Gospel of Luke 8:26-39
June 19, 2016
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands
Happy Father’s Day. And, this is a sad Sunday following the atrocity that happened in Orlando one week ago today. And as often happens in our lectionary, the section in Luke’s Gospel from which we hear this morning’s reading perfectly tees up either observance.
This morning’s reading is immediately preceded by the passage in chapter 8 of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus calms the raging storm from the bow of a small boat in which his disciples are …..flipping out, to say the least. Jesus seems to be napping through the maelstrom as his disciples harshly awaken him with screams that they are perishing and he should do something to help! So Jesus rises from his repose, summarily calms the storm, and the stunned disciples fearfully exclaim: “who is this man who makes the wind and water obey him?” It is a perfect biblical tee for a father’s day sermon.
And the passage continues as Jesus steps out of his rickety little boat onto a foreign land, where he encounters a naked man who lives among the tombs in a graveyard. Again, a great beginning for this Youth Eucharist! We can already tell another fantastical miracle is about to unfold. And sure enough, the man runs up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and out of his mouth comes the voice of one of the demons who inhabit him. And the demon says, straight away, without any introductions: “What have you to do with me, Jesus , Son of the Most High God?” Holy Cow! How does this demon, this unclean spirit who is inhabiting this unstable man, know Jesus? With no snapchat to vouch for him, how does this spirit know Jesus? Jesus is a stranger in this land.
Nevertheless, this demon seems to know exactly with whom he is dealing! And Jesus knows too, for he immediately commands the demon to come out of the man. But the demon begs Jesus not to torment him. And rather than asserting his own power and position, Jesus responds by asking the demon-filled-man for his name. The man answers that his name is Legion on account of the many demons, the legion of demons, that inhabit him.
And all at once the scene escalates from one demon against one Son of God, to a whole slew of demons who are begging Jesus not to send them….”back into the abyss.” In the Book of Revelation, the abyss is the place of the beast. No wonder they do not wish to go there!
Instead, they ask to be banished into a herd of swine peacefully grazing nearby on the hillside. And in a stunning plot twist, a startlingly unexpected turn of events, a wildly unforeseen shift in the fortunes of good and evil, Jesus gives the demons what they want. He lets them have their way! Instead of banishing them to the abyss, he allows them to transfer from the presumably innocent, albeit possessed, man to a herd of presumably innocent swine….from one troubled soul to a whole gathering of creatures on the margin of the cultural strata. And then for the big finish, the pigs, filled now with the demons, stampede down the steep hill and throw themselves into the lake where they ultimately drown….to death.
This story would make for a great video game or a smashing action movie, but does it make for Good News? And it is hard to read this passage and not hear some echo of Orlando. In fact, I can’t really think of a single Gospel narrative that might be a better set up for a sermon on Orlando than this one. It is almost too perfect.
Except, of course for the role of Jesus! But otherwise, the stories are not dissimilar. The unstable tomb-dweller known only by his demons. He is Legion. And his demons rule him completely. And then there is the innocent carnage that results when the demons are discharged. We can see an emerging allegory with our own modern day massacre.
It all feels fearfully familiar except that it is Jesus who dooms the innocent swine. And we can’t help but wonder why would Jesus favor the request of the demons over the lives of the pigs? Why didn’t this Son of the Most High God just zap the demons back to where ever demons come from, cure the poor possessed plaintiff, and get on with spreading the Good News? See what God has done for you? Abracadabra, amen.
But at the end of this successful exorcism we have a decidedly unsettled scenario that includes a whole herd of “sacrificed” livestock, not to mention the swine herders whose livelihood has just dropped off the map. And let’s not forget the certainly traumatized witnesses thereto fore minding their own business on the bucolic landscape. There seem to be a lot more victims at the end of this story than there were at the beginning….before Jesus showed up to “help.” So what’s up with that? This Good News seems to apply only to the one guy who got rid of his demons. Everyone else, the pigs, the pig herders, and the poor bystanders who witnessed such a sight all got scatta, as Thalia’s Greek grandmother would have said.
So where in this story told both in Mark and Luke, is the Good News? Where is the Good News that God will protect us from the Legions of demons that live among us?
But that’s the thing. This story, like the heartbreaking events in Orlando tends to set us up to understand the world as a battle between good and evil. Between innocent folks and demons. If I hear one more gun enthusiast say that more weaponry is the way the good guys will protect us from the bad guys….I think I may scream. And, if I am entirely honest, I think I don’t own a gun because I’m afraid I would use it. Because the cold hard truth is that none of us is entirely good and none of us is entirely bad. What we are is human. We are all a bit of Legion.
