Sunday, June 24, 2007

After the Chains Fall

Luke 8: 26-39

You have just heard, in my opinion,
one of the most mind-boggling stories we have in the Gospels.
For a number of reasons, it’s hard to get a handle on it.
We’re so far removed from the context of this story,
its culture, social mores, world view,
assumptions about human nature and the spirit world.
It’s kind of like, way out there somewhere.
It’s a wild, fantastic story,
that stretches us as we try to imagine it.
Try to picture an out-of-control naked madman
living in a cemetery,
who cannot be bound with ropes or chains,
who speaks in the voices of many demons.
And we can barely comprehend this scene
of a large herd of demon-possessed pigs,
who stampede down a steep bank in a frenzy,
and drown themselves in the sea.
Okay...?
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ?
(thanks be to God?)

What is going on here?
What is the Gospel embedded in this story?
Well, consider.
Jesus had a pretty full week of ministry around Capernaum—
including healing the servant of a Roman commander,
raising to life the dead son of a poor widow,
fending off questions from John the Baptist’s disciples,
and the Pharisees,
telling a bunch of parables,
responding to the offensive behavior of the sinful woman,
in Simon the Pharisee’s house
(which I talked about last Sunday),
and having to deal with his meddling mother and brothers.
It’s been a busy few days.
He needed a change of scenery,
so he got into a boat with his disciples,
and crossed the Sea of Galilee,
maybe hoping for some peace and quiet.
And wouldn’t you know, a storm came up.
His disciples panicked,
and he had to calm the storm for them,
and teach them a lesson on faith.

So Jesus gets to the other side of the lake,
perhaps taking a deep breath...relief at last!
And they are immediately accosted by a screaming naked man.
Never a dull moment, when you follow Jesus around!

But what Jesus faces here, is actually quite normal for him.
Everywhere Jesus goes
he encounters people who are bound—
bound by sin, by disease, by grief,
by evil spirits, or by social isolation.
And Jesus meets these persons in bondage,
and sets them free, through healing, forgiveness, restoration.

This man who lived in the cemetery was the epitome of bondage.
He was bound in every way imaginable.
Sometimes physically, in chains and shackles.
At all times spiritually,
as this legion of spirits exercised complete control over him.
And certainly he was in social bondage.
He could never be among his people in community.
Forced to live on the margins, in the cemetery.
When you think of everything it means to be human—
self-awareness, self-control, being in relationship,
capacity to give and receive love—
this man had none of that.
He had even lost his name.
He could only call himself by a number: Legion.
He was beast-like. And he was treated that way.
He was separated, completely,
from the life God had created him to live.

Until he met Jesus, the liberator.
The freedom-giver.
The one who unbinds, who looses, who frees,
who restores people to the life they were made for.
The demons in this man knew exactly
what they were up against when they saw Jesus,
and didn’t try to fight it.
They just asked permission for a transfer to a herd of pigs.
And Jesus granted it.
The unclean spirits went into the unclean animals.
And as far as we know, that’s the last they were heard from.

So I ask again,
for us this morning, where is the Gospel in this story?
There are lots of interesting questions we could bat around.
We could hone in on the question of the demons themselves.
Such as where they came from,
how they took possession of the man to begin with,
why they needed permission to leave him,
how they could come to possess an animal,
and what happened to the demons
when the creatures they possessed died suddenly.
But I don’t think that’s where the Gospel is in this story.
The Gospel is in the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus is the Great Liberator.
Jesus breaks any and all kinds of chains—
physical, mental, spiritual, social.
That is the good news.
That is the Gospel.

And what gives this story the drama
is the way that people—and demons—respond to the Gospel,
how they respond to Jesus, and to his work of liberation.
And it is most fascinating.
_____________________

The response of the unclean spirits was immediate.
Upon seeing Jesus, they recognized him immediately
as the great liberator.
They knew their gig was up.
They were powerless to hold onto this man,
in the face of the liberator.
So they hightailed it out of there,
literally “high-tailed” it. Ever see a pig run?
But once the legion of spirits were out of the picture,
there were two other responses—
from the people of the community,
and from the man himself.
_____________________

The people were scared stiff.
Luke tells us they were seized with great fear.
I wonder why.
Why were they so threatened by this healing?

