanded the unclean spirits to leave the man?  All Jesus has to do is to take one look at the bloody and broken thing—you can scarce call it a human being—laying at his feet to know that something has to be done. This man’s life is completely out of control—he lies there naked, utterly vulnerable, the marks of the chains and the shackles and all the ways he has been hurt by others, and all the ways he has tried to hurt himself, laid bare for Jesus and any with pity to see. Sometimes the storms are somewhere out there, and sometimes they’re inside, here, within us.

Can you hear the tenderness in his voice as Jesus asks, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he answers.  It’s no accident that this group of demons bears the same name as the Roman forces that occupy this land– too many to count, too many to name, too many bent on keeping someone else held in check, in bondage to the whims of powers that neither know nor care what happens to particular individuals.  These unclean spirits are just as mercenary, just as merciless.  And in their possession, this man has lost his individuality and his identity, his personhood and his dignity.  He has forgotten who he is, and who he belongs to.

But Jesus has not.  Even as the demons rage within this poor man, Jesus looks and sees who he really is: a human being, created in the image of God, and beloved by God.  That’s who he is—a child of God.  That’swho he belongs to.  And that’s someone worth saving, no matter what lies in the past.

Well, you know what happens next.  Jesus and the demons—well,  or lack of a better word—negotiate,  and Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs.  And in a fitting bit of irony, the demons who had been destroying this man, who are now worried about being destroyed themselves, cause the pigs to rush over a cliff into the sea.  Now, in the ancient world, they believed that demons couldn’t survive in water.  And so the demons wind up doing the very thing they begged Jesus not to do, destroying themselves in a spectacular manner, causing the swineherds to run to town to spread the news.

And when the people come to check out the story, they can’t help observing a noticeable lack of pigs on land and the formerly possessed man, clothed and in his right mind, sitting and talking with Jesus in a perfectly rational manner.  He has been completely transformed.  He knows who he is once more, knows where he belongs, knows where he longs to be in this new life he has been given.

And the people don’t like it, not one little bit. They don’t rejoice that their brother, their son, their sweetheart—for he must have had a life before the demons took him—they don’t rejoice that he has been healed, has been restored to them. Instead, they’re afraid, and that fear controls them, and it limits them.  They are scared out of their sandals to be in the presence of so much power: power to mend what is broken, to heal what is hopeless, to set free and make whole once more.  That kind of power changes everything.  And sometimes… well, sometimes we human beings would rather live with the demons we are familiar with than experience the freedom and new life that transformation in Christ can bring.  We tell Jesus to just go on his way, please, and leave us alone.  Things are fine, really, just fine… even when they aren’t.  We would rather go on living little lives, lives bound by fear and failure to trust in the power of God’s abiding and unending love for us and for all that God has made.  The people in this story aren’t unusual in not wanting to experience for themselves the kind of transformative power that brings both healing and change.

You see, this is not just a story about long ago. It’s a story about us, and the world we live in, too.  In her essay this week for Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas, who serves at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, writes, “The truth is, what ails us as human beings is Legion.  The evil that haunts us has many faces, many names.  We are all — every one of us — vulnerable to forces that seek to take us over, to bind our mouths, to take away our true names, and to separate us from God and from each other.”[2]  She goes on to name some of them: “Some of us can’t shake traumatic memories.  Some of us were abused as children.  Some of us are seething with jealousy.  Some of us are imprisoned within systems of injustice that stretch back so many centuries, we can’t imagine liberation. Some of us experience our skin colors, our accents, our genders, or our sexualities as magnets for other people’s hatred.”  There’s more, of course—there’s always more.  The list could go on and on and on and on and on…. There’s always more that wants to undermine us, enslave us, make us forget who we are and who we belong to.

And if the story ended there, it would be a tragedy.  But it doesn’t.  Jesus comes to us, too, comes to save us, comes to remind us that we are God’s own, created in God’s image, beloved and precious.  Being rooted in that knowledge, being grounded in that knowledge, growing in grace as we experience the truth of that knowledge, changes us, and it ought to change how we move through the world.  That’s how we come into our “right mind.”  That’s how we are clothed with the love of God, so that we can bear Christ’s light into the world.

Unlike those people in the story, we can’t settle—we dare not settle—for the same old, same old, no matter how much transformation and change scare us.  We cannot see the one who is different from us as expendable.  Instead, we must come to see them, and one another, as Jesus sees—each one precious and beloved, a gift God has given to the world.  When we learn to see through the lens of God’s infinite love, then no one is a stranger, and no one is unworthy.

At the very end of the story, the man who has been healed and set free wants to go with Jesus, to travel with him, be by his side—and little wonder why, especially given the reaction to his healing by the people who have come out to see.  But Jesus gives him a different mission.  “Go home,” he says, “and tell them how much God has done for you.” That makes this man, this man who was once possessed by demons but who now, by grace, knows who he is and who he belongs to—that makes him the first evangelist to the Gentiles in Luke’s account. Oh, Paul will get the glory later, in Acts, of course.  But this man, sent back to his own people paves the way.

That can be a hard thing to do, to bring this kind of good news to the ones who know us best.  They’ve seen us at our worst, and sometimes memories have big shadows. But this man, as he simply goes about doing the normal, ordinary things he must, is a living testimony to the lasting transformation Christ brings.  And so, too, by grace, can we be, day by day, choice by choice, letting God’s love inform our vision, our dreams, our action.  Christ wants to set us free, wants to give us new life, wants to fill us with his love, too. May we cooperate and allow him to have his way in our hearts and in our lives.

Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love.[3]  Amen.

 

 

 

[1]Luke 8:25

[2]Debie Thomas’ essay can be accessed at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2259-legion.

[3]2 Corinthians 9:15