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June 23, 2013

“Identity crisis”

Rev. Barbara Lorbach

Luke 8: 26-39 (NRSV)

     Have you ever felt as is the life you are living is not the life you want to live? That somehow your life is not your own or maybe that you have even become a prisoner of your own life? If so, then you have met the Gerasene demoniac, the man in today’s gospel. He used to have a home in the city; now he lives in a cemetery among the tombs. He used to be free; now he wears chains and shackles. He used to have relationships, family and friends; now he has a guard. He used to dress and act like everyone else. For a long time now he has worn no clothes. Here’s his story.


Luke 8: 26-39

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.
27As 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.
28When 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”—
29for 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.)
30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.
31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.
33Then the demons ame out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.
35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.
36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,
39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

     What a vivid image of a man separated from society, naked, bound in chains and shackles, living in a cemetery and without an identity. But this story is not simply a description of the man’s physical life and environment. The real challenges of life are, more often than not, spiritual rather than physical. The tombs, chains, demons, and nakedness are descriptive of this man’s interior life. They point to a life separated from God, others, and self. They reveal a soul in need of healing, in need of a new life not just a new environment.
     We don’t know how this man of the city came to live in the tombs. We don’t know what keeps him chained to the dead. We don’t know what has left him exposed and vulnerable. We don’t know what demons haunt and possess his life. We cannot tell the story of his life. We are not able to fully discern some 2000 years later what Luke intended with this story. As the only Gentile writer in a cast of Jewish writers, Luke tells us story after story of how Jesus changed the lives of people—people who were the misfits and outcasts of his day. Luke believes deeply in this Jesus who transformed people’s lives. He believes deeply in the power of Jesus to break the chains that bind, to clothe the naked, to vacate tombs, and to render demons powerless.
     This story may also be our story. We could each tell about a time when it felt like we were more dead than alive—naked, exposed, and vulnerable. We could describe what it is like to be a prisoner of our own life, to feel the heaviness of life weighing us down like chains and shackles. We can remember times when we lived outside the security of the city of our family, friends, and relationships. We could describe a time when we just were not ourselves, when our lives became possessed by another person, another event, another thing.
     The reasons for this are many: the pain of divorce or a broken relationship with a child or parent; the grief and sorrow over the death of a loved one; illness; busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated; the never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval; anger; fear; addictions and the never-ending need for more; deep disappointment; guilt that will not allow the acceptance of forgiveness; resentment and the refusal to forgive; cynicism that convinces us it is not worth the effort to try again or to look for a new way; apathy and indifference; expectations of others; and the list goes on and on. Eventually we become so attached to these various ways of behaving, thinking, or speaking that they seem to take on a life of their own. They take on power. They possess us. Our life is no longer our own. Like the Gerasene man, we have no name, no identity left, except to the demons that possess us.
     Mark Davis says, “Identity is the problem with anyone who has a demon. Who am I? Who am I apart from or in cohesion with this demon? Can ‘I’ be separated from ‘it’? I find stories of persons with demons to be powerfully insightful into the real dilemmas facing anyone with controlling habits, diseases, or conditions. We become identified with the disease and the behaviors, whether via pity or anger. What worse condition is there than to be asked, “Who am I” and not to be able to answer?”
     Luke’s Jesus is the one who restores the soul. Luke’s Jesus transforms the people he encounters. Luke’s Jesus reconnects the whole person to life and community. No one is outside Jesus’ community or without a place at the table. And in this story there are those who don’t handle it well—too much change, too fast and they are seized with fear. So they tell Jesus to leave.
     Fast forward to 2013—what do we do with Luke’s Jesus today? Do we want Jesus to leave as well when he challenges our security and wants us to change? Would we rather keep the status quo and say only those who are acceptable may come in? Will we listen to the testimony of those in our day who tells us what God has done for them? Thank you, St. John UCC, for being a place where even in the midst of change, we keep the door open to the stranger, the outcast, and the one not accepted in other places. May God continue to challenge us to hear the testimonies of all the people God sends to join us in ministry.
     A reflection by Episcopal priest, Michael K. Marsh, is woven into this message and I close with a quote by him: “There is nothing we encounter in life or death, nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus, the power to restore life, to forgive, to love, to heal, and to carry us through times we cannot bear on our own. In Christ chains are broken, nakedness is clothed, tombs are vacated, and demons are powerless.”
     In the name of Jesus, may we be freed this day to live out our identity as children of God, and may we go forth to free someone else to do the same.