Could be they were upset
that Jesus destroyed a herd of pigs.
The farmers lost their livelihood,
maybe upset the economic stability of this little village.
The text doesn’t say that.
We don’t even know how many pigs were involved.

Or maybe,
it upset the stability of the village in another way.
As difficult as it was sometimes
to deal with this demon-possessed man in their community,
they had found a way to deal with him.
They kept him safely on the margins.
Greeks called this kind of person the pharmakos
the designated outcast who makes the system work.
Modern family-systems theory would call him the “black sheep”
or the “identified patient.”
Such a person fills a useful, although unhealthy, role in a social group.
When the group can focus their anxiety and energy
on the obvious problems of one,
they can avoid dealing with the complex problems of the whole.

The townspeople could all feel better about themselves,
when they all knew who the problem person was.
So maybe they simply did not know how to relate
to this new whole man in their midst.
They were comfortable seeing him as a half-man,
a wild creature kept safely at a distance.
But what would it mean to their community,
to have this person return, with a name,
living next door, going to work, going to market.
It was too much, too fast, for them to deal with.

Perhaps they were simply in fear
of the kind of power that Jesus represented.
They knew how much power the demoniac had,
to break chains and shackles.
Jesus obviously had more.
That was frightening.
_____________________

The power that binds people,
that holds them back,
that prevents their full humanity...
the power that oppresses—
that power is fearful and difficult to face.
But sometimes,
equally troublesome, equally mysterious,
and just as difficult to face,
is the power that liberates.

The power of God that sets people free,
that breaks the bonds of oppression,
that causes the chains to fall,
that power is not always easy to come to terms with.
It is also fearful.
Life may not suddenly get easy after the chains fall.
Freedom can mean a loss of security, of control.
Freedom can mean we don’t know where we’re going to end up.
At least bondage is predictable.
When we are chained to a wall,
we know where we’re going to be tomorrow and the next day.
After the chains fall,
it’s not necessarily easy to embrace freedom.
That has something to do, I think,
with why persons who are being abused,
often find it so difficult to leave their abuser.
It’s a frightening thing to leave, and chart a whole new path in life,
even if everyone else says it’s a path of freedom.
It may not feel that way
to someone who is contemplating freedom for the first time.
_____________________

It is after the chains fall, that we must lean hard on faith.
We cannot walk the path of freedom,
without a strong faith in the one who gives us freedom.
And by faith, I mean active trust in Jesus the liberator.

The townspeople and pig-herders,
were paralyzed with fear,
when they saw the man’s freedom from oppression,
and saw their own frightening freedom
to forge a whole new way of relating
to this real human being in their midst.
They were afraid because they didn’t trust this stranger
who just got off the boat,
and immediately upset the social balance.
They didn’t have the capacity to trust Jesus,
and to follow his lead.
They wanted him to leave. The quicker the better.

In contrast,
the man, who for the first time in ages was fully clothed
and in his right mind,
sat calmly and quietly at the feet of Jesus.
He sat at the feet of Jesus.
He assumed the physical posture of a disciple.
He sat where disciples sit—at the feet of their master.
He sat where Mary sat,
when her sister Martha was busy in the kitchen.
At the feet of the one who gave him freedom.

Surely, the future for this man had to be frightening.
Having lived for so long on the margins,
how could he dare to be with people again?
But he trusted Jesus.
Because Jesus had just freed him.
He didn’t know where the road might lead,
but he was ready to walk that road,
if it could be with Jesus.

So he sat at Jesus’ feet, waiting for the next move.
And when Jesus was getting back in the boat to leave,
at the people’s insistence,
the man begged Jesus to let him follow,
to let him be the disciple he wanted to be.
Which only made sense.
It’s what the man wanted.
It’s what the community wanted.
Leaving the community to follow Jesus
was the perfect solution all around.
The man wouldn’t have to try to re-enter the life of a community
that had long ago banished him to the margins.
The community wouldn’t have to get over the huge emotional hurdle
to let him back in.

