New Clothes: A Sermon

New Clothes
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Luke 8:26-39

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Art by Amber Osterhout

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 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. When 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.”

– for 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.) Jesus then asked him “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now 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. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank and into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.

Then 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. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “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.

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In the early weeks after the tragic shooting in Newtown, CT, a woman named Liza Long published an article on her blog titled, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” that quickly went viral. If you didn’t see it then, you should track it down when you get a chance. In the article, Long describes her day-to-day experiences, raising a 13-year-old son with severe mental illness.

Without a solid diagnosis, Liza Long has struggled to find ways to manage her oppositional and sometimes violent child. Her other two children have strategies and safety plans if her son happens to threaten any of them with violence – and this happens frequently. In one incident, she gathered up all the sharp objects in her home and carried them with her around the house until he settled down.

Long also describes the general lack of services and support for someone like her son. She thanks God that she has health insurance, and yet also recalls a story when her son’s social worker told them that unless her son was charged with a crime, she had little to no options. “The only way to get anything done is to have charges,” he told her. For someone regularly threatened with violence by her own child, this is not helpful option. Long wondered desperately if something horrible had to happen, another shooting or bombing perhaps, before anyone listened to her closely enough to help her.

The increase in dialogue about mental illness since December has been noticeable, and yet the resources for someone such as Long continue to be minimal. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in every 4 adults will experience some form of mental illness each year. Approximately 20% of state prisons are filled with people suffering from mental illness. 9.2 million adults in our country live with co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders. Mental Illness could be called least understood, most prevalent disease in our country.

In our text for this morning, Jesus encounters a man deeply troubled and severely ostracized. The cause of the man’s affliction is undefined, but there is no doubt regarding its intensity. When Jesus asks his name, the man responds that he has none, or rather, that he is called “Legion,” for the number of demons that plague him. He is living outside of the city, amidst the tombs of the dead, naked and raving. The text tells us that the people of the city had tried to tie him up, but in his fits he broke through the bonds. So he lived, nameless and naked, disturbed and disconnected. Feared and ignored.

There is a trend in modern commentaries to liken Legion to those afflicted with severe mental illness, and it’s not hard to see why. Liza Long’s son, and many others in our world, are plagued by multiple diagnoses and overlying symptoms. We could call them mental illnesses or we could call them demons. When interviewed by PBS, Liza Long’s son described his experiences of rage as “out of body,” akin to possessions. His mind goes blank, and this demon, this rage, takes over.

The man Jesus meets when he steps into the country across from Galilee calls himself “Legion,” indicating the influences on him are many. And isn’t it that way for all of us? Each of us struggles under various pressures and pain. For those who love someone struggling with serious mental illness, we see the way those forces are exacerbated by underlying illness and prey upon the minds and lives of those we care about.

For those who have gone on the Midnight Run, or served at HOPE Community Kitchen, and have met one of the estimated 46% of homeless adults living with severe mental illness or substance abuse, it is easy to see these forces at work in very real and very destructive ways. It is not hard to imagine this man whom we have seen on the streets or subway stations. It is not hard to imagine how he came to be naked and raving amidst the tombs.

We meet one of these forces in our text too, in the backdrop of the community which has chosen to ostracize Legion, bind him near the tombs, leave him to the elements and his madness. They live in fear, and act upon their fear, by ignoring what they do not understand, and failing to see the image of God in even this tormented soul.

But Jesus, does not respond with fear, nor does Jesus see anything but the image of God beneath the layers of suffering. Ironically, the demons possessing the man acknowledge Christ’s power and authority before any human in our story does. “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” They ask. And in many ways the question comes from both the demons and the man himself: what do you have to do with me? What will you do with me?

When Jesus meets this man, this one far on the outskirts of society, he asks his name, and learns that he does not have a name but is known only by his demons, “Legion” he said, for many demons had entered him. And then Jesus has compassion on him, and exorcises the demons, restoring him to health and wholeness. The curious story about the swineherd only emphasizes the power of those forces of torment, and the power of Christ over them. The people are amazed and afraid.

In our Presbyterian tradition, the liturgy for baptism and the re-affirmation of baptism which takes place every time a new person (young or old) joins our congregation, includes some variation of the question, “Do you renounce evil and its power in the world, and turn from the ways of sin?”

It is our way of affirming that in our baptism we acknowledge that our identities are no longer tied to the forces of evil that prey on us daily but firmly grounded in our baptisms. We renounce Satan and promise to follow Christ to the other side. We stand upon our conviction that the legion of forces that would seek to overpower us are nothing in the face of Jesus. We affirm our belief that the ground of our being is in Christ and Christ alone.

Paul reminded the early believers of this conviction in his letter to the Galatians. “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female,” Paul wrote, “for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

“We can declare that God claims us once, again, and always as God’s own beloved children. In this way we may announce God’s promise, restoring to our hearers the name and identity given them by God.” Because of the waters of baptism, when our legion of forces threatens to overwhelm our lives, we trust that Christ alone has the power to cast them out, and that the fullness of our identity is in him.

Paul says that Christ alone matters: Christ our unity, Christ our focus, Christ the beginning and the end, Christ the cause for which we live, Christ from which nothing can take us, not even death.”

When the townspeople come to find the man they used to know as possessed clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus they are afraid and they ask Jesus to leave. The power they witness is too much for them to take. What might that power do for them? What might Jesus do with them? If Christ has the power to exorcise the demons of this man’s mind, how might Christ exorcise the demons of our hearts? Those places we have kept only for ourselves… Those places we have not given fully over to the the Son of the Most High God… What would we look like if our whole identity was truly and wholly grounded in Christ?

A number of years ago, I managed a weekly meal offered by my church to a group of homeless and at-risk folks, who met for a grass-roots empowerment gathering. They were a circle of outcasts: There was Mike, who had Cerebal Palsy and always drew me into a wet, messy hug. There was Jeremy who heard myriad voices and Thelma who told me the stars were following her and whispering to her – mostly God’s blessings but sometimes God’s judgment. Every time we gathered for the meal we needed extra security at the doors, since there were regularly outbursts and threats of violence.

After the meal, those gathered discussed various plans and initiatives that might help people get more solid ground beneath them: Advocacy for rent stabilization, a collection of support for a member with medical bills. They closed in prayer and singing.

At first I was scared. People at the church warned me to stay away from the door, or to beware of certain violent individuals.

And then Mike’s hugs seemed to soften my heart… and I wondered what it might like to be Thelma, constantly surrounded with the voice of God showering her with blessings. Somehow it was not me that changed them, or brought them anywhere or anything, but they who reminded me of my identity, based only in Christ, and our oneness together.

When Jesus leaves the country of the Gerasenes the man now in his right mind begs to go with him. And for once Jesus does not say, “Follow me,” but instead, “Return home, and declare how much God has done for you.” This man is sent as a witness, to the power of God over all our legion of demons – emotional, spiritual or otherwise. Restored, he is sent, proclaiming how much Jesus had done for him. That man was sent, and is still proclaiming the power of the Most High God, to name us and claim us, and make us God’s own, and make us one with each other.

May it be so. Amen.

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