Sermon – June 19 2022 All Our Broken Pieces Rev. Betsy Hogan
The problem with having a scripture reading that features a large herd of pigs who crash down a hill and plunge themselves into a lake, is that they’re pretty hard to ignore.
The sheer weirdness of this whole episode in the passage that we heard earlier has always struck me as one of those moments in the gospel stories about Jesus that we should feel confident must absolutely have occurred exactly as it was remembered.
Because who could ever make something like that up? Or even if they could… why would they? Because there’s nothing in particular that’s relevant about the pigs. Multitudes of scholars have for centuries tried to imbue the pigs with impressive layers of symbolic meaning – they’re ‘unclean’ animals according to Jewish law, they’d have been owned by strangers, not Jews, Gentiles, so clearly Jesus was using them to communicate THIS or THIS or THAT.
But it’s all a bit of a stretch, frankly. It really does seem like they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the poor pigs. Racing down the hill at full tilt, at the mercy of this terrifying urge to self-destruct --
And pretty hard to ignore. Though frankly, it might also be that we tend to concentrate on the galloping pigs because everything in the rest of this story is so unspeakably sad.
This young man whom Jesus and the disciples meet on their travels who’s been “possessed by a multitude of powerful demons”. In the language of today we would say that he’s become clinically insane to the point of non-functioning. Profoundly mentally ill. He’s lost his home, he wanders naked through the streets of the city.
When he loses control, he’s bound and handcuffed, but over and over he’s strong enough in his madness to break free and run screaming into the wilderness, until the episode passes and he returns, to have the whole cycle play out again. He is desperately, completely, consumed by mental illness.
By demons, as it would have been understood in Jesus’ time. Demons from the abyss – from the underworld, from the realm of evil power.
And it’s not hard to understand why people in those days before modern medical science would have thought insanity was caused by demon possession. Because if you’ve ever known someone who was bright and interesting and promising in childhood and through their teenage years, and watched all that disappear around age twenty – which is when the most serious mental illnesses usually take hold, especially in young men -- it is, it IS, like they’ve been taken over. It IS like they’ve been possessed, occupied. And you look at them, and they’re still there, but the illness is pulling all the strings.
It’s unspeakably sad. I grew up with a boy that happened to. Went to school with him, went to church with him and his family. And after we graduated, I went to university, got a couple of degrees, got married – and in those same few years he descended into completely incapacitating paranoid schizophrenia. Over which neither he nor anyone else had any control. And this regular kid I went to high school and church with murdered his parents horrifically and then took his own life.
But at the funeral, one of his oldest friends – someone else I’d been in high school with – grappling with all of it, trying to articulate in his eulogy something beyond the illness and the monstrousness of what had happened, he said “Geoff Fertuck was my friend. Geoff Fertuck was like a brother to me.” And then, with a poignancy that was just breath-taking, “Geoff Fertuck was polite to my parents.”
It’s not hard to understand why people in Jesus’ time thought violent insanity was possession by demons from the abyss. And in the case of the poor fellow they met on the road in the land of the Gerasenes, it wasn’t just one demon that people said possessed him, but a multitude. A legion of demons. He is so profoundly mentally ill that he is all but non-functional: he’s violent, he’s frightening. And so strong in his episodes of insanity that he can even break out of shackles.
And there’s nothing anyone can do. It’s just a heartbreak of a story. Everything that might have been hoped for, consumed by madness.
And then he meets Jesus on the road. Doesn’t know who he is – but it’s this man’s lucky day, whether he knows it or not. And in fact, he doesn’t know it. When we first see him confront Jesus, he’s actually barely present – only a shell, naked, wandering – and it’s the demons, the madness inside him, that do the talking. Because they – and we do have to talk about them as though they are real unclean spirits who have taken over, because that’s how it was understood at that time – they’re the ones that do the talking. Because they apparently immediately recognize what’s about to happen.
We don’t actually hear Jesus command these demons of madness to leave this poor man. But this is apparently what they’re anticipating. And so in their frantic effort to avoid being sent “back to the abyss” they offer up a deal.
“What if,” they plead with Jesus, “instead of banishing us forever, you send us into… that herd of pigs. Could you do that instead? Because then everyone would win. We’d leave this fellow alone, but we’d still have something to torment.” And Jesus, rather oddly, agrees. It seems like good deal-making for the demons!
So into the pigs they go, happy to have escaped destruction, and all is well for about two seconds, until the pigs, in the insanity that now consumes THEM, run in a horde down the bank. Into the lake. And they drown themselves. And that’s the end of the demons.
