Into The Lake

October 11, 2015
Mark 5:1-20

Once he had a family, but that was before. Now there is no place for him. Everyone has had to distance themselves from him, his violent threats and outbursts are too dangerous, even for those who love him. He has exhausted his family and friends, used up every last grace they might have for him. They tried tying him down with restraints but he broke them. They put him in chains and he broke those as well. The violence eats him up; the only thing left for him is to live among the graves, with the dead. With no one else around to threaten, he becomes a threat to himself. He cuts himself with rocks, he crashes into the tombs, howling in physical, and psychic, pain. All the anger, hurt and violence that he witnessed (and inflicted) outside of himself is turned inward, to his own body, mind and spirit.

Even from far away, Jesus can tell – Jesus can hear – something coming at him. The man is far off and already Jesus is speaking in a low voice, “Come out unclean spirit, come out of this man, unclean spirit.” The man approaches Jesus, in fact comes barreling toward Jesus and then -abruptly stops. He bows low, shrieking his recognition of the power within Jesus. “What do you want with me, Firstborn of the Most High God? Swear to God, you will not torture me!”

Now there is an irony. The man is already tortured, is a torturer himself. Why ask to be saved from torture? Can it get any worse? This is the demon trying to save itself. This outcry at Jesus is an attempt to exorcise Jesus before Jesus can exorcise the demon.

It is Jesus’ spiritual power vs. the demon, face to face. Jesus doesn’t flinch, does not shriek or even raise his voice. Jesus calmly asks who is speaking. The Spirit within the man says, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Yes, there is so much in this man, so much violence and anger and hate.

But it is not only that. This is the gospel writer calling out the Roman occupation, the Roman Legion that causes turmoil, oppression and violence. The Roman Legion is so big and overwhelmingly powerful that it effects Jews and Gentiles alike. There is no controlling the Legion. It has finished with the living and now it lives among the dead; it is death.

This is not the first time that Jesus encounters an evil spirit in the gospel of Mark. In chapter 1, Jesus goes to teach in the synagogue at Capernaum. There a tormented Jewish man calls out to him, just as Legion does, “Jesus, holy man of God, what do you want from us? Have you come to destroy us?” Once again the evil spirit so completely recognizes Jesus that it tries to cast out Jesus before he can act. So it is that Jesus’ ministry begins with exorcism, right there in the synagogue. In Gerasa, the Gentile man is consumed by an even more virulent evil.

In the gentile area of Gerasa, there is a herd of swine, minding their own piggy business as they eat along the hillside. “Legion,” afraid of being cast into nothingness by Jesus, asks to be sent into the herd of pigs. The Jewish Jesus knows that pigs are unclean, so he complies. Now the evil spirits create a new kind of havoc – within the pigs. In a frenzy, 2000 pigs run down the hillside and into the lake, where they drown.

This is good news for the man formerly known as Legion but it looks like bad news for the swineherds who have just lost their property in the lake. Legion may have been angry and violent but now there is a whole other group of angry people. The swineherds run to the town where they spread the news of this man Jesus who has destroyed their livelihood and wiped out their family income.

The townspeople come running to see for themselves if the pigs have drowned, if the man is healed. As they come close to Jesus, they see the formerly uncontrollable man, sitting, calmly, looking as if he fits right in; someone has replaced the shreds he used to call clothes with a new robe and sandals. Upon hearing the story again, this time from the people who watched the whole thing go down, the townspeople are terrified. Instead of gratitude for an act of healing and wholeness, instead of seeing a man restored to the community, all the townspeople can see is that their income might be headed for the bottom of the lake next. In an attempt to preserve their way of life, they beg Jesus to leave the area. Violence and evil are not their concern.

In our day, with our world view, a healing story like this seems ridiculous, fantastical. Evil spirits, stampeding pigs? Miracles and magical thinking. It just isn’t pertinent, certainly not believable.

But if we slow down and pay close attention, there are pieces of this story that sound familiar. Too many of us know people who are so torn up inside – that they use knives to tear up their flesh on the outside; the physical pain from cutting seems mild in comparison to the psychic agony they endure. It’s not rocks like “Legion” uses but the intention, and result, are the same.

Perhaps “Legion” is a Roman soldier himself, who no longer endorses or understands the violence demanded of him by the Caesar. Perhaps the real problem begins for Legion when he no longer sees every Jew as a criminal, or every thief deserving of death. The cruelty of thousands of crucifixions along the side of the road no longer seem an effective deterrent. The unending violence no longer make sense to Legion.

