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Sunday, June 19, 2016

God's Story

Jesus invites us to share our stories with one another because in doing so, we are sharing God's story—stories of courage, hope, and resilience. And God's story is worth hearing, and worth telling, over and over again.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12 C
   Texts: Luke 8:26-39; Galatians 3:23-29

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This story reads more like the beginning of a Stephen King novel or an episode of the Twilight Zone than it does a Bible story. Demon possession. A herd of pigs. A man bound with chains and shackles. A fearful town. Two forces—good and evil—working against each other. There is suspense, intrigue, colorful language. And by golly, there’s even nudity! Included in all three synoptic gospels, this is a story worth paying attention to.

The Gerasene Demoniac, as we have come to call him, or “the man who had demons” as Luke names him, is to be feared. For a long time, he has worn no clothes. Forced to go naked, his skin and body are unprotected from the elements, and he’s likely covered in sores, pustules, and abrasions. The demons have scarred him, both physically and emotionally. So he lives among the dead, in the tombs, bound by chains and shackles. 

We don’t know how he became an outcast of the community, whether it happened quickly or over time, but it’s clear that the community was involved in his isolation perhaps in order to to keep the man safe, or to protect the community, or maybe both. Each time the demons would drive the man from his chains, someone from town would have to chase after him, restrain him, and return him to his home among the dead. This was his life, day after day.

Scholars disagree on whether he was actually possessed by demons or whether he suffered from mental illness or epilepsy. And perhaps it doesn’t matter for us. Because regardless, this man was powerless—powerless to the forces that entered his body. Powerless to his circumstance. Powerless to speak for himself when asked his name. Completely unable to advocate for himself, he relied upon the community to keep him safe. And, ultimately, an outsider—Jesus—is the one who saves him. 

Like the Gerasene Demoniac, we know this powerlessness. We’ve experienced it personally through addiction, mental illness, disease, and grief. We’ve seen it manifest in our friends and family. It’s a terrible way to be in the world. We can feel helpless and alone. We may live in anger or fear. To be powerless is to be vulnerable. We may not know what we need and we likely cannot act for ourselves. 

Sometimes, like “the man who had demons,” we need Jesus to come to us. We need someone from the other side, who sees more clearly than we do. A person who goes out of their way to seek us out, to meet us where we are, in our deepest fear and vulnerability. When we’re powerless we need someone willing to disrupt our lives, to turn things upside-down in order to bring about change and newness. Someone who will show up with a casserole at just the right time, a friend who can connect us with the right resources in our depression or grief, or a stranger who comes to our rescue when we need help.

But I’ve been noticing a different kind of powerlessness lately, too. A collective powerlessness that we experience together as a community. I notice it when I turn on the radio or scroll through my Facebook feed. We are angry, confused, and deeply saddened by the perpetuation of terror and violence in our world and our nation. 

The systems that are in place that block, isolate, and discriminate are causing great division within our communities, and many of us feel the need to say something, to do something, even though we don’t know what that is. I’m sensing now more than ever that change is on the brink, that we are approaching something new, but like you, I haven’t a clue how or when we’ll get there. But then in the midst of a terrible tragedy, I hear stories that give me hope. Stories like the story that “the man who had demons” must have told to his community.

After Jesus heals this man, he brings him back into the life of the community by sending him out to proclaim what God has done for him. After the healing, Luke refers to him as “the man from whom the demons had gone” because this man’s story still matters. Even though he’s been healed, his identity is wrapped up in this history of what has happened to him—it’s his story. 

And that is why Jesus sends him out! To share his story with the community because they need to hear it and learn from it. They need this so that they, too, can go out and tell his story. So that they, like Jesus, can be advocates for change, for new life, for rebirth.

The man goes to tell his story, but not without protest. Can you imagine having to go back? To face the people who have been afraid of you for years? How brave of him to tell his story, to share what God has done for him, with the very people who watched him suffer year after year.

When I read the stories about those who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting, I am filled with both sadness and hope. Sadness that our sisters and brothers were murdered, that gun violence continues, that we live in a world plagued by hatred, fear, and bigotry. But I am also filled with hope. Hope that dilutes hatred, hope that washes over fear, hope that mitigates bigotry. Because of the courage of these victims’ families and friends to share their loved ones’ stories, we are drawn into community with one another. The differences between us fade, and grace pours forth. 

We don’t know how the Gerasene Demoniac was received when he returned to his community, but his courage to tell his story reminds me of the stories of the Orlando shooting victims that we’ve been hearing this week. Stories of overcoming fears, of courage, hope, solidarity, and resilience. 

Stories of people like Deonka, who had been arrested for several drug infractions, but with the help of new friends and a church community, was working to turn her life around.

Stories of people like Frankie, a charming big brother who taught his little sister how to walk in high heels and wear makeup.

Stories of people like Juan and Luis, partners who ran a salon together and would offer free services to women who had been victims of domestic violence. 

Stories of beautiful human beings—our sisters and our brothers—stories of grace embodied and love incarnate. Stories of power in weakness, of reconciliation, stories of love.

Jesus invites us to share our stories with one another because in doing so, we can see more clearly the joys and challenges that we all face in this world. The stories we share bless both those who tell them and those who hear. They bridge lives, make connections, and bring us closer in understanding. In our listening, we discover that we too can be a part of the change. We do not need to remain silent. We are not powerless. Instead we are invited to be witnesses, to speak up, and to work towards unity in our own lives, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.

Paul says that we are clothed with Christ and this clothing is our protection, our security, our courage. Christ binds us to one another and gives us the freedom to listen, the freedom to speak, the freedom to understand, the freedom to be one. “For in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.” Christ gives us the freedom to love, just as God loves us.

It is a tragedy that these young men and women died. But their death is not the end of the story. Their lives give witness to God’s story. And God’s story—the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—this story has the power to save, the power to heal, the power to transform. 

So listen. Share. Speak up for others. Like “the man from whom the demons had gone” go proclaim what God has done for you. Because God’s story is worth hearing, and worth telling, over and over again. 


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