But Jesus said no.
Why?
The demons got their wish.
They begged Jesus for permission to go into the pigs,
and Jesus went along with it.
But the man asked to be Jesus’ faithful disciple,
and Jesus refused.
What’s going on here?

Life is complicated after the chains fall.
It would have been easy to let the man follow along.
But I’m guessing Jesus knew there was still more work
for the man to do
before he was completely free and whole.
Getting rid of the Legion was the obvious first step,
and a huge step.
But being free involves figuring out who you really are at the core,
and living that identity to the fullest.
It only took a moment for the chains of spiritual bondage to fall.
But it would take a long time, maybe a lifetime,
to discover the depths of a life that is truly free in Jesus.
Tagging along behind Jesus of Nazareth,
and living that life of constant ministry
constantly on the move,
constantly at people’s beck and call,
would have given the man no space or time
to do the work of learning what freedom meant.

Instead, he returns to his people, to his community,
and takes the more complicated and difficult path,
of following Jesus when the way forward is not perfectly clear,
when there is still a particular shape to a life a freedom,
a shape that has contours, and confines, and parameters.
Freedom, within a community, is not the kind of freedom
that Americans are so fond of talking about.
And we talk a lot about it.
There is hardly anything in American society
we value more than freedom.
Our government is built around that value.
In a week and a half America celebrates Independence Day.
Our churches champion the freedom of religion.
And there is nothing we despise more in other cultures,
than a refusal to grant freedom to their citizens.
We are now in a war dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom,”
because we want to export the kind of freedom we value.
And I agree completely with the cultural value
that freedom is human right,
and freedom is a gift of God.
God’s gift of free-will is at the heart
of God’s relationship with us.
Just 5 weeks ago our worship service had the theme,
“Freedom is the Lord’s Doing.”
And I preached about that.
So I’m all for freedom.

But we misunderstand freedom,
if all we focus on is breaking the chains.
Because for followers of Christ,
when the chains fall, that’s the starting point.
That’s when we begin to learn the depths of freedom
within a community of followers of Christ.

Freedom in Christ,
is having a free and open opportunity
to trust more fully in person of Jesus,
to nurture a relationship with one who not only makes us free,
but to whom we bow as Lord.
Yes! Freedom, and submission, can coexist.

After the chains fall,
we face the same challenge as the man in the Gospel story:
mustering the courage to follow Jesus into the unknown territory
of complicated and sometimes painful human relationships.
We will never be independent, nor should we be,
no matter what we say on July 4th.
We will always need one another, truly need one another.
We will always need to learn to trust in one greater than ourselves.
True freedom is not unbounded personal autonomy.
True freedom is living a life of humble trust
in the person of Jesus,
and the way of Jesus.
True freedom is a life lived in submission
to Jesus Christ, the liberator, the savior, the redeemer.

It will take courage—
the way it took courage for the liberated man to walk back into town,
and start proclaiming what the Lord had done in him.
But it need not be frightening.
Because when we turn toward town,
in other words, toward the God who calls us into community,
we are turning toward a God of endless love.
A God who cares for all people,
even, and especially, the small, the weak, the vulnerable.
A God on whom nothing is lost.
We can truly trust a God who counts every drop in the ocean.
And in that trust, we will find freedom.
This is where freedom, and being held, come together into one.

Listen to the words of this hymn.
Nothing is lost on the breath of God
nothing is lost forever;
God’s breath is love,
and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
No feather too light, no hair too fine,
no flower too brief in its glory,
no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air,
but is counted and told in God’s story.

—Phil Kniss, June 24, 2007

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1 comment:

AK said...

Phil, as usual I really enjoyed the sermon this week, especially the concept of freedom as a responsibility to engage the community.
Thank you,
Aaron Kishbaugh