The Disruptive Message of Jesus
The Disruptive Message of Jesus
This week St. Andrew’s signed an open letter asking the community to allow those who have no home or place to shelter, to shelter in place (Open Letter). In our passage from Luke’s gospel today Jesus encounters a man who has been locked up and thrown to the tombs, a virtual death sentence. A powerful interesction of how our faith and passages from scripture play out in our lives.
Scripture: Luke 8: 26-39
As you know last week Ross Robertson, one of our Elder’s, and myself attended the 147th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. There were a lot of different things to discuss. From the state of the church and the amount of vacancies that exist in congregations across the country. We discussed the sale of the Knox College building to the University of Toronto and the potential relocation of our National Office. I was honoured to make the motion for the committee which developed an apology to those in the LGBTQI+ community, which was adopted by Assembly. We heard of the hurt that has been felt by ethnic congregations within our denomination. We adopted a temporary policy to allow those congregations dissatisfied with the recent changes on marriage and ordination of LGBTQI+ peoples to leave the denomination. We also passed recommendations to engage with all levels of government to discuss the lack of affordable and attainable housing across Canada and to address issues that arise from this: domestic violence, food security, and homelessness. It was a busy General Assembly.
This week St. Andrew’s, in partnership with Greenwood Coalition and Moms Stop the Harm, released an open letter to the community speaking to these very issues. We note that 78 people are officially listed as homeless according to Northumberland County. That 24 is the maximum number of shelter spaces available in the area. That social assistance payments are inadequate to afford rent. Even if you were to rent a camping site down the beach, the cost is $44/night or $1,320/month. We are all feeling the crunch lately, but it is expensive to be homeless. Indeed, the situation doesn’t have any immediate solutions.
This morning our passage from Luke finds Jesus entering into a scene full of impurity and death. Jesus crosses over to the area of the Gerasenes. It’s a Roman occupied area, with a higher population of Gentiles. But we shouldn’t think that Jews didn’t live in that area. We are a met by a man who doesn’t live in a village or city, but who lives in the tombs. He is naked, shows evidence of being bound by chains, and is clearly out of his mind. The text tells us he is possessed by many demons, we might say he is struggling with severe mental health issues and is displaying the trauma of past experiences. We’ll get to what some of those might have been.
There are two prevailing themes that are found in this passage: fear and freedom.
The man we are told is possessed and when asked him name, responds “Legion.” This should immediately bring to mind Roman occupation of Palestine and military force. This is a passage that can be read at multiple levels and we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t try to figure out what the gospel writer is trying to tell us. It’s far too easy to spiritualize this passage, tie a bow around it and say faith in Jesus saves. We’d miss the point of everything else Luke is trying to tell us.
Let’s try to figure this man out. He, or the demons, have identified themselves as legion which represent a fighting unit compromising between 3000-6000 soldiers. He is bound by shackles, so he is incarcerated, but would escape from time to time. He’s homeless, living in the tombs. He knows who Jesus is and here we can read at several levels. Luke is telling the audience who Jesus is, the man is identifying Jesus as a rabbi. How does he know Jesus is a rabbi, that he is the Messiah? We can spiritualize this and say the demons knew. But I like the explanation that Otis Moss III gives (Festival of Homiletics 2022 lecture), and that is the man knew Jesus was a rabbi because he had encountered other religious people and they had treated him poorly. Why else would he say, “Please don’t torment me.” Who do we suppose locked the man up in the first place?
Now the demons, they make a deal with Jesus. Send us over to those pigs they say. In Mark’s version of this passage, we are told that there are 2000 pigs. One man held enough demons that drove 2000 pigs to their death. That’s a powerful man who only needed to be released. If Legion is a reference to Roman occupation, then enemy soldiers being drowned brings to mind Moses’ victory when the people fled Egypt and Pharaoh’s army drown in the Red Sea. The pigs we should be reminded are symbolic of the Jewish purity codes. The death of 2,000 pigs also represents a very real disruption to the local economy.
Jesus doesn’t just heal a man in this passage. Jesus sees the humanity in another person, sees the inhumanity in how this individual has been treated, and then sets that man free. Jesus then disrupts a large part of the local economy and in doing so sends a message that what’s happening isn’t just. It doesn’t live out the values of God’s kingdom.
No wonder they asked Jesus to leave.
Here’s the kicker. We are told that the people who lived in the area came to investigate and that “they were afraid.” What is it that filled them with fear? A man they thought deranged, beyond help, who appeared out of his mind, who they shackled and banished; sitting clothed and in his right mind. “They found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.”
The people weren’t afraid when they could control and lock the man up. They weren’t afraid when they could dictate where and how he lived. It’s only afterwards that they feel fear. It’s only afterwards that they ask Jesus to leave, to avoid any further disruptions.
The people are afraid now that the man is healed, clothed, knows who he is, and to whom he belongs. Now, the people are afraid. They weren’t afraid when the man wasn’t in his right mind.
We have many people in our community who’ve been shunted to the tombs. They are living rough, and they are shackled by our social systems, which while helpful, don’t do enough. How do we free them? How do we show them compassion, as Jesus showed compassion to this individual? There are things we do here at St. Andrew’s. We run a soup kitchen, we helped run a Warming Room a few years ago in the pandemic. But what more can we do? What might we do that we are afraid to do?
The open letter asks for a simple thing, though perhaps a difficult one. It asks that those who don’t have shelter be left alone to shelter in place. Until we as a community, and by community I mean Cobourg, Northumberland County, the Province and Canada as a whole, until we can develop and provide housing that we allow people to shelter in place. That might mean we see tents, but that’s preferable to a park bench or a bank lobby.
We’ve got to find a way to provide better for everyone. Jesus didn’t ask the man living in the tombs, whose arms and legs were shackled, what led you to live this way. Jesus didn’t ask how the man got there, didn’t probe into what in life led him to live in the tombs. Jesus simply removed the shackles and allowed the man to live.
It might be frightening, it might fill us with fear, but if the message of Jesus matters to us we have to find ways to set people free. Even if it means disruption. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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