June 23, 2013
If you look on the big wall in my office, you’ll see among the pictures that hang there, a work of embroidery made for me by my mother. It’s a poem that I wrote when I was seven. She loved the poem and saved it for years, always with the intent of making it a gift for me. She says that it is proof I was a well-adjusted child. This is the poem entitled, “A Wish.”
“I wish I were a teacher. Or even a nurse. Or a mother with children all around her. I wish I had a husband who was a millionaire. But I am just glad to be me. Because Amy Busse is me and that is that.”
If I could make a wish today, it would be to talk with my seven-year-old self and discover what it was that made her happy to be her. What did she know about herself that made her so fundamentally content with the person she was? How did the seven-year-old Amy have such a solid understanding of what it means to be Amy? Because I can tell you that since that time I haven’t always had that understanding.
I don’t think that I’m necessarily outside of the norm by admitting that. I think that one of the challenges we often face as we grow up and grow older is trying to figure out who we are in the midst of all of the good and the bad that we encounter and endure. The self-assuredness I had at seven was lost to the self-consciousness of adolescence. It began to come back as I entered into adulthood, but it was never quite the same because I wasn’t the same. Who is? All that you experience, good and bad, shape you. What you learn, what you see, who you meet, the loves and the losses, the joys and the heartbreaks – all those pieces and parts of our lives shape us, shape our identities. And, at least for me, at different times in my life, I have wrestled with the question of “Who am I?”
I realize the pain I’ve felt during my times of identity wrestling is a far cry from the pain this man, this demoniac, endures. What was considered demonic possession at that time would be mental illness to us. Surely the man was suffering from some sort of personality disorder or schizophrenia. But then or now, putting a name on it doesn’t lessen or change the pain someone in its grip experiences.
Think about how awful this man’s life must have been. He was a man of the city. Does this mean that once upon a time he was an upright citizen? Fully functioning and capable? A person with family and friends, a profession, a life? But something changed for him. For a long time he went naked. He no longer had a house, but he lived in the tombs, which was probably its own sort of wasteland, its own sort of wilderness. He was kept under guard, for the city’s protection and for his own. Yet even shackles and chains could not hold him. He would break out of them and be driven by his demons “into the wilds.” The demons drove him to break loose but he could never break free. It was a nightmarish existence.
Then Jesus arrives. Jesus and his disciples have just come from a trip in a boat. While they were sailing they were assailed by a terrible storm. Jesus calmed it with a word. Now that they have crossed over to dry land, Jesus is confronted with the storm that rages inside this man.
This story is found in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Luke tells us that when the man sees Jesus, the demons in him cry out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” This is not the first time we have heard of demons recognizing Jesus as the Son of God before the people do.
I find it interesting that, if I’m reading it correctly, Jesus has made one attempt at commanding the demons to leave the man. It’s almost as if their words are in response to his command. What changes everything is when Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?” His answer? “Legion.”
To us, hearing the word legion probably translates to “a great number” or “many” or “a whole bunch.” But the people hearing this would have had a clear picture of what a legion was. These were people living under Roman occupation. A legion of Roman soldiers was a troop of 5,000 to 6,000 men. That goes well beyond my initial definition of “legion.”
If the demons possessing this man are legion, then how could there be anything left of him? But Jesus asking that question, “what is your name?” opens the door for them to leave. They did not want to go back to the abyss so they beg Jesus to let them enter into a herd of swine feeding on a hillside. Jesus gives them permission. The demons rush out of the man, enter the pigs and run into the lake and drown.
This is the point in the story where I think many of us stop listening because we’re horrified at either the animal cruelty that’s involved here or the lost livelihood to the people who owned those pigs. But right or wrong, I think we need to get past that and pay attention to what happens next. We need to pay attention to the people’s response to the man. The swineherds have witnessed this, so they run off to tell everyone in the city and the country just what’s happened. The people come out to see for themselves and what do they find? This man, who had been so completely possessed by demons that almost nothing of him was left, was now clothed. He was in his right mind. He was seated at the feet of Jesus, the place where disciples sit. Did the people upon seeing this rejoice? Did they run with tears in their eyes and hug the man, their friend, their neighbor, returned to them at last? Did they thank Jesus for giving them back one of their own? No. They were afraid. Luke says that they were “seized with great fear.” Sounds almost like another sort of demon possession doesn’t it?
They were seized with great fear. So Jesus gets back in the boat to return to the other side, to Galilee. The man – now healed and whole – begs Jesus to let him go along. But Jesus tells him to go home and tell the people at home how much God has done for him.
It is remarkably hard to preach on demons in our modern age, because we know that so many illnesses at that time, mental or physical, were blamed on demonic possession or the person’s own sinfulness. Now we know better. Now we know that illnesses are not caused by the supernatural. We have technology and medicine and astonishing scientific advances and I am grateful for it all. Miracles happen every day because of them. But I think we also have our share of demons.
I am not speaking of the supernatural when I say that. I’m speaking more of our struggles, our pains, our fears. If someone is dealing with addiction, isn’t that its own sort of demon? Anxiety, shame, loneliness – all of those are demons to the ones who can’t seem to break free.
The problem as I see it is that too often it is our demons that define us. We tend to become what assails us. At the points in my life when I’ve had what could be termed an identity crisis, it’s because I couldn’t figure out who I was beyond the roles that I carry – mother, teacher, preacher, daughter, friend – and because I couldn’t see myself beyond what has most wounded me. Too often we define ourselves more by what assails us, the wounds, the mistakes, the heartaches, the demons.
But we are more than our worst mistake. We are more than the sum of our fears. We are more than the broken places inside of us. We are more than the demons that try to possess us. We are children of God. To say that is not to say that we are not unique individuals with our own unique identities. To say that we are children of God is to say that we are claimed by something greater than ourselves. It is to acknowledge that fundamentally we carry the spark of the divine within us. In claiming that, we have the opportunity to realize that our identities are formed not merely by what assails us but by love, forgiveness, hope. In seeing our identities first and foremost as children of God, we have the chance to become the opposite of the community that regarded the man’s healing with fear. We can be the ones who rejoice. Too often we hold onto what’s bad because it’s familiar. And a familiar evil is far better than a potentially unknown evil. But knowing that we are children of God means that we can let all of that go. Our identities, individually and as a community, are created more by love than fear.
In a few minutes we will participate in a baptism. This is one of my favorite duties as a minister, but it is more than just a sweet moment. This little one’s family, her parents, grandparents, and all of us are saying that this child of God is claimed by love. We will make promises to help her and her family understand and remember that most important truth. She is a child of God. That is her identity. And whatever this little one encounters in her life, all of the good and all of the bad, her identity as a child of God will never change. She is a beloved child of God. So are we. Let all of us, God’s children, say, “Amen.”