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June 19th, 2022

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Our gospel this morning can fall prey to distraction. It is about people’s being possessed by demons, and Jesus’s commanding those demons out. As gospel stories go, it is one story that naturally gives our modern thinking pause. Theologians and pastors, me included, have tried to reconcile the stories of demon possession with the science we know today. Were the demons in the story actually bad habits – like drinking too much? Were they diseases, such as schizophrenia? If we agree that demons – like vampires and werewolves – are a fantastical idea – then what was Jesus commanding out of the person?

It also gets tricky if we go one step further: did Jesus believe in actual demons, or was he just speaking in a language that the people of the day could understand? And if Jesus did believe in actual demons, must we as well?

In the end, this is one of those coffee conversations about the gospel that can be entertaining, even revealing, but don’t really help us very much. Not, at least if our goal is to be gospel-bearing in 2022. The reason why the gospel lives on today is not because of its anachronisms, but because of its eternal truths, the ones that speak across time and place, to reach us here, even now.

So, I want you to decide for yourselves what those demons are. Maybe they are a bad habit or a pattern of behavior that is causing conflict between you and those you love. Maybe they are, indeed, an illness plaguing you, a mental illness or a physical one, that is putting you at a distance from your community of support. Maybe, in the moment, you want to imagine that the man in the gospel was possessed by a legion of actual demons. The image is yours.

But it is not the core truth of this gospel story.

Let us consider our demon-possessed man. When we meet him, he is not wearing any clothes, and hasn’t for a long time. He does not live in a house anymore, but in the graveyard. We are told, in a rather dramatic side reference, that he had been chained and guarded, but that he would break free from time to time and run into the wild.

Based on what we know at this point; we have two options: we can be afraid, as his neighbors clearly were, terrified of this dangerous, demon-possessed man.

Or, we can remain open to a different perspective: we can consider that he broke his chains from a desire to be free. We can overlook the fact that if we, like him, were shunned from our community, and left naked among the dead, after a while we might not act exactly like ourselves either. And if we were struggling before with an addiction or an illness, it might, under such circumstances only get worse.

What happens when the man meets Jesus? He does not attack him or shout out at him; as far as we know, his demons do not spin his head around and make claws grow from his hands. Instead, what happens is this poor, naked man, living in the tombs, falls to his knees and begs for Jesus to help him.

And suddenly, we have another challenge: how many times had he asked the same of his neighbors, his former friends, and was refused?

Now we come to the core truth of the gospel, as told in this story. And it no longer matters what kind of demon you or I or anyone else is wrestling with. Even when the language of the gospel trips us up, it is the actions of Jesus that translate across time and space. This is true, each and every time, in every story: peel away the wording, the framing, the social context, and you will find the actions of Jesus to teach us everything we need.

What does Jesus do? He does not run, or recoil. He goes to the man. He helps him. The demons, we hear, are pulled out of him, and asking not to be sent into the abyss, are put by Jesus into some pigs who then run off and drown in the river. Again, a high drama moment. But don’t be distracted. Where is Jesus? He is still with the man, and the man is still with him.

This is where the villagers find him, dressed and speaking normally, and by all appearances, better. Do they rejoice? Do they throw a party? No, they are afraid; and their fear costs them dearly. Because they do not invite Jesus among themselves; they send him away. Their fear has not made them wiser, or safer, or stronger. It has made them weaker, and smaller. It has isolated them.

Our gospel ends with Jesus’s sending the man back to his home, to reclaim his life.

The question we might ask ourselves now is this one: who is the real demon of the story? Is it whatever, or even whoever, was afflicting the man? Or is it the fear that caused people to abandon another person, to show him no love or kindness, and to leave him to die? That fear, as we see, was its own legion, for even when the demons in the man were gone from him, it still possessed the villagers. It blinded them to Jesus so they could not see him.

So what happened in this gospel story? What core truth was upheld? When everyone was afraid and judging, Jesus reached out with acceptance. When we judge ourselves, Jesus does not back away from our demons, but reaches out. When everyone is saying things are one way, Jesus calls us to ask: what is another way to see this situation? Is there some way to help?

When we respond blindly out of fear, we miss the chance to see all kinds of healing miracles happen in the world. We may even miss Jesus in our midst. Amen.

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