On the first Wednesday of the month, we invite a member of our community to write a guest post for our blog. This post is a sermon written and preached by Chad Lucas, who's a member of our Halifax GS group. It's about an inefficient mission trip, scapegoating, liberation, and community. He preached this sermon over Zoom at our Sunday service as part of our East Coast Virtual Connection in July 2020. You'll find a link to the captioned video underneath the scripture, and a transcript below that.
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
Good morning. Good morning to the West Coast folks I guess, good afternoon to the rest of us! It's an honor to be sharing today.
When Wendy asked me if I would speak at this service, my mind immediately went to this passage. It's one of my favorite passages in the Gospels. I've come back to it over and over in the past 20 years. And some of my friends from the Halifax GS Group have heard me talk about it before. So for some of you, if you're on the call here, this might be a little bit of a repeat, but it's one that I keep coming back to. It's taught me so much about who Jesus is, and how he works, and I think it has something to say to us about community too, which has been the theme of our retreat this weekend. So let's jump in. And for those of you for whom the Bible is a struggle sometimes, I hope this approach to this passage will let you find something in it too.
The first thing I want to draw your attention to is that the story begins and ends with Jesus in a boat. If you go back to chapter 4, he actually has to calm the storm just to reach the shore here in this region. And so he goes through all of this, and the whole time he's in this region he really only interacts with this one man. We wouldn't call this an efficient ministry trip by today's modern standards. You know, if Jesus had like a board of elders or something like that, he couldn't report back about how many people he baptized, or how many people turned up for the worship service in the park. He didn't even make it into town, he doesn't really get any further than the shore, and he meets this man, and it sets off this chaotic series of events where he gets asked to leave. So by our standards, this trip is kind of a disaster; it's not a very successful mission trip. But I don't think that matters to Jesus, and I don't think he sees it that way.
So the one man Jesus meets when he lands on the shore is the Town Outcast. This man is naked. He's probably got a very thick matted head of hair and beard. He's covered in bruises and cuts. And he probably has broken chains dangling from his wrists and ankles. We’re told that over and over again, people tried to chain him to subdue him.
So what's going on with this man? The reading in the text, the 1st century view, is that he's probably possessed by several demons. Our modern medical diagnosis might be that he's suffering from a severe mental illness.
One of the things I want to focus on today is that a lot of readings by Black theologians and queer theologians look at this text and see someone who's dealing with a lot of internalized trauma, that a lot of what he's going through is related to his trauma. That's kind of where I want to focus a little bit today. And we get a hint of that in the name he gives to Jesus. When Jesus asked what his name is, he says, “My name is Legion.” Now, if you're a first-century Jew, reading this story or hearing this story, particularly in this region, the term “Legion” instantly has a double meaning. Where the story takes place, in the Decapolis - this is the seat of Roman power in the region. This is occupied territory that Jesus is in, and this man is in. It's controlled by a Gentile army, essentially. That's the only reason there's a local pig farm in the area, because Jewish people in the 1st century, of course, would avoid pigs. So we'll come back to that later.
But I want to focus on this man for a second. And it's clear that nobody's really trying to help this man. At this point, they've decided the only thing they can do is try to subdue him, to try to chain him, restrain him. They're just trying to contain him, essentially. We're told he's been chained over and over again, but he always breaks free. And every time he's chained, people probably say things like, “This is for your own good,” or “We're looking out for your best interests.” But really I want to suggest it might be about preserving the order of the town. We don't have any indication that this man was violent toward anyone else; we're told that he's been injuring himself, but we don't know that he's been violent toward other people in the community. But clearly he's being treated as a threat. Now, you can't have a loud naked man running around the streets scaring off the tourists. So, you try to lock him up. And if that doesn't work you drive him out to the hills and the tombs, where he's alone, away from everyone.
And when I read this story, particularly through the lens of Black theologians like Anthony Smith, I think about our modern policing of Black and Indigenous bodies, and the violence that's often used to maintain order. I think about how Black and Indigenous people are more often treated as suspicious, or more often subject to surveillance on the streets, or in stores. I think about collectively how our communities are often underfunded and under-resourced, but over-represented in the justice system. I think about how entire communities are pushed to the margins of reserves in Canada with no clean drinking water. Some of our more urban communities are food deserts, where there's no access to fresh food. We have a lot of cases of environmental racism in Canada, where landfills are built next to Black communities, and pipelines have run through Indigenous communities. And with this story in particular, I think of, even in the last few months, how many Black and Indigenous people who are experiencing mental health crises have ended up dead when the authorities entered the picture. And we so often respond to people like the man in the story with violence and brutality. And I see all that reflected in his story. And I see how it still occurs today.