We might feel some sympathy for the pigs. But no one has any sympathy for the demons. They invaded, they stole, this young man’s life, took it all away from him, made him violent and non-functional and alone. But now they’re gone! Now he’s free. No longer occupied, no longer insane, no longer violent.
He’s healed, he’s dressed, presumably by the disciples, he’s calm, he’s in his right mind. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, whole again, and himself again. An astonishing miracle, though also kind of frustrating for anyone who’d wish for such a miracle now, that it’d be so easy for our own loved ones – but an astonishing miracle for this young man. Cause for rejoicing.
But here’s the thing. HE’S rejoicing, absolutely he is. He’s overcome by gratitude and praise and love for Jesus who’s set him free. But everyone else in the neighbourhood? Not so much.
You’d think they’d be thrilled – even if only from a selfish point of view. Because surely this man has been a problem, they’ve had him shackled different times, he obviously has been seen as a threat to them. So you’d think they’d be overjoyed to see him healed and well again, even if only selfishly, quite apart from if they actually care about him.
But they’re not. It’s really quite odd. Because as soon as the swineherds tell everybody what’s happened, how all the pigs have been possessed by the demons released from the madman, and have drowned themselves, the whole community flies into a snit.
And it doesn’t even seem to be about outrage over the loss of the pigs. That at least would be somewhat understandable. After all, pigs aren’t free, and now they’re all drowned. But the pigs don’t seem to be the concern.
The people don’t even mention the pigs, and they don’t celebrate the healing of the madman at all. Instead, when the community hears the news of this miraculous healing, they have one clear collective response: “You, Jesus, need to get out of here. NOW. Just GO.”
Don’t you find that strange? I do. You’d think they’d be happy, maybe annoyed at the loss of the pigs but still – the neighbourhood “lunatic” has been cured. You’d think they’d be happy, even if only for themselves and their children.
And you think they’d be impressed. I mean, what a tremendous testimony to God’s amazing power to heal, to make whole, to restore, to release. You’d think they’d be impressed, in awe, open to seeing Jesus as the bearer of enormous power, God’s enormous power. You’d think they’d bow down right there with the madman no longer mad, and worship him. And instead? Exactly the opposite. They run him out of town.
It’s quite shocking really. Except…maybe it’s not. After all, who knows what this Jesus might do next? If he has power over even these demons – this multitude of demons that has tormented that poor young man for years – who knows what else he might do? Who knows what other powers might lurk within him?
What if, for example, he starts looking their way, what if he starts looking at their lives, these townspeople, the Gerasenes. What if he starts fooling around with them? Claiming they too have “demons” keeping them from wholeness.
Traumas they suppress, and the habits they use to cope. Broken places and the bandaids they’re used to, the default reactions. Hurting places and the walls they’ve built up, the soothers they resort to for comfort.
Because ya, it’s great that poor young man is well again, but how can you predict where or if it’ll stop? This Jesus clearly has the power. He could do it. And it could break down any or all of those very careful ways they keep all their pieces together -- their whole way of life, all their habits and their comforts and the things that make them feel secure.
It’s just not a safe thing to consider. Better Jesus should leave. And the sooner the better. So they tell him to get out of town, and he does. And phew. Now they can relax and get back to their routine.
Except…except…that madman who was healed by Jesus? He’s now as sane as can be, and he’s everywhere. He wanted to leave town with Jesus, he wanted to follow Jesus wherever he went, but Jesus wouldn’t let him. “No,” Jesus says to him, “Stay here in your own land and testify to what God has done for you.”
So now he’s everywhere. He’s standing on the street corners, he’s in the temple preaching, he’s here and he’s there and he’s everywhere talking about how Jesus commanded those demons to leave him, and freed him into a whole new life.
The Gerasenes can’t escape him. He’s like a splinter in their fingers: a painful reminder of things they don’t want to think about. All those “demons” they’ve gotten comfortable with. All those “demons” they’ve managed to convince themselves aren’t really demons at all.
Jesus doesn’t leave that young man where he is to make the rest of them feel guilty – he leaves the young man where he is so the rest of them’ll know what’s possible. So they’ll know that what God wants for ALL of them, for ALL of us, is that same kind of freedom from whatever so-called “demons” are driving us too.
It’s not about guilt. It’s just an invitation. To the Gerasenes and to us: to think to ourselves, to say to ourselves “I get to be free too, of these things that aren’t me and they’ve taken over and they’re holding me hostage. I get to be free too, and I want to be, and I need help.”
So that God’s passionate desire for our freedom can begin to unfold. Probably not with a great horde of pigs flinging themselves headlong into the harbour -- but as an invitation to being freed of whatever it is that’s binding us and limiting us from the real US inside that we are, those galloping pigs are pretty hard to ignore. Amen.