Does this begin to sound familiar? What about U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, fighters for any military or militia that suffer from Post Traumatic Stress. The horror of seeing death and destruction, of inflicting death and destruction on others is too much. There is no peace for them unless there is violence or chaos or drugs or alcohol.

What of the townspeople, more concerned with the protection of their property and pigs than for the health and life of a neighbor? After each death attributed to gun violence in this country we hear the familiar refrain that there is nothing that can be done – unless it is to arm even more teachers, more neighbors. A segment of this country would rather live with the extreme danger of easy gun availability than see their way of life end up at the bottom of a lake. Our closely held ideals of wealth, success and comfort are more important than actual health, safety and peace for everyone.

As Anabaptists, we strive to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth. Mennonite Church USA has a vision statement: God call us to be followers of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace so that Gods healing and hope flow through us to the world. How can we become part of this vision, this healing and hope? In Jesus healing looks likes a powerful but peaceful presence, so filled with assurance of the goodness of creation and creator that he does not cower when he meets the embodiment of violence and death that is Legion. Jesus is unafraid of the unknown and unexplainable and at the same time one with God.

Using this model of Jesus may make it seem impossible for us to be healers or maybe even to receive healing. One of the reasons that we understand Jesus as a powerful healer is because we know he suffered his own wounds and rose above them, rose despite them.

One way to become part of the healing community of Christ is to acknowledge our own wounds. If we jump over our own healing, ignoring the wounds we carry within ourselves, (or even try to avoid being wounded in the first place) our capacity as healers is lessened.

On sabbatical I read my old journals: I was surprised to see that I began to talk about attending seminary when I was 19 years old. At age 29 I entered seminary, but not to be a pastor, just to enrich my understanding. I didn’t do all that well in my pastoral care classes, my desire to have the right answer and make everything okay sort of got in the way. It was just too scary to participate in the deep pain of others, too overwhelming to contemplate.  What if I said the wrong thing? Had nothing to say at all? Even after I graduated from seminary I had no plan to become a pastor.

Then my mother got sick with cancer and died. I was 35 years old with two babies and a whole lot of pain and rage. Hard work and plenty of tears with a good therapist made space to finally breathe again. Soon after this I experienced a loss from my own body, a miscarriage. Another round of grief and pain was forced upon me. This time, ordered to stay in bed, tended to by other women who had also experienced the grief of miscarriage, I was able to allow some healing to sink into my body. Slowly, over time, I began to realize that if I could get through the death of my mother and a miscarriage, maybe I could be a pastor and walk with others. I didn’t have to have all the answers. My first pastoral task was to walk with longtime member Darlene Mann and her young adult children as Darlene struggled with cancer. One week after my ordination, I conducted Darlene’s memorial service.

Perhaps it seems strange to understand death as part of a journey toward healing. But for me, it was the recognition of my own deep angry wounds and my own imperfections that has allowed me to walk with others in pain and offer the possibility of hope. I admit, there are certain kinds of pain I am still afraid to encounter in myself and with others. I know this keeps me from being able to find ways to offer healing to people who live on the edges, amongst the “tombs.” There is still healing to do, in myself and with others.

The man formerly known as Legion is so full of gratitude for his healing that he wants to jump in the boat with Jesus and stay with him always. But Jesus says no. “Go home to your people and tell them what God has done for you.” And so this wounded, scared, angry, violent man, becomes the spreader of good news, a beacon of hope. If such a one as this, who howled and gashed himself with rocks and attacked others is now walking serenely and making sense, what else might be possible?

This month in worship we are having a series on healing. It is an opportunity to check in on our wounded selves, and to commit ourselves to being part of healing in this community, in the neighborhood, in the world.

We each carry within us wounds, some too deep to acknowledge or speak and some wounds that we know all to well. This morning, you are invited to take a small step toward healing. If you wish, you make pick up a rock or a few rocks from the bowl at the back of the church or here at the front. As we sing “O healing river” you may bring the rocks forward and put them in the water; drop what used to be weapons of pain into the lake, so to speak. Michelle and I will also be here available to pray with you, now or some time later if you wish.

Whether we physically hold the rocks of wounding or not, we can each examine our own woundedness. We might wonder when and how we will spread the good news of the possibilities for healing.