The “other”

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5th Sunday after Pentecost; June 19, 2016, Year C

Isaiah 65.1-9; Psalm 22.19-28; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our Gospel reading is about transformation and the power of God in the lives of people. I am so curious to know what all of you might be thinking about our Gospel reading; what questions you might have, what emotions it might evoke in you. There is so much in this story that I cannot cover it all in our short time together.

Rather than getting hung up on demon possession, or the pigs running off the cliff and drowning, we need to focus our attention on the people in this story and how their lives unfold.

First though, it is essential to name how people in Jesus’ day thought about demon possession. It could have been sickness, something as common as seizures. It could have been mental illness that plagued the minds of people and kept them from functioning in society. It could have been spiritual, recognizing that there is evil in the world and it can overtake people’s lives.

There is a broad way to think about demon possession. We shouldn’t automatically think of the exorcist, but rather how people can be “possessed by forces” that lead to fear, self-destruction, harm of community, and health.

We can never demonize anyone, but rather acknowledge what keeps people isolated or bound. People wrestle all the time with different addictions, greed, hatred, and self-absorption. These things can and stiffen people’s ability to function, or thrive, or have healing in their lives.

It is not our job to judge another or to demonize anyone, but rather understand that each person, each of us here today, is created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and deeply loved by the creator.

What is so important is to not be afraid and to know that there is nothing Jesus is afraid of, no matter what people are wrestling with or what binds them, not even demons or the devil. What this story says to us is that Jesus has power over evil and whatever might be keeping us from being free and able to love and serve our neighbor.

So after Jesus calms the storm on the water, he drags his disciples to the “other side,” the land of the Gerasenes. Jesus is always going to the “other” and the “other side.” He constantly crosses and interrupts boundaries that people have created to make someone “other.” When we make someone “the other” it’s easier to not care about them.

Oh, they’re wealthy, they’re poor. They’re black, they’re white. They’re Muslim, they’re Christian. They’re republican, they’re democrat. They’re gay, they’re straight. I once had a student say to me, “Don’t you just see us as juvenile delinquents?” I said, “No…we see you as unique individuals, gifted and important to God, to us, and to the world.” If this person continues to believe that a juvenile delinquent is all they are, that’s what they’ll be.

We place others and even ourselves in unhelpful categories creating an “us/them” mentality that can eventually lead to horrible atrocities like the Orlando massacre this week. What an unthinkable tragedy.

I wonder how different things could be if we all participated in an experiment I recently have come to know. It is called, “Look Beyond Borders.” “It revolves around a simple theory developed by Arthur Aron in 1997: that four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact brings people closer to each other better than everything else.”

Over the past few years more than one million refugees from Syria and Somalia have poured into Europe seeking asylum (http://mashable.com/2016/05/25/video-refugees-europeans-look-borders/#HaaFrXEMmSqC).” This has created fear in communities and damaging assumptions made between people.

So the refugees and Europeans participating were asked to sit for 4 minutes across from one another and look into each other’s eyes. It was uncomfortable at first for many, but then smiles formed and efforts to communicate and ask one another their story blossomed. Many had tears in their eyes, all embraced when the four minutes were over. They saw one another as people and they began to love and care for one another. Each person was no longer “other.” The article at the end of the video reads: “Borders exist between countries, not people.”

In our story today Jesus walks right through borders and the categories in which we place one another. He invites us look into the eyes of the other and see what God sees: a beloved child, unique and precious to God.

This is what Jesus sees when he steps out of the boat and encounters a man who is homeless, naked, demon possessed, and living among the dead. The Scriptures don’t even tell us the disciples’ reaction to the man, but it does tell us how his community has treated him. They bind him with chains and shackles, they keep him under guard out of fear, and they would rather have him living in a graveyard then among them.

Jesus is not afraid of the man; Jesus loves him and speaks with him. This person that everyone else shuns, drives out of community, and avoids is a person Jesus deeply loves.

We can hardly imagine the suffering of this man. Many times he had been seized by what possessed him. He was alone, and was unable to help himself.

Then Jesus steps right into his life among the tombs, and he is changed forever. This man goes from being demonized, naked, out of control, and living among the dead; to being saved, clothed, in his right mind, submissive to Jesus as his disciple, and commissioned by Jesus to be a missionary in his own community.

Not all responses to the healing of the man and to Jesus are positive. It amazes me that it is when the towns people see the man they once chained and shackled in his right mind, clothed, and sitting at the feet of Jesus fully healed and transformed, it is then that they are the ones who are seized and bound, only this time with great fear. The man no longer fits their categories and Jesus’ disrupts all of the boundaries the people have set to control their environment.

The people from the city do not respond with faith, but rather fear and they urge Jesus to leave. What makes people afraid is the guy who was once uncontrollable now appears to be normal. He’s coming back home and he might even move in down the block. Bringing the man back into the life of the community takes work on both parts.

Not only did Jesus restore the man’s life; Jesus also restores him to his community, which is probably one of the most important parts of this whole story. We are not meant to be alone, isolated, and left to survive by ourselves.

The man begs to be with Jesus, but he says to him, “Go back to the people who are afraid of you and be the transformed person you are in your home among these people. David Lose writes: “With [the man] constantly among them, renewed in mind, body, spirit, they must reckon with God’s determined action for health and life (Feasting on the Word, Year C, p. 171).”

The man goes among the people and declares what God has done for him.

Sometimes we take for granted everything God has done for us and given to us: food, water, shelter, clothing, breath, our very life. We come to know a loving God who frees us from what keeps us from truly living; a God who is ready to be sought out and found, holding out God’s hands saying, “Here I am, Here I am.”

Sometimes we can convince ourselves that we are beyond saving; that we are not worth anything and God couldn’t possibly love us. This is simply not true and our story of Good News speaks to the reality that no one is beyond saving, no one is beyond the transformational power of God, and no one is unlovable.

May God continue to work healing and transformation in each of our lives.