Second Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, RCL
June 23, 2019
North Fork Ministries
Jesus and his disciples 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.
I don’t think there is another story in the New Testament that is as dramatic and action-packed as this tale of demonic possession, exorcism, and demon habitation of swine. And the grand finale …the air swimming with pigs that have hurled themselves off a cliff, is like nothing else in the Bible. From a less dramatic perspective, I have friend who insists that this story of Jesus commanding the demons to leave the man and enter the swine was the inspiration for the popular sandwich filling “deviled ham.”
Luke tells us that, “Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee”. The phrase “opposite Galilee” tells us something important about how we are to interpret this passage. For by leaving Galilee behind and journeying into Gentile territory (the only time that Luke talks about Jesus intentionally going into the land of the Gentiles), Jesus is presenting an example of boundary crossing. And he is not only going into foreign territory, his immediate encounter upon stepping onto dry land, is with a man who behaves in a way that is completely opposite of that is which is considered respectable among Jesus’ people. Not only is the man a Gentile, but he is naked, lives among the tombs (and thus is ritually unclean), has no sense of decorum, shouts at the top of his lungs, and is clearly insane. The man exemplifies the most extreme of outcasts. And this is the man with whom Jesus connects.
The man is called Legion, after the 6000 soldiers that form a unit of the Roman army occupying Palestine, and also emblematic of the vast multitude of demons that occupied the mind of the naked man who lived among the tombs. We are not given his real name because his identity is so consumed by the demons that possess him. His capacity to enjoy life, his ability to live into the life God has in store for him, his power to experience abundance, have been taken over by the false identities of the demons. He is now defined by something other than his true self. This is a story about identity, about who we really are.
The question of who I am is one that has engaged me for a half a century. Astride the Appaloosa mare with whom I shared the long Saturdays and whole summers of my childhood, I imagined myself a cowboy riding the lonesome plains. In high school, I discovered that in a small Texas town, the Friday night heroes got the smiles, the “atta-boys” and the girls, so a football player I became.
In college, the quest for knowledge garnered my attention, and I found my identity first as a scholar and then, sensitive to the devastation of war, as a peace researcher.
Desiring to see the results of my labor at the end of the day, I became a craftsman. And finding that business was good, I became a businessman. Then realizing that business could also be bad, I became broke. And then a rich man again. And a husband, and a father, and a divorcé, a single Dad and a runner. And a friend called me a writer and so I was. And then a seminarian. And a priest. And now a North Forker and a grandfather and an aspiring sailor.
Through the passage of time the title I assumed shifted, but my true identity, aware of it or not, never changed. I remained a child of God. And although I frequently forgot who I really was, God never did.
I think of God’s presence as a wide, constantly flowing stream, and we sail along the surface, sometimes aware of the great sea upon which we float, and other times imagining that the fragile boat we command, is all there is. And the great river holds us in it’s current, propels us toward our destination, while we imagine that, as captains of our ship, we can sail cross-current or upstream, when, in fact, we are just along for the ride. We take on the identity of whatever boat we happen to climb aboard, forgetting that we are always floating in God’s great sea.
I think of baptism as emblematic of the great ocean of God upon whose waters we drift. On the day of our baptism, each of us was given a new, indelible identity. Those present for our baptism were called to recognize that the newly baptized person was a child of God. That is who we really are. All the other labels we assume – our job titles, our professions, our roles in the community, the church, the family – merely describe how we pass our time.
The problem is our forgetfulness. We are held afloat by a great undercurrent of God’s love, but we get caught up in trying to be who the world tells us we are, and we forget our true identity.
One of the great joys I experience as a priest is the privilege, on a Baptismal Sunday, of calling out, for everyone to hear the true identity of the newly baptized. After pouring the baptismal waters on the head of the candidate, I make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, and say, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.”
I want you to help me with this. I want you to help your neighbor, the person sitting beside you, or behind you, to remember their true identity. I want you to take your thumb and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of someone around you and say, “You are marked as Christ’s own, forever.” Go ahead. Please, make sure no one is left out.
As we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female”
We have one true identity.
“for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.”