The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7), Year C.
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.Luke 8:26-39
Of the many uniquely human traits, perhaps the most impressive is our ability as a species to adapt to any situation. Through tenacity, ingenuity, stubbornness, and even a bit of stupidity, we have adapted to live in habitats clearly never meant for human life: space, the ocean depths, and even Australia. Adaptability is such an intrinsic part of the human experience that if we stop even for a moment to reflect, we all have stories of adapting to a bad situation. Through our adaptability, at one point or another we have all been able to defy nature and good sense to achieve our goals, or at the very least, survive.
Such a preamble of course is an adaptation, a means to circumvent the conventions of a decent sermon for the sake of cramming in a story, and of course what you all came to hear today: the story of how my friend and I, through sheer stupidity and flagrant disregard for safety concerns, managed to accidentally convert my car into a one-man-band. Now I never in seminary thought I would need to say it in a sermon, but here we are, in case I haven’t been blunt enough: do not try this at home.
It turns out that all you need to convert a car into a one-man-band is of course a car, a mattress, a heap of packaging tape, an ignorance of OSHA standards, and a velocity of approximately 65mph. Like most stories of violating safety standards, our adaptation began out of an innocent need: to move a mattress of mine from the house I was moving out of into a storage unit. Our troubles began when we were absolutely sure the mattress would fit into the back of my SUV. As you can imagine, physics got the better of us and we were totally unable to fit it inside the car. So, we adapted. We quickly realized that we just needed to tie it to the roof, the only problem was we had no rope. So, we adapted again. Though we had no rope, we had plenty of packing tape, and the solution became clear. Looping through the windows, we taped that mattress to the roof. The first part of the drive through the neighborhood seemed fine, it was only when we made it onto the old highway that we discovered the musical monstrosity we had made. When we got up to speed, we were horrified to discover we had made a band, the mattress going *thump*, *thump*, *thump* keeping time on the roof while the tape went *vvvvvmm* like a deranged harmonica, with our screams and prayers that the whole thing didn’t fly off providing the vocals.
As important as our ability to adapt is, we do not always adapt for the better. Too often we adapt to an unsafe or unethical situation, choosing to merely survive than to do what is right or fix the real problem. The poor man afflicted by demons in our Gospel story is a victim of that adaptation. As the story goes, the man was so possessed that is community didn’t know what to do with him. So, they adapted. Feeling fear and powerless to truly help the man, they resorted to treating him more and more like an animal. The more he was treated like an animal, the more like an animal he became, exiled, living naked in the tombs and in the wild. When they did manage to capture him, perhaps out of compassion, or more likely out of exhaustion, they bound him, effectively giving up on trying to free him from his suffering.
While most people remember this story for the disturbing conversation between Jesus and a supposed legion of demons and the strange turn of the demons going into the pigs and drowning, the truly disturbing part of the story comes after the man is freed. The people of Gerasene see or hear about the man being clothed, in his right mind, freed, his humanity and place in the community restored, and they are afraid. In Luke’s words they are seized with a great fear and ask Jesus to leave them. Why is it that they would be afraid after the man had been freed from his possession? Wouldn’t it be much scarier to have a possessed man who lived in the tombs than an ordinary man?
While he was possessed the community probably was afraid, at first, but they adapted. Rather than face the evil that possessed this poor man, they figured out a way to live with it. It wasn’t perfect, but in a twisted way, it worked for them. That man would suffer, and they would all go about living their lives, politely ignoring him or trying to control him, because they had given up trying to actually help him. This is why they are more afraid when they learn Jesus has freed him, this is why they asked Jesus to leave, because Jesus showed them a different way. He brings the Good News of God’s Kingdom. By having compassion and authority to free the man, Jesus forced the people of Gerasene to see that there isn’t only one man in their society plagued by evil. They had adapted too well, grown comfortable, made evil something to be tolerated, rather than healed. The Gospel challenges their notion of a just world. It represents change, calling us to no longer adapt to a bad situation, but to fix it. The people were afraid of the change to their society Jesus’ healing represented. They were able to adapt to living with evil, but they were afraid of what it meant to live with the Gospel.
Of course, the hopelessness and condemnation is not the end of the story. After the man and Jesus are confronted and asked to leave, the man begs to go with Jesus. Surprisingly Jesus says “no”, instead saying “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” It’s no secret that when we face the demons in our society, when we realize how much we have adapted to live with evil rather than strive for the good, the final temptation is to simply leave. Just throw it all away, get on a boat and try to start over somewhere else. Yet we are not always called to that. Jesus told the man to go to his home. Now that he is freed, for the first time since his possession, the man does have a home to go back to. To flee is sometimes just another adaptation, a compromise, and a way to avoid the harder work of staying and proclaiming the Gospel in your own home, your community, and in our society. Much like the people of Gerasene as a society we are afraid of Jesus’ presence. While the Gospel is good news to the poor, the hopeless, and the outcasts of society, the demands of God’s coming Kingdom may not always sound like good news to those of us who are more comfortable living with evil. Thankfully in meeting Jesus our eyes are opened, and we too may be freed from our possession.
There is one question from earlier left unanswered: why didn’t my friend and I simply ask for help in moving that mattress, and not subject ourselves to terror while being a menace to the road? Why did we simply adapt instead of ask for salvation? Looking back, I wonder what possessed us to think it was a good idea. The only reason I can remember is that we had been offered the use of a truck, but in our haste and self-assuredness we turned it down. Perhaps instead of being so afraid of looking foolish, instead of adapting to something unsafe, the wise thing would have been to not be so afraid of our mistake and have the courage to ask for help. Amen.