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Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac

"And they were afraid."
Luke 8:26-39
IV Pentecost 7C
June 24, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I’ve become gradually aware that the gospel stories have begun to evoke memories in me, the way music often does. I’m sure you are aware of the ability of music to generate nostalgic remembrance of, say, the experience of a particular summer vacation, or a first love, or something that happened when you were in college. Well, for me, gospel stories have that same power.

The story of the Gerasene demoniac floods me with memories of every ‘street person’ I’ve ever met who had a mental illness. When you work in the urban arena for as many years as I have, you met a great deal of people who ‘live move and have their being’ in the long, dark shadows of the city’s darker side.

The Gerasene demoniac is the term for the man from a city in the country of Gerasene which was opposite the little town of Galilee who was “possessed by many demons” and an “unclean spirit.”

Today, of course, we understand that this was the way in which antiquity thought of mental illness. We know so much more today about the chemistry of the brain and how it influences behavior. It is ironic to note, however, that our treatment of people with mental illness has not improved much over time.

The man from Gerasene, we are told, “wore no clothes and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” Imagine the sight: a naked man, quite insane, living among the dead. We are left to wonder what it was that caused his mental illness.

Might it have been schizophrenia or was it a form of bipolar disorder? What social condition might have driven him insane? Might it have been unspeakable physical or sexual abuse as a child? Might it have been the horrors of war?

Did something happen to someone he knew and loved that was more horrifying than his mind could bear to take in as reality?

We know some of the stories of some of the people who are among the “walking dead” on our city streets. People who mutter to themselves as they push their grocery cart filled with all of their earthly belongings, who live under bridges and highway overpasses or deep in the bowels of the subway system where they might escape the unforgiving winds of winter or the blazing, burning rays of the summer sun.

If we didn’t know better, we too might say they were possessed by many demons. Actually, as a metaphor, it’s not bad. The metaphorical ghosts of past events – our participation in acts of evil or in activities that skirt the outer edges of morality or ethics – can haunt us for years. If left untended or ignored, metaphorical ghosts can become metaphorical demons and those demons can become quite real, a living nightmare from which we never awake that torment and torture us until they quite literally drive us insane.

What fascinates me every time I read this fascinating story is what happens after the man is healed. Scripture says, “ . . . .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.”

I’m sure they were fearful of the man when he was quite insane. Why were they now afraid? The demons were gone, he was sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus, his clothes on and he was, it is reported, “in his right mind.” And yet, we are told that they were afraid. Why? Why now? After the healing? Once the demons had gone?

Yesterday, I was walking across Military Park in Newark on my way to the Cathedral to attend the farewell celebration of Bishop Carol Gallagher’s ministry among us. When you walk through Military Park it’s hard not run into at least one or two folk who might be related to the Gerasene demoniac.

Suddenly, my mind was flooded with the memory of one man in particular. I think his name was John. He was a Viet Nam Vet – his spirit broken and his mind ravaged by the unspeakable horrors he saw during that war. He lived in Military Park by day, taking special delight in wandering over to the immaculate, finely designed grotto of NJPAC just to frighten the patrons taking in an afternoon event.

I ran into John one afternoon when I was working at the Diocesan Offices at 31 Mulberry Street. I had been in a dreadful mood. It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. The Xerox machine had broken down. The deadline for the grant was looming on the horizon. The rumors of proposed budget cuts were growing louder and beginning to gain traction.

I had just gotten a call from the Cathedral Office at 24 Rector Street that there was some form or another I had to sign which simply could not wait, so I decided to walk the ten minutes just for a change of scenery.

That was when I crossed paths with John. Actually, I could smell him before I actually saw or heard him, but in a split second, the man was very, very near me, looking closely into my eyes. His closeness assaulted my sense of security just as the odor of his clothes assaulted my nose.

I was suddenly aware that I must have been walking very deliberately and with great purpose across the grotto at NJPAC, in that way that you walk when you are annoyed or angry, because when I stopped short in his presence the momentum in my body kept me moving forward so that I almost bumped into John.

