Learning Grace — June 19, 2016

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Carolyn J SharpA Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr. Carolyn Sharp
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 19, 2016

Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Luke 8:26-39

Holy God, in You we know light and peace. Draw us deeper into Your grace. Teach us to mediate Your compassion, that the storms of violence besetting this world may be calmed and our mourning be turned into dancing.[1] May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Jesus had just stilled the storm. His disciples, terrified in their swamped boat, had shouted, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And then, a miracle: at a word from Jesus, the howling wind and raging waves had quieted. In an instant, a vortex of terror had become a breeze over gentle swells.[2] The disciples, astonished, murmur words of thanksgiving as they land the boat on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.[3] Getting out in knee-high water, they wade to the shore and pull the boat up onto the sand. We can almost see the joyous surprise lingering on their faces as they talk and laugh about this wondrous peace they’ve just experienced, about this Jesus who “commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” As they turn from the boat, laughing, they see it. A new threat. Stumbling toward Jesus is a naked stranger with wild, desperate eyes. The windstorm on the lake has quieted, but now they face an even more terrifying spiritual storm: a man possessed by demons.

“For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” This poor man, overcome by malevolent forces, lived naked among the tombs—shamed, in an unclean and desolate place. Surrounded by the dead, he bruised himself on stones and felt the weight of crushing loneliness. The man was tied up, his arms and legs bound by chains so he couldn’t hurt himself or attack the folks who brought him food. But when he was overpowered by the forces that seethed within him, he would break free—break iron shackles—and run raving into the wilderness.

The community there on the shore of the Sea of Galilee did not know what to do. They confined him so as to care for him, but they were too afraid to bring him into someone’s home. They went after him whenever he escaped—to their credit, they didn’t abandon the man. But they were not able to do more. They chained up this terror on the outskirts of their community and generally gave the necropolis a wide berth.

At the sight of Jesus, the possessed man bellows and falls to the ground. Jesus asks the name of the malevolent powers that torment him. The man is not able to speak,[4] but the demons can, and they are compelled to identify themselves. Their name, they hiss, is “Legion.” Right there is probably the scariest moment in the whole Bible. There were many demons tormenting the man. That is really alarming—the idea of someone’s spirit swarming with malevolent presences when the audience had already been chilled at the thought of just one demon. But more than that, it’s scary because “legion” was the term used in the ancient world for a division of the occupying Roman army. There were something like 28 legions throughout the vast Roman Empire in the time of the early Church; each legion had five to six thousand soldiers.[5] The Roman imperial army was powerful beyond anything else then known, and it was notoriously brutal.[6] The Roman army showed no mercy when taking enemy villages—non-combatants were not spared; not even the animals were allowed to live. The regime of Rome enforced gladiatorial combat for centuries and executed many by crucifixion, a torturous fate not only for enemies of the state but also for low-level criminals and escaped slaves.

So for an ancient audience, the term “legion” would have evoked the Roman military forces that relentlessly oppressed communities and individuals, wreaking havoc on bodies and spirits, leaving behind terrible fear, suffering, and loss. For an ancient Judean audience, the dramatic revelation of the demons’ name would have caused a cold shock of fear. “Legion”: a name for the heartless Roman army and the name of the malevolence that had distorted their neighbor’s selfhood beyond recognition.[7] Truly horrifying.

As you know, violence springs from fear, rage, and self-loathing. Those are the emotions that evil forces exploit to maim and kill God’s beloved people, to keep cultural groups at war for generations, to destroy the social fabric of communities. Demons distort the imagination and cripple the spirit, poisoning perceptions and shredding the bonds of families, deforming into aggression and chaos our natural love of peace, our creativity, our capacity for joy. Then, as now, demonic forces delight in violence, rejoicing whenever a battle plan is formulated or a new weapon is designed, whenever someone is taught to hate those of another region or religion or skin color or sexual orientation, whenever troops and their civilian supporters are spurred to violence by rhetoric that promotes force and dehumanization.

Jesus shows us another way.

The demons know that Jesus is mightier than they. A demon in the Capernaum synagogue had already called Jesus “the Holy One of God.”[8] Here, the legion of demons rightly acclaim Jesus the “Son of the Most High God.” They know. Ironically, it is the audience of the story—the ancient hearers and we ourselves—who need to learn.

When people from the city come out to see what had happened, they find the man liberated from demonic possession “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” He has become a disciple, learning at Jesus’ feet the good news of God’s grace, eager to accompany Jesus on the way. The townspeople see this, but instead of rejoicing, they are “seized with great fear.” They see a man has experienced glorious deliverance from a legion of demons—and they are afraid. They ask Jesus to leave. Astounding. I don’t believe for a moment the proposal that because the herd of pigs had drowned, the people are afraid of economic loss. No: they have heard of a power greater than the shackles in which they have placed their trust. They have glimpsed the power of life at work in the necropolis—a power that can create a new future where there had been only terror, wildness, incomprehension, and death.

And it’s too much for them. They may not have understood the demonic forces that made their neighbor writhe and shout. But they knew how to keep that fear under control: with isolation and chains. The possessed man was violent, and their response, too, was violent. Fear begets fear; cruelty begets cruelty, all in the name of security. That, they understood. But the power of Jesus over spiritual disorder was entirely beyond their ken.

