2 Pentecost: True Story

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We just heard my favorite Gospel story.
To my way of thinking about it
it is the most wonderful of many, many
wonderful stories.
So I am not going to preach today,
I am just going to unwrap a few things
you may not have noticed in the story.
In other words,
the story preaches itself.

In those days everything had spirits
and demons
inhabiting them: tables, trees, stones and people.
Stub your toe on a rock?
It’s the demon of the rock
that just struck you.
epilepsy…all 21st century names
for 1st Century demons.

By the way,
I know the poem doesn’t exactly match
the story — it goes with Jesus
stilling the storm.
But think of the wild man
in the cemetery
as a storm — as a killer storm —
and the Mary Oliver poem
works beautifully

Now, we do not know
what hour of the day
Jesus and his crew arrived
on the shore of the Gerasenes.

For dramatic effect
I like to imagine it was dusk.

No 1st Century Judean or Galilean
in their right mind
would willingly go to Pigsville
if they didn’t have to.
You hired someone to go there for you if you could.
The country of the Gerasenes was pig country –
where Gentiles like us lived.
You know, Goi or pig-eaters.

To put it mildly, such people
were spiritually filthy.
No one with an ounce of spiritual wisdom
went to Gentile country
where they would become defiled
simply by association with pig-eaters.

That makes me think
that Jesus and crew got becalmed
out on the lake
and finally ended up
drifting to the wrong side.
Maybe it was late and they were tired,
so they figured on sleeping on the beach
until dawn and then shove off.
But that’s not how it came down.

as soon as they took that first step
onto the beach
they were met by the demoniac.

Here is one of the first little details
I just love about this story.
In the translation we’re using today,
Luke calls him, “the madman from town.”
Translations that stick closer to the original
say “a man from the CITY who had demons.”

Think of the severe social and political rupture
we have now between urban and rural America.
Jesus and his disciples were mostly
country peasants.
The demoniac was a urbanite
who had fled into the wilds.
It is worth noting
that Jesus was popular in the countryside
but found himself crucified in the city.
This story may be a fore-shadowing.

The demoniac was also naked.
Public nudity was not allowed in Judaism.
And living among the dead was a defilement as well.
Luke says he’d been naked for a long time,
by which he might have meant
the wildman didn’t have any tan lines.

So a big, naked, hairy guy
met them on the beach
probably smelling to high heaven,
and immediately begins shouting at the top of his lungs

Another cool detail.
Spiderman, Superman, or Batman
would have beat up or killed the guy
because that is what our superheroes do.
Our Gospel story guy…heals the enemy.

Compared to Marvel Comics
or James Bond,
Jesus is kind of boring.

Confronted by this wild,
screaming mass of ferocious energy
Jesus does something truly astounding.
It is something that even you and I could do,
but usually don’t have the presence of mind to do it.

In response to this loud, menacing figure
Jesus simply asks for his name.
But it is not just practicing good manners
on Jesus’ part.
In that culture,
to know the name of someone
or something
was to know its essence —
it was to know its power.

Whether a god, spirit, demon,
person, place, or thing,
its name gave it meaning
and the meaning described its power.

If you wanted to utilize the power
of that god, spirit, person, or place
you had to know its name.

When Moses meets God for the first time
and God tells Moses to go back to Egypt
and free the slaves –
an adventure that would likely get him killed –
Moses insists on knowing God’s name.
“What kind of God are you,” he asks,
“because I know what kind of god Pharaoh is
and what kind of other gods he has backing him up.
And if your just a little old fertility god or something,
I am not going.”

In the Gospel of Mark,
when Jesus meets God for the first time,
which is at the Jordan River
with John the Baptist looking on,
God names Jesus, “the Beloved.”

Joshua was a very popular name
and meant, “YHWH saves.”
But through Mark’s story,
Jesus is the Joshua who is God’s “Beloved.”
That’s a big name.

Even for us, in our 21st century sophistication,
when we can name something that is bothering us,
we suddenly have a new grasp on it.
When we finally have a firm diagnosis,
or arrive at an “Ah Ha!”
that fills in a nagging blank,
there is an almost immediate sense
that we can do something about it.

Naming the problem is the first step in solving it.
Naming the enemy is the first step
in reconciling with them.
Naming the illness is the first step in treating it.
To know the name
is to know the power,
and in the end, this story is really about power.
In the end, of life that is,
the question for all of us is,
“How did we use our power?”

So back to the story.
Jesus asks the demoniac his name
and here Luke gets in a little dig.
“My name is Legion.” he says.
Our weird translation says, “mob.”
Legion is the name of the oppressor.

