June 19, 2016
Why did Jesus cross the sea?
That's not the beginning of a joke, that's a question. It is a question that I would ask you to ponder, consider and hold onto. We'll come back to it.
The church where I had my first call was in Rockville, Maryland -- just outside of D.C. Part of the church building was a three-season homeless shelter for women. Women came there seeking shelter and help for a variety of reasons, but often it was because they were battling some form of mental illness; and with no support system to help them, they had no access to the medications and counseling that might have given them the chance to live more stable lives. I'm not a trained counselor beyond basic pastoral counseling, but it was obvious to me that one woman we served was dealing with a severe mental illness. When I worked in the shelter, I learned not to catch her eye. She would start yelling at me, at anyone, for no apparent reason. If she wasn't hollering and arguing with someone you could see, she was yelling at someone you couldn't. She made wild accusations about the post office stealing checks she was supposed to receive; and would write accusing letters and notes to the postmaster general on any scrap of paper she could find. She would come into the church office with these letters and demand that we send them. We obliged, not because we wanted to, but she was so volatile it seemed easier to do that then refuse. She sent so many letters that postal investigators came to the church office to find out more about her. This woman looked as wild as she sounded. Her hair was thick and dirty and matted. Her skin seemed permanently darkened by dirt and grime. Her clothes were filthy. She smelled.
When I read about this man possessed by a legion of demons, I think about this poor woman. I wonder if this man looked and behaved somewhat like that woman from the shelter. He would have looked wild and frightening. He would have been filthy, covered in dirt and dust. Maybe he carried not only the smell of an unwashed body, but also the lingering smell of the death that he dwelt in.
No sooner had Jesus and his disciples stepped foot into the land of the Gerasenes, then they were met by this man. I doubt this was the welcome some of them were expecting. Luke describes him as a man from the city. The demons within him made him wild. He was naked. No matter how many times others had tried to restrain him with shackles and chains, he broke free. He made his home not among the living, but the dead. He lived in the tombs. And when the demons drove him especially hard, he would run off into the wilderness. We are never told his name, but I imagine that the other city dwellers knew his real identity. Someone had to have known his family of origin. Surely former neighbors remembered him as a little boy. But whoever he had once been was consumed by these demons. He seemed to have forgotten his true name. His only response to Jesus' question about it was to say, "Legion." He had become a mere description of the spirits and sickness that raged inside him.
People who met Jesus, even the ones closest to him, did not always recognize Jesus for who he truly was. But demons did. They always knew who they were up against. This was certainly true in this story. The man met Jesus and shouted in a loud voice for Jesus not to torment him. The demons within him were legion, and they begged Jesus not to be sent back to the abyss. They begged Jesus to cast them into a herd of pigs instead. Jesus gave them permission, and when the demons entered the pigs they rushed into lake and drowned.
Swineherds witnessed all of this, and ran to tell the people in the town and in the countryside what had happened. At their telling, folks rushed from the city and the country to see for themselves. In that time -- between the swineherds spreading the tale, and the folks showing up to see what had really taken place -- the man washed. He was given clothes. Perhaps he was given food and something to drink. Whatever those demons were that possessed him, whatever it was that made him sick and scary and wild and driven was gone. When the people arrived, they saw not the wild man they were used to, but the man they once knew. He was clean and clothed and in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus.
This should have been cause for celebration. This man, this former friend and neighbor, was healed and clean and whole. But that healing came with a cost. That cost came partly because their economic livelihood now rested at the bottom of the lake. Yet I also think that the cost of that healing was not just seeing and accepting the change in the man, but in recognizing that one change would lead to other changes. His change might force a change in them. It would change how they saw him, how they interacted with him. He could no longer live in the tombs. He would want to come home, to live among them again. They would have to accept him. They would have to treat him like they treated each other. But they were used to the old him. As long as he stayed in the tombs, they could deal with it. But the living can't live among the dead. He was alive again. He had changed, and so must they. And they were afraid.
The source of that change, the source of their fear, was standing right there in front of them. Not the man made clean and whole, but Jesus. The man begged Jesus not to torment him. The demons begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss. The people, every single one of them living there, begged Jesus to leave. Please Jesus, just leave. Leave us alone. Leave us as we are. Don't bring anymore change. Don't heal anyone else. Don't free us from the tombs we live in. Just go. Please go.
Jesus did what they asked. He prepared to leave. But the man, once known as Legion, begged him once more. Take me with you. Certainly the man wanted to stay with the One who had cleansed him body and soul. But I wonder if he wasn't also a little fearful. If Jesus left and he didn't go with him, would the demons return? Would he be able to sustain the changes Jesus made. Would he remain clean and whole? But Jesus knew that the man had another calling. Jesus told him that he must go and tell others what God had done for him. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this story. Luke says that the man did as Jesus requested. He told everyone what God had done for him, what Jesus had done for him. I hope he continued to do that. Jesus freed him from the tombs, the literal ones he lived in and the ones that kept him dead in spirit and in mind. Jesus freed him, and I want to believe that the man never looked back. The other folks might have been afraid at what had happened to him, but he fearlessly shared his story, his piece of the good news, the gospel.
Why did Jesus cross the sea?
That's where Jesus and the disciples came from -- the Sea of Galilee. They met this man after a terrible night at sea. They met this man after Jesus stilled the storm that threatened their lives. Jesus and the disciples got into a boat and crossed a stormy sea and landed on the side of the Gerasenes. Maybe Jesus made the decision to cross the sea because he had planned an evangelistic journey on that side of the lake anyway, and he just happened on this demon possessed man. When the people asked him to leave, he changed plans and cut his original trip short. Yet it seems to me that Jesus crossed the sea deliberately to meet this man. He crossed the sea to go to those tombs and free that man, whose name had been forgotten -- even by him. Jesus crossed the sea to go into an unclean place. There were pigs there. No good Jew would intentionally go to a place where there pigs. They were unclean, therefore the people around them would be unclean. Jesus crossed the sea and went to the tombs. Another unclean place. Jesus being there would have made him unclean. Jesus crossed the sea and crossed the boundaries of the Law and tradition. Jesus crossed the sea to free a man from the shackles of sickness and darkness that possessed him. Jesus crossed the sea and brought the living back from the dead.
Jesus crossed the sea. There was no place that he would not go to free a child of God. Since the terrible killings in Orlando, I find great comfort in the fact that there is no place that Jesus will not go to free us from the tombs that hold us captive. There is no place that Jesus will not go, no darkness that he won't enter to find us, to bring us back from death to life, to free us from the chains and shackles we wrap around ourselves. There is no place that Jesus won't go, there is no person Jesus will not meet. Jesus finds us, even if it means crossing a stormy sea. Why did Jesus cross the sea? To find us and heal us and make us new.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.