June 20, 2010
The Rev. Bradford A. Rundlett
Verna Dozier was a Washington DC public school teacher for 32 years, a devout Episcopalian, author of several books, Bible student and scholar, lecturer, and lay preacher. She was a wise and humble woman, with very clear ideas about her faith. About the Bible she said, "If you just dip into it, you may get a very distorted idea. If you dip into one part, you may think it's just a grim recital of do's and don'ts. If you dip into another part, you may think it's just a diatribe against women. If you dip into another part, you may think it's a polemic for the status quo. It would be like trying to understand a great painting by looking at the detail before you saw the whole painting." “The Bible,” she insisted, “requires careful study.” “It’s not a book of answers. It’s a book of questions. And God expects us to come up with the answers.”
Our lesson this morning from the Gospel of Luke certainly raises a lot of questions. Why did Jesus go to the gentile city of Gerasa? Why did Jesus allow the demons to flee into the pigs? Did he not care that a family’s livelihood was destroyed when those pigs stampeded into the lake and drowned? The pigs didn’t do anything wrong; why didn’t he save them? Why wasn’t Jesus arrested by the Gerasene authorities? And, is demonic possession real, or is that how ancient people made sense of mental illness?
Many years ago I met a young man who was tormented by terrifying apparitions. The doctors said he suffered from extreme paranoia and recurring delusions. I spent a lot of time with this unfortunate man. And all I can say is, the demons were very real to him; he was in horrible agony. Whether it was a case of demonic possession or mental illness, why would a loving God allow someone to suffer so much?
If we look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus and his mission carefully, we realize there are factual discrepancies. For example, in Matthew’s version of this event there were two men possessed by demons, and they are in the city of Gadara, not Gerasa. Also, Mark and Luke’s versions are very similar, but Mark includes several details that are missing in Luke. What do we make of this?
The variations do not mean that the stories are fabricated or unreliable. Fox News and CNN don’t report things exactly the same; it doesn’t mean they made them up. Rather, the differences raise the question of what each Gospel author is trying to tell us? Why did Matthew, Mark, and Luke each remember and report this event the unique way they did? What stands out in their recollection, what specifically do they want their readers to know?
When we study all three accounts carefully we realize several things: (1) Whether it was Gerasa or Gadara, the journey into gentile territory announces that Jesus has come to redeem not only the Jewish people, but all the people of God. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were stunned by the fact that Jesus is not just Israel’s Messiah; he is the Savior of the world. (2) Whether it was one man or two, possessed or mentally ill, the Gospel authors wanted their readers to know that Jesus has the power to heal people; he is the Son of God. But, because they saw this as an exorcism, they proclaimed that Jesus has supreme authority. The demonic spirits immediately recognized him and the power he had over them. The Good News is that Jesus came to cast out all the forces of evil that challenge the good will of God. (3) We know that the Jewish people considered pigs unclean animals; they were forbidden eat their meat or even touch them. To understand this story we must suspend our own sensibilities. In their minds, the destruction of these animals was not a loss of valuable property, it was not an act of animal cruelty. It was a victory! The evil spirits were not allowed to escape and continue tormenting people. Jesus disposed of them quite neatly, using creatures that were profane. (4) The people of Gerasa or Gadara were afraid of Jesus - not because he sent the demons into the pigs - but because he made them question everything they believed, and therefore how they should live. If he was in fact who he appeared to be, everything had to change. And that was too much; they wanted him to leave. (5) The man, or men, whom Jesus freed, wanted to go with him, but Jesus told him or them to go and share the Good News that God had delivered him or them. They were given a mission.
We can say with certainty that something quite amazing happened in an area north of Jerusalem, south of Galilee, in a gentile city, toward the end of the first century. Three men - Matthew, Mark, and Luke – believed quite passionately that they should preserve this story – and others like it - and share them with as many people as possible. These accounts, these Gospels, involved a man named Jesus, who demonstrated by his words and actions, that he was nothing less than the divinely appointed Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. And through him the Kingdom of God had come into the world. Through these Gospels and the Letters written by Paul and the other Apostles, through their teaching and preaching, through their personal actions and witness, many thousand, millions, billions of people, came to believe that Jesus is God’s Christ, the Savior of the whole world.
And for the faithful, as Paul wrote to the people of Galatia, the world changed. Among other things, the distinctions that divide the people of God have dissolved. In the eyes of God, Jews and Gentiles alike, slaves and free human beings, male and female - young and old, people of all nationalities – all of us belong to God. We are God’s adopted sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in Christ, and heirs to the Kingdom. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul, the other Apostles and New Testament authors, saw in Jesus the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, the realization of all our prayers.
The story we have this morning then, is an illustration of God’s love and presence, of God’s power and authority, in Jesus. And, as Verna Dozier suggested, it raises important questions for us, the very questions posed in the Baptismal Covenant regarding what we believe, how we live, what we do. If, as she stated, the Bible is a book of questions and God expects us to come up with the answers, our response must be more than what we say on Sunday morning. It is what we do every day to spread the love of God, to engender hope, to establish peace, to create joy, to promote faith in this broken and hurting world.
This morning Luke raises core questions about our faith: do we believe in God, in Jesus the Christ, in the Holy Spirit? Will we worship and serve the Lord, and proclaim by word and deed, the Good News of God’s love, to all people? Luke calls on us to believe what we say this morning in Church, and live what we believe.