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. (Luke 8: 27)
You’ve probably heard it said that when you’re down on your luck, you find out who your real friends are. Only people who love you for yourself–not for what you can do for them–stick with you when you’ve got nothing left to give.
Today’s Gospel tells us something even more radical. (Luke 8:26-39) Your true friend sticks by you no matter what, even and especially when there’s nothing particularly lovable about you.
|Giacomo Balla’s “The Madwoman”|
Even when you’re positively toxic, and everybody in their right mind keeps their distance, your truest friend embraces you with a love that defies explanation. A love that restores the mind, that refreshes the soul, that heals the body, and that turns death into life.
We only have one friend like that. Jesus Christ.
The story of the demon-possessed Gerasene man tells us who God in Christ is and what he has done and is doing for us. Let’s work our way through the story one step at a time.
Let’s start by considering the Gerasene man’s desperate state and what it says about our own situation.
We find the real key to understanding the Gerasene man’s condition–and how it reflects our own state back to us–by considering his street address. He lives among the tombs. Set aside for a moment the images you may have conjured up about demon-possession or mentally ill behavior.
Consider what living in the tombs meant for this man. Meant for Jesus.
The tombs are the place of the dead. For Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries, a corpse is unclean. Being clean or unclean is not principally about how sanitary something is. Instead, something is unclean when it distorts and debases God’s good order. It’s the ungodly.
So the Gerasene assumes that he’s godforsaken. God, he thinks, wants nothing to do with the thoughts that course through his mind or the feelings that pulse in his heart or the self-destructive actions he habitually savors. That’s why he takes up residence in a graveyard.
We struggle to feel the force of the Gerasene man’s plight because we live by the myth of the good enough. We say, “I may not be perfect, but I’m good enough.” We think that we’ve racked up enough good behaviors or religious practices or moral achievements to convince God to overlook our less flattering habits of heart and mind and hands and feet.
|Albert Bloch’s “Old Graveyard”|
Anne Lamott could be speaking for me, and maybe for you, when she writes, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
We’ve all been there. We’ve all given Jesus something to make him want to run for the cat dish.
You don’t have to make the notorious sinner’s list by doing something overt. You just have to build walls or push others away or make others into unwelcome outsiders in your heart and mind.
There are scores of ways to do this. By harboring resentments, nursing envy, accepting prejudice, or judging another’s looks or status we make another child of God into a stranger and an enemy.
We take up residence among the tombs.
These habits of mind and heart and relationship are repugnant to God. No matter how much we layer them over with sweet smelling prayers and nice gestures and charitable works, they retain their toxicity. To us. To our neighbor.
Being good enough is not good enough. Not for God. Jesus tells us that we must be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. And he tells us that in full knowledge that we cannot do it.
But he can. And he does it for us. And that brings us to who God is and what he does for us in his son Jesus Christ.
The Gerasene man is exactly right to assume that he is not good enough, that there is a toxicity about him that God will not tolerate. Where he went wrong is to assume that he is godforsaken. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Gerasene lives in a rotten neighborhood. While most of us go out of our way to avoid driving through bad sections of town, Jesus strolls right up to the Gerasene’s tombstone.
Jesus is sort of a grave crasher. He is the Lord of Life. Death has no claim on him as such. There is no tomb with his name on it.
And yet, he keeps showing up at other people’s graves. He came to the graveyard to visit the Gerasene. He sought out Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus himself was laid in a tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, a tomb that in truth represents the grave prepared for each and every one of us.
Jesus does not forsake us to death. He embraces everything deadly about us and turns it into life everlasting.
|Nicholas Roerich’s “Harrowing of Hell”|
In Jesus our selfishness becomes compassion, our grudges turn into forgiveness, our addictions become joyful freedom. Jesus transforms our shattered relationships into renewed bonds of affection, the harm we’ve done to others into the occasion for tender mercy, and the harm we’ve done to ourselves into recovery and healing.
Jesus doesn’t crash other people’s graves to take up permanent residence. Death itself is on his hit list. A new kind of life–a life beyond all death and sorrow, resentment and regret, loneliness and pain–emerges from every tomb that Jesus visits.
In our own hands, the tomb is a dead end. With Jesus, the grave is merely the passage to eternal life. And as we see in the case of the Gerasene man, Jesus begins conquering death and imparting eternal life even as we go about our daily routines and ordinary rounds.
The apostle Paul paints a picture of eternal life in the making. He calls it the fruit of the Spirit. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23a)
This new way of living is the fruit, the result, of what God does for us. He does it not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who God is.
Now, let’s think together about how God wants us to respond to who he is and what he is doing for us.
Jesus gives two explicit, closely related instructions to the Gerasene: Go home. Tell people what God has done for you.
Let’s start with the second directive.
Tell people what God has done for you. Sometimes it helps to start telling with words. Mostly it’s best to start telling with action. Listen to others. Notice and respond to their dreams and their needs, their hopes and their fears, their loves and their wounds.
Accept and celebrate difference. Be patient with quirks and imperfections. Encourage others in their growth instead of judging them for their shortcomings.
That is what Jesus has done and is doing for each of us. And that is the first step in telling others about him. Follow his pattern in your own life. When your words match the rhythms of your life, people will believe what you say.
|Norman Rockwell’s “Family Home from Vacation”|
And now for the first of those instructions. Go home. Keep going back to your ordinary life, but as a new and renewing person. As God’s instrument for making us all at home together.
Go back to the ones who hurt you or shut you out or looked right through you as if you didn’t even exist.
Go back to really see the ones who have been invisible to you, to befriend the ones who were threatening to you, and to understand the ones who were contemptible to you.
Don’t give up on anybody. That’s what God would do. In fact, that’s what God is doing. For us and through us.
People don’t just want to know who God is. They want to know what difference he makes in their lives. What’s he done for them lately? As crazy as it might sound, what God has done is to send you, to send me, as reminders that God never gives up on anybody.
This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s, Abbeville. Many thanks to my friend Bishop Rob Wright of Atlanta for a helpful conversation that influenced this sermon.
Compelling imagery! Really drives the message home: “We take up residence among the tombs….”
“Jesus strolls right up to the Gerasene's tombstone.”
“Jesus is sort of a grave crasher…there is no tomb with his name on it.”
“He keeps showing up at other people's graves.”
No words could be better. Thank you!
Thanks for these kind words, Mary! I'm glad you were able to fix the commenting problem.
I love the quote from Anne Lamott. The line about drinking straight gin from the cat dish has resonated with me since I first read it. We have so many people in our midst who feel this way about having an intimate relationship with Jesus. They refuse to open up to God because they feel unable to earn that closeness.
To paraphrase one of your last lines, I don't think people really know who God is at all, or what the true power of Jesus is. Of all the jobs clergy are given, I think that convincing people that God IS lovingly, graciously, powerfully active in their daily lives – that they cannot and should not try to hide from God – is perhaps most important.
Thanks, as always for your good words.
Hi John! Thanks responding. You're spot on about both counts. People frequently think that have to measure up to earn Jesus' affection, and clergy are called above all else to point convincingly to the loving power of God in all our lives.
As for Anne Lamott, I'm an unabashed fan. She has a terrific eye for grace in the midst of mess matched only by her ability to bring what she sees to words that make us hear, feel, and see it for ourselves.