Scripture: Luke 8:26-39
The encounter with a many-named, demon-possessed, graveyard-dweller is one of the gospel’s most dramatic & gripping stories. Hear it once & you will never forget it. It is no wonder that the story is told in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke). It might be that the first Christians remembered the story & told it often.
We are told of a life that spirals out of control, with nothing to chain it down, a life that turns against itself & causes itself pain. It is about living with the sense of being displaced, the pain of never being able to claim an identity. What a story! After all these years I still get caught up in the drama, still love the strangeness, & still wonder about the ending.
In reading Luke’s account, he begins with an arrival at a specific location. Listen: Jesus & his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. The place where we have landed is on the other side of Galilee. Matthew & Luke tell us that it is on the other side of the sea. Luke tells us that it is opposite Galilee, which is the place where the fishermen left their nets & followed Jesus. But opposite Galilee is different theological territory, a place where nobody leaves their fishing nets & follows a man they have never seen before.
In fact, in this country when a human being is restored, there is no rejoicing, no clapping of hands & shouting of praises to God. Here, the inhabitants are suspicious when people are restored to their right mind. Restoration makes the Gerasene people nervous & afraid. This is a country where pigs come first & the number of pigs you own makes you somebody. Welcome to the country of the Gerasenes! We honk for pigs! The specific location has never been pinned down. You will not find it on the map & there is even confusion about the name of the place. Matthew calls it Gadarenes. Mark names it Gerasenes. Luke follows Mark & names it Gerasenes. Some manuscripts call it Gergenes. Scholars do not know what to call it. Some say this, some say that. So, we can agree that scholars have no clue about the exact geographical location of this place. Some say it could be here & some say it could be there. The rest of the Bible is not very helpful either. Nowhere else in the entire Bible do we find even a passing mention of Gadarenes or Gerasenes.
What does this tell us? There is the obvious conclusion that the place is not mentioned because it is hardly visited. Not many people come to this place. It is not a tourist trap, not a Holy Land Myrtle Beach or Gatlinburg. And when you know the story, you begin to understand why.
As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city & was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked & homeless. In other words, the welcoming committee consists of one man who is naked as a jay bird. And if you are thinking he must be out of his mind, you are probably right. The story says the man has demons; he is possessed, driven from his family & friends into the tombs where he now camps out, not in a house but among the tombs. Demon-possessed into becoming a tomb-dweller. A living, walking man who makes his home in a place that houses memories, a place where the only language is in the form of silent inscriptions commemorating great lives & great deeds in only a few words, inscriptions that recall better times long forgotten by the living. What a bizarre place to run into a walking, talking, breathing man. The man is physically displaced.
Today, we would call this a horror story. The man has lost everything, even his name. He does not know what he is or who he is. What does it mean to live a nameless existence, to dwell on the edge? Imagine living among the tombs, living but being as good as dead. Living a life balancing between life & death, between sanity & losing your mind.
Unclean! Unclean! Unclean! This man is unclean. He is matter out of place, inappropriate; he does not fit. Oh, there can only be a few things worse than being called matter out of place. There can only be a few things worse than being treated as matter out of place because you are black in a whitewashed world; matter out of place because you are female in a male-dominated world; matter out of place because you are poor in a world that values little labels that announce how much you paid for your shirt & pants & socks.
Unclean! Unclean! Unclean! Look but do not touch him. Do not let him touch you. Look & see the telltale marks around his ankles, his wrists, & his neck. The man is marked by violence & struggle. See the marks left by the chains & shackles & fetters that had once bound him. We are told they had tried to restrain him, to subdue him. Not once but often. They had wrestled him down & chained him up. We are told he had wrenched the chains apart. He had broken the shackles into pieces. He had snapped the fetters like kindling. He was stronger than all of his captors put together. Nothing & nobody could subdue him. He was like an entire Roman army. So, call him Legion.
What is your name? Legion, he replied. This man is an enemy to those around him & to himself. Time & time again he would turn against himself. He would take stones & drive them into his own flesh. He would cut himself & not stop. Did these self-inflicted wounds mean he loathed himself, that he wished himself dead? He was a man in pain who caused himself pain. Wailing so loud they would hear him in all the surrounding ten cities.
Howls that would cut through the hustle & bustle of ordinary days. Screaming day in, day out. His weeping. His howling. His sorrowing like some wounded creature out in the cold with nowhere to go. Poor lonely lost soul. Without even a name to hold on to.
