Proper 7, Year C
Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19.1-15a
The Collect: O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
God’s Response to Oppressions
When I heard that we would have guests staying with us from Emmanuel Church, Mercer Island, I chuckled just a little as my thoughts skipped back to high school. Once upon a time my youth group traveled all the way from Bainbridge Island to sleep on the floor of Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, where we spent a weekend with Habitat for Humanity. As a young person, crossing the wilds of Seattle felt like a journey unto itself. I was familiar with the narrow strip of the city that extended from the ferry terminal up to Pike Place Market—Kells, to be precise, above which my father worked for many years. Then along mostly fourth avenue up to Belltown, to my grandparents condo located on third avenue–we did not to walk up third avenue. In my adult years since, I have lived in a few neighborhoods, including Ballard, downtown and Uptown. While I could be mistaken as a city dweller, for today I would like to welcome our Emmanuel guests, one islander to another.
Youth group was a rich time for me. My home life was complicated, so the silliness of games and feasting each week functioned as a happy distraction. And at this point in my own baptismal journey, I think it’s safe to say that some of the lessons stuck. In fact, it’s the songs that still haunt me, particularly from years of vacation bible school. For example, after reading through this week’s passage in Luke, out of the blue came the refrain, “With Jesus in the boat you can smile in the storm, smile in the storm, smile in the storm. With Jesus in the boat you can smile in the storm when you’re sailing home. . .” (and repeat ad nauseum) Perhaps you’ve heard this one before. The funny thing about that song is that the message is backwards. First of all, they were not sailing home. Worse, it leaves the singer rocking back and forth, holding on for dear life, while still mustering up a big smile. (And with Jesus doing what, singing along? Sleeping?) But first let me explain why the song came up.
Today’s passage in Luke begins with Jesus and the disciples arriving “at the country of the Gerasenes” and stepping out onto land. Just before they landed, Jesus and the disciples were sailing across the sea, when a storm arose (as they do, particularly in the Bible, when the writer is signaling to get your attention). The disciples, being very human, feared for their lives. And there’s Jesus, taking a nap. Possibly with some trepidation, they get his attention. ‘Hey, Jesus, just so you know, we are about to get tossed overboard.’ Of course Jesus, being Jesus, stands up, rebukes the wind and waves, making all go calm, then turns and asks the disciples, “where is your faith?” So, one conclusion, like in the song, could be to believe that if you’re rocking with Jesus, everything is groovy (no matter how badly the boards are shaking). If only the disciples had faith, they too could smile in the storm.
To test this conclusion, we turn to today’s reading. Here I would like to suggest that there is a common theme across the readings that has to do with God’s response to larger than life forces. And I would also suggest that to better understand this exorcism story—for that is what it is—we will need to return to the sea crossing. (If you can’t shake the song, don’t worry, we’ll get back to it shortly.)
Jesus steps out of the boat, and a peculiar character meets him. Now this man whom Jesus encounters has been so overtaken for so long that, for most of the story, the man himself is not the one speaking. We learn from the text that a demon named Legion has kept the man separated from society, exposed to the elements, and living among the tombs. Under this oppression, the man could not be chained or kept under guard; he had been driven into the wilds. In Mark’s gospel, which offers a close parallel (including the sea crossing), we read that the man howled among the tombs and bruised himself with stones. This man had utterly lost his humanity. Society, after taking what measures they could to contain him, had essentially left him for dead. . . Does this feel strangely familiar? Hold onto those thoughts.
For the disciples this is an incredibly uncomfortable encounter. To begin with they had crossed to a place ‘opposite Galilee.’ While some scholars have noted that, geographically, this passage doesn’t make much sense, socio-politically, the opposite of Jewish space is gentile space, which is where they are. Furthermore, they find themselves witness to Jesus speaking with someone or something other than the person before them. Not only that, the man has been living in a cemetery, which hits at the Jewish taboo of staying away from dead bodies. And then to make it so much worse, the thing called Legion begs Jesus to be allowed to enter a herd of pigs. Taboo upon taboo upon taboo are piled before the disciples. If you can recall the scenes in Indiana Jones films (for those of the age to recall Indiana Jones films) when he encounters a room full of rats or snakes or other icky things—that might hint at the visceral repulsion likely felt by the disciples at this point. How does any of what they are witnessing make sense after they’ve just seen their teacher tell a storm to stop raging? Who is this man, Jesus, and what is he here for?
