Pentecost 2 – June 19, 2022
Sally was driving home from one of her business trips in Northern Arizona when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road. As the trip was a long and quiet one, she stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride. With a silent nod of thanks, the woman got into the car. Resuming the journey, Sally tried in vain to make a bit of small talk with the Navajo woman. The old woman just sat silently, looking intently at everything she saw, studying every little detail, until she noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Sally. What's in the bag?" asked the old woman. Sally looked down at the brown bag and said, “It's a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband." The Navajo woman was silent for another moment or two. Then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder, she said, "Good trade."
Actually, the Gospel today is about a trade. “Trade the pigs for the demons, Jesus.” The Gerasene is described in the story as a man who had demons. Today he might be categorized as mentally ill, perhaps with schizophrenia or other personality disorder. He wore no clothes and lived among the tombs instead of in a house. He was considered ritually unclean and shunned by the community. He lived in isolation—not unlike the lepers of that time.
When Jesus asks for the demon’s name he is told it is “Legion,” reference to a Roman legion of as many as 6,000 soldiers; in other words, 6,000 demons possessed this poor fellow. Recognizing the authority and power that Jesus had over them, they ask him to send them into the herd of pigs where they assumed they might be safe but the swine hurled themselves into the water and drowned. When we next see this Gerasene man, he is fully clothed and restored to complete sanity—wholeness and health.
It is no small thing that Jesus first asks his name. He is homeless, lost, and suffering. Passers-by just gawk or turn away to avoid this unpleasantness. No one knew then what to do. Except Jesus. He knows that this guy is more than a naked, crazy person. He knows that he is a beloved child of God and that he has a name. And he asks it.
It is our name that gives us identity and recognizes our dignity. When Jesus released this man from the shackles of demonic possession, he restored his dignity and gave him back his life as a member of the community. And Jesus wants the same for us—wholeness and restoration.
While I was on vacation, I had several calls from people seeking my professional services. I always respond because I know what it must be like to feel desperate for help in a time of crisis or even when life gets really messy. The Gospel story can be a wake up call to us moderns that it is just as important to address our mental health concerns as our physical and spiritual ones. Resources for doing that are sorely lacking. Clinicians are over booked, insurance issues are a huge obstacle, cultural bias or age often prevents those in need from seeking help because of the stigma attached, and it is often difficult to find a prescriber when medication therapy is indicated.
We can’t solve all these problems but there is still a takeaway from the Gerasene’s story. At the heart of the Gospel is the welcome and invitation of Jesus to all people. Two thousand years later, it is our holy work to do the same thing: to be God’s people on mission, caring for those who are in most need of God’s love--feeling another’s pain, another’s suffering, as Jesus did for the Gerasene man.
Jesus asks us to listen to the pain of all those who come through our doors, to be here for the helpless, the wounded, the oppressed, and anyone who needs to be raised up and shown the promise of a life restored and made whole. No exceptions. That’s the rub in what is the radical welcome of Jesus, isn’t it? And this Gospel today comes with a challenge to us to be sure that there are no exceptions.
Author and UCC Pastor Martin Copenhaver tells of a small gathering of church leaders considering how to become a more multi-racial and multi-cultural church. Around the table were people of color, of different ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. They had wonderfully serious conversations about how to be a more inclusive church that accepts differences.
In the next room of the hotel was a large convention of tattooists all wearing just enough clothing to be decent and yet display their tattoos. After the church folk had finished their meeting about inclusive church, they opened the door of the packed hotel lounge and, seeing all the tattooists there, simply closed the door. One of them remarked, “You know, it’s one thing to be open to differences, but I’m not sure I’m ready to drink with a crowd like that.”
“Since then,” Copenhaver says, “I’ve wondered if we might have learned more about being an inclusive church if we had abandoned our polite and careful discussions around the table and just spent some time hanging out with the tattooists. Sadly, we didn’t look around long enough to see if Jesus was there, because that’s exactly the kind of place he was criticized for frequenting.”
No matter who we are and where we may be on our journey of faith, God welcomes us in this place. Yet no matter what our individual differences, there is always some person different from us, someone who tests the limits of our ability to be radically welcoming, someone like this man in the Gospel story still on the outside looking in. Will we ask them their name? Will we help give them back their life? Tough questions. Yet, thankfully, God often trades our initial reluctance for the grace to make it happen.