By Rebecca Messman
26 Then they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on shore, a man from the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had not worn any clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” 29 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.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 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. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd stampeded down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 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 became frightened. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then the whole throng of people of the surrounding region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “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.
Let us pray. Lord, in my words, may your people hear your timeless word. Amen.
My grandmother would frequently and proudly tell people about her three boys. Listing off their birth order, she’d say, “It goes Don, Tom, Korea, Carter.” My Dad, Tom, was born in 1950, and then there was a gap for a few years when my grandfather fought in the Korean War. During those long years when he was gone, she would show her little boys these big shoes in the closet to remind them they had a father. And then she would gleefully recall the day when they went to the airport to welcome him home. “Now little Tommy was very concerned about why I was kissing some man and gave this mean toddler scowl … until he saw those shoes. And he made the connection. That must be my Dad!”
That is the sunny paper plate family reunion version of this story.
And if we prefer sunny Bible stories for Father’s Day, we’d probably pick a different one than today’s from the Gospel of Luke. Maybe we’d prefer the resurrected Jesus grilling on the beach with his friends. Or an old chestnut about how good Joseph was as a carpenter and all-around fix it guy. Or how about Jesus gone fishin’ again? But the Bible doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in Hallmark territory. Neither does life for that matter. So, today the Bible gives us a story of identity and healing from brokenness and wonderful, costly restoration.
In today’s story, Jesus gets out of the boat in the land of the Gerasenes, described as opposite Galilee. That doesn’t just mean geographically opposite, it also means culturally and ethnically opposite. Other. In other words, brace yourself for all the contrasts that are about to come.
Jesus gets out of the boat already windswept from calming the storm on the sea, during which storm his own disciples had said, “Who is this guy that the wind and waves obey him?” Then, he meets this man with a storm inside him, a man who immediately identifies him, “Jesus, son of the Most High God.”
The contrasts continue. The Bible says that the man was possessed by demons, thousands of them. His very self was occupied by a brutal destructive army that had laid waste to his life, but it is also clear that the man was dis-possessed in every other way. He had no home and was living among the tombs. He had no clothes except for shackles on his ankles and lots of bruises. And the most heartbreaking fact of all was that this man had no name, no identity, no personhood. “Call me Legion, for we are many.” How heartbreaking it is to be identified only as the devastating thing that has happened to you.
Another sad detail is that the town couldn’t even ignore him as much as they wanted to – someone guarded him there, not to clothe him or befriend him, but to keep him from disrupting their tenuous calm.
So there he was – naked as a jaybird, completely exposed in every way, and yet mostly invisible to the town. He was possessed and yet dis-possessed. He was tormented by demons and also demonized because of it. That is what happens when suffering is combined with stigma.
And what follows is absolutely stunning. The demons seek permission from Jesus to depart from the man. Then, they rush headlong into the helpless pigs nearby, who rush into the sea and drown. And after the storm inside the man is calmed, there he sits, clothed and in his right mind. And instead of bringing the man along with him as a motivational speaker or show and tell, Jesus tells the man, “It’s time to go home. Tell your story there.”
Now, those in town who knew this guy and those who needed those pigs, they have mixed emotions about this. Of course they do. They were scared. When what was at a distance, dispossessed, disinherited, and disaffected, comes home, or when the shadow side of your life that had been causing years of quiet grief finally steps into the light, it can be terrifying. But having known a lot of families who have been through something like this on a smaller scale, I imagine there comes a point when you realize there is a steep cost either way. Sure, his restoration cost that town a lot, but so did the compounding cost of maintaining the tenuous calm for all those years before the healing came. But for the first time in a long time, their fear is in the direction of wholeness not alienation. It is in the direction of the being able to possess the whole naked truth, not just the easy sunshine part of it. I am reminded of that famous MLK quote, “True peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice.”
So, let me go back to that nice family story. When I was in my 20s and starting seminary, I asked my uncle why we were all so Presbyterian. My grandmother was on every committee until her late 80s and my grandfather was a fixture in that church as much as the organ and sang nearly as loud. And yet my uncle’s answer totally surprised me. Sure, we had ancestors from Scotland and cried at the sound of bagpipes and all that. But our church connection went way deeper. And I still gulp at the depth of it.
Don, Tom, Korea, Carter. My grandfather, Papa, had been in the First Marine Division in Korea. As a former pilot, he was sent to be a forward air controller, the lonely guy ahead of the troops with a radio who called in close air support. At night, sometimes my grandfather was able to hear the chatter of the Chinese army. They were that close by. And then there was the battle of Chosin reservoir, where his division earned the name “The Chosin Few.” All I can say it that it was a place of horrific casualties and bitter cold. My grandfather hardly ever talked about it. But I have read about it. Maybe you have too. I’ll never fully understand what he and others went through, though I can appreciate why he never liked fireworks and why his feet gave him troubles decades after the frostbite abated and why he always struggled to sleep. And that’s where the deeper story steps into the light. Because apparently when he landed in California after leaving Korea, he wasn’t ok. He was a man living in the tombs. His spirit was tormented by the armies in his mind and by losses that he could not bear. He was Legion. And even though my grandmother was eagerly awaiting his return to Virginia, caring for two sons, one of them my three-year-old Dad whom he hadn’t met yet, somehow he couldn’t get on that plane. Now we have language for it, PTSD. But then they called it shell shocked or hitting the bottle.
After two weeks like this, the minister from the Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg flew out to California and put his arm around my grandfather and said, “Buddy, it’s time to come on home.” And that is when the safe family story picks up again, with the famous greeting at the airport and the man with big shoes to fill and the kiss with my grandmother and the awareness that my Dad had a father.
My uncle said, “If you wanna know what heals a broken man and what makes a woman an elder in the Presbyterian Church for life, that’ll do it.”
That story is part of me. Maybe that story or one like it is part of all us in one way or another. It is a story of identity and healing from brokenness and wonderful, albeit costly, restoration.
I’ll never know the whispered conversations that caused that Presbyterian from Lynchburg to hop on a plane in 1953, but I imagine his faith compelled him. He must have remembered how Jesus summoned new life out of tombs all the time. He must have remembered how Jesus commissioned the church to be his body into the future, willing to go to all the places that are opposite of our personal Galilee to put an arm around those who are dispossessed and assure them they are claimed by God.
Pastor and Professor Willie Francois said, “A stigma can make human beings invisible. And it takes an “appearing act” to make seeable the unseen—the dispossessed, disinherited, and disaffected. This is holy work for people of faith.” Or to say it another way, the opposite of stigma is community. Community that is willing to go the distance and hold what is hard and not run away even if the pigs do. We can be that person, that church, who goes toward not away.
Now, maybe you and your family do not have the luxury of being at the end of this story yet. Maybe you don’t have the space yet to tell your story with grainy black and white photos and decades of good memories to buffer the hard stuff. Maybe you feel like you are mostly identified with affliction or maybe you love someone who is out there hurting and truly an act of God is what it would take to bring them around. Or maybe you are the one feeling left out and exposed. Maybe you feel shunned and bruised.
Know this: God will continue to show up for you. In all the storms and the tombs of dead dreams. Love will shrink the distance between the shores. The extravagant boundary-breaking, stigma-erasing, wound-tending, community-mending, church-sending, cross-defeating, name-giving, other-claiming, world-reconciling eternal-life love of God is here and will never let us go. God’s refrain is always the same: You are seen. You are named. You are loved. You are accepted. It’s time to come home.