Who among us is not possessed by something “unclean”? Who among us does not feel even a distant resonance with the plight of Legion? A twinge of “uncleanliness” in our own selves. A modicum of shame about our own demons? And by demon, I mean a destructive power that possess and dominates us – like say, political or social or economic oppression; or mental illness; or a personal frailty that haunts our very existence like depression or an addiction or a phobia or an eating disorder or a weight problem; or maybe malice in one’s heart like greed, or envy, or hate. And the list goes on and on and on. It goes on and on and on because we are human. And being human means that we are each and all vulnerable. And our vulnerabilities often become our demons; dark forces over which we seem to have little or no control.
And so it would behoove us to remember that every one of us is abundantly vulnerable, and broken, in some way or at some time. Not unworthy, but un-perfect, and in some significant way. Although the strength of our demons and debilitations may vary by degrees, we are all in this together. I think we are as related to the victims in Orlando as we are to the shooter. Not in our hatred, but in our humanity, in our capacity for the sort of fragmentation and fear that is fueling the violence in this world. We are all subject to the sort of alienation and fracture that can drive a person to unspeakable behavior.
And unfortunately, our demons only retreat without significant struggle and sacrifice, in the movies. In real life, there are myriad costs and casualties that come with exorcizing our demons. In real life, there is a price to pay for our freedom, for the relief from that which otherwise possesses us. In real life, we make choices, knowing that we must make sacrifices. And for those of you who are young enough to be footloose and fancy free of demons at this moment in your gorgeous lives, remember this as you grow into your own…human-beingness. One day you too will meet your demons. And your freedom will likely cost you plenty. It will be well worth it. But it will not be without pain and sorrow.
I am still, however, very uncomfortable about the sacrifice of the pigs. As the resident Rev’d. Dr. Doolittle, I have spent a lot of time over the years researching this passage in Luke’s Gospel. I am desperately seeking a way to hear it as Good News. I have tried to console myself with the comfort that Jesus did not actually order the spirits into the swine, as he ordered the storm to cease in the previous passage. Rather, he allowed the demons to inhabit the pigs. He simply gave them permission. But that has always seemed cold comfort.
Until now. Because hearing this passage in the context of the Orlando massacre, I think I finally get it. Sometimes, no matter how hard we search for some angle or information that will make sense of the narrative, we simply can not. Some stories are simply not good news, any way we slice them. With some stories, there is simply no way to make sense of the narrative. No matter how many ways we flip them over. No matter how many times we change the perspective. No matter how liberally we convolute the Greek. Some narratives are simply devoid of Good News, at least on their own.
And so sometimes the Good News is not in the story, but in the way we hear and respond and react to the story. Sometimes the Good News is the way we feel when we hear the bad news. The Good News is in the grief that we feel for the innocent creatures who mercilessly lost their lives, and in the empathy that we share with those who love and depend on them. The Good News is that one year after the shootings in Charleston, there are no longer a half a dozen confederate flags on the road in rural CT where Thalia and I have a piece of property, or flying over the state house in South Carolina, or available on license plates in Texas, Virginia or Maryland. The Good News is that there is now gun legislation on the table after a Senate filibuster and a House boycott of the lip-service-moment-of-silence that is held after every mass shooting in this gun-happy country. The Good News is in the rainbow lights that illuminated so many major monuments in the world this week: the White House, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and local monuments in Brussels and Naples and Liverpool and the list goes on! The Good News is in the London Gay Men’s’ Chorus singing Bridge Over Troubled Waters to a heartbroken country across the Atlantic Ocean. The Good News is in the Lt. Governor of Utah, a straight white republican male, who stood at a packed rally in Salt Lake City this week and apologized to the LGBTQI community for his past treatment and transgressions. He said: “It shouldn’t matter that most of the victims of the shooting were gay, but I’m here because it does.” That is some Good News right there! And then he said: “They are you and they are me.” How great is that Good News?!
The bad news is that so are Omar Mateen and Dylann Roof. They are both you and they are both me. But the way that we hear their stories, like the way that we hear the demise of the herd of swine, makes all the difference. Actually, the way we respond and act in the wake of hearing those stories makes all of the difference. The compassion and mercy and solidarity that such abject bad news engenders is pure gold. In fact, I think it is the Good News that underlies the Golden Rule.
It is the bad news that invites us to make the Good News. Our hearts are most fully opened when they are most deeply broken. And so the bottom-line-news is that sometimes we need to hear the bad news before we get ourselves moving to make the Good News. So sometimes, the Good News is entirely in our own hands. And that is the Gospel truth. The only way the Gospel is Good News in the world is if we make it so.
Jesus does not command the demons to go into the swine, he permits it. He allows the demons to use their free will. So what about our free will?
In the wake of the violence that has flowed from the rampant racism and homo and trans phobia exacerbated by the obscene availability of weapons of war, how will we use our free will? How will we use our divine likeness to turn these seemingly pervasive stories of heartbreaking bad new into the Good News that we were born to spread? Because like it or not, it is we who can make or break the Good News.
© June, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw