Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 23, 2013
Psalm 22:19-22; Luke 8:26-39
“I Am Legion”
Before I begin the sermon I want to address one question that I suspect popped into many of your heads as we heard this gospel story today – and if you’ve read or heard this story of Legion before it’s likely that you’ve had this question lingering in the back of your mind ever since.
In fact, a friend of mine asked me this question just the other day after I told her what the gospel text was for this Sunday. She said, “I get that this story of Legion is about demonic possession and Jesus healing a very troubled man…but tell me Reverend, why did Jesus have to kill the pigs?”
We can’t seem to get past the pigs.
It’s hard enough to sift out a meaningful, modern-day message from a story about demonic possession, but if we’re picturing Wilbur and Babe leaping off a cliff to their deaths, it can really get in the way.
Yes, the pigs are innocent bystanders in this story.
There they are grazing on the hillside minding their own business when suddenly they become a convenient home to a legion of demons.
The pigs are so troubled by this development that they choose to run down the hillside and drown themselves in the lake – effectively sending the demons into the very abyss they were trying to avoid. And what we end up with is a lot of dead pigs and a group of angry pig herders who have just watched their livelihood destroyed right in front of their eyes.
So before we talk about the man named Legion, or Jesus’ extraordinary healing abilities, or the extensive reach of God’s love….
let’s talk about the pigs.
The traditional explanation is that in first century Jewish culture the pig was considered to be an unclean animal. They were not to be eaten or touched. There were no pig farms in Judea.
Jesus and his disciples encountered these pig herders in Gentile country.
So it stands to reason if you have a hoard of evil demons on your hands, why not send them into the nearest unclean and therefore expendable animal that you see?
Middle Eastern mythology also held that demons could not survive in water. So the frightened and stampeding pigs offered a convenient vehicle to get the demons into the watery abyss where they would ultimately reach their demise.
While the death of the pigs in this story may ruffle the feathers of our 21st century, animal loving sensibilities, I assure it was not Jesus’ intention to anger the folks at PETA.
(I promise you, no animals were harmed in the telling of this gospel story)
What may be more troubling to some about this story, is that Jesus seemed to have no regard for the pig herders - who most likely had families to feed, and who were now left without a source of food and income.
The possibly unsatisfactory answer to this objection is that when we live out the radically inclusive message of the gospel in the world, the results are sometimes painful.
Systems of power and commerce are overturned and we as a people have to make sacrifices and painful adjustments to ensure that everyone is included at the table.
Jesus asked many of his followers to make difficult choices and to give up their livelihoods to spread the hopeful word of the gospel.
But some, like the pig herders, end up as unwilling participants in the destruction of systems of imbalance. Unfortunately, in order to raise some up, others must be willing to take a step down.
I said that this answer might be unsatisfactory to us because we don’t like the idea of having to suffer a loss to allow others to gain, even if we all stand to gain so much more in the long run.
But what is it that we gain from the healing of Legion?
Now that we’ve set the pigs aside, it’s time to tackle our demons.
When Jesus steps out of the boat in the land of the Gerasenes he is immediately smacked in the face with the stench of overwhelming evil and fear.
And all of it is contained in the form of one man -
a naked, screaming, wild-eyed man who hides in the shadows of the tombs on the outskirts of this Gentile city.
We’re told that many times he has escaped the chains and shackles of those who’ve tried to tame him, as his internal demons drove him over and over again into the wild.
His name is Legion.
But Legion is not the name of the man who cowers at Jesus’ feet.
It is the name of what possesses him.
The version of the story that appears in the gospel of Matthew says it best:
Jesus asks the man, “What is your name.” and the demons respond,
“I am Legion: for we are many.”
In the Roman army, a Legion consisted of up to 6,000 men, and it believed the gospel story invokes this name to drive home the point that this is no ordinary demon possession that we’re talking about.
This is not about one man wrestling with one demon – which today we might define as an addiction, or a physical or mental illness that causes one to behave erratically and disruptively.
This about all of the demons that we encounter when we step into the world.
This story is a foretelling of what the disciples can expect to encounter when they take their message of the gospel to a world that is for the most part unprepared and unwilling to endure the changes and the sacrifices that must be made to build the kingdom of God – a kingdom where oppression, poverty, and systems built upon fear and control are no more.
These are the systems that permeate our world.
We don’t know how to function without them.
We live in a world where some are leaders and others are followers, and this inevitably creates imbalances of power that lead to oppression and tyranny.
We live in a world where individualism and personal achievement are rewarded, which leads us to lift up those who succeed and cast blame and judgment on those who are struggling – telling ourselves that they fail because they lack ambition, discipline, or have become too reliant on the support of others.