And as I read the story also through the lens of queer pastors like Emily Swan. I think about the trauma that the church has often inflicted on queer and trans and BIPOC bodies. Sometimes the chains are more subtle. They come with a “we love you, but.” But you need to resist the temptations of the flesh. But you need to conquer your sinful desires. But you need to conform to this hetero mold for your own spiritual growth. And if you don't, you're pushed to the edges like this man. Sometimes you're deemed fit to tithe, but not to lead, or you're pushed out the door altogether. And Emily Swan notes that queer people in faith communities (I would say this is equally true, sometimes even more often true, with BIPOC people) both in churches and in society in general, are often treated as the scapegoats. In Old Testament terms, it's the people who are pushed to the edges of the community and sometimes even stoned. And we see in this man that he's internalized some of his trauma so deeply that he's actually stoning himself. He's injuring himself with stones. How many queer and trans and BIPOC folks have internalized trauma, from the voices of the accusers, or the violence that they've witnessed or suffered? And sometimes that trauma shows up in ways that harm us individually, and sometimes it affects how we're able to interact in communities.
I was thinking about this when Justin was sharing last night (Justin Lee, for anyone who wasn't there). He talks about how often we see things through the lens of our own pain, and how that can affect the way we interact with community, and build community, and where community actually breaks down. I think we see that in this man – he’s isolated from his community.
But then we see Jesus restore this man to wholeness in a very dramatic way. This image of a horde of 2000 pigs running off a cliff into the sea: it's one of the most vivid images in the whole Gospels, and it's kind of a disturbing image too, if you stop to think about it. But again, this would also have a second meaning; it would be clear to Jesus' listeners at the time. Beyond the fact that pigs were considered unclean in Jewish culture, the symbol of the 10th Legion, which was the Roman force that occupied this particular area, was actually a boar. It was a symbol of a pig. A lot of the coins dug up from that era had a boar on them, or a pig. So when Jesus tells a story about 2000 pigs rushing off a cliff and drowning in the sea, there's an image of liberation in there for people in this community.
And they would probably also be thinking about another time when an army was driven into the sea and drowned; they might be thinking about the Exodus story. And reading the story in 2020, in the summer of 2020, it also makes me think of protesters rolling statues of slavers to the edges of the harbor and pushing them into the sea. So I think there's a lot going on here, beyond just what's happening to pigs.
So what happens when Jesus set this man free? It's great for him, but it causes chaos in the town. The people don't celebrate this man's freedom. They're afraid. Freedom can be disruptive. It threatens the order. We're seeing this all over North America right now with protests, and again, monuments being toppled, and calls for radical overhaul to institutions like policing. When the cries of the oppressed grow loud enough, it's always going to disrupt the status quo. And a lot of times it's going to be uncomfortable.
And this town - they decide they don't want that. They've had enough of Jesus for now. He's already cost at least one pig farmer a lot of money. I don't know what 2000 pigs cost in the money at the time, but I'm sure it was not an insignificant amount. I can hear the townspeople coming to shore and saying, “But the economy, Jesus; you're going to disrupt our stock market; you're affecting our retirement packages.” Jesus is disrupting the economy here. And this is one of many stories in the Gospels that shows me that Jesus cares a whole lot more about human dignity and flourishing than he cares about material wealth. Financial stability is an important part of human flourishing, but we would sometimes make a god if the economy in North America. And Jesus shows us here that we're not to sacrifice our neighbors’ lives on the altar of the economy. I think that's an important message for us today.
But aside from the economic disruption, I also think the townspeople are afraid because they now have to face this man who has been their scapegoat. We don't know if it was the Roman authorities who were stirring this man, or if it was the townspeople themselves. But at the very least, they've been complicit in the suffering by their silence. He's the guy that people whisper about – that guy out there - they probably make urban legends about him and warn their children about him. And now he's sitting in their presence, restored, and healthy, and they have no choice but to acknowledge his humanity. It's a hard thing sometimes be forced to recognize the humanity of someone you've always treated as the "other." Maybe some of them feel ashamed or defensive or afraid. So they ask Jesus to leave, "go disrupt somewhere else."
And this is where the story takes an interesting turn. When Wendy asked me if I would give the message today, she invited me to reflect on the question, “Why does cultivating community matter?” And I think the ending of the story offers us some insights. The restored man asks to go with Jesus, and who wouldn't, right? If somebody comes and heals you from an affliction that you've had for a long time, wouldn't you rather follow him then stick around in a town where people have tried to put you in chains and essentially treated you like a monster? So it's a no-brainer that this man wants to go with Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t let him. He says, “go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy.” This is actually one of the very few times in the Gospels where Jesus instructs somebody to talk about their healing. More often he tells people to keep it on the down low, although that rarely works out; people usually tend to talk after they've been healed when it was something miraculous. Even later in the same chapter, Mark 5, Jesus raises the dead girl, and he tells her parents to keep it quiet. But he specifically, in this case, sends this man back into his community as a witness to the healing and restoring power of God. And I think there's something powerful in this man returning to his own people.
Now I do want to be really clear that I'm not saying that it's always the right answer to return to the families and the communities that have caused us harm. I don't think that's the message of the story; I don't think that's always healthy. But in this story, there is something to learn about restoration in community. When Jesus sends this man back to his people, it probably makes him the first person actually sent out to bear witness in Gentile communities. Up until now, Jesus is has mostly ministered in Jewish areas.
