June 19th, 2022 homily on Luke 8:26-39 by Pastor Galen
Recently I started a new day job as the director of Admissions and Communications at a local seminary. When I began, my department had been without a Director of Admissions for several months and had been struggling to keep up communications with new and potential applicants. Prior to that, the department had scrambled to transfer all of their files and records online so that staff could access records remotely during the pandemic. But then a week or so after I started, our internet and email systems were taken down for a period of several weeks for security reasons.
So needless to say, my first few months in my new position involved a lot of sorting through paper and digital files that were housed in a variety of places, first to find the information I needed, and hopefully going forward to streamline the system and bring everything together into one place.
Many of us probably spend a rather significant portion of our time trying to bring order to chaos. Whether it’s powering through all the dirty dishes that are piling up in the kitchen sink, folding piles of laundry, trying to catch up on emails, fixing things that are broken, managing projects, or figuring out better and more streamlined ways of doing things, our lives are in some ways a constant struggle against the disorder that seems to be the default of the world in which we live.
The scientific concept that is most commonly associated with disorder, is ‘entropy.’ And we know, according to the second law of thermodynamics, that over time, “the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same).” In other words, if a situation is chaotic, it’s never going to get better – in fact, it’s probably going to get worse – unless we work proactively to bring order to the chaos.
And so it was with the situation that Jesus encountered in the country of the Gerasenes. When Jesus arrived in Gerasa, he was met by a man who was possessed by unclean spirits. In fact, this man was called “legion” because of the many demons who were tormenting him. (A Roman legion in those days was an army unit consisting of 4,000 – 6,000 soldiers. That’s a lot of demons!)
This man’s afflictions were so intense that he brought chaos wherever he went. He was incapable of living a “normal” life – wearing clothes and living in a house. Instead he ran around naked and lived in a graveyard. The people of the village had tried to contain the chaos by binding the man with chains and shackles and setting guards to watch over him, but he would continually escape. No matter how hard they tried things only got worse.
Jesus Calms the Storm
This was not the first time Jesus had encountered a chaotic situation. In fact, in the verses immediately prior to this passage, Jesus and his disciples were caught in a severe wind storm while they were sailing across the Sea of Galilee. The boat was engulfed with water, and the disciples were terrified that they might drown. In that situation, Jesus had rebuked the wind and the raging waters, and they immediately subsided, and afterwards all was calm.
The situation with Legion was no doubt similarly terrifying to the people of Gerasa. I imagine the people or Gerasa lived in constant fear that Legion might one day attack them. But just as Jesus rebuked the storm and brought peace, so too Jesus spoke directly to the demons, commanding them to come out of the man. After the demons had left the man, the townspeople came and found the man “clothed and in his right mind.” Again, Jesus brought order to the chaos, peace in the midst of the storm.
Order to Chaos
As I reflect on this scenario, I’m reminded of the account of creation in Genesis chapter 1, where the author tells us that “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Gen. 1:1a).
In the verses to follow, God systematically brought order to the chaos, first commanding that there be light, then separating the light from the darkness to create day and night, then separating out the waters on the earth from the waters in the sky, and then the water from the dry land, creating oceans and continents. God then proceeded to create the sun and moon and stars, the plants and trees, the birds of the air and fish of the sea, and then land animals and eventually people. And last but not least, God created the Sabbath, a day of rest – further bringing peace to what might otherwise feel like chaos. Jesus’s actions of calming the storm and freeing this man from demonic oppression, then, is in line with God’s work of creation – bringing peace where there was once turmoil, order where there was once chaos.
We might wonder though, what about all of the pigs? Why did so many animals have to be harmed in the making of this story? I don’t know if we have any pig lovers here, but I know we have many people in our congregation who care deeply about animals and who may struggle with this part of the passage.
One possible explanation, which some have pointed out, is that Jesus did this in order to demonstrate to the man just how much God loved him – that his life was worth more than a whole herd of pigs. (Sort of a Gentile version of the lost sheep – where the shepherd left behind the 99 sheep to search for and find the one little lost lamb who was missing).
But if that were the point here, then I think Jesus would have done that as his first action, rather than as a response to the demons’ request. In addition, what does that explanation say about all of the townspeople whose pigs were drowned in the process? Pigs were valuable property in those days, and the whole town’s economy was most likely wrapped up in that herd of pigs. Did Jesus not care about all of them?
