Journey Series #9: Taming the Demons

Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on July 7, 2013 on Proverbs 3: 1-12 & Mark 5: 1-20 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.

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This past week I was away with the youth group up at the Stony Point Center for their annual week away in mission service and spiritual reflection.   Stony Point Center is working on a few projects that are part of the community life of the people who live there full-time.  They have a multi-faith community, Jewish-Christian-Muslim and so our kids got to meet and interact with some young adults from those three faith traditions studying together over the summer.  That community works in tandem with another project up at Stony Point which is a farming project to grow sustainable food for use at the Center.

One of the Stony Point pigs that graced our bulletin cover.

One of the Stony Point pigs that graced our bulletin cover.

Which brings me to the photo of the pig on the bulletin cover today.  I took that picture this week up at Stony Point.  They purchased two piglets this spring and set up a large area for them to live in over the next nine months.  There they will root up the soil turning it over and also deposit their manure.  Once their work is done, they will be removed and that fenced in area will become another large garden where more vegetables will be cultivated next year.  Sort of natural plowing and fertilizing all at once!

But, what happens to the pigs after their work is done has become a matter of considerable debate at Stony Point.  The plan is that once they are done with their work, probably sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they will be fattened up enough for Stony Point to sell them to a local butcher.   Some of our kids were horrified by this idea; others of them said they hope they can have some of that bacon!

During our week the kids spent the evening doing devotions that my good friend Rick Ufford-Chase led for them.  We worked through scripture readings around questions about nonviolence; we talked about our Christian faith, is it ok for us as Christians to participate in violence?  What is just-war theory?  We looked at the Bible and talked about Jesus and we struggled with our own personal questions about when violence is and isn’t acceptable and about the difficult calling of being people who follow Jesus.  I think for some of our kids it was an energizing conversation, for others it really made them think, and for others it was a bit scary.  Probably the same way most adults react to this sort of conversation!  As one of the trip participant said when thinking about Jesus through this lens, “I don’t want to follow Jesus.  I just want to do my own thing.”  It’s a fair reaction.  Following Jesus is costly.  It makes us give up what we want.  And that is not easy.

The Gospel reading this morning about the Gerasene demoniac is one of those accounts of Jesus in the Bible that invites us into all of these kinds of difficult questions about our faith, our lives, and the call of Jesus.  In the story Jesus is traveling to the region of the Gerasenes, an outpost on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, part of a larger area called the Decapolis, a grouping of ten small cities that were filled with military veterans of the Roman Empire who had colonized the people there.  The description of the man Mark shares with us is depressing and haunting.  As soon as Jesus’ boat makes it onto shore, he encounters the crazed man.  Mark describes him as someone who had become homeless, wandering and living among the tombs in a graveyard; as someone who has created problems for the local townspeople, they had attempted to restrain him with shackles and chains, but he had broken free of those; manically day and night he prowls around the graveyards on the edges of the community wailing and yelling—hitting himself and the graves with stones.   Jesus begins to talk to the man, commanding the unclean spirits to come out of him.  And when Jesus asks the man for his name he says to Jesus, “My name is Legion, we are many.”  Biblical scholars remind us that a legion is a division of two thousand Roman soldiers.  Jesus tells the Spirit the same thing he will later tell Lazarus, “Come out of him!”  There is a herd of pigs nearby and the man implores Jesus to send “us into the swine, let us enter them.”  And so the spirits tormenting the man enter the herd of two thousands pigs who then promptly commit group suicide, running off the edge of a cliff, drowning in the water below.  It is an allusion in Mark’s Gospel to the Exodus story we heard earlier in this sermon series—where the Egyptian army who is chasing after the Israelites is drowned by God in the Red Sea.  And just like in Exodus, God intervenes in a situation of great community pain and separation that is a result of great violence to offer a group of people the opportunity to write a new chapter for their lives that is free from violence and war.

