Text: Mark 5:1-20
I remember doing a series with college students one time called Gross Bible Skits. We took Bible stories and asked students to recreate these stories in a skit – they could set the story in the present day, if they wanted, or maybe come up with a completely different story that conveyed the basic message of the assigned scripture. I remember one was where Jesus spit in the dirt and made mud and used it to heal somebody. And then I remember this story of the demons cast into pigs who then ran off a cliff into the water below.
Well, we won’t ask you to do that this morning. But I do want to take a closer look at this story. First, we need to know that Jesus and his disciples had just crossed the Sea of Galilee – crossing from Jewish territory into Gentile territory. While out on the water, a monster windstorm had come up. The wind was blowing, waves were crashing against the boat, it was taking on water, and lo and behold Jesus was taking a nap, sleeping through it all. The disciples wake him up in a panic. “We’re all going to die! Don’t you care?” And Jesus calmed the storm. He said, “Peace, be still,” and the wind stopped and the waters were calm.
And then they arrive on the other side. If you had been through that experience of thinking you are going to die out on the water, and then watching Jesus just calm the storm, I think you would be more than a little freaked out. Never mind the winds being calmed; your racing heartbeat would need to be calmed. You would want to take some time to chill out and to process what just happened.
Of course, they didn’t get that. As soon as they step out of the boat, it’s go time. Immediately, we read, Jesus is met by this wild and troubled soul. A man possessed by an unclean spirit. His life situation is about as bleak as you could imagine. He lives among the tombs. This was not a pleasant place like our cemeteries today – think open graves and the scent of death. This is where he lives.
The community had tried to restrain this man, tried to put him in chains, but without success. He was a danger to himself, injuring himself. He did not even sound human, crying out with animal-like cries.
Everything about this story – demon possession, tombs, a herd of swine, a foreign land – cries out “unclean.” But Jesus did not turn away from this man. He commands the unclean spirit to come out from him. The spirits begged Jesus to be cast into the nearby herd of swine. Jesus agrees, and then the swine along with the unclean spirits rushed off the steep bank into the lake, where they all perished.
This entire story sounds bizarre and very foreign to us. We are not sure what to make of the idea of unclean spirits. The entire story really is troubling. But here is the thing: while it is strange, to be sure, upon reflection I have come to see this as not some primitive tale but as a very contemporary story, a story that is played out all the time.
Cliff was a camp counselor at Lake Springfield Camp in Illinois, the camp where youth from our church would go over the summer – like Forest Lake or Dayton Oaks. Cliff was far and away the most popular counselor at camp. Everybody wanted to be in his cabin. He was cool and he was fun and he was kind of a celebrity among some of our youth.
One summer our youth group went on a mission trip to Chicago. One evening we went to the Uptown neighborhood, a couple miles north of Wrigley Field, and helped serve a meal at a church. Every Monday night this church has a free meal for the community. 300-400 people come every week. Some are low-income folks trying to get by, and many are homeless people.
Some of our group worked in the kitchen preparing the meal while others served the meals to people seated at the tables. Others went around with refills of Kool-Aid and water and talked with the people there.
During the course of the meal, Jeremy, one of our youth, came up to me and said, “I was talking with a guy over there that looks just like Cliff from camp. He didn’t make that much sense, it sounds like he thinks he’s Jesus.” I looked in that direction and I knew right away that this guy didn’t just look like Cliff; it was Cliff.
I talked with him. We talked about camp a bit and he seemed to have some bitterness about the camp, and he did sort of talk like he was Jesus.
I found that Cliff was a regular at the Monday night meals. I later called the Camp Director and learned more of Cliff’s story. As a young adult, he began to develop mental illness. As a camp counselor, he became undependable and kind of erratic. Everybody tried to help, but finally was told he could not return to the camp. He wouldn’t take his medication and his condition worsened. His family tried to help Cliff but to no avail. He became estranged from his family, wound up going to Chicago, and here he was. Our youth had had known him as the perfect camp counselor, but now they knew him as a homeless person with serious mental illness.
What do we do with people like Cliff? We try to help but we don’t always know what to do. And in the end, we lock them up. In many places county jails are the primary mental health facility in a community. A lot of such people are in and out of jails, and often living on the streets or in homeless camps – which in some cases can be the modern day equivalent of the tombs where this man lived.
One of the details in this story that can really bother us is the pigs. What did they do to deserve this? Besides being just plain frightened by the power that Jesus shows, the loss of the pigs was also was a major economic loss. The townspeople don’t want any more of this kind of ministry, and they ask Jesus if he wouldn’t mind heading on to the next town.
It strikes me that we can still get stuck on the economics of it all, rather than focus on the person who is hurting. Mental health facilities have been closed and funding for mental health has been cut here in Iowa, as is the case throughout the country. We always say there will be better care at lower cost, but we are usually only half right. And I think of the announcement just this week that the EPA will be rolling back clean water standards. It is another example of putting profits above the health of individuals, real people who may suffer.
The man possessed by unclean spirits was a person. A human being. He had friends. He had a family. He had a history. He had people who cared about him. And while he was suffering, they were suffering too.
A colleague has a friend who is the father of a son with schizophrenia. He has tried and tried to help his son, and at this point there is nothing he can do. The father said, “I used to see a homeless person and wonder, where is their family? Now I see a homeless person and wonder, where is their poor family?”
