One of my parents’ favorite stories to tell about me as a little girl was a time that we were all sitting around the dinner table about to eat. I was three or four years old, and they asked me to say the blessing. As the story goes, I thanked Jesus for the food and for my family and ended the prayer by adding, “And please, Jesus, let this broccoli taste like strawberries. Amen.” …It didn’t work.
As a child, I knew that Jesus loved me, and I loved him, and that I could ask him for what I wanted. Not bad for a four year old’s theology, those things were all true. Jesus did love me and I could ask him for things. Jesus gives us what we need, and many times, what we want, as well. But when this is the extent of our theology, this idea of a kind of fairy-god-mother Jesus who makes wishes come true, we eventually find ourselves disappointed and disillusioned. (I mean, the broccoli still tasted like broccoli.) Quite a few preachers make their living peddling this fairy-god-mother Jesus who is said to work out all the kinks and problems in our lives with the swish of a wand, or the King Midas Jesus who supposedly turns everything he touches to gold in your pocket.
But here, in Luke’s gospel, we get this story of a Jesus who seems to leave a path of destruction in his wake. Here, instead of feeding thousands of hungry people, their food source is driven off a cliff. Instead of inviting a new disciple into the group, he refuses a man’s plea to follow him. At the end of this story, no one really gets what they want.
The story starts out happy enough… The beginning of chapter 8 tells us that Jesus, the twelve disciples, and the women who were following with them were in Galilee when they decided to go across to the other side of the lake. This puts Jesus in Gentile country for the first and only time in the Gospel of Luke, and Luke makes it really obvious by telling us about the herds of pigs (which Jewish people did not eat or raise). So here they are, Jesus & his entourage, ready to take the good news of the Kingdom of God to the outsiders, and Jesus is immediately greeted by a man who was the outcast of the outsiders. Naked, living in the tombs, demon-possessed! In this man, Jesus encounters the least of the least, the last of the last. This is the perfect opportunity for Jesus to show just how far his power and grace reaches. All the way out to the Gentile tombs.
We may not know exactly what it was like to be this man. Demon possession and life in a graveyard may be a little too far to ask our imaginations to go. But I suspect these things are illustrating a bigger problem – the man’s aloneness. And this is something most of us can identify with. We all know what it’s like to be on the outside. I remember vividly my first experience as an outcast. It’s one of my earliest memories – one day in Kindergarten when my best friend, Laura, was playing with another girl at a learning station in our class. I went to join them, and she promptly told me that the station was full. This is a small thing, but I remember it like it was yesterday. You probably have stories like that, too. I found out later that I had said something that hurt her feelings earlier in the day. There was a reason that I was left out.
Maybe the man in our story invited the demons in. Maybe he made some mistakes that led to his predicament. Sometimes, we are cast out for good reason. Or maybe he cast himself out. Luke tells us that the man in the story would break free of his chains and be driven by his demons into the wilderness. Sometimes, because of the things we’ve done or experienced or because of our disappointment with ourselves, our own demons & shame drive us away from community, from family, from the church.
It’s likely that this man’s problems didn’t have an easy answer. Like many of the outcasts of our day, perhaps his troubles were just a fact of his being, random and unstoppable, like the child born with downs syndrome, the grandmother with dementia, the person who feels estranged from their own body and assigned gender.
Regardless of the reason for this man’s aloneness, and regardless of the reason for ours, Jesus comes to restore us – all of us – to God and to each other. Jesus doesn’t just exorcise our demons. He puts us right back into the community from which we were excluded. Jesus affirms the goodness of creation in our life together. Even when this togetherness is difficult. Part of this man’s salvation was his re-integration into community. And you would think this would be cause for celebration! But for this man, and often for us, this re-integration is a hard thing. And here in our story, it isn’t really what the man wanted. He wanted to get out of dodge, to go with Jesus. Can you blame him? These were the people who had seen him naked, crazed, living in the tombs. And we see pretty quickly that they gave him a less than enthusiastic welcome back. To stay there with them was a lot for Jesus to ask. It would have been much easier for him to run away, to cut ties, to start new. But Jesus doesn’t give us an escape from the world around us, he gives us a commission to it.
