26 November 2020
June 20, 2004
1 Kings 19: 1- 15a
This sermon was preceeded by the children's talk by Raewyn Biel on her work with people who were mentally ill and needed "space, good food and care."
Galatians 3: 23-29 Luke 8: 26-39
I remember vividly one of my first patients when I was a new graduate Dentist at Cherry Farm Psychiatric hospital near Dunedin. He was in the secure unit among the pleasant setting of Doctors Point. Many in the men's unit were dangerous to themselves and sometimes to others but were given as much freedom as possible within the limitations of their illnesses. The charge nurse of that villa was a caring man who knew all his charges well, and often ensured that they had the things they needed which were not supplied by the state. This man needed treatment, but he had episodes of extreme strength, when upset. I saw the stainless steel pipes of the toilet unit which he had torn out of the wall and twisted up in a knot - as though it was a rope.
He like many others need to be kept from self mutilation . I didn't really think it was a good idea to put him in the dental chair with all those shiny sharp instruments beside him but it was clear that he needed treatment. In fact the damage he had done by chewing on nails and goodness only knows what else was probably giving pain which in turn was causing some of the present unrest. He was very afraid of new people, probably with reason.
When I re read this familiar story in Luke, that unnamed man at Cherry Farm came into my mind and I wondered if some idiot thought that he could go into the community and had tried to do so as the institutional system which in his case protected him, was being dismantled.
For he would have been feared and shunned, in different ages his state of being would have been diagnosed as anything from demonic possession needing exorcism, to being in need of cold baths and shock treatment, or chained up in a cell for people to come a peer at him, depending on the society and the century he was born in. In parts of the world this still happens .
He would find himself with different companions at different times in history,, those who disrupted society, who thought differently , those born with brains that did not develop fully, women who were stroppy, those who challenged the order, people oppressed by the system in which they lived and who had responded by not conforming. Sometimes political thinkers. Mental illness has had wide definitions at times. He could end up in prison in some countries.
People would have been afraid of him. We are always afraid of the unpredictability and the unknown. He would have been treated mainly as a non person - subject to all sorts of ill treatment or occasionally in some cultures as specially holy.
In Luke's time there were various theories of illness and disease. One common way of talking about illness was that you were possessed. by a spirit or demon - you were not yourself. It came from beyond you. To get rid of the disease the possession had to leave you. A body could not be left empty or another Spirit would come and possess it therefore the holy Spirit is asked to come and possess you and give you life. We still use this possession language when we ask for the presence of the holy spirit in our church and in our lives. Renmants of old medieval folk cultures linger when we say bless you when someone sneezes - they are losing the spirits.
The ancient Greek had different theories of disease which did not involve possession and Luke the physician would have been familiar with both ways of thinking.
Luke's story tells us about who Jesus is and in the language and thought of the time its also about the mission to the Gentiles. We are given a clue that its going to be uncomfortable when we are told he is one the other side of the lake. Going on the other side always has problems.
Craddock points out that "We don't have to go anywhere to "get to the other side." The "Gentiles" have moved into our neighborhoods -- but what a storm it creates when a congregation makes an intentional effort to reach out to the people who are "different" .
Jesus is met by a naked man shouting at him from the cemetery. He is obviously deranged. But Jesus treats him as a lost human being for whom there is hope. Others have given up on him and he had ended up in the place of death among the tombstones. He asks his name. "Mob" he says.
This man had knew that he no longer had an identity. He had lost his name. He had lost his individuality. All that was left was a boiling struggle of conflicting forces. It was as though a Roman legion was at war within him. A Roman legion consisted of about 6000 soldiers. A lot of "voices" roaming around in one's life -- either from within or without.
Jesus sent the voices packing , his voice was the one to which the man would listen. Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) says There is assurance here for those for whom every day is a battle with depression, fear, anxiety, or compulsive behaviour. Those who understand what would lead a person to say that their name is "mob".
At the end of the story the man was clothed, in his right mind and seated at Jesus feet.
He is commissioned as a missionary to his own people to tell what God has done for him. He is restored to the community. He was healed, that same Greek word is translated as saved, made whole.
But what about those who witnessed this happening. They were afraid. Why weren't they joyful at the arrival of a power greater than that which they feared. Why did they fear when there was salvation, healing and new life? When someone has found their true identity, the voice they needed to have life? Well, I suppose Jesus hadn't chosen the person they would have expected to be the one to preach and teach them.
Craddock (Luke) suggests that Jesus had disrupted the status quo -- their "comfortable" life. In the case of the Gerasene man, the people had it all sorted. They knew the place of the evil demons represented in this man, knew where the man lived, and devoted considerable time and expense trying to guard and to control him and now he's back claiming his full place in society.
A community learns to live with demonic forces, isolating and partially controlling them, co dependant on them. If it is not "spiritualizing" the story too much to say so, the partially successful balance of tolerance and management of the demonic among them also allowed the people to keep attention off their own lives. But now the power of God for good comes to their community and it disturbs a way of life they had come to accept. Even when it is for good, power that can neither be calculated not managed is frightening. What will God do next in our community?
Herbert Anderson in The Family and Pastoral Care, a family systems approach, says "We are willing to trade the freedom to grow and change for the security of knowing that things will be like they have always been." [p. 41] Our national church is at this point at present.
Then there was an economic loss. A community becomes very much involved when the impact of Jesus Christ affects the economy. The gospel does stir the economy, because healings, conversions, and the embrace of Christian ethics radically influences getting and spending. Today we have had Rod Biel explaining that our outreach far beyond the parish casts and we are asked to give so others can reach out with God's love in places we cannot do so ourselves. This would be considered odd by many in our society. The Gerasene people are not praising God that a man is healed; they are counting the cost and find it too much.
Jesus power to bring healing is demonstrated. Among the tombs he brings life and hope. The forces of evil are sent packing but the real challenge is that the people there did not want Jesus around.
The fearful crowd prove to be the harder group to deal with than the demons.
Fear in the human heart, at the end is the ongoing challenge and Jesus does not give up We find that those who had chained the man were themselves the ones at the end who needed liberating.
His chains were the result of their fears and his confusion.
Jesus sends the liberated man back to the fearful crowd to tell them and keep on telling them what God has done for him. They may eventually hear and discover that love drives out fear.
The good news is here for everyone.. And no one is beyond the love of God.
Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
Culpepper [Interpretation - Luke]
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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