At first glance, this is a fanciful tale from another time…a time when ignorance played a part in diagnosing the most common of human maladies. I guess we can be amused. I suppose we can be indifferent. But should we dismiss this story in Luke’s gospel as one that could not possibly have much to say to us today, in the early years of the 21st century? I wonder. I think we do have to wonder whom among us struggles today, right now, with his or her own set of uncommon demons?
I remember once taking a walk around town and on this particular day, I saw an old woman sitting on a concrete wall, resting. Her head was bent over her walker and she didn’t look up as I passed. Her shoulders were stooped and her frame small and fragile. Age had caught up with her and I wondered who she was, where she lived, and what she might be remembering.
As I moved further passed her, I realized that age catches up with all of us and that some of us live more gracefully into the present than others. But all of us carry our memories and our histories with us. To some degree, we are the accumulation of the accomplishments and the mistakes in our lives. In part, we may bear the shadowed nuances of regret and illness, of misspoken words and mean spirited gossip spread by us or perhaps, about us. In part, our character has been formed by the truth and lies we’ve told or that have been told about us. To varying degrees, we have come to whatever stage of life we are in with a measure of both the good given to us or through us, given to others. And, just as certainly, we have also come to this point in life, bearing the scars of past infractions that have been inflicted by us upon others or on us through the actions of others. These could very well be the demons we juggle in our lives…missteps in the bizarre dance called life – where one partner can potentially, sometimes unconsciously cause the other to feel removed from society, from his or her community, removed from the very love and care of family and friends. Where the things we do or the things we fail to do bring harm to our spirits and to the spirits of others.
The demonic was outside his community. Once a man of the city, he now wanders aimlessly in the tombs just outside its walls. Perhaps once a man of some status, now he wears no clothes and has no house. The people of his town fear him. His family denies him. His only company, the dead and a legion of demons plagues him.
Like the woman sitting on the wall, I wonder what led this man to sit among the tombs. I wonder about his memories, his accomplishments, his sins. Maybe, if I had found him in the tombs that day instead of Jesus I would ask those very questions. But, Jesus doesn’t ask anything of the man. He directs his queries to the demons. He calls them forth. He addresses them. He breaks their hold on the man’s life. He restores the man’s power and his place in society. Jesus Christ heals and in this story, Christ healed the man physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
In these early years of the 21st century we are rediscovering the need we have, as human beings, for connection and community. Wendell Berry in his essay, “Health is Membership” writes “To be healthy is literally to be whole…. Our sense of wholeness is not just the completeness in ourselves but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place…. I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” [i]
Given Berry’s definition of health as a communal gift and not an individual prize, when one among us is ill, in mind, body, or spirit, and therefore removed physically or emotionally from our membership, we are all affected. So where is the word of hope in this passage this morning? Is there one? Christ restores the man to his community. He is healed, clothed and back in his right mind. The demons that plagued him have been destroyed. This is a passage that lifts up the community’s responsibility to live justly in this world. As Christians, as members of the human community, our health is dependent on the way in which we treat all people. It calls us to remember our responsibility to be human with and to one another. It reminds us that God has no favorites. God loves us all equally. God wants the best for us all. God wants us to want the best for others too. William Sloane Coffin writes, “We must guard against being too individualistic and elitist in our understanding of spirituality. Some Christians talk endlessly about the importance of one’s interior life and how to develop it more fully, forgetting that Christ is born to bring hope and joy also to whole communities of people – the exiles, the deported, the tortured, the silenced.”[ii]
Years later, I still I wonder…what might have happened had I stopped walking that day and spoken with the woman sitting so despondently on that concrete wall? I wonder how far or near she felt from the touch of human love and the care of a community that cared about her. I wonder what demons plagued her, what sadness held her captive. I wonder why I still wonder?
But, of course, I know why. We all have our missed moments when something we do or fail to do for someone else leaves us wondering. And the human community does not advance. And our lives are not enriched and someone, we could have helped, is still in pain. It seems like such a simple thing…to care enough to act in love. But, we know that there may be repercussions.
When Christ healed the demonic and sent the demons into the swine and the swine drowned, the people in the community didn’t praise God. They didn’t cheer Christ. No, they were afraid. They were so afraid that they begged Christ to leave them. They begged him to leave them because his act of healing called them to act in a like manner toward one another. His act of compassion compelled them to be compassionate to others. His act of love toward the demonic modeled a behavior that posed risks for their lives, an expectation that such risks would change them. And they didn’t want to change. They didn’t want to think differently about their place in society. They didn’t want to behave differently toward each other.
That is what happens when we let Christ in…we invite change. Our sense of community broadens so that it includes those we now label as ill, ugly, odd, or evil. Our national borders disappear. Our sense of justice is engaged. Our hope shifts from holding to a personal faith in God to a faith that encompasses community as God’s desire for us. Scary? Yes! Necessary? Absolutely! For, if we have learned nothing else in this life by living life, we must learn this…Christ’s ministry teaches us that we can only be human, together. Amen.