You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 7, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Acts.
I did the homily at church on this day, so I’m copying that below.
Let’s start by considering that in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has crossed the lake to the other side—it’s not only the other side, but it’s away from the Jewish side. This is the first time he’s left his Jewish community to reach beyond it to the Gentiles.
Luke also wrote the book of Acts, which is like a sequel to this Gospel. It tells the story of the early church post-resurrection, and it goes into detail about how Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots. So, Jesus, who is continually reaching out to people in need in the Gospel stories, is reaching out to a new community in this story. This also relates to the Epistle reading for today, which tells us that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All are one in Christ and children of God.
I won’t seek to define what exactly is happening when we read about demon possession in the Bible. Many people have proclaimed either that demon possession is real then and now or that what is described is actually an extreme mental illness. I don’t think it’s necessary to solve that mystery at this time. Luke himself seems to see no difference between exorcism and healing.
The essential thing to understand is that the man’s situation is dire and has been for a long time and he’s an outcast from society. He’s desperately lonely and wounded. This is a matter of going from a broken life and sundered relationships to a whole, healed life and restored relationships.
Unlike other exorcism stories you may have read, this time Jesus actually talks with the demon, not just commanding it to silence. The demon calls itself Legion—meaning there are many demons rather than just one. It’s interesting to note here that a legion at this time only would have meant a Roman legion. There’s a hint here that the power of Jesus is greater than the fearsome power of Rome. Or for us, he is greater than whatever powers overwhelm us. Also, unlike other exorcism stories, the crowd is upset and wants Jesus to leave. They are afraid and maybe also angry about the loss of a herd of pigs. They perhaps feared what else Jesus could do after a display of such power.
When the man wants to go with Jesus, Jesus sends him home instead. The homeless man can now return home. And in that home, he will be a continual reminder of how an encounter with Jesus changed him forever.
How can we relate this to today’s world? We don’t have a demon-possessed man living in the local cemetery (as far as I know, anyway), but we definitely have people who are homeless and often mentally ill. We may judge those people or at least assume we know what’s going on with them. We may reach out but more often we may cross the street to avoid them. Or we may invite them in on a Thursday morning for breakfast in Grace’s Kitchen or bring them a sandwich with Midnight Run.
The isolation and despair of this outcast man is reflected in many people in the world today. Though in some ways we as a society have a more compassionate outlook than the people of that time, we still have people who are abused, addicted, homeless, mentally ill, imprisoned, and in desperate poverty. Often the same people fit several of those descriptions at once. For example, incarcerated people were often abused as children and adults. They are also usually poor. People of color are statistically more likely to be poor and even imprisoned because of institutionalized racism. Marginalized LGBTQ kids are more likely than other kids to become homeless because their parents kick them out.
The number of refugees is at an all-time high of nearly 71 million people worldwide. 71 million. Some of these refugees arrive at our own border, where they are separated from their children and crammed into overcrowded cells without basic necessities. Just imagine all those people and what they have been through. Imagine being so desperate that you must leave the only home you’ve known and go live in not just another state but another country where you have to start from scratch and where you are likely to be mistreated. They are refugees because of their own experiences of bigotry, abuse, injustice, and war. So many people are like that man who was afflicted by demons, though their demons may be of a more metaphorical variety.
One might even say their demons are legion and they need a special kind of healing. Sometimes the healing is simply granting humanity and identity—to go from a legion of demons to one human, one special child of God. How much liberation is in that identity? How much better would the world be if everyone could see that child of God in everyone else?
There’s a story told by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, which houses and serves homeless kids in many cities, including New York. He was talking to one of the Covenant House kids and asked, “What do you want for the future?” The reply was simple and very real: “I want to be seen.” For people like the man in this story and like that kid—sometimes being seen, being loved as a child of God, is part of the healing. That’s one way to look at this story—to see the man in pain and how Jesus responded to heal him. We can also look at the people of the town who reacted badly to the events and asked Jesus to leave town because of their fear.
How are we like these people? Would we rather accept the darkness of the world rather than the sometimes daunting task of following Christ? Do we prefer the status quo, for all its failings and inequities, to radical change for the better? It would be so easy to judge the people in the story for choosing fear over love, for being unable to see the joy in the situation. It would be so easy to judge ourselves when we do the same, but the beautiful part of the grace of God is that it’s not only for the more obviously broken and hurting; it’s also for the rest of us who carry on our lives of respectability and comfort but inside we can still be full of pain and need and it leads us to neglect others. God love us more than enough even when we don’t love enough.
Think about how people have often reacted to radical change for the better in our own lifetimes and our parents’ lifetimes. How did a lot of white people react to the civil rights movement? How do a lot of straight people react to the LGBTQ equality movement?
I don’t think I need to describe to you how hard people fought against equal rights and continue to fight against any struggle for justice and equity. Again, even when we fail to act as God would want us to act, his love remains, but we must still act for good. Some would see that man, driven mad by his demons (real or rhetorical) and consider him beyond any help. Jesus saw him as a child of God in need of love and healing and reconciliation. We must reach out to wounded and hurting people like Jesus did. While in the story, Jesus converses with demons, we must sometimes confront the metaphorical demons of this world—pain, trauma, addiction, poverty, inequality, injustice, bigotry….
The well-known and unconventional Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber writes this:
“In these healing texts, the healing is never fully accomplished until there is a restoration to community. Here the man healed of demons is then told to stay with his people and speak of what God has done. In the Jesus business, community is always a part of healing. Even though community is never perfect.”Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Jesus spent a lot of time with those the world considered sinners, but it was not them that he usually rebuked. Instead he rebuked those with power and influence for not reaching out and helping the poor and marginalized. In fact, he saw that far from helping, the powerful trampled the weak. Yet Christians today often point fingers of condemnation at the very people who most need the love of Jesus and a helping hand. But they look up to the rich and powerful as if their wealth and influence were a sign of God’s favor. It’s almost like they’ve flipped the gospel on its head. But God sees the poor and the marginalized as his children, and that love is liberating.
Jesus acted with compassion. No matter what we think is actually happening in a story of demon possession, the story is of Jesus reaching out to someone in need to change his life for the better. That is not always received well by the community, as in this case. Change, even change for the better, can disrupt our lives. Take a look at your life today—is there a change you can make in your own life, in our community, in the larger world? Can you take time to speak out against injustice or to reach out with mercy?
We have to cross the metaphorical lake—to meet the wounded where they are with the liberating love of Jesus Christ.