We live in a world where our differences are alternatively celebrated and feared; where we pride ourselves on our tolerance for diversity while at the same time remain suspicious of those from other cultures, countries, races, and religious traditions.
The evils of this world are inevitable.
They are a product of human fear, free will, and brokenness.
These are the demons that possess us all.
We each have our personal demons as well. Our addictions. Our traumas. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual scars that influence how we treat one another and how we treat ourselves.
These are the demons that we wrestle with on a daily basis.
And like Legion, we resist God’s efforts to drive them out of us.
When Jesus encounters the cowering Legion, the demons within him say, “What have you to do with me?” “I beg you, do not torment me!”
These are the voices of the demons speaking, for they of course fear their own demise, but we can imagine we also hear the faint voice of the man trapped within. This is the only life he has known. As much as the demons have forced him to the edges of society – to be bound up in chains and feared and mocked – to be free of the devil he knows and be left to wander in a world he does not know and has few skills to navigate, is much more frightening than being chained for life.
Many of us have been there or have loved one who have been there.
Some of us are there right now.
We feel at home amongst the tombs, hiding in the shadows, resisting those who reach out to help, because we’re so deathly afraid of letting go of what has become comforting and familiar, even it’s slowly killing us and we know it.
Drugs. Alcohol. Depression. Abusive and unhealthy relationships.
Impossibly high standards that drive us to work more, earn more, buy more, and achieve more while our health, families, and sanity crumble around us.
What the gospel gives us is hope.
In this story of Legion, this poor withering soul of a man weighted down by the force of thousands of demons, comes alive at Jesus’ command.
He did not cast the demons out. Jesus did.
But in their absence it would have been easy and expected for him to continue to cower in the shadows in fear of a world that he barely knew.
Like an ex-con just released from prison, an addict transitioning into sobriety, or a woman living on her own for the first time after a lifetime of dependence on abusive men, taking that first step into the glaring light of the free world is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Which is why this man healed by Jesus does not leap up and run into town shouting in joy and amazement – a small detail that makes this story ring truer than many others.
Instead the man sits at Jesus’ feet, now in his right mind, but silent.
Until Jesus moves to leave and the man begs Jesus to take him with him.
His instinct is to cling to Jesus, just as many of us who find healing wish to cling to the people or place that helped transform us.
But Jesus tells the man to return to his community, to serve as a living testimony to the power of God’s love and healing.
Return to the people who knew and loved you before you started spiraling downward. Your story is inspiring to strangers, but it is all the more powerful when told to people who know the battles you’ve faced, who see themselves in you, who look at you and think, “He overcame his demons with God’s help, maybe I can, too.”
At the end of this gospel story, Jesus gets back in the boat with the disciples and returns home. He traveled all the way to the land of the Gerasenes and never made it past the shoreline.
It’s as if the entire trip across the sea of Galilee was done to meet this one man. The calming of the stormy sea, the casting out of a legion of demons, one man’s life is changed for the better, a new disciple has been set loose in the land of the Gentiles, and the stage has been set for the building of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ disciples are witnesses to all of this, as are we.
There’s a reason why the gospel writers felt this story was worthy of inclusion in their accounts of Jesus’ life.
I’d like to imagine that they hoped their Gentile readers and their future readers from other cultures and other lands would see their way past the drowning pigs and the fleeing demons and see the joy of the gospel message contained within.
This is a story of transformation.
The kind that only be found in the power of faith.
If we’re going to work together to transform this world – to cast out the demons of systemic poverty, oppression, and inequality, then we need the power of God and the belief that God is willing us to do this to get it done.
If we’re going to transform ourselves, to seek help to cast out our personal demons and to ultimately help others to do the same - then we need the power of God and the belief that God is willing us to do this to get it done.
The only way to achieve transformation is to stand toe to toe with the Legions that possess us and our world and lean on the strength of God to pull us out of the abyss.
As writer Suzanne Guthrie puts it, “Healing requires Confrontation - and bold truth telling. If you can't name the disease, how can you find the proper cure? Perhaps it takes a radical withdrawal into the desert, or living naked among the tombs to isolate a problem so enmeshed with everything else in life and culture. Here, evil finds its name revealed, and, shouting and protesting in fear, it trembles in the presence of Holiness.”
The people who witnessed the healing of Legion reacted with fear.
They asked Jesus to leave because they were afraid that he might do the same to them.
How do we respond when confronted with the gospel truth that we have something possessing us that needs to be released?
That there’s something inside of us in our heart, our something outside of us in our common culture that has us bound and chained in fear?
How willing are we to let Jesus reach into our lives and turn them upside down so that we all might be healed?
We are Legion, for we are Many.
The good news is that God is much bigger than the fears that we hold onto.
The good news is that love conquers fear.
Thanks be to God, and Amen.