Proper 7 Year C
Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
I’m often asked a question that I dread. When I meet someone new, we’ll strike up a conversation to get to know each other. Maybe it’s at the gym or at a party or some social gathering. Wherever it may be, there’s usually a period of connection with someone. There’s smiling, an exchange of introductory pleasantries, maybe even laughter. And then, as the person wants to get to know me better, the dreaded question arises: “So what do you do for a living?”
And for a few moments I have a choice to make. Do I tell them I work for the church? That seems the least threatening answer I can give. Or do I up the ante and tell them I’m a pastor? Or do I just throw all caution to the wind and use the P word and tell them I’m a priest?
No matter how I decide to answer the question, it seems like most of the time, that as soon as I mention any connection with God and what I do professionally, the person pulls away. It’s like a scene in a movie where the music on the record player comes to a screeching halt and everyone becomes very quiet. Where the person may have been relaxed and at ease, they are now stiff and rigid. Usually people become more serious, a little less alive. They may start talking about how they attend church or how they wish they attended more. Usually they apologize for the cuss words they may have said.
I try to reassure them that it’s fine. But sometimes I can just tell, wow, this person is really uncomfortable around me now and there’s not much I can do about it.
But I understand why some are uncomfortable around me. I represent the church, and I also represent God. There are countless people who have been nurtured and sustained in a loving church environment. But there are countless others who have experienced the church as a place of judgment and pain. They have been told that God is a vindictive and angry judge, and that for whatever reason, they don’t measure up. Some carry a deep shame that they aren’t worthy of God’s love if there even is a God. Just thinking about God, they can clam up into a self-protective posture from an angry and judgmental God who does not accept them. And their survival instinct kicks in, pull away from the thing that will hurt you. Pull back from God.
And this pulling away from God, has me thinking of the man with demons in today’s Gospel from Luke. The first thing we hear him say to Jesus is this: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
Do you see the problem here? We know that this man is ultimately healed and saved by Jesus. But at their initial encounter, the man fears that Jesus will torment him and he pulls away. He’s like a wounded dog that is trying to bite the veterinarian who has come to help heal its wounds.
Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus’ first words in his public ministry were from the Prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to the let the oppressed go free.” This is how Jesus describes his ministry and God’s saving action in the world. Jesus comes to heal and save us. In fact, the Greek the word for heal and save is the same word.
And here we have a man oppressed by evil forces that are destroying his life, who fears that his healer and savior is actually going to turn out to be the one who will torment him. And I think it’s the same for you and me. Sometimes we have an inner resistance to Jesus. We think he will reject us in our oppression or pile on more shame and guilt on us and torment us with what we are not. So we pull away and cut ourselves off from the one who loves us and comes to save and heal us from our oppression.
The man oppressed with demons initially resists Jesus. Jesus tries to free him from his bondage, but the man doesn’t trust him. Jesus asks the demon what its name is, and the bone-chilling response is “Legion”. Legion was a military term that Jesus’ audience would have known well. A legion was the name for a group of 5,000 Roman soldiers. Jesus lived in a land occupied by Rome, whose rule was enforced by its military. And the man tells Jesus that he is controlled by a great multitude of different forces.
Can we not all reflect on our lives and identify moments where we, too, are pushed and pulled by many different forces within? Are there not times we are besides ourselves, where we don’t quite have control of who we are or what we are doing?
What St Paul writes in Romans rings true to our experience: “I do now understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
There are times in our lives when the best answer we have to the question of who we are is that we are Legion. We are pushed and pulled and oppressed by desires and forces that isolate us from others in dead places. And the question is what are we going to do when Jesus approaches us to heal and save us?
Will we pull back because of our lack of trust and faith in the love and goodness of Jesus? Do we continue to fear our savior and healer as the one who will actually torment us? In order to experience the healing that Jesus offers us, we have to first learn to trust that he will not reject us in our oppression.
It’s especially in the times when we feel oppressed or held captive to forces that take us away from wholeness, that we should turn to God the most, confident that God will not torment us, but offer us the healing knowledge of his love for us in Jesus.
During the Great Thanksgiving of this Eucharist, no matter where you may feel trapped or oppressed, do not pull back from Jesus who has come to save and heal you. He does not come to us to torment or to do us wrong. He does not reject us. Instead, he meets you and me in the places of our oppression and this is what he does, he offers us his body broken. He offers us his blood poured out. And yet another invitation to trust that he is the one whose love will never fail.