If the disciples had their say, they likely would not have crossed the sea, to begin with, and they certainly would not have engaged in conversation with a demon-possessed man. How incomprehensibly strange the conversation must have appeared between Jesus and the man. Everyone knows that when you encounter a crazy person at random, you find a way to tactfully avoid them. At least, that’s the polite Pacific Northwest way. . . This scenario makes me think of my grandfather. He was not an outwardly religious man, but he had a way about him, both stern and gentle, that brought order to the world. Every morning my 6-foot tall, Swede of a grandfather, charcoal grey hair oiled into place, faded blue-black anchor tattoo often hidden by a button-up shirt, would descend the elevator of his condo building with his little white dog, Viva. And they would go for a walk. (Now) Belltown at 5:00 am in the 1980s -90s was quite possibly both the same and very different as today. The forces of oppression remain largely unchanged: addiction, poverty, abuse of persons and substances, hunger, generational trauma. For some, they may be yet another generation following in the cycle of ‘down and out’ perpetuated by systems that keep us in our place. For others, a traumatic accident or medical event may have catapulted them to the streets. Then there are those whose ancestors can remember tide flats along Elliott Bay and towering cedar and fir covering every hill; those who are living on occupied territory. Every story, every person is different. And so I think about my grandfather on his neighborhood watch, seeing the people before him; and Viva, trotting along beside him.
With Luke’s narrative we could stay at the personal level: an encounter between Jesus, a legion of demons, and a man thrown into a living hell. Yet certain details invite us to consider other elements. The beauty of scripture dwells in its many facets and angles. So let us approach the story following a different path.
Jesus and the disciples travel across the sea, yet they are still very much in occupied Roman territory. Jesus encounters a demon who is called Legion. This term refers to a unit of the Roman military. So it isn’t too far a stretch to say that here is an image of political and military oppression. Unlike other exorcism narratives, Jesus dialogues with this demon, who begs him not to send them into “the abyss.” The man Jesus encounters is afflicted not by a solitary demon but by a multitude. The language used to describe his oppression is very war-like: he is kept under guard, shackled, chained, even struck with stones (referring to Mark’s gospel). These are much larger forces at work. Ultimately, he can not be restrained, he is driven away from community, and left utterly exposed. This kind of power is distinctly external, foreign even. It originates from outside the man, outside the community.
Jesus and the disciples enter occupied space as soon as they step off the boat—spiritually, geographically, politically. Because of who Jesus is, he will not leave the man as he is, but expels the demons, freeing him from the oppressive forces. By doing so, he so disrupts the order of things that the local community is afraid. They beg him to leave, and cannot receive this as a gift of healing. Read through a social and political lens, we get a sense of just how extensive a transformation has taken place. It is revolutionary. It is on the order of New Creation.
You see, we miss something when we pass over the sea crossing and Jesus rebuking the wind and waves, for that is the set up to the encounter with Legion on foreign, occupied lands. Just as ‘b’ follows ‘a’, the story of the sea crossing sets up the exorcism—if Jesus of Nazareth can calm the natural world with a word, he can certainly overthrow other forces on the earth. There is no need to smile in the storm when there is no more storm. And if he can do that, Roman legions don’t stand a chance—or so some believed. Yet before we head toward a political, militaristic conclusion (as many of the disciples did, frankly), let’s look again from another angle: this Jesus is not only concerned with one man’s sanity, not only concerned with the sociopolitical order that oppresses, he is drawing from the Word at creation so as to point to a deeper reality. These stories are not about conquering creation any more than they are about conquering empires, but they do demonstrate God’s response in the face of fear and oppression. Returning the man to his right mind, and clothing him (so that he may be reunited with friends, family, community) is exactly the work that Jesus came to do; and who are we to say that he does not call us to do the same and more?
Anytime I have to walk down third avenue in Seattle, my guard is up as high as a Victorian collar. If I see someone who appears to be battling their demons on the street, I will move far out of their way. And yet, on good days, I also try to remember simply to make eye contact with those who seem like they need it, or someone asking for money, or holding a sign. A nod, a smile, a reminder and confirmation of an individual’s humanity is a step in the right direction. It is recognition that from the beginning God said that each person is made in God’s image. That anyone who has been baptized is clothed in Christ. As we know too well, across the city the numbers of unhoused persons has steeply increased in just a few years. Sweeps bring people into view where previously they had been hiding under bridges or overpasses. We live in a society that would prefer to move the homeless and the marginalized elsewhere. Give them a bus ticket to anywhere but here. But that is not God’s response to fear and oppression.
God’s response to fear and oppression draws the lost back into community, feeds the hungry so they can think about something other than numbing the pain, covers and protects those who find themselves exposed to inhospitable conditions. God’s response to fear and oppression teaches the community to go to the periphery and the margins; fills the spiritually hungry with the Spirit of God so they can nourish others; clothes and covers all who are baptized in Christ so that they may see the deeper reality of persons. Each one of us is made in the image of God. May we learn to walk in this way today and always, by the Spirit of God who calls forth the New Creation in Christ.