“Oh, excuse me,” I said, less embarrassed by my clumsiness than a bit afraid to be in such close proximity to him. I like my crazy street people at a distance, thank you very much, where I can see them and dodge any quick, unexpected moves.

John came right up into my face and then, backing away just a bit, tilted his head back as he announced, very loudly, “I can change the weather!”

Then, he went into a beautiful, graceful dance as he explained, “No one believes me, but once, when I was in “The ‘Nam,” I was abducted by aliens. They took me to their space pod where they inserted radio receivers in my brain and here in my elbow, and there in my knee. At first, it frightened me, but I have learned how to use them. If I move very carefully, I can actually pick up a signal, like so and . . . voila! – I can change the weather.”

As I watched him gyrate himself until he twisted and turned himself into a ridiculous pose, I found myself laughing. Out loud.

It was then that John came up to me again – real close – smiled broadly and said, “You see. I can change the weather.”

And I realized that he was right.

The climate in my brain had been quite bad. I must have had a huge dark rain cloud following close to my head, ready to burst. But, in just a few moments, John had changed all of that.

I felt lighter, somehow. The world didn’t seem such a dark and gloomy place. The demons which had haunted and tormented me left.

John had healed all that.

Before I had a chance to thank him – or slip him some spare change – he left, walking back to his spot over at the war memorial at Military Park to hang out with the granite heroes of another time and place.

I suspect the people of antiquity also liked their crazy street people at a distance, too. From that distance, they perform an important civic service. They remind us of the outer edges of our reality – the slippery slope we all traverse between reality and insanity.

Without them to mark that place, how will we ever be able to gauge our own sanity? The old saying in mental hospitals and prisons is that the only way to tell the inmates from the guards is that the guards are the ones with keys.

If we don’t carry the metaphorical keys of propriety, how will we ever be able to tell the inmates from their keepers – the prisoners from the guards?

And so, the people were justly afraid. Jesus had blurred the lines between sanity and insanity and the climate in the countryside changed just as surely as John had changed the weather in my soul.

In the end, the story of the Gerasene demoniac is less about the healing of a crazy street person and more about healing the demons who rage in our own lives.

Jesus talks to the man. In fact, the first thing he does is to ask him his name – not only talking with a person, but personalizing the conversation. Treating him with some dignity and kindness – not talking at him or about him, but to him, like a ‘normal’ human being.

In so doing, Jesus welcomed him from the land of the dead into the land of the living which was enough to begin the process of healing.

The real miracle is this: when Jesus healed the man from Gerasene, he didn’t just heal one man; rather, he healed an entire community.

He continued that healing by asking the man to be a disciple in his own community, rather than being one of his followers, one of the disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."

God has made such disciples of each and every one of us. The question is: What are we afraid of?

What prevents us from living more fully into our faith? How do we move from the tombs and monuments which we have created, and in which many of us live, to embrace and live into our faith? How do we tell the story to others of what God has done for us? I know it sounds crazy, but when more and more of us begin to tell that story in our own communities, the entire climate of our culture changes.

As crazy as it sounds, we, too, like my friend John, can change the weather. We, too, like the man from Gerasene can be healed – and, in no small measure, we can also begin to heal this dark and broken world of the insanity of poverty, hunger, famine, and war.

I know it sounds crazy but it’s true: When you find healing in your heart, a small piece of the world is healed as well. It is in such healing that we discover the path to reclaim and restore Eden once again.


1 comment:

Bill said...

Has anyone ever addressed the compassion shown by Jesus to the Legion of Demons by not casting them into the Abyss. Looking at it from two different perspectives; on the literal side, Jesus would not even do harm to a demon and from a modern approach, Jesus knew that the demons were only part of the insanity afflicting this tormented man. Considering that even today, many of us still shun the mentally ill, Jesus displays a wisdom and understanding far beyond his time and ours.