But rather, I wonder if Jesus allowed the demons to enter the herd of swine in response to the demon’s request as a tangible demonstration to the man and indeed the whole village of the awful power of evil left unchecked. The townspeople might have otherwise wrongly assumed that there had merely been something wrong with legion as a person – that his problems had merely been intrinsic or internal to him. But seeing that whole herd of pigs rush headfirst down the steep embankment and drown in the lake underscored the stark reality of the existence of evil forces in our world. Evil has a sort of entropy of its own – continuing to grow stronger if left unchecked, unless we are proactive about dealing with the roots of evil and injustice in our own lives and communities.
Ultimately, this is why Jesus came. Not to just help us deal with the problems that we face in this world, but to deal with the root of evil and injustice. It’s noticeable that Jesus didn’t invent a stronger rope or chain that could keep this guy locked up in order to prevent him from terrorizing the community. Rather he freed the man from oppression.
Ultimately Jesus dealt a final blow to the powers of evil and injustice in our world through his death and resurrection on the cross. Through dying and rising again, Jesus was victorious over sin and death, demonstrating that goodness is stronger than evil, that God is more powerful than all of the forces of wickedness in this world, and that through Christ we too can be victorious. And with God’s help we too can bring order where there is chaos, freedom where there is oppression, and peace where there is turmoil.
Today is Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the announcement by Union Army general Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas.
But even as we celebrate the freedom that was granted to formerly enslaved people in our country, we are reminded that even today, not all people in our world or even in our society are truly free. Beth Luthye reminded us the other week of the presence and reality of human trafficking today – around the world, but even here in our city. And we are reminded that in so many ways and in so many forms there are still many people in our world today who are not granted equal freedom, or given equal access to resources. There are many ways in which chaos and confusion and injustice and oppression seem to go unchecked.
We know that evil left unchecked will only continue to grow stronger, and so our society tries to enforce legislation. Like the people of Legion’s day, we lock up people we are afraid of, rather than trying to deal with the root causes of the affilictions they face.
We see this in our prison system, where 37% percent of people in our state and federal prisons and 44% of people in locally-run jails have been diagnosed with a mental illness, while only 34% of people in federal prisons reported receiving any mental health care while incarcerated. On top of that, incarceration itself has been shown to cause “post-traumatic stress, anxiety, impaired decision-making, and more.” One expert observed that “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.” And yet we continue to lock people up as a primary strategy for dealing with the problems in our society.
“The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. One out of every 5 people imprisoned across the world is incarcerated in the United States.” And yet it hasn’t made us safer, with many in our society living in a constant state of fear of violence – whether walking down the street, or in churches, or schools or movie theaters.
We lament the presence of evil and injustice in our world, and we believe that evil left unchecked will only strengthen and grow worse. But as a Church, we believe that “A justice system that reflects God’s desires for the world is one that is healing and restorative.” This is why the Social Principles of the United Methodist church state that “In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.” Our UMC Book of Resluations “calls on government and society to ‘stop criminalizing communities of color in the United States’ by dismantling unjust, racist policies and practices, including racial profiling, mass incarceration and communal disenfranchisement.”
Loosing the Chains of Injustice
And so what do we do with all of this? I know that the problems facing our society can feel overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know how we can truly bring peace in the midst of what often feels like a chaotic situation. But I believe that, in large ways and in small ways, we can and should look for opportunities to participate in God’s ongoing work to bring about peace and wholeness and restoration in our world. Whether it’s doing the dishes, or folding laundry, or organizing files at work, advocating for a justice system that is truly restorative, working to bring an end to human trafficking or to interrupt the school to prison pipeline, I believe that each and every one of these tasks can be holy, as we participate in bringing peace and wholeness to ourselves and those around us.
When we think about the larger issues facing our society, the good news is that we do not have to do all of this on our own. That’s why we have the Church, and that’s why we have the power of the Holy Spirit living inside of us.
So let us follow in the way of Jesus, and let us be people who participate in God’s work of bringing peace in the midst of chaos. Let us pray and work for an end to violence and injustice, and let us continue to pray and work until all are truly free.