Our world today is full of all kinds of division, right? Rich or poor, conservative or liberal, urban or rural, us against them. We don’t look for commonality, we look for what makes US right and THEM wrong. These divisions are being played out on TV and in social media. Families are divided and communities are fractured. Our readings today confront this type of divisive thinking.
In Galatians, Paul, very pointedly, tells us that Christ removes boundaries and barriers that divide us: “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are all one in Christ.” That leads us to this very interesting Gospel where Jesus is reaching out to someone who has been isolated from his community, a poor man who has all kinds of barriers in his way.
Just prior to this story, Jesus has calmed a great storm while sailing across the sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasene’s. He goes all this way, into this strange land, to do exactly one thing: he heals a man possessed by demons. Then he gets back in his boat and goes home. Jesus goes to a lot of trouble for this one healing so it must be important.
When Jesus takes his friends from the land of the Jews across the water to the land of the Gentiles, he is crossing a boundary, taking them to an ‘unclean’ place. When he gets off the boat, he’s confronted immediately by a man who is possessed by a legion of demons. A Roman legion is a group of about 6000 soldiers. Later, the community listening to this story surely made the connection between their own occupation by Roman soldiers and this occupied man.
There are all kinds of societal barriers between the man and his community: He has been shut out and made to live among the dead. He is naked and has no home. He is isolated and that’s the way his neighbors want it. Sometimes they bind him with chains and shackles. He suffers alone, exposed, battered by the wind and sun. He has no community. He would be considered ‘unclean’ by Jewish law.
He is somehow aware that a great healer is arriving by boat, so he rushes to the beach to confront Jesus. By interacting with this ‘unclean’ man, Jesus, the devout Jew, is breaking down all kinds of religious barriers. Immediately, Jesus commands the demons to leave the man. The man shrieks: “What are you doing? Don’t torment me!” Jesus finds out that his name is “Legion”. Or maybe the demons inside the man are speaking, calling themselves “Legion”. They beg Jesus not to send them back to hell, the abyss. They ask Jesus to let them enter a nearby herd of pigs.
Pigs? This may seem odd to us, but to the Jewish followers of Jesus, putting unclean demons into unclean pigs makes sense. And I’m sure they would be delighted at the next part: Jesus gives the demons permission, so they leave the man and enter the swine. And that’s where we get THIS: Deviled Ham! But the deviled pigs are crazed so the entire herd immediately rushes off a steep bank into the water and drowns.
If you were in charge of caring for those pigs, you might be very upset to see the whole herd die, right? The swineherds run into town to tell everyone. The townspeople hurry to see what’s up and encounter this lovely picture: their previously naked, crazy neighbor sitting healed, clothed and sane at the feet of Jesus. HUH??? This freaks them out. The people tell Jesus to get out of town. They are terrified of someone who can do such powerful healing and maybe they’re also angry that a whole bunch of pigs died.
The man whom Jesus heals wants to leave with Jesus, but Jesus says; ‘no, you go back to your own community and tell everyone what God has done for you.’ Jesus then gets back into the boat and leaves!
When I read this story, I think about people in our own community who have been shoved to the outskirts of town, out to live on the riverbank. The city of Aberdeen erected a physical barrier to the riverfront camp but there are plenty of societal barriers already in place: nobody wants ‘those homeless folks’ in their neighborhood. I’ve been told that it is wrong for our church to feed these folks – that in doing so, we are enabling them. Really?? People give up shelter just so they can eat one meal a month that we cook? Hmmm. I’m sickened by the hatred, not only toward the folks camping but toward anyone who tries to reach out to them.
What would Jesus do? If Jesus pulled up in a boat on the shores of the Chehalis river today would he ignore everyone he encountered there as he strode out of the flats and up the hill to the houses of the wealthy? Or would he seek out the outcasts in Aberdeen and shower them with love?
Dylan Breuer points out that “Jesus paid particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those who had nothing and so sat outside the gates to beg, the lepers and others considered 'unclean,' women called "loose" after they were rejected by their husbands and not received by their fathers. Jesus healed people. When Jesus healed a leper, he wasn't merely restoring someone with a physical disease to physical health. He wasn't just healing a leper. He was healing a community, restoring to community someone who had been shut out from it. Jesus confronts every power that tears us from wholeness, from one another, from knowing the love of God in loving community.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus goes to the land of the Gentiles and heals the most messed up outcast in the entire community. I’m pretty sure I know where Jesus would focus his energy in our communities. As he always did, Jesus would seek out the most needy, most reviled, most outcast people he could find. He would seek out the homeless, the drug addict, the immigrant, the crazy and then he would restore, heal, love and cherish those people.
“In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.” We are all one in Christ. We are all beloved children of God. We must not be divided by hateful barriers and boundaries. We really are all one in our communities, in our country. We just need to work inside ourselves to smash down those false barriers. It’s a lot easier, and maybe more fun to bash those who differ from us but as Christians, as good citizens of our land, we must reach out, as Christ did, to our neighbors; all our neighbors.
It’s a difficult task these days as we are encouraged by social media, by our leaders, sometimes by our churches to embrace divisiveness, to relish our differences instead of seeking our commonalities. There are powerful voices that encourage us to hate ‘the other’. But they mustn’t have the last word. They cannot isolate, define, separate or destroy us. Because the love that Jesus brings is stronger than all the hate in the world. We are one in Christ and, as such, we are charged to be known by our love.