You know, the most wrenching phrase in this whole story is, “For a long time.” “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” How sad. For a long time no clothes, no home, no safety, no love. Just shackles and confusion, anguish and wildness … and that terrible silence. In such a silence, others, too, can hear their own vulnerability: whispered distortions of their pain and anger making them fearful and reactive, malevolent voices urging them—urging us—toward aggression and violence to contain the fear. Legion indeed are the causes of torment in our communities: not just neuroses and dysfunctions, nor even just our unthinking systemic cruelties, but diabolical forces that seek to prevent us from knowing the truth.

The truth, my brothers and sisters, is that Jesus’ power over death is real! And so even at the grave, even among the tombs, even among those 49 rainbow flags out on the church lawn, we make our song. The truth is that nothing in the vast history of human cruelty can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord![9]

So when we are afraid, we have a choice. We can try to shackle what terrifies us, imprison it, wall it off from us. Or we can sit at Jesus’ feet, learning the way of peace and the invincible power of God’s grace.[10] As we move forward in the shadow of the losses in Orlando,[11] Luke invites us to look at our fear and see beyond it to the indomitable power of God’s love in Christ. Luke invites us to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn grace.

We sit at Jesus’ feet by studying Scripture, by centering prayer, by coming to this Table. You’ll see: the storms will yield to an astonishing calm. And with that calm comes a strength far beyond what chains or prisons or weapons could forge—a strength that can fuel our advocacy and work for healing, our calls for justice and transformation.

Not because of who we are. Assuredly not because of the chains and shackles and walls and tombs that we create. Not because we are able—but because he is able.[12]

For our Lord Jesus Christ, nothing is impossible! Amen and amen.


[1] Psalm 30:11.

[2] Consider the words of Jack Dean Kingsbury on the Sea of Galilee in Luke: “The ‘lake’ is a place of both plenitude and terror. One the one hand, Simon, at Jesus’ command, lets down his nets into the water and catches so many fish that neither the nets nor two boats can contain them (5:4-7). On the other hand, the disciples, encountering a squall out on the water, lose trust and cry out to Jesus in fear that the waves engulfing their boat will also engulf their lives (8:22-25)” (Conflict in Luke: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991], 6).

[3] The Gospel accounts and early Christian tradition differ as to where the man possessed by demons lived. The location was likely not Gerasa (modern Jerash), which is too far from the Sea of Galilee—per François Bovon, more than 50 kilometers away (Luke 1 [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002], 326)—to be where Jesus stepped from the boat and met the man. Bovon finds Gergesa, sited on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and the choice of patristic commentator Origen regarding this passage, to be the likely original location; he suggests it was later corrected to the better-known Gerasa.

[4] Michal Beth Dinkler notes that silencing is one of the harms perpetrated by demons in the Gospel of Luke: “Luke’s demonic characters repeatedly attempt to act as gatekeepers of who can and cannot speak…. Notice that in each exorcism story, the possessed human cannot speak; the demon renders the human speechless, and in so doing, signals the human’s powerlessness” (Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke [BZNW 191; Göttingen: de Gruyter, 2013], 112).

[5] Several legions operated at different times in Syria-Palestine from 6 B.C.E. through the time of Jesus. The legions usually identified in this regard are Legio III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis, and XII Fulminata. Because the emblem of Legio X Fretensis was the wild pig, some scholars suggest that the detail in our story about the demons entering a herd of pigs that subsequently drown may have been crafted as a jab at that Roman legion.

[6] The punishment Rome leveled against soldiers for offenses such as desertion, stealing from other soldiers, or bearing false witness was beating the offender to death. The punishment, known as fustuarium, required that fellow soldiers cudgel or stone the offender to death in the camp.

[7] Robert L. Brawley writes of the demons’ name, “it is also Latin for many Roman soldiers. Moreover, how this demoniac plays out his insanity involves psychosocial manifestations of oppression…. Indeed, Jewish people named the Romans who subjugated them ‘swine.’ They equated Roman legions with herding pigs, and a Qumran text belittles a legion for worshiping the emblem of swine on their standards and weapons….” (“Luke,” pp. 217-63 in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament [eds. Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014], 235).

[8] Luke 4:34.

[9] Romans 8:38-39.

[10[ Luke Timothy Johnson, who characterizes Luke as being “obsessive” about narratological sequence, finds the man’s proclamation at the end of the story (Luke 8:39) to be the point: “For Luke, as his own narrative shows, this is now the shape of preaching the good news: relating ‘in order’ what God/Jesus had done” (The Gospel of Luke [Sacra Pagina 3; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991], 139). The man’s proclamation is important, but as I read the story, it functions more as denouement and is not the focal point of the narrative. The two central dramatic moments, in terms of literary artistry, are the revelation of the demons’ name and the moment when the audience—in the “character” of the townspeople coming to see what had happened—finds the man clothed and sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet to learn. At the center of the storm story (8:22-25) and this exorcism story are the astonishing stillness and calm effected by the power of God in Christ. The reader/hearer is invited to choose whether to respond with fear or proclamation.

[11] In the early hours of 12 June 2016, a gunman assaulted patrons at the Pulse dance club in Orlando, Florida. Those targeted were LGBTQ folks and their allies, many of Hispanic or Latino/Latina/Latinx heritage. Over a three-hour period, the shooter killed 49 people and injured 53. This week also saw the first anniversary (17 June 2015) of the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine Christians were killed while gathered in Bible study.

[12] Listen here to a 1989 recording of “He is Able” by the Maranatha! Singers.

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