Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video.
The long season of green or Ordinary Time has begun, and for the next 25 weeks or so, we will be hearing the stories of Jesus ministry: his teachings, parables and miracles. In contrast to the stories and pacing of the the first half of the church year, Ordinary Time or counting time has a way of meandering and lingering with the stories. There is no agenda or place to get to, simply hearing what Jesus is up to week after week is the point. And after a busy Advent through Easter, taking the time to slow down an re-orient ourselves in the Jesus story isn’t such a bad feeling.
So today, we begin with an infamous and often quoted story from the gospel of Luke. Jesus and the disciples sail across the sea of Galilee to gentile territory and show up in the region of Geresa, a place where no self-respecting Jew would ever want to find themselves.
Geresa was a town on the other side of the sea of Galilee from Judea, it was a mixed territory, where Jews and Gentiles both lived. But Geresa more recently was also a Roman military outpost, where Roman soldiers were stationed. And because occupying soldiers need food and shelter, the towns people were forced to work in service of the army, raising pigs and hosting their oppressors.
But Jesus doesn’t just show up in Geresa, the first person he meets there is a man possessed by unclean spirits. A man living in the town cemetery. An outsider.
So when Jesus shows up in Geresa, he is showing up in a place that good jews would avoid at all costs because everything about this place is unclean. The town, the cemetery, the pigs, the possessed man. This isn’t just the discomfort we might feel visiting a poor, impoverished, rundown part of the city. This is about Jesus and the disciples coming into contact with the unholy, about Jesus becoming unholy himself. It isn’t just the possessed man who has an unclean spirit, but everything around this place seems to suffer from unclean spirits.
And those who lived there, did as much as they could to protect themselves from the unclean spirits around them. The people shackled the possessed man in the cemetery in order to avoid his uncleanliness. The possessed man tries to escape the chains of the townspeople, so that he can avoid their shackles. The pigs are kept near the cemetery so that everyone can avoid the unclean spirits of the Roman occupiers. And by the time people figure out what Jesus is up to in their town, they even ask him to go away too, fearing what kind of unholy power he might possess. Of all the unclean spirits in this place, the greatest is not Legion or the Romans or the pigs. But fear. The unclean spirit of fear has gripped and paralyzed the people of Geresa.
Certainly, if at any point in our lives we understand those poor folks in Geresa it is now. The unclean spirit of fear has been dwelling among us for a while now. We all remember when it first settled in… at least we think we do. Some might say it appeared the week that the NBA and NHL shut down, the week that the schools and churches and countless businesses closed their doors.
But maybe it came about later when the protests erupted following the death of George Floyd. Or could it have been November 2020 as the world watched and waiting to see what would happen in the US Election… or then on January 6th on Capitol Hill. Maybe it was the lockdown of June last year, when we could not even meet with people outside our own households. Or this January as the trucker protests rolled towards Ottawa and to border crossings.
Or maybe it is right now as inflation and interest rates rise, making it harder to make ends meet. Maybe it is war going on in Ukraine, refugees arriving on our doorstep, continued calls for help.
And yet the unclean spirits of fear didn’t just show up in 2020… We can see them all over the place going back in history. The presidential election of 2016, the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11.
And just like the fearful people of Geresa, the spirits inhabit the world all around us. We know them on a large scale, we know them on the personal scale. We know them in world events, we know them on our streets, in our hospitals, in our community, in our neighbourhoods, in our homes. And as much as try to avoid coming into contact with the unclean spirits of our world, to avoid coming face to face with the things or people we fear the most. We end up possessed in some way or another. We end up ruled by the fears of the day.
And in case we thought we could forget or pretend the unclean spirits of our fear don’t exist, we have been rocked by tragedy after tragedy these past weeks. Shootings in schools and churches. More unmarked graves discovered on the grounds of residential schools. More warnings of climate change, extreme heat after an extremely wet spring.
The unclean spirits of fear push and pull at us. They demand that we protect ourselves from anyone or anything different. They make us feel like need to divide ourselves from the other, build walls to keep the other out, destroy the other in order stop feeling threatened. And thus fear begets more fear and violence begets more violence.
But the most powerful thing that the unclean spirits of fear make us feel is stuck. They make us feel like we can never escape the other unclean spirits around us, like we can never make the dangers go away.
And that is why Jesus’ presence in Geresa can seem like such a problem… he is too close to all the unclean spirits, too close for our fear’s liking.
When Jesus shows up in Geresa, he does exactly what the unclean spirits of our fears keep us from doing. Jesus approaches unafraid.
Jesus is not afraid of the unclean spirits. He doesn’t fear the town, or the cemetery, or the pigs, or the possessed man. And because Jesus is not afraid that the spirits will taint him, he is willing to meet and be with the community of Geresa. He is willing to meet the possessed man on the man’s turf, in the cemetery. When the possessed man begs for mercy, Jesus simply asks his name.
And because Jesus is willing to brave the uncleanliness around him, Jesus does what we cannot. Jesus begins to reconcile and rebuild the people of Geresa. He sends the unclean spirit of Legion away. He sends the unclean spirits of oppression, division, intolerance and fear away. Jesus restores the man to community and the community to the man.
Anyone else would have been afraid of becoming unclean in Geresa. Anyone else would have feared the unholy taint of unclean spirits. But when Jesus comes to this unholy place, God comes and meets the unclean and the unholy. And all of sudden, the fears that held everyone back don’t matter anymore. They don’t matter because the God of all creation, the Holy One of Israel, the Christ in whom we are God’s children makes the unclean clean. In Christ, God shows us how not fearing the unclean spirits, the unclean places, the unclean people allows God to see people instead of a condition. God sees beloved children instead of things to be feared and avoided. God shows us what it looks like to see beyond our fear, and how to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
This past week as council gathered to vision and discern our future, we knew there was a lot of on our plate, and lot challenges to face ahead. But as we talked and unpacked, we began to see that things aren’t all challenges and struggles. We remembered all the things we have been doing during these past years. All the music we made over lockdowns, the small groups that we started, the sermon packages that have been delivered, the continued meeting of youth, confirmation and young adults, even if in new ways. We saw the important work we have done solidifying the foundation, of making ourselves ready and prepared for what comes next, for the exciting opportunities that will undoubtedly come our way.
Sure there is so much to be worried about, so many things to occupy our concerns and fears in this world. Yet, Jesus has habit of showing up right in the middle of our mess, right along side the things that we imagine are insurmountable, and Jesus begins facing and encountering what we cannot do on our own. And from there Jesus begins to show us hope, Jesus shows us all that he is leading us into a hope and future that we would never expect or imagine.
When the unclean spirits of fear threaten to divide us beyond all hope, to keep us stuck and afraid… God shows up. God shows up despite the uncleanliness. God shows up despite the fear. God shows up to free us to see one another as God sees us. As beloved Children of God.