The other possibility of who might be the first person, or close to the first person, is the Samaritan woman in John 4. I briefly want to connect her story to this one, because they have some similarities. You know, like this man, the Samaritan woman is the town scapegoat. When Jesus meets her, he finds her drawing water from the well at high noon, because she wants to avoid the morning crowd and the dirty looks from the other women who gossip about her sexual history. And Jesus disrupts the social order just by talking with this woman. Jewish men aren’t supposed to talk to Samaritan women.
But after she encounters Jesus, and he tells her all about her life, she goes back to town and she says, “Come meet this amazing person who’s unlike anyone I've ever known!” And the people listen to her. I think it's something to do with the way she's changed, and maybe this is the first time in a long time that she's approached her community without any kind of shame. She's excited to talk to them and say, “Come meet this man!” And they respond to that. It draws them to Jesus, and it seems to draw this woman back into her community as well. An act of restoration happens between her and community.
And I want to highlight here that I don't think Jesus is worried about, or interested in, unity. But I do think he values community. And I think there's a difference. Sometimes in our institutions, including and maybe, especially, in churches, unity is sometimes used as code for order: “Keep the peace. Don't rock the boat. Don't criticize your own people. Don't bring up uncomfortable subjects. Don't tarnish our image. Don't be divisive.” Unity usually has boundaries, and it usually has consequences for people who cross those boundaries. Unity says, “We're a nice quiet town. Don't pay attention to that loud, naked traumatized man over there. Don't let him disturb the peace. Lock him up, and if that fails, drive him out.”
But Jesus doesn't mind upsetting that order. Jesus doesn't go for quiet, forced unity. Not the Jesus who flips tables in churches, or tells the rich to give their wealth away, or who speaks uncomfortable truth to religious leaders at their own dinner parties. Jesus does not do false politeness. He cuts to the chase with the woman at the well. And the first thing he asked the naked man is, “What is your name?” Jesus is saying: "Name the source of your trauma. Name the source of your pain. You don't have to hide it. Give it a name."
And we can't become whole people or healthy communities without naming these things and addressing them. Getting free is disruptive, and it's often messy. It's uncomfortable in any community. I was thinking about what Justin said last night about community and commonality. And really, Generous Space is a series of communities within communities within communities. We have some things in common, but we also have little pockets among us who have things in common and a lot of things that we’re very different on. We have very different theological backgrounds and beliefs. We come with different gender identities and sexual identities, and different views on gender and sexuality. We come from a lot of different racial and cultural histories. Even yesterday in the BIPOC affinity group, we had this sort of niche conversation, some of us who are both biracial and bisexual, about being “double bi,” which is really interesting. I'll be 41 years old tomorrow, and in 40 years of life, I never actually had that conversation with someone who shares those connections with me. So we have all these pockets in Generous Space where we are alike, and where we're very different. And that's a hard thing to walk out sometimes, and a challenging thing.
We might come with different levels of awareness around issues of systemic equality, inequality and oppression. We're in a very tumultuous time in the world right now. And I know a lot of white Christian folks are struggling with things like Black Lives Matter, or the ways that people are going about protesting. We're seeing some backlash out there. And we're also seeing things like settling for superficial changes, like “well, maybe if we rename sports teams, or if we take down a few statues.” And those things are good, but they're not enough; we have to struggle through the difficult things and the challenging things. Because our freedoms are tied together. You know, when we say, "Black Lives Matter," that means Black queer lives matter, and Black trans lives matter. And I don't believe we're truly free in this country until Indigenous lives are free.
So we need to wrestle with these things together. In all our communities, we need to be willing to name the power dynamics. We need to be willing to address the inequalities. We need to be willing to hold each other to account sometimes, not in ways that shame or destroy people, but in ways that invite them into greater freedom.
And we have a choice in this. I want to end with this part of the story. There's a difference between what happens in the region of the Gerasenes and the Decapolis, and what happens in the town of Sychar in Samaria (the woman at the well). They make different choices about how much of Jesus they want. In the region the Gerasenes they say, “that's enough, please leave us.” So Jesus does. In Samaria, the people are excited that Jesus is here, and they invite him to stay, and he does. And you see this over and over in the Gospels, that Jesus won't linger where he's not invited. And the Spirit won't hover where she is not welcome.
So, we have a choice. And I want to invite us to choose liberation together. It's messy; it's disruptive sometimes, but I think it will lead us to healthier communities. I invite us to choose it in our own lives, in our communities, in our local Generous Space groups, as a national body. To invite the Spirit in, to mess us up, to name the things that we need, and to seek our liberation together. Amen.
Chad Lucas is a writer, musician and communications professional with a passion for equitable and inclusive communities. His first novel for young readers, "Thanks a Lot, Universe," will be published in May 2021. He lives with his family near Halifax.