A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached October 16, 2016
at Urban Abbey
Scripture: Mark 5
This text is perfect for the season of Halloween. It references everything I believe makes up an amazingly scary movie, complete with demon possession and an exorcism. It represents the kind of movie I never watch, primarily because I like to sleep at night. Demon possession and exorcism are things that seem very far away from us culturally, at least for me, and are two pretty solid reasons to skip right over this little passage. The truth is, in eight years of full time ministry, I have never preached on this passage…mostly because I am a chicken and it is scary.
Some folks encounter this passage and say, “Aha! It is about being clean or unclean, it is about purity…not casting out demons.” Jesus is casting out a multitude of unclean spirits and then, even more proof it is about cleanliness, he is sending them into a drove of pigs….an animal we all know Jesus would have thought unclean. Then the unclean spirit and the unclean pigs run off into the sea in some sort of dramatic, chaotic, cleansing pig-astrophic event. This leads to a host of conversations around getting rid of what is unclean in us and in our culture, which I think is often less then helpful because Christianity has done such a good job at making some people feel bad for who they are. A further disservice is this perspective never asks the question, “Why are there pigs in Palestine? Why is everyone in the town afraid once the man is well but not afraid when he is howling and naked and bloody?” So we are going to look a little bit and ask some questions and wonder if there is another reason why this text is so scary.
The first thing we have to do when we explore this text is to name and honor that it is written by occupied people, people living under tremendous oppression. The Gospel of Mark is written to and for a community of people that are not sure what their identity is beyond the Jewish culture and it, like the other new testament writings, is the work of people that have to worry their very act of claiming this identity could condemn them to death. The Bible is filled with the stories and poems of people who have experienced occupation, whether, it was the Babylonians or the Assyrians or the Romans. This is a work of an oppressed people. And oppressed people don’t come right out and say what they think about their oppressor…most of the time. When we look at the Bible we might be wise to imagine it like the spirituals born out of the violence of slavery and the hope of the Gospel. Spirituals were songs that could remind people of their humanity when the whip and words worked to dehumanize. Spirituals gave a message of hope in a hopeless space and they gave a way to communicate plans and dreams of liberation, actual liberation. Because an enslaved person, “Cant say hey we have a plan to get on up out of here tonight and head north,” spirituals offered language that could. ‘God’s gonna trouble the water’ means stay close to the river, the dogs will lose your scent in the water and the river will give you a path north.
Jesus sees this naked, bloody, howling man run toward him and he asks his name. “His name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion is a powerful name. There are probably zero boys running around Palestine with the name, it is not like Kevin or Josh. A legion is a unit of the Roman military. It is a force of troops that would have entered the country, subdued it and continued to occupy it. The legion is the face and name of Roman oppression. Historians point out the deep psychological and physical violence that comes with occupation. People living under constant threat to their bodies, their families and their well-being are likely to experience a high level stress that impacts both their physical and mental health. Perhaps it is not an accident that the possessed man howls, beats himself and lives naked in the tombs, struggling with mental and physical well-being while possessed by a demon named Legion. The Gospel of Mark is pointing to the violence of the earthy kingdom and the healing hope of God’s kingdom which is perhaps what makes this passage scary for us. Because if we are honest, most of us wouldn’t really have an experience of oppression like this, particularly if we are white, middle or upper middle class folks born in this country. The military base just south of this coffee shop church is our own. When we hear a plane flying over head we don’t really have to wonder if it is filled with destructive firepower or families returning from a vacation at Disney. We have an expectation of due process under the law and avenues of accountability if a member of the military mistreated one of our loved ones. That is not the experience of everyone in the world. This past summer the Methodist clergy and laity of the Great Plains Annual Conference gathered to hear from a Christian Palestinian leader who lives in occupation. There are limits to drinking water. There are limits to electricity. His father was taken for a time and they had no idea if he was alive, dead or coming home. People’s access to their farms and their livelihood is disrupted without recourse and building permits are hard to get. It took Reagan’s Secretary of State calling the Prime Minister for this Priest to get a building permit for construction of a school for the children in his community. People are building lives and they can be taken in a moment and there is no hope of due process. This is an experience that I don’t have and pausing to recognize that privilege can be as hard as grappling with demon possession and exorcism.
Perhaps this passage is so hard because we can see it. Rev. Dr. Ottis Moss III of Chicago looks at this passage and is reminded that he sees this man in his community. He reads about this naked, howling man and he sees people without health care. He sees people without support systems or mental health care. He sees addiction and homelessness. And, if we are honest we can see it too. In fact, our coffee shop church sees it up close and personal all the time. And perhaps the challenge is to see it and respond like Jesus. Jesus sees a man. What do we know about him? We know he is strong; strong enough to break the chains of his bondage. Jesus sees this man, bloody, naked, howling and strong, running toward him and he does not turn away. This is brave. Most of us I think would have run the other way. Mark doesn’t say this but I imagine the disciples running the other way. Given their behavior in the rest of Mark, I imagine half of them jumping back in the boat, one falling asleep and Peter drawing his sword to cut off an ear.
Jesus doesn’t run. He asks for the man’s name. The demon responds, “I am Legion, for we are many,” and then the demon tries to make a deal with Jesus. “Don’t send us out of the country.” Instead, Jesus sends the demon into a drove of pigs and when they catch all the heaviness, all the pain, all the intensity, they run off a cliff. Moss raises the question of why are these pigs in Palestine and asks is this part of an illicit economy, an economy that doesn’t belong in the community, an economy that exploits. Jesus disrupts the economy and the caretakers of the pigs run to tell everyone what they have witnessed. Then the most remarkable part of the story happens. “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the Legion; and they were afraid.” Now they are afraid? They were not afraid when he was howling, naked, bloody and living in the cemetery but now they are afraid. What does this mean that people are afraid when a man is healed, when he comes from a place of death into a place of life? Perhaps this is one of the hardest parts of the story-to look at ourselves and ask if we have similar fears when people from the margins are brought to the center. Perhaps we are afraid when one person’s healing changes our economy. Perhaps we are afraid when change means more people will have a voice or a vote because we fear a loss of our own voice’s value. People are afraid and they ask Jesus to leave. As he is getting into the boat, “the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused.” This man who has lived through hell in the tombs asks Jesus if he can go along and Jesus says, “No.” Seems harsh, right? Jesus continues, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown.” Go home. If he doesn’t go home, everything can go back to how it was. The demon doesn’t really leave if the man leaves.
May we have the courage to call demons by name, whether they are shame or fear. May we have to courage to call the demons of sexism or racism or any other form of oppression by name. That is the way to cast it out. That tis the way to heal. That one of the hardest and most beautiful parts of this scripture. That is why it is so scary but we don’t have to be afraid….we just have to be brave.