For many people in Africa, in their postcolonial context, in their political & ethnic turmoil, & economic struggles, the story of the Legion-invaded man is their story. The story is about them. About their situation. About their lives. The story is about Rwanda, a country turned into a graveyard within weeks. Within one hundred days, 800,000 people were chopped up like firewood with Chinese-made machetes. Most of the people were hacked to death by their next-door neighbors. The crazy thing about Rwanda’s tragedy is that 90% of Rwanda’s population were baptized, confessing Christians. Yet something sinister took over, snapping their theological framework into kindling, & nobody could subdue the madness, just like the madman of the Gerasenes.
A 16-year-old Rwandan girl named Josephine survived the genocide & gave international reporters a tour of her dead village. She took them to the church where she had been baptized & whispered, “We will never come back to this church. It is a graveyard. The angels have left us.”
In Africa, they know what it is to be trampled over by Legion, to have everything you ever called your own taken away. Your land, your theology, your language, your culture, & even your name. Too many people in Africa live painfully dead-end lives like that madman of Gerasenes.
Well, when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had departed sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed & in his right mind. Thank God for the Gospel! We who preach the Gospel have put all our eggs in one basket. We are now risking everything for the Gospel. We do not have an alternative plan just in case this one does not work out. We have sold everything we own, given up everything we ever had & are staking it on the Gospel.
African theologians & pastors can no longer afford to mimic Christians from other places. They have been there & done that & it did not work. The price was too high. They can no longer afford to be satisfied with congratulations from their Western sisters & brothers for maintaining the status quo. Too many lives have been wasted. They are now in the business of exorcising Legion, exorcising the demons of lies upon lies about themselves & their neighbors, demons that have blinded them to the image of God imprinted in their own cultures, in their own languages, & in the color of their skin. They are now taking the risk of trusting God.
And see, the new things that God is doing among them, calling them out of the tombstones of nostalgia into dreaming of the future & how good it is going to be, calling them out of the tragic habit of maintaining the church of the present rather than building the church of the future, a church that takes life’s complexity seriously & searches for new ways, new structures, new concepts, new theologies, new language, new metaphors to speak directly, clearly & meaningfully about God. They have to get new wineskins for this new thing God is doing. There is no way the old skins can hold the new wine! The excitement is sometimes overwhelming when they catch a glimpse of God’s church of the future, where the Gospel runs deeper than the blood of their differences.
Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. And Jesus sent the healed tomb-dweller away, saying: Return home & tell the story of what God has done for you. The no-longer mad man was sent home by Jesus. He did not want to go home but that is where he was sent. He wanted to travel with Jesus, healing the sick, restoring sight & hearing to the blind & deaf, multiplying loaves & fishes & feeding five thousand. He probably wanted to be a part of that exciting disciple life, but Jesus sent him home.
Go home & tell. Go home. Home: the toughest of all mission fields. Home, where everybody thought they knew him & yet nobody knew him. Home, where everybody was equipped with the ability to press the buttons that could lead him to lose his sanity again. Home. Go home to your friends. Home to your family. Go home & tell!
Can you picture him going home? Can you visualize the villagers watching him? The anxiety as word spreads through the village about the man they knew as mad, howling, self-destructive, a tomb-dweller looking for a room to rent. He has come down from the hills & is looking for a job. Lord help us all. He is planning to live here. Imagine the curiosity, security on high alert. He walks into the village fully clothed & in his right mind, knowing his name. And he is no longer howling.
He softly sings, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I am found, was blind but now I see.” Yep, that is the song he sings! The song written by a former slave-trader years ago. The man is changed. After years of legion occupation, people can change.
The villagers are bewildered & look at each other wondering, “Is there something greater than Legion? Is there medicine for the madness?” His friends cautiously approach him, just a nervous handshake; he has not taken a bath yet after all.
They look at him curiously, closely, missing nothing, noting the scars & ask him, “What happened? What really happened? We heard about the pigs! It is a wonder your affliction did not kill you.”
Let us pray. God of all, enlarge our hearts, that we may recognize each person as part of your beloved family. Tear down the walls of prejudice & racism that divide us. Grant us the vision to look at the stranger & see your face. Remind us that the things that divide us – gender, race, economic & social status, religion, & education – are not important in your eyes. For we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.