Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, MDiv
Scripture: Luke 8:26–39
Last week our gospel featured the story of a woman who engaged with Jesus in a very unexpected way, startling those around her, as she wept, bathed his feet, anointed them, kissed them, and wiped them dry with her own hair. She recognized that Jesus had come to set us free, and she fully lived into that freedom, regardless of what others might think. Doyt said about her, “what made her free is what makes us free: embracing an unknowable future, and making the most important thing the most important thing. She set the standard for what that would be.”
In today’s gospel we encounter someone who has not been free for a very long time, who encounters Jesus and is dramatically set free, and whose transformation terrifies those around him. It is a story that begs the question of what to do when confronted with freedom—whether our own, or that of someone else.
First off, let me say this. I know that stories of demons and demon possession make many of us uncomfortable. So I’m asking us to put that to the side for the moment so that it does not become distracting. It has been said that the only people who take the Bible literally are fundamentalists and atheists. Therefore, since we don’t have to read it literally let’s try to embrace what the story may invite us to see. Let us decide to be open to wonder and curiosity.
At the heart of today’s gospel is a man, a man who has been deeply unwell for a very long time. Jesus and his disciples come to shore and they are met by this man. The disciples have just had an adventure. While sailing at night, a windstorm overtook their boat, filling it with water and causing them to fear that they would die. They woke Jesus and he calmed the storm and they were afraid and amazed and wondered at the one who could command even the winds and the water. In the morning they land safely on dry ground and are met by this man filled with demons.
It would seem that these two stories are intentionally placed next to each other—first Jesus calms the storm outside the boat, and then he calms the storm that has been raging within this man for years. I wonder, which storm feels more dramatic to you? Which one provokes more awe and amazement?
There are many stories of healing in the gospel of Luke, but this one feels different to me. The story is told much more awkwardly. Other stories start at the beginning and move chronologically through the action until coming to the ending. This one starts in midstream with the man falling before Jesus and shouting at the top of his lungs, begging that Jesus not torment him. Such a strange start! And only then does the narrator tell us that Jesus had commanded the spirit to come out of the man. So, we surmise, the man had approached Jesus, and Jesus must have seen something that led him to speak to the spirit within the man, and then the man responded in fear.
“And what does this man fear?”, we might ask. At this point in the gospel we know Jesus to be a healer. But the narrator, in another awkward detour from the story, seems to anticipate this question and tells us that the man had been afflicted many times and had been kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles. This man’s past has taught him that those who encounter him will fear him and will bind him and restrain him, and they will always prove ineffectual against what rages within. He has no reason to look at Jesus and expect anything different.
As this man pleads to be left alone, how does Jesus respond? He asks him, “What is your name?” It is a personal gesture. Perhaps the man no longer knows himself as anything other than his disease, for the name he gives is “Legion” indicating that there is not just one, but many raging voices inside. And those voices cry out, seemingly understanding that they cannot remain where they are, and they ask to be sent into the herd of swine. The demons enter the pigs, who rush off the hillside and drown in the lake.
This is an extraordinary story. And it clearly strikes the swineherds this way for they run into the city and further around the country to tell others. The people are so astounded that they come to see for themselves. When they arrive where Jesus is, the man is clothed, sitting at Jesus feet, and clearly in his right mind. They respond with fear. So other eyewitnesses explain how this person has been healed. And all the gathered people, seeing this extraordinary thing…. ask Jesus to go away.
For, the narrator explains, “they were seized with great fear.”
One of the commentaries I read stated that there is likely little fruitfulness to be found in exploring the nature of their fear. I found that amusing because I think fear is a crucial part of this story. The man is afraid that this is just another person who is going to lock him up. The people are afraid when they see the transformation, and they are further struck by fear when they hear how it happened.
When Jesus calmed the storm at sea, his disciples were afraid, but they were also amazed. Their fear moved into awe at the presence and the power of God in their midst. But when Jesus calmed the inner storm of this man, the peoples’ initial fear escalated to panic, seeking to drive out the healer that had so disrupted their daily lives.
What is the source of their fear? It could have been economic. An entire herd of swine had just been lost. “Today it’s the pigs,” they might have said, “perhaps tomorrow it will be the sheep, and then the goats!”
Or, it could have been fear at the discovery that their local scapegoat, the village madman, was now just like them. Perhaps it was profoundly unsettling to recognize his humanity, and to be suddenly without the comfort that comes from having someone around who allows you to feel normal. They no longer had an enemy they could justify mistreating.
Or, perhaps the fear is simply the fear of mystery, of that which cannot be readily explained or understood. Mystery disrupts. Mystery asks us to cast aside all our well-worn assumptions and to experience awe and wonder. Awe and wonder at the presence of God in our daily lives, and awe and wonder as we look into each other’s eyes to find God living there as well.
Fear stands in the way of relationship. Awe draws us deeper into love for God and those around us. Fear leads to violence and isolation. Awe leads to connection and to freedom. We need more awe.
The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment and her tears, oriented her life around awe. Or as Doyt put it last week, made “the most important thing, the most important thing.” In today’s gospel story, fear drives out the most important thing. It says to it, “Go away from here.”
Not surprisingly, the man who experienced healing, wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to remain, to make this place his home, and to proclaim what God did for him. This feels to me like a hard request—the man is surrounded by people who are frightened by his story, but he is asked to remain and to tell the story in his own words. He is invited to live in freedom, to tell stories that may not be immediately welcomed, honoring what he knows God has done in his life.
I think that this story in Luke is awkwardly told because the healing isn’t the focal point the way that it is in other stories. The message, as it strikes me, is that mystery appears in our individual lives and we can respond with fear or we can respond with awe. And when we think about the kind of community we want to be, we need to think about nurturing awe as we encounter each other and our stories.
Stories are powerful, if we let them be. This week I am mindful of how much the stories of gay and lesbian friends have shaped my heart and taught it to move from fear to awe. I grew up believing homosexuality was a sin. It was only through relationships with men and women brave enough to share what God had done in their lives that I could encounter new and important stories that would change my heart: stories of being bound and shackled by bad religious teaching and cultural pressures, stories of discovering freedom from self-hatred, stories of choosing to live authentically even when met with fear and contempt by others. Their stories drew me into awe.
Awe changes us, awe helps us see the world more clearly, to see the world with the eyes of God.
When you reflect on your own story, where have you encountered God in ways that have provoked awe and wonder in you? With whom do you share those stories? The gospels urge us to tell these stories because the world needs them.
Who are the people around you that you just don’t understand? What might you find in their stories that would awaken awe in you if you leaned in and really listened?