Bodies, bodies, bodies. That’s what all of the scripture has been about since Epiphany. It’s pretty great.
The devil is in the details, the saying goes, and that is certainly true of today’s story.
Jesus is deep into his public ministry, his tour of teaching and healing throughout the areas we now know as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. In his time, though, it was a collection of Roman city states and occupied kingdoms, including Israel. Jesus and the disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee, which became quite stormy until, the story goes, Jesus rebuked the wind and it quieted down. On reaching the far shore and leaving the boat, the group comes to Gerasa, one of those Roman city states. Immediately on their arrival a person steps out of a cemetery and approaches Jesus.
What follows is not the typical Jesus healing story.
This is not Jesus restoring a “withered hand” in the synagogue or Jesus in a room teaching, with a paralytic lowered through the roof for a blessing.
This is about a person not merely infirm but already counted as dead.
A person so sick, so possessed of pain, that only the dead can bear their company.
The person, who we refer to as the Gerasene demoniac, was once bound and shackled by the surrounding community—by family and friends?—before escaping to the haven of the departed.
This person is not only sick, but shunned. So off-putting and frightening to the living, howling and self-harming, that even they who must have known and loved this person once condemn them to exist among the dead now.
I am assuming that many of you have been trained to, or independently, interpret this person’s condition as mental illness. I think that is valid. We have ample evidence of the abuse and neglect and maltreatment endured by people with mental illness in history and, of course, to this day.
But there are other possibilities.
Perhaps he is not mentally ill but stuck in a state of extreme grief. Maybe he lost his child or lover and cannot break out of that loss.
Or maybe the demoniac is possessed by PTSD. Perhaps this poor, broken person was a Roman soldier, a combat veteran, who cannot escape the memories of what he did and what he saw. He is in a Roman city-state in occupied territory, after all.
Or stay with the notion of demon-possession. Hold lightly, without much analysis, this image of a person utterly filled and owned by a painful power other than himself.
Whichever your interpretation, he is heartbreaking. His may be the most pitiable of all the Jesus healing stories. Yet somehow the demoniac, completely divorced from news and gossip in the cemetery, knows of Jesus’ arrival and that Jesus can be approached.
When he does, Jesus calls for an unclean spirit to depart from the tomb-dweller. The man doesn’t react, but a spirit, “What do you want with me??”
In a strange conversational pause, Jesus asks the spirit its name. The answer is a riddle: I am Legion for we are many. Rather than the divine multiplicity of the holy trinity, we are offered a debased multiplicity of a legion, a Roman military unit’s worth, of wraiths.
Yet their numbers are not enough to keep Legion safe.
Legion negotiates with Jesus for its lives, begging not to be cast out of the country. They bargain, instead, to take possession of some nearby pigs. That does not protect Legion, though, as the pigs then go mad and suicide.
This moment is an echo of an encounter we studied a couple of weeks ago.
Then in Capernum, Jesus is teaching when a person cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus…Have you come to destroy us?” Yes, because Jesus casts the spirit speaking through the person out. Jesus has come to destroy consuming pain.
So do only the demonic see that, see Jesus’ power?
That was the question Paul C. asked me a couple of weeks ago: Why is it that only the demons seem to recognize Jesus, not the people?
Twice now in Mark, the gospeler presented something not us, perhaps something not human, clearly and immediately recognizing Jesus. Recognizing Jesus as something other than a regular human, something with power.
The people, though, do not seem to do so.
In Capernum the people wonder at what authority Jesus has to act as he does. The passage says Jesus becomes famous, not that Jesus becomes acknowledged.
At the end of today’s narrative the Gerasene demoniac is free of what drove him out of the living and into a death-adjacent state of self-harm and suffering. When the community hears what has happened and comes to see for itself, do they celebrate? Do they rejoice to have their sibling restored? Do they bring more people in crisis to Jesus?
No. They beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. Go on, Jesus, git!
Which tells me they did recognize Jesus. The people did know all that Jesus might be. They just didn’t like what they saw, what seeing him might cost them.
That’s the devilish in the details of these stories: In Capernum and Gesara, the outrightly fiendish who acknowledge Jesus and proclaim Jesus’ power. But the humans who merely talk about Jesus, the humans who want Jesus gone, are just as demonic in that response.
The troublesome spirits of these stories claim our attention in their strangeness and their speech but the real trouble-makers, particularly in Gesara, are the very real people who are equally threatened by the healing power of God in the one we call Christ.
People who abandon others to their pain.
People who deny others the opportunity to be relieved of pain.
If the satans, or the ha-satans, of scripture are forces of non-being, then those Gesarenes who witnessed the demoniac cured and then banished the source of that cure are ha-satan-ic, too.
Which is an indictment of our world as much as it was that of the ancient near east.
When we know that vaccines prevent death, that prison does not manage schizophrenia, that soldiers walk wounded in ways invisible and yet we do nothing because of what it might cost us, we are likewise telling healing to get on down the road.
Go on, Jesus, git.
But there is the good news, for all of us: Jesus shows up. Jesus to this day keeps showing up in places where he will not be welcomed. Jesus does not fear being recognized or rejected if it means release for those captive to grief or guilt, relief for those possessed of something cruel.
Whether you understand this story to be a factual accounting or a fictional one, its message about Jesus is the same:
There is in this world a holiness that fears nothing, not even the most ferocious of symptoms or policies.
There is in this world a holiness that finds us when all others count us, or make us, lost.
There is a holiness in this world that demands we do the same.
If the devil is in the demoniac as well as the details of this story, so is the divine.
The divine that draws us all out of the cemeteries of our society, or toward them, that together we might cast out the Legion of troubles still occupying our world and our bodies and our souls.
And maybe most importantly, that divine is face to face, right now, with your cancer and your grief and your sorrow. That divine is right now alongside what ails you, cell to cell, offering the assurance that you are not and shall never be alone.
However your body or your mind feel, however you have been treated, you are not and shall never be anything other than a beloved child of God.
Details Devilish & Divine: Mark 5.1-20
Delivered at Ames UCC on January 26, 2020
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary.