When company is about to come over, I become suddenly, freshly aware of every bit of clutter, every wobbly cabinet knob, every speck of dirt in my home. Maybe I got it from my parents. With three daughters in the house, there was a perpetual influx of clutter – backpacks and gym bags, toys and books and papers, half-finished craft projects and dirty dishes. We lived most of the time with the happy, mild disorder of a busy family. But when company was about to arrive, my parents would suddenly become hyper-aware of the stacks of unsorted mail, the cereal boxes still out on the table, the pet hair lingering in the corners. A flurry of activity would ensue, but it always felt like too little, too late, and company would arrive to find us vacuuming, or cleaning a hamster cage, or reorganizing the cupboards. I’m like that, too... as we await company, I tune in to the disorganized spots and scuffed walls and unfinished projects.
That’s kind of how I felt, knowing that there was going to be a family here for today’s baptism, and looking at the assigned readings for the day to find a story of demon possessions, nudity, graveyards, and swine. It’s kind of a dark and bizarre story to read after baptizing a baby, isn’t it? “Ugh,” I thought. We couldn’t have had a sweet, approachable reading like the parable of the Good Shepherd? How about Jesus welcoming the children? Do we really have to do this one about this naked man among the tombs? But as I continued to reflect on the story, I started to find that the text itself had the answer to my anxieties.
Today’s reading picks up after Jesus has given the Sermon on the Mount (or rather, on the plain, according to Luke), and then traveled with the disciples across the sea of Galilee (really a medium-sized lake) to the country of the Gerasenes, about whom history tells us very little beyond that this was definitely a Gentile area. I wonder whether word had traveled from the Jewish community on the west side of the Galilee to the Gentiles on the east side about this itinerant rabbi, who spoke of God’s love for the poor, healed people who were sick, and restored people to life? I imagine the Gerasenes eager to meet this charismatic figure. I imagine some of them, like me, rushing around trying to make their homes and towns presentable. But if they hoped to “put their best foot forward,” they were disappointed – the one who meets him is someone they had tried to hide away, to rein in and control, the kind of person that we would likely avert our eyes from if we saw such a person on the sidewalks or the subways.
No sooner does Jesus step out of the boat than he is accosted by a wild, naked man. In a somewhat disjointed narrative, the narrator tells us that this man is possessed by an unclean spirit, that his community has tried to keep him under guard, bound with chains and shackles, and that time and again the spirit has driven him to break those bonds and flee out into the wilderness to live among the tombs. We understand such people differently these days – what people of ancient times called demon possession we would likely think of as mental illness. But now, as then, such people are often seen as embarrassments; they are often treated as less than human; they are often restrained and silenced and hidden out of view.
The man meets Jesus as he steps out of the boat, and his very first words are, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” We can perceive the conflict within him – rushing to greet Jesus, but then speaking words that seem to push Jesus away. The man and the spirits that afflict him clash with one another: the man wants healing, while the spirits want to remain where they are. It’s striking that Jesus’ care seems to extend even to the spirits that afflict the man. “What is your name?” Jesus asks. “Legion,” the spirits answer, meaning many, evoking the occupying Roman army. They beg him not to send them out of the man, leaving them lost and adrift. He acquiesces, sending them instead into the nearby herd of swine. When other members of the community arrive, ready to greet this visiting rabbi who has caused such a stir, they see the man clothed and restored to himself. When they see what Jesus has done, they are afraid. Afraid of his power, afraid of one who with a simple word can change the world as they know it, afraid even though what has happened is a miracle of transformation and restoration.
Sometimes we’re more comfortable with hiding our clutter and chaos and the difficult parts of our lives than with changing them, I guess. Sometimes we’d rather shut them away and pretend they don’t exist than see what could happen if we welcomed healing and transformation. As our nation reels after one of the largest mass shootings in U.S. history, I wonder whether we are, yet again, going to try to sweep under the carpet the issues and questions and traumas that have come to the surface? Are we going to once again dismiss the question of meaningful reform of gun legislation? Are we going to avert our eyes from homophobia and islamophobia? Or are we going to do the hard work of looking at the things about our society that make us uncomfortable, legion though they may be, and imagining what it would look like to be well and whole?
The good news of this story is that God comes to the broken places, the excluded ones, the parts we’d rather hide. God does not avert her eyes from those messy, painful, broken parts of life. With love and compassion, Jesus sees the beauty and humanity of this man who is so totally estranged from society. He takes him from the edges, and he puts him back in the center of the story. The good news is that there is nothing so badly broken that we need to be ashamed of it before God. The good news is that there is no one so broken that Jesus will not seek them, and see them, and love them, and heal them.
I was worried about reading this text on the day of a baptism. But I think it’s oddly fitting. Because it reminds us that in even the most broken, estranged, lost and tormented person, God sees the beautiful, beloved child that she made that person to be. It reminds us that there is nowhere we can go that God will not follow us with love and mercy. No matter what happens, God is at work, restoring us and drawing us back into community. The promise of baptism is that we are forever and always a child of God. There is nothing that can change that, nothing that can break it, nothing that can chain it. No matter where we go, what we do, whom we chain, how ashamed we are, there is nothing we need to hide from God – God sees us as we are, loves us completely, and empowers us to be part of God’s beautiful vision for a world made right.
Thanks be to God. Amen.