If you are a 1st Century Jew
living at the margins of the Roman Empire
and hating them with every fiber in your body,
Legion is the name that personifies your hatred.
A name with the essence of hatred
is indeed a powerful name.

A Roman legion was 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers
which was more than enough
to subdue a rural backwater like Galilee
where Jesus was from.
6,000 Roman soldiers
could crucify, rape, and pillage a lot of peasants.

6,000 Roman soldiers could tax
and bankrupt
and dispossess an awful lot of people.
So to call the Gentile demon Legion
was both a description
of the demoniac’s power
and a commentary
on the Roman Empire.

Trigger warning for Animal Rights people,
a whole bunch of pigs die.
Jesus doesn’t actually send the demons
into the swine herd,
he just insists that they leave the naked man.
So in a reverse of COVID or the Swine Flu,
the legion jumps out of the human genome
and into the swine.

The pigs here are obviously a metaphor
for everything that is wrong with Gentiles.
But the fact that Jesus is engaged in healing a Gentile
was incredibly radical.
The fact that he has anything to do
with people like us
was also incredibly radical.

To truly pick up on this story
we have to think Bernie vs MAGA,
Iranians vs Saudi Arabians,
Pakistanis vs Indians,
Palestinians vs Israelis.

The implication of this story for 1st century
Judeans and Galileans,
was that all borders can be crossed
and no boundaries will be kept
and no limits will be acknowledged
to the love of God
around the table of community.

You and I can intellectually
assent to this idea
but if we truly lived it out,
if we truly believed it,
we would not live
in segregated neighborhoods
and lead lives or hold friendships
so thoroughly segregated by
and sexuality.
If we really bought into this ideal
of diversity and inclusion
that is so often touted in the least diverse settings,
then building congregations and institutions
with deep and meaningful diversity
would not be so difficult.
Rather, it would be the natural thing to do.
So if we are really honest
this story has as much bite now
as it did for those who first heard it.

Well there are two more little nuggets
tucked into the end of this story
that are my two favorites.

The Garesenes are scared to death of Jesus
and they ask him to leave their country.
It doesn’t say why Jesus scares them so,
but I think it was the fear
of Jesus’ impact on the economy.
If Jesus would so easily
allow the devastation of private capital
for the sake of one naked, flailing demoniac,
then there is no telling
where Jesus’ influence would lead.

Clearly his values were inverted
if he thought that the cost-benefit ratio
of the demoniac to a valuable herd of pigs
was acceptable.
They didn’t need an influence like him around, especially one with the kind of power
that they couldn’t control.
The demoniac was bad enough,
but clearly Jesus
was more powerful than the demons.

Finally, and to tell you the truth,
my favorite part of the story,
is the surprising ending.
It ends just like it began,
on the beach
with Jesus and his pals
getting into their boats,
and the now-healed demoniac
right there in their faces.

By the end of the story,
the healed-demoniac has
showered, shaved and dressed,
so he is more pleasant to be around.
But still, when he asks to go with Jesus,
Jesus says, “no.”

The poor guy begs – begs it says – to go with them.
But Jesus says “no.”
”No, you can’t come with me.
No, you cannot get into the boat and go with me.
No, you cannot follow me.”

What I love so much about this ending
is how subversive it is to evangelical
and even mainline Christian thinking.
No, not everyone has to follow Jesus.
No, not everyone gets to follow Jesus.
Jesus tells the the sad and downcast man
to stay at home
and tell the people he lives with,
the ones he works and plays with,
about how good God has been to him.

In other words,
Jesus sends him to be
where he has the most power –
with the people he knows.

I told you this was about power.

Power is the ability to influence,
and the ability to influence change.
MAGA enthusiasts don’t have much ability
to change the hearts and minds of people
who are absolutely hostile to them,
but they do have enormous power and influence
to change the hearts and minds of those
who are true believers with them.
And vis versa.

Most of us have far more power
to influence prejudice
among our peers
than we do influencing strangers.
So the punchline of this story
is go where your power is.
Use your power
to influence change
among the people who you know best
because that is where you are most powerful.

Finally, and really finally,
just one more little detail to note.
Jesus tells the guy to go back to his people
and tell them how good God has been to him.
What does he do?
He goes back, Luke says, and tells them about Jesus.

I think the truly amazing nature of the Gospel
is that it is not about Jesus –
we have corrupted it to be about Jesus
but that is not what it is about.
Jesus was about God
and changing the world
through the love of God.
Jesus was always pointing to God
and not himself.
But the succeeding generations
made it all about Jesus.

The clear message of this story
is that we do not have to be followers of Jesus
to be agents of God’s love.

What a great story — so unexpected.
It’s all about using our power
to change the world
as agents of God’s love.