The story of the man plagued by a legion of demons, while familiar to many, is filled with many subtleties and not a few unanswered questions. How did he come to be in such a state? Was it all at once or slowly growing like an infection? Did the locals chain him up because of his possession, or was the possession in some way a response to being chained? How many ways was this man isolated in his deep need? How could the people ask Jesus to leave them? How do our lives reflect the sort of demonic isolation he experienced? How does our society? Will we ask Jesus to stay or beg him to leave us alone?
Yet again, our stream died midstream before the end of the sermon. We are exploring an upgrade to our technology that will hopefully address this ongoing issue.
Notes from the Preacher
The theme of isolation and incarceration has been on my heart for the last several weeks, as you will know if you've been with us or following along. It's not something I have invited, but when I'm preparing my sermon that theme just remains with me. "Pick me! Pick me!" it seems to say. It feels like the leading of the Holy Spirit, and I try to follow where it leads me.
Of particular note this week, my wife sent me an article from the Christian Century website that I mentioned in the sermon. "Encountering the Gerasene Demoniac in an American Prison" was written by Isaac S. Villegas in 2017. It is a powerful and moving treatment of this week's gospel passage from the perspective of the American expression of incarceration. Using this article as a springboard, I explored the experience of isolation for the demoniac, American culture in general, and our practice of mass incarceration and the detention centers for foreign children along our borders. These more specific instances were lost in the video as we continue to have technical problems plaguing our amateur recordings.
I encourage you to read Villegas' article. Its conclusion was raises a significant question for the American church as we consider the response of the Gerasenes to the liberating ministry of Jesus.
In my discussion of the general expression of isolation in our culture, I referred to the Unlonely Project, an effort I found at the Foundation for Art and Healing website. Here are links for an overview of their work and more background on the effects of isolation on physical, mental, spiritual, and social health. Another article on the subject of isolation can be found at the journal Psychological Science: Isolating the Costs of Loneliness, although I did not draw as directly from this. Lastly, I mentioned this book, although I misquoted the title: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam. Here's the wikipedia article about it.
Through the sermon I used the recurring rhetorical device of an imagined question from the listeners – "But Pastor, you might ask, what about …." These marked the chapters of the sermon as it were. Here is a summary of those points (not quite all the sermon), which will help fill the gap left at the end of the video.
Considering the isolation of the man possessed by demons….
But Pastor, demons? Really? Do we still believe in such a thing? Surely, the man was just mentally ill, right?
- Well, no, I don't think so. It isn't fair to label people who suffer from mental illness as being demon possessed, even if you don't believe in demons.
- I've never heard of a mental illness driving a herd of pigs to be drowned in a lake.
- I do believe that, while we may not identify them as easily, and they don't go about in red suits with tails, horns, and pitchforks, there are spiritual forces at work trying to thwart the will of God and to undo human beings.
Concerning the isolation imposed on people by our society in order for an arbitrary majority to feel safe from "those kind of people" through incarceration and detention.
But Pastor, another political sermon? Why does everything have to be political with you?
- This isn't about politics [except as an expression after the fact]. It's about deciding what sort of human beings we want to be and what sort of society we want to live in.
- Do we want to be fearful and vengeful and solve problems by locking them away so we can ignore them?
- Or do we want to be faithful and grace-filled people who do the hard work of addressing the root problems of our society?
- I believe our reliance on incarceration is a participation in the demonic goal of isolating humans in a way that is unhealthy for all involved.
- I also believe that every person that we abandon to incarceration is a failure of our society to adequately deal with problems in families, neighborhoods, cities and town, and more that bring people into our penal system, many of which are rooted in social isolation.
But Pastor, can't you just give us some good news? Can't you just tell us the love of Jesus?
- Sure. Here it is. Jesus Christ is working in the world to set the prisoners free!
- That means you and your particular sin that separates you from God, neighbor, and self. Jesus wants you to be free and to be restored to right relationships.
- It means working to reform our justice system that relies on mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, cash bond, and other tactics that leave people at the mercy of the principalities and powers of oppression associated with prison. Jesus wants to set the prisoners free to be restored to right relationships within the community. There is a better way in Christ to deal with broken relationships.
- It means working to stop the practice of separating children from their families and warehousing those children in abhorrent conditions for our so-called protection. Jesus, the Torah, and the prophets call us to treat the strangers in our country as if they were our own. Jesus is working to set this little prisoners free.
The Ending I Didn't Do But Wish I Did:
Jesus Christ came into the world to break the chains of oppression and isolation, to restore all people to right relationships with God and with one another. Jesus Christ is at work in and through the church to create a community where that can happen. We are then confronted with the choice of the Gerasenes upon seeing the healing work of Jesus: Will we invite him to stay and continue the work among us, or will we ask him to leave so we can cling to our own way of dealing with people like that. Let us live into our salvation and work with Jesus to restore our communities to their right mind.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.