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Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2013

It’s the bottom of the eighth inning in the final game of the World Series. The Nationals are losing by two runs. But the other team’s pitcher has loaded the bases, and the cleanup hitter is at bat. The count is 3 and 2, and the pitcher throws his famous curve ball. The hitter has faced these pitches before and has never been good at hitting them. But this time it is different. The hitter takes a swing and hits one over the left field wall for a grand slam home run. The Nats fans are screaming, the other team’s fans are groaning and over it all, the newscasters are proclaiming that it is a whole new ball game. With that one hit, everything changes. The Nats go up by two, and suddenly the world looks brighter. Of course for the other team, the world looks less rosy.

Jesus hits a grand slam home run in today’s gospel, not using physical power but spiritual power. A man is delivered from a plethora of demons, and the world in Gerasa is changed, not only for the man, but for Jesus, the demons and the townspeople as well.

Jesus changes because this is the first and only time in Luke that he enters Gentile territory. He crosses theSea of Galileedeliberately to enter lands that would be foreign to a Jewish rabbi and his followers. The people kept pigs, anathema to the Jews, but Jesus came to heal and make everyone whole, not just the Jews. Salvation for everyone is an important theme in Luke, and Jesus’ presence here foreshadows the Gentile mission that is so prominent in Acts.

Jesus is met by a man possessed by demons, who falls down before him. The demons recognize Jesus as Son of the Most High God even though the villagers don’t. They recognize his presence is not going to mean good things for them. They know they cannot control his power to exorcise them and their existence will change, but they bargain with him. They don’t want to go back to the abyss, the place where evil spirits live, so they ask if they can enter the herd of pigs nearby. We do not know why Jesus gives permission, but he does, and when he commands them to come out of the man that is where they go, hoping to have a new home. But because demons are destructive and Jesus is powerful, the pigs, instead of being in the demons’ control, rush into the sea and are drowned. The belief of the time was that demons could not live in water, so all of those demons were destroyed instead of being allowed to wander the earth possessing other poor creatures.

Of course the man is changed. He is an outcast in the community. He lives in the tombs,   an unclean place. The townspeople want to keep themselves safe, so they try keeping him under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he breaks all the bonds. The worst thing for this poor soul is that he has no identity (David Lose). He cannot even answer when Jesus asks him his name. The demons reply for him, saying his name is Legion. He has literally become the demons that have taken root in him, perhaps not possessing even a shred of sanity. But after Jesus exorcises this man, he sits at Jesus’ feet clothed and in his right mind. He has been healed – physically, emotionally and spiritually – by the awesome power of God that is present in Jesus.

The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac is the second of four miracle stories in which Jesus changes the game by performing powerful works. Before this exorcism, he has calmed the wind and the waves for the disciples, and after it he heals the woman with the flow of blood and raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. In each case when Jesus enters the picture the whole world changes. Jesus brings new life in places of illness and death. He brings abundance in the face of scarcity. He brings health in places of brokenness. The subjects of the miracles are of course changed as the demon possessed man was, and the response to Jesus’ power is awe and wonder. But this story is different. The people in the community are changed, but their response is not awe and amazement. The swineherds rush off to tell the people in the town, probably putting more emphasis on the loss of their herd than on the healing of the man. When the people come back to see the man, now liberated from a living death, they are frightened and they ask Jesus to leave them. They do not want things to change. It is a true case of “better the devil you know than the change you do not know”. They know what their community is like with the possessed man. They have even worked out a way to handle the situation. But they do not know what they will become if Jesus stays in their midst. Jesus comes to them to offer blessing, but not one person asks to be healed. Not one person expresses wonder at this powerful man and the good he can do. They want him gone. So Jesus leaves and goes back toGalilee. The healed man, who has joined Jesus’ team and become a disciple, wants to go with him, but Jesus tells him to stay and tell the people how much God has done for him. He leaves a representative of team Jesus in the midst of team Status Quo to continue to invite them to discipleship, to keep the healing power of Jesus in the minds of the community. They are probably more irritated by the man proclaiming the good news than they are by managing him when he was demon-possessed.

We do not understand demons in the same way today as they did in first centuryPalestine, but we all have them. Michael Rogness says all the demons Jesus confronts have three things in common – they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim, the victim feels trapped in that  condition and they separate the victim from normal living in the family circle. Untreated mental illness, addictions, idolatry of money or power, resentment and unforgiveness, along with many other voices inside us and outside us can rob us of our ability to become all that God created us to be. They can rob us of our ability to be disciples. They can rob us of our identity. They can separate us from God, from ourselves and from our fellow human beings.

But, thanks be to God, Jesus has hit another grand slam home run to help the home team win. In his life, death and resurrection, he has won for us reconciliation with God. He has won for us our baptismal identity as beloved children of God (David Lose), created in God’s image and likeness and made to co-create a just society with the Maker of us all. We can trust that Jesus’ ability through the Holy Spirit to employ the power of God to eradicate our demons is available to us, not only when we know who we are at our core and ask for it, but even when we do not. Our identity as a member of team Jesus is secure.

When we are aware of our identity as a member of Jesus’ team, we are reconciled to God, to ourselves and to others. We trust God to care for us, we submit our demons to Jesus to exorcise, and we care for those who are marginalized as Jesus did. I was appalled to read in the Washington Post that more than 2,400 students inFairfaxCountyare homeless, 355 of whom are defined as unaccompanied youth, meaning they are living on the street without family support. But Jesus hit a home run again, and social worker Marcella Fulmore helped the two students profiled in the article to start making new lives for themselves and graduate from high school as many homeless students do not. As Christians we look with awe and wonder at what God has been able to accomplish in these lives through others who were open to God’s activity in their lives. We are not afraid of more whole and restored people as the Gerasenes were; we are filled with gratitude at God’s grace.

Jesus possesses the great spiritual power of God. When he comes into our lives to save us and give us abundant life, it is a whole new ball game. Are we going to react with faith and love and become part of team Jesus or are we going to react with fear, putting Jesus out of our lives and ending up on team Status Quo fearing the unknown. The stakes are high; our healing and wholeness hang in the balance. Embrace your identity as a child of God, and live according to the values team Jesus stands for. Go to the people where you are and tell them all God has done for you. Only by doing that can we become all God intended us to be.

AMEN.

  - Rev. Ann Barker


Works cited:
David Lose, “Legion” Blog post
Michael Rogness, Working Preacher, “Commentary on Luke 8:26-39”, Blog post
David Lose, ibid.