If you are a basketball fan you may remember Delonte West. He was a college star and played in the NBA for 8 years, having his best years as a pro starting alongside LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But he developed very serious mental health issues. Although he had earned $16 million in the NBA, during a work stoppage in 2011, he went to work at Home Depot because he was out of money. In 2012, his last year in the NBA, he played for the Dallas Mavericks. Coach Rick Carlisle did all he could to help West. Mark Cuban, the Dallas owner, set him up with a financial advisor. He drifted out of the NBA, but in an attempt to help him, Dallas signed him a year later to their minor league team.
Still later the Boston Celtics, whom he had also played for, hired him as a scout in an effort to help him get his life together. But things only spiraled downward, he refused treatment, and just last week a video appeared of Delonte West being beaten up – he was sprawled on the pavement and bleeding from his head, somebody stomping on him - in the middle of a freeway. What made it even more shocking and appalling is that the video was taken by a police officer who posted it to social media. There were countless mocking comments made on YouTube. The officer has been suspended.
Don’t tell me that the story of this man possessed by an unclean spirit belongs to an ancient, pre-modern culture. People still suffer and we can still dehumanize those with troubled spirits.
Of course, it is easy to talk about this demon possessed man, or Cliff in Chicago, or Delonte West. It is easy to think about their demons because it keeps us from confronting our own. Because let’s be honest: we all face forces in our lives that can take hold of us and keep us from living fully and freely.
This may be why Jesus made this trip through a fearsome storm on the lake to arrive at a spiritually unclean, Roman occupied, Gentile town full of pigs and swine herders. Jesus’ point is that no one, none of us, is so unclean or has strayed so far that we are out of God’s reach. No one is beyond God’s transformational love and grace and healing.
What are the forces that can control us? It can be a chemical addiction. It can be alcohol. It can be opioids. Life expectancy in the U.S. has decreased for 3 or 4 years in a row now. This has never happened before. This is due to the opioid epidemic – a force that can take hold of us and destroy us.
The forces that can get a hold of us can often be much subtler. A voice that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not accomplished enough, not worthy of love. There is an epidemic of worry and anxiety and self-doubt. For some of us, grief can have a powerful hold on our lives.
We can spend our lives playing video games or watching YouTube videos or binging on Netflix while missing out on personal relationships. We can be possessed by a constant need to get more likes on social media. A drive for more and bigger and better – blind ambition that really can blind us to what we are doing to ourselves and to those around us. A drive to succeed, a drive to impress, a drive to win at whatever, at all costs - including the cost of relationships.
It is not just individuals; societies in general can succumb to forces that can control us. Fear. Greed. Racism. Scapegoating. Hatred. We may want to roll our eyes at the idea of demon possession, but evil in this world is very real.
A couple of things stand out to me in Jesus’ interaction with this man. First, he asks the man his name. And he replies, “Legion, for there are many of us.” A Roman legion was 6000 soldiers. This man was possessed by a legion of unclean spirits – such was the depth of his turmoil and agony.
The name Legion may mean something more. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very serious problem for soldiers returning from war as well as many others who have experienced trauma. This man may well be suffering from trauma – perhaps trauma he had suffered at the hands of the Roman military. Now just as “Pig” is derogatory slang for police officers, it was used in the same way for Roman soldiers. It may be notable that the Legion is cast into the pigs. It’s not necessarily a coincidence.
Jesus asked the unclean spirit its name. It was important that the man named the force that had such a hold on him. Naming what controls us is the first step to healing. In asking him to name what it was that had power over him, Jesus invited this man to participate in his own healing.
This is exactly what happens in Alcoholics anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or other 12-step groups. You introduce yourself by saying, “My name is Dave and I am an addict. “ You face it head on; you don’t run from it. You name the force that has control over you. That is so hard to do because it means taking a good look, an honest look at our lives. It is a lot easier to look at others’ lives than to look at our own. But this is the first step to healing.
And then I am especially struck by what happens after the man is healed. Jesus has made him whole. He is freed from the spirits that have tormented him. All of his relationships had been broken by the unclean spirits that possessed him, so of course, he wants to go with Jesus. Where else is he going to go? But Jesus says No, go back to your home, back to your friends, back to your community, and share what the Lord has done for you.
You see, this man had friends. He was part of a household. He had a community, though that community was mostly out of the picture. Their efforts to help him and to protect him from himself have failed, and it appears people had just given up. We have no idea how he has got by or where he found his meals. We don’t know how many people may be grieving for him, powerless to help. But through Jesus’ power and healing, this man is restored to his relationships.
I think that’s the way it works. When we are possessed by whatever demons that may have power over us, we are separated from others. When we are freed from those things that have a corrosive power over our lives, we are restored to relationships – with God and with others.
Some of us have family and close friends struggling with demons of all sorts. It’s not easy. The forces that can have power over individuals can deeply affect families and friends and communities. It can be so hard because we can’t make other people change. Sometimes all we can do is hope and pray and be there to support them when they are ready.
But the truth is, we all struggle with demons of one sort or another. The Good News is that Jesus is there, that Jesus cares, and that Jesus comes to us wherever we may be. And Jesus wants to free us and restore us to relationship. Thanks be to God. Amen.