Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Imagine the scene. Jesus steps from boat to shore off the Sea of Galilee. Stories are circulating about this itinerate Rabbi country preacher. There have been reports of miraculous healings and how he can even command the storms of nature to be still. He is preaching a message of love for God and for one another as the way to salvation and it has the religious leaders in a tizzy. Large crowds follow him wherever he goes, and people are pushing and shoving just to get a glimpse. It would come as no surprise if he were greeted by a large expectant crowd bristling with anticipation. But this day is different.
Instead, one man greets Jesus and his band of followers – filthy and naked – he lives in the tombs among the dead – a man who was out of his mind – a lunatic – a man possessed by demons. He is a man pushed to the extreme margins both by his own people and by the inner voices that control him. And he falls at the feet of the poor one from Nazareth. Thrust on the ground…begging for relief from the demons who imprisoned him.
I get the feeling that this is not the person the hospitality committee would have chosen as their official greeter.
We don’t have to look very far to recognize the demons of our own time. Demons of darkness seem to be prowling around causing torment, division, and death. It seems to me that addiction is at the core of much of our personal, national, and global disorder. Addiction to guns, to violence, and to power. Racism, bigotry, white supremacy, nationalism, sexism, and patriarchy – all are demons who have us in their grip. We need to face them, call them out, and name them, just as Jesus did. Only then will we know freedom from their tyranny.
This Juneteenth weekend we celebrate the liberation of enslaved Black people from Galveston, Texas in 1865. But we still have a long way to go to be free from our dark past in this nation. Slavery has never really been abolished as evidenced by the mass incarceration of Black people and seemingly relentless efforts by some in our nation to deny our Black sisters and brothers the right to vote. Gun violence continues to plague our country with 246 mass shootings so far this year, including the killing of three of our own church family members at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama on Friday. Say their names:
Walter Rainey ………. Sarah Yeager ………. Jane Pounds ………. May they rest in peace.
I have fought my own demons. I grew up in in a household that was in the death-grip of alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic violence. My journey under the lash of addiction lasted for twenty-five years before I was able to throw myself at the feet of Jesus and find relief from what we refer to in Alcoholics Anonymous as the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Twenty-five years later I am a different man. I know from personal experience that no one is beyond God’s grace and love.
In our work with those in prisons we are immersed with people who have pushed to the extreme margins, both by society as well as by the torments of their inner demons that wrestle for control of their lives. They are demons that try to tell them that they are unworthy, that they are forgotten, that they are unimportant, that they are defined by the worst thing they have done, and the biggest lie of all – that they are not loved. But the message of today’s Gospel says no matter who we are, where we have been, what we have done, or had done to us, no one is beyond the grace and love of God.
It is important to note that in today’s Gospel, it is the first and only time Jesus ventures beyond Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes – a predominately Gentile region. Jesus is breaking with convention and moving beyond boundaries. The message is clear: The grace of God is not just for our own tribe, but for all.
We all struggle. We all have stuff within us that can potentially fracture our relationships with God and with one another. Many of us have worked hard to recover our lives from the grip of such controlling influences. And when we do, we can be of great value, even life-changing value, to others who feel lost and in the clutch of their own demons. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says that, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” The great fourteenth-century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, said that there is no purposeless suffering.
That is what makes the story of the healed Gerasene is so powerful. When Jesus broke the chains that had bound his spirit, the Gerasene man wanted to give his life to following him. And he did, but not in the way he thought he would. Jesus asked him instead to stay with his community, the community that had once banished him to the margins, giving-up on him, and leaving him to die – in fact maybe even hoping for his death. What more powerful testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace than to have this man now living God’s love among them in community.
The healed Gerasene man had an important story for his community. I know that my story is important, and I know your story is important too. What is your story? What demons have you wrestled with? Have you given up on people, or had them give up on you? Have you banished others? Have you broken free of the chains that once bound your spirit?
In a few moments we will come forward for communion. We would do well to remember that we come because are both broken and at the same time worthy of God’s grace. We come offering ourselves and reaching out for that grace. And having experienced the healing power of God, we can then go forth, like the Gerasene man, restored and renewed, and go into the world and tell of the good that God has done for us. And that is truly good news for a world in desperate need of some good news.