Sermon for Sunday, June 23, 2019


At the outset, it’s a starkly strange story. A naked man chained in a tomb. Demons. Pigs. Outraged community members. Miraculous healings. 

But keep digging under the shocking elements of the reading and we discover that at its core, it’s a story about how fear and isolation impact a community. It’s also a story about how Jesus responds to complicated situations. In encountering this story, we gain new insights about what it means to confront the forces of evil and fear in our community and world today. 

As a bit of context, this reading comes from the 8th chapter of Luke. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus is doing lots of preaching and proclaiming. He has his disciples and other friends with him. He’s telling parables. Then he gets into a boat with his friends and calms the giant waves during a storm. Right after the boat incident is today’s story. Jesus and however many friends are with him have crossed into a new region. It’s a Gentile area - another way of saying it’s not Jewish people like Jesus and his disciples. They step out of the boat and immediately encounter a man with a serious illness.

Luke, the author of the Gospel, goes into a lot of detail in describing the man’s terrible situation. For a long time he’s been without clothing - not comical but tragic. He’s shouting and lives chained in the tombs. The town has apparently hired some kind of guard to watch him so he doesn’t disrupt life. But even the guard can’t handle him and he breaks away. 

This man is in complete isolation. In a completely communal, family-oriented society, he has nothing. No one. It’s a tragic story. We have no idea how long he has been sick or the nature of his psychosis. Luke understands the illness to be demon possession. Maybe it was. Or, also likely, perhaps he had a severe psychological illness and no available treatment.

The community apparently didn’t know what to do with him so they chained him to a tomb. They stuck him away from the rest of society and tried to look the other way. And maybe, if we pause long enough to be honest with ourselves, we get it. We understand the inclination to avoid daunting, complicated situations. 

The story raises questions for our own consideration 2000 years later. What do we do in situations that feel big and complicated? What do we do with realities that make us uncomfortable? What do we do with people and groups of people who don’t fit societal conventions? 

If we watch the local news or listen to the NPR headlines or read today’s New York Times, we’ll encounter a multitude of big, complicated realities happening in our community, country and world. How do we respond? The same is true in our congregations - workplaces - and families.

Sometimes we are tempted to do what the Geresenes did. We try to stuff all those complications in a big ol’ tomb and chain them up. We shove it all in the closet and lock the door. We send other people to deal with it (like the guards referenced in verse 29). 

Whether we’re talking about refugee families in holding centers without enough blankets or toothbrushes - or the mass extinction if insects crucial to the ecosystem - or a lack of affordable housing in Rochester, there are times we just want to put it all in a cave and shut the tomb. It’s hard to acknowledge complicated, scary, broken situations. 

This hesitancy to lean toward hard stuff is part of why systemic evil is so difficult to confront. Father Richard Rohr writes, “Evil lurks powerfully in the shadows, in our unconscious complicity with systems that serve us at others’ expense. It creates worldviews of entitlement and privilege.” 

Jesus’ approach is different than our general human inclination to avoid. It’s the opposite. Jesus gives us a model for what to do when we encounter brokenness and tension - in family, workplace and the world. 

Jesus doesn’t run or hide or avoid. Instead, he leans in. He asks the man his name. Then he removes the toxic, evil forces from his life. He returns the man to the fullness of life and community. The man begs Jesus to be with him, but Jesus gives him a different assignment: “Go home and declare what God has done for you.” Essentially, he’s calling him to go and be a missionary - spreading the good news - telling the story back home. 

Good news for the man. Everything about his life changed in a very short time. But there's another part to the story that's also important. 

In this same story of a man who is healed, there’s also a story of immense disruption for the townspeople. When Jesus responds to complicated situations, he generally doesn’t just put a pretty pink bow on them. Just as he heals and comforts, he also disrupts and provokes. In casting the evil out of the man into a herd of pigs, everybody in the town gets riled up! They ask Jesus to leave and they’re full of fear. The fear of the community is mentioned on multiple occasions. Jesus healed the man. He freed him. And the people in the community don’t know how to make sense of the new reality. Instead of wanting more of that freedom…they just want to feel comfortable again. So they ask Jesus to leave. This element of the Gospel is important, too. 

Jesus cares about people at the margins - like the man in the tomb. He also cares about people who are not at the margins - everyone else - the people who put other people in tombs. The people who perpetuate oppressive systems. Jesus loves them, too. And sometimes that love shows up as a disruption. The story doesn’t end with that whole community worshipping God and asking Jesus to come hang out. Instead, the story ends with Jesus getting back in the boat and leaving because they don’t want him and his disruptions around. 

As individuals and as a congregation - there are times when we are like the man in the tomb - and we long for healing. Sometimes, we are the ones who need to be healed and restored to a sense of community. And there are times when we are like the community of outraged citizens, and we need something to disrupt our lives and routines and wake us up to the injustice we perpetuate. A lot of the time, we’re in both groups at the same time. 

What I find so very hopeful is that regardless of where we find ourselves in the story, Jesus is there, too. That’s the good news. Jesus shows up and steps in. And then Jesus invites us to declare how much God has done for us. 

Member missionaries of People of Hope Lutheran Church, maybe you’re feeling some kinship with the man in the tomb. Maybe you’re feeling isolated and in need of a renewed sense of community. Or maybe you’re identifying with the people of the town a bit today...and wondering about the ways in which we are collectively complicit in participating in systems that oppress other people. Maybe you’re pondering new ways to respond with compassion and boldness. Wherever you are today - Jesus is there, too. 

Jesus is there with us - inviting us to step closer. We can hide and avoid. Or we can step closer. In moving nearer to the parts of life we find confusing, what we’ll find is each other…a community with whom to journey….and a God who walks with us as we navigate the storms and broken parts of life. 

Thanks be to God for the brave, responsive love of Jesus. May today’s reading remind us that Jesus is not afraid of brokenness. He’s not afraid of tombs. Perhaps this is because he knows firsthand that it is through stepping into the uncertainty of the tomb that new life is found.

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