From the Margins: A Sufferer
All week as I’ve been reading this passage I keep thinking about a children’s storybook. This is not my typical go-to theological reference, as you know.
Maybe it’s because we’ve been thinking about the littlest ones among us a lot around here these days as we watch our nursery grow, as we prepared for a weekend of Vacation Bible School out at Camp Fraser (winding up as we speak!), and getting ready for Pastor Leah to become the first Calvary pastor EVER to have a baby, whenever Baby Davis decides to make her appearance in the next few weeks! (By the way, the competition for guessing her arrival date to benefit the Shalom Scholarship fund is heating up as we get closer. Be sure to make a guess during coffee hour today!)
Whatever the reason, I kept thinking about a popular children’s book called Guess How Much I Love You this week. Do you know it? Frankly, I’ve always thought it is kind of boring…I confess I would groan internally every time my kids requested it, but for some reason the book has become a classic.
The basic plot is simple: it’s a baby rabbit and a parent rabbit trying to one-up each other by saying how much they love each other. Over and over they trade off, each one making a more audacious claim about their love for the other. In the end, the baby rabbit gets tired and falls asleep after declaring the longest, furthest distance he could imagine: I love you all the way to the moon.
And, of course, after the baby falls asleep, the parent rabbit says, “I love you all the way to the moon…and back again.”
It’s hokey, I know. But it’s kind of the essence of today’s Gospel lesson. In this part of Luke’s gospel it’s story after story, one right after another, of Jesus teaching about the life-transforming power of God. In today’s story it’s kind of like Luke is getting toward the end of that children’s book, because the story we hear today is Luke one-upping all his other stories to show the radical and transforming power of God’s love for the world.
For the past few weeks we’ve been following Jesus around the region of the Sea of Galilee and watching carefully as he does the most astounding things…healing people, raising them from the dead, feeding those who are hungry, rescuing them from natural disasters…but most shocking of all, reaching across the boundaries of social convention, into the margins of society, touching the untouchable and naming the disenfranchised.
In theory we understand how radical his actions were; in reality we don’t really understand how foundation-rocking he was. But if we weren’t sure before, today’s story confirms it: Jesus takes his message to a new level. He was out to change the world in deep and elemental ways, showing the people around him the all-encompassing power of God’s love.
Today’s story is commonly known as the story of the Geresene Demoniac—sounds bad, doesn’t it? It was bad. And very dramatic. Most recently Jesus has been on the water—sailing across the Sea of Galilee, to be specific, from the northwest shore to the east coast of the Sea of Galilee, from a Jewish region into an area largely populated with Gentiles. We don’t know why he was headed there, but we will have learned about the trip there in Sunday School—remember the story of Jesus stilling the storm? That happens on the way to the place where today’s story unfolds.
So, Jesus worked all night stilling the storm, and he doesn’t even get a break, because the text tells us the minute he stepped on shore, he was approached by a man who had demons. There’s a lot of detail here about this man, who was clearly troubled and could not live in society—he lived in a cemetery—an utter outcast.
There’s a pretty intense exchange between Jesus and this man, after which Jesus casts out the demons and sends them into a herd of pigs, which runs down the hill and drowns. This story presents a lot of questions, of course, including but not limited to questions about running around naked in the hot sun, how one might go about casting out demons, and any number of questions related to animal cruelty. I will not be answering those questions here. But I want you to notice that in the course of all of this, Jesus asks the man his name…he puts a human face on the suffering and exclusion this man symbolized in all of his crazed, society-shocking behavior. And he heals him; he restores him to, well, life. And it made all the people around him scared. Terrified, when they saw it.
It’s a radical tale, and it’s not just us who would find this story outlandish. Jesus’ first followers were largely Jews, so think about this from their perspective. First of all, Jesus—a Jew—is off in Gentile territory, interacting with non-Jews. There are a lot of pigs in this story, and we all know that pigs were unclean animals to Jews then and now. When Jesus asks the man for his name he says, “Legion”—a clear reference to one of Rome’s armies—Rome, the oppressor of the region at that time. Jesus braves the sea and the cemetery in this story, both known to be abodes of demonic powers.
There’s almost too much symbolism here, and that’s because scholars think this story was told and retold, over and over again before it even got to Mark…then Luke, who borrowed it from Mark. There are too many inconsistencies for this to have been a real, historical account. Yet for some reason, early Christians told this story over and over again, until it gained almost legendary status, embellishing details and capitalizing on the outlandish nature of the story—almost as if to tell each other: “Well, I can tell an even more radical story about Jesus. Have you heard the one about the Geresene demoniac??”
Yet, in all its radical strangeness, this story is in many ways a universal story, a story about you and me, who look for the most part together and in our right minds, but who all—all of us—at some time or another, desperately need liberation from the things that enslave us and keep us from living into the fullness of human life as we were created to live.
As you know, I went to seminary to learn how to be a pastor. But I really learned much more during my first job out of seminary, directing a homeless shelter for women in the city of New Orleans.