Luke tells us that there had been some community participation in the demon-possessed man’s life. The community had him guarded and chained. They didn’t want him to wander off into the wilderness, but they didn’t want him too close, either. Keeping him at a safe distance was an ongoing problem for the town. So when the townspeople find him rehabilitated, clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, you’d think they’d be ecstatic! Usually, when Jesus heals someone or feeds people, the crowds that witness the event are happy about it! But in this episode, the people are anything but. They are afraid, and they ask Jesus to leave. We’ve seen a kind of holy fear and awe at the works of Jesus before, but I suspect this fear had little to do with the miraculous restoration of life to the tortured man. In fact, I wonder how many of them missed the miracle altogether? It seems that they were afraid of Jesus because of the loss of their pigs. The swineherds were out of a job, and the village was out of a large source of economic income. This man’s restoration came at a cost that the community was not willing to pay. They didn’t see Jesus’ act as one of grace and power, but rather as a threat to their way of life. So they pushed Jesus out.
The question for them & now for us is: What are we willing to sacrifice to let someone else back into the community? When they have wronged us, or when they’ve neglected us, or when they are just a big pain to deal with? Bringing people back into the community costs us something, and forces us to make adjustments. Do we have a place for the undocumented mother her children from El Salvador? It will cost us something to minister to her. Do we have a place for our neighbors with intellectual disabilities? Learning to be church together might not be easy. Do you have a place for the child who has disappointed you, the friend from whom you are estranged?
We see that these people need to be restored. But do we really want them to be, given the cost? This cost can easily cause us to push Jesus out, just like the townspeople in our story. It is much easier for the church to be a kind of self-sustaining social club. We’re okay with bringing people in, as long as they add to our value, but it is dangerous and we feel threatened by those who may prove to be an economic or emotional or theological burden. But Jesus keeps bringing people in & asking us to pay even for the wounds that we didn’t create. Will we see the grace and power of restoration right in front of our faces, or will it cost too much? How many of our pigs are we willing to let run off the cliff?
It’s one of Jesus’ most profoundly powerful acts, one of the most beautiful and drastic stories of healing and grace, but there is no parade through town, no fattened calf roasting in celebration, no overtly happy ending. We are left with a mess. With a rejected Jesus, disgruntled villagers and a restored, but disappointed man. It kind of seems like a waste of time, but as it turns out, the outcast, the one whose restoration was so disruptive, becomes the first Gentile preacher, the one entrusted by Jesus to proclaim what God has done. Luke leaves it to our imaginations to envision how the story plays out after Jesus leaves, as if he’s daring us to find out for ourselves.
And if we are brave enough to take the dare, to let the outcasts in, what we will find is that the one whose wounds we’d rather not deal with, whose pain we’d rather not get too close to, this is the one through whom God speaks. The outcasts are consistently God’s very best preachers. The person you’d rather keep at a distance, the person whose friendship you know would come at a cost, the people whose inclusion feels like a cost that may be just a little too high for us to bear – It is the poor, and the damaged, the sick, the rejected who will be our preachers, if we will let them.
And it is in our own brokenness, poverty, sickness, and rejection that we are called to preach even to those who kept us at a distance. We can’t hide from our own past, our own exiles, or from the people who have seen us naked in the tombs (so to speak) any more than the man in our story could. We are called to the uncomfortable and costly business of knowing and being known by each other.
The church is not the place to look for easy answers or escape from pain. It’s not the place to come for a fairy-god-mother or the secret to success. If we stick around for very long, we’ll find that the church is messy and vulnerable, costly and uncomfortable. And like in Luke’s story today, no one ever seems to get exactly what they want. And that’s okay. In fact, this is the good news. Because it is here that Jesus meets us. It is in the mess that God is at work. Thanks be to God.
Covenant, may we be a church that can embrace the mess, that is willing to shoulder the burden for those in need of restoration among and around us. May we welcome those who’ve been cast out back in, and may we hear through them the voice of God.