Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our readings today are all about outsiders. The wrong type of people. Challenging people. Unclean people. Fugitives. Scapegoats.
What’s your personal experience of dealing with a person like that? What’s our collective experience of dealing with a person like that? How do we cope, both individually and as a group, with that kind of person? Our scripture readings today offer us some examples from long ago of the relationship between outsiders and societies.
Jesus met a man like that in the tombs at the edge of the Gerasene town. The man was dangerous. The Gospel reading implies the townspeople considered him a serious challenge to their civic order and their safety. They shackled him, guarded him, and rejected him: pushed him out to the border of their city.
This kind of thing happens a lot. Every society perceives threats to our well-being, even our congregation here. We’re all tempted to push troublesome people away. So, we here at St. Paul’s have some experience of what it’s like to be those Gerasene townspeople. We can sense how hard it is to love all our neighbors all the time, and to live in the realm of the world and the realm of God at the same time.
I wonder what it’s like to be the one who’s pushed out? Elijah’s experience can tell us a bit about that. He had shown Jezebel and Ahab the power of the Lord and over their god. Elijah was dangerous: he had attacked their civic order: the 1 Kings history teaches that Elijah put Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets to the sword. So, they forced him to flee for his life and hide in the desert.
Do you have, like Elijah, any experience of being the outsider? Are YOU that rejected and scapegoated person? How do you and I experience that kind of rejection? Does it cast you out into the wilderness? Does it stir up violent tornados, earthquakes, and fires in your hearts and minds?
Possibly it does. It has done so for me. Listen to Psalm 42, the exile’s song of yearning and anguish
My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; *
when shall I come to appear before the presence of God
My tears have been my food day and night, *
This is the song of Elijah, on the lam from Jezebel and Ahab, hiding out in the wilderness. God’s abandoned the singer to weakness, evil and oppression.
I will say to the God of my strength, “Why have you forgotten me? *
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?”
While my bones are being broken, my enemies mock me to my face;
All day long they mock me and say to me, “Where now is your God?”
Has this ever been your song? Have you ever experienced rejection or humiliation? Maybe you’ve lost a job or a friendship, or been kicked off a team. Maybe you’ve been stereotyped rather than seen for who you really are. Maybe you’ve been accused of doing something wrong and been sent away. Maybe you’ve accused yourself of wrongdoing and sent yourself into the wilderness asking, “where now, self, is your God?”
It’s easy to pick up some demons along that way. They travel with you. They prevent you from going to the places you once went, and enjoying the company of people you once knew. They whisper, “look, everybody’s mocking you to your face!” Maybe your experience wasn’t quite as dramatic as the psalm-writer’s, but maybe it was even more intense.
Many of us just swallow these feelings of pain and loss. We live with them, rather than pouring them out like the psalm-writer did. We invite demons of anger and resentment to move in to our hearts and live there rent free. At night the demons throw wild parties in our souls, and we just clean up and carry on in the morning like nothing happened. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s our tough-as-nails New-England way of dealing with rejection and loss. I suspect most of us have done that.
Why is our stoic response so common? Why don’t we go with the high drama of our Gospel story and go find Jesus? Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would drive your sorrows and demons and mine out of our hearts into a herd of livestock, who would then conveniently jump into a lake?
That would be wonderful: like that Gerasene man we would then sit at Jesus’s feet clothed and in our right minds. What a vision of peace and grace!
But we know it’s not as easy as all that. We’re all saints and sinners. It isn’t easy for the man who’s healed. No longer can he use the demons to define himself. No longer can he live in the graveyard, behave strangely, and get away with it. Nor can he simply follow Jesus out of town. He needs to return to town, rebuild his life, and learn a new way to define himself: by his gratitude and joy for being restored to wholeness.
We’re all saints and sinners. You and I may sometimes be the rejected ones, but we’re also the townspeople. Is it possible that we like having a demon-infested man living on the edge of town? Is it possible he has taken some of OUR demons upon himself, as well as his own? I wonder: how do we react when we see our local bogey-man healed? Does it shake us up seeing him cleaned up and sitting peacefully? Does it disrupt our lives? It certainly did so for the Gerasene townspeople – they were seized with great fear, and they asked Jesus to go away.
We like that demon-infested guy. He’s an easy way for you and I to define ourselves: we’re better than HIM. We’re healthy and sane, unlike HIM. I wonder if it makes us lazy in our walk of faith: after all, it’s not hard to love our neighbors more than HE does. It’s convenient to have HIM as a scapegoat for our own self-images. And it’s inconvenient, to say the least, when Jesus shows up and heals him. By doing that he calls us all to live honestly without scapegoats. He calls us all to put aside our demons and live our lives with joy.
Lord Christ, at the hour of your crucifixion you took our demons on yourself and put an end to them. By your resurrection you showed us a way of life defined by gratitude and joy, not demons. Grant us by your example the courage and peace to live fully clothed, in our right minds, and without fear, for your glory and the life of the world. Amen.