You know the kind of place I am talking about—you see big missions like this every Thanksgiving on the news, when movie stars show up, don aprons, and volunteer in front of the cameras. It’s the kind of place where desperation is palpable and hope is rare.
In the hierarchy of services for the homeless populations of big cities, my shelter was right at the bottom. That is, it was an emergency shelter that took in women who were the most desperate and coming in off the streets with no other options. Our goal was to keep them safe and to move them along to a more stable living situation, to another service provider who could help to address some of the root causes of their homelessness.
To say that I was unprepared and unqualified to hold such a position would be, perhaps, the understatement of the year. I knew this the very first day on the job, when I’d turned up dressed professionally—as any newly trained minister would do—ready to change the lives of thousands in the homeless population of the city of New Orleans.
It was an early Monday morning, my first morning on the job, and I was in the main office filling in paperwork when I got a call from the women’s shelter informing me there was a woman in my office who needed to see a minister. Well, I was a minister! So, I straightened my jacket and headed back to the shelter to do whatever it was that ministers did—I couldn’t quite remember if anyone had given me any specifics.
When I came into my office I met a woman who told me her name was Chloe. She was a young woman—a girl, really—probably in her mid-teens. I could tell she had not slept much anytime recently; her hair was matted, her clothes dirty, and even inexperienced I could tell that she’d come off a long night of working the streets. It had been some time since she’d had a shower, obviously, and she reeked of beer at 9 o’clock in the morning.
I didn’t know what to do, let’s just be clear.
So I pulled up a chair across from where she sat and I said in what I hoped was a very professional voice: “So, Chloe, tell me how I can help you today.”
She looked up at me and, before I knew what had happened, she launched herself into my lap. She put her arms around me and held on as tight as she could, sobbing the most wretched sobs and saying over and over and over again, “Help me, help me, would you please help me?”
Well, as you might imagine, this turn of events went far beyond any seminary preparation I’d had. I couldn’t think what to do in that moment; all I could think was that I’d never seen anyone like this before…that she smelled really bad…that I was scared in the face of all the pain she was obviously carrying…and that I didn’t know how to fix it.
To be honest with you, I can’t quite remember what I did do. I may have fumbled around and tried to say some comforting words, prayed a prayer or something, then helped her get a shower and a meal. I can’t recall. What I do recall is that Chloe left the shelter after sleeping a bit; the pull of the streets was too strong and she couldn’t see any hope out of the situation in which she found herself.
A few weeks later I came into work again on a Monday morning, only to find the police in my office. Chloe had been murdered just a few feet from the doors of the shelter the night before.
You may have heard me talk about Chloe before; I try to tell her story and call her name every once and awhile because I don’t want her to become an anonymous statistic from the streets of New Orleans. She taught me an important lesson about pastoral ministry: we are all the same.
It doesn’t matter if you spend your nights working the street corners and show up the next morning on a doorstep half-crazed out of your mind, desperate for help—any kind of help…or if you have a newly-minted seminary degree and your first ever business cards. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been living in a cemetery, ranting and raving, hurting yourself and terrifying the people around you…or if you were a perfectly upstanding pig herder, just trying to make a living. The truth is that we all are enslaved to powers of some sort. No matter how respectable we seem, we all struggle and yearn for liberation, for freedom, for deliverance, for life. And there is not one among us who hasn’t at some point wanted to launch ourselves into the lap of someone who might help us and say: I am desperate for recognition, for healing, for hope, for liberation.
Perhaps that’s why the people who saw what Jesus did that day were afraid…and why this story scares us. Because we know that at our core are all the same; we all long to know the radical and redemptive power of God’s love, no matter how respectable we seem on the outside.
Today’s story isn’t a sweet little tale of Jesus being nice. All along Luke has been telling stories about Jesus reaching across margins and using his power to heal, to feed, to calm…. And with each tale of Jesus asserting divine power, we get the increasing impression that the power of God is bigger than the powers of this world: bigger than societal norms; bigger than hunger and poverty; bigger than sickness and death. The story of the Geresene demoniac cuts right to the chase to tell us in gritty, irrefutable ways that the power of love can even overcome the very depths of evil.
In other words, this is another story about liberation.
However you and I understand the powers of oppression—in systems or structures; in illness or exclusion; in personal circumstances or situations…in this passage, the writer of Luke is reminding us that God’s power is bigger, bigger, bigger, still, than we had even thought, that Jesus came to reach across the margins…across society’s rigid rules, across even the darkest evil of this world, to reach for us—you and me—and to never let us go.
In fact, if this were a children’s book, this story would be toward the end, where we’d collapse exhausted in the arms of the one who loves and embraces us no matter who we are or where we are in life, and we’d fall asleep, exhausted.
And then God would say, again, guess how much I love you?
This much. This is how much I love you—so much that I would reach as far as I need to reach and hold on as tight as I could, just to let you know, no matter what: I will never let you go.