Now you would think that as the people in the town became aware of what Jesus had done they would have thrown him a party!  Can you imagine having a man like the demoniac in your neighborhood, on your street?  The sort of ruckus he’d create?  The sort of fear he would involve everyone in?  The lack of peace you would be able to have in your own home, porch or yard, day-after-day, night-after-night as he screams and hollers and bangs on things with rocks?  But no, they beg Jesus to leave.  They do not even say, “thank you.”  Why is this?  Fear.  They have been occupied by the Roman army.  They know that if they start to fight back, or defend themselves, or resist—that even more violence will come upon them.  And Jesus has now started an anti-imperial movement by healing one of the people who has gone mad because of war.  And the townspeople want to keep it quiet; maybe, just maybe if they can cover it up the Roman army encamped around them won’t know what happened!  And the man, once possessed by the demons of war begs Jesus to take him back across the lake—he is desperate to leave behind all in his life that had tormented him.  But Jesus tells him no, he must stay and be the representation of Jesus—the evangelist to his community.  He must testify to others with the story of his life and how the encounter with Jesus changed him.  And so the man bravely returns into the Decapolis—where there are countless broken and wounded people from the ravages of war and violence.  You can imagine that some will be receptive to his message and others will turn him away.  Yet the man returns.

One of the things we talked to our youth about this week is the cost of violence.  Whether it be the everyday violence of bullying they experience in school all the way to the violence of war that persists in our world today—there is a cost.

The issue about the pigs at Stony Point raised the question of violence.  One of our

The pigs in the area they are tilling, resting from their work at Stony Point.

The pigs in the area they are tilling, resting from their work at Stony Point.

youth said this, “I don’t think it’s really fair.  Those two pigs are going to work all summer for Stony Point and the thanks they get is to be slaughtered.  That doesn’t seem right.”  What do we do when violence isn’t between people, what do we do when the violence we participate is towards animals, or towards the earth?  Is the violence of any less importance?  It is greater?  Does it merit our consideration as people of faith?

Let me leave you today with a story from last Sunday.  Here in this sanctuary we celebrated Edwin Estevez’s ordination.  During it one of his new colleagues from Chicago offered a few words of wisdom about ministry to Edwin.  He said that for all of us, our faith as Christians means a life of struggle.  Figuring out how to best follow Jesus is hard.  What this person described to Edwin is that the only difference between the pastor, the leader of the congregation and the members of his or her church is that as the pastor agrees to “struggle in public.”  Part of me liked that image.  The other part of me didn’t.  One of the problems with church in North America is that we have allowed our faith to be too private.  We don’t talk about our faith much, we don’t share about it, and we keep our concerns or our issues to ourselves much of the time.  We are afraid perhaps to be honest about our disbelief, or our struggles or our failings.   When we privatize our faith in this way, and then send our kids off for a week of mission and spiritual reflection—just like us, they do not have all the tools at their disposal for critical analysis of their faith because for the most part we haven’t modeled it for them.  They don’t see us struggling in public—and so faith becomes easy or sanitized.  And so then when things get difficult—we do not have all the spiritual tools needed at our disposal because the struggles have not been shared in community, which is exactly the place where they belong.

What would it be like if all of us were public about our struggles, our questions, our spiritual journeys with each other? The good the bad and the ugly?

One way to think about Mark’s story of the Gerasene demoniac is that this man was crazed because of his participation in violence and the people in town had become so accustomed to violence that they had given up on doing anything about it.  And then Jesus comes along, and not only expels the violence but leaves them with a person who is now well and who is interested in a new way of life—they want nothing of it, because they are still addicted to the system of war and violence and do not want to change.   Easier to dance with the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

Another way of thinking about the story in Mark’s Gospel is through this advice that Edwin was offered last Sunday.  The demon-possessed man was struggling, and his struggle was public.  And the townspeople were disturbed and bothered by this, and so rather than heal and help him they banished him to the graveyards and tried to chain him up.  If they got honest about his struggle then they’d have to get honest about theirs as well.  And when the man begs Jesus to leave with him it is because he wants to be with other people who are spiritually-well.  But Jesus reminds him that grace is costly, and that ministry and a life of following him means seeking out other lost souls; and healing them by acknowledging their struggles as well and showing them the way to new life.

Either way the story is a reminder that violence is a killer.  Not just of people, but of our souls.  Violence kills the community we seek to have with each other and with the world around us.   And Jesus offers an alternate reality.  Jesus offers a new opportunity at life.  And our job is to step into it, and trusting in God—offer the witness of our struggles to be made new in public—so that others might know Jesus and be saved.   Amen.

*Much of the Mark interpretation comes from the work of Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  John Dear has a good short synopsis.

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