Sermon by Pastor Esther Handschin
Dear Sisters and Brothers!
If I had to give this story a name, I would call it „meetings on the sidelines“. On the one hand, it is about the encounter of Jesus with a person who is not the center of a community. On the other hand, all the places of this history are on the edge, on the periphery. The area of Gerasa, seen from Galilee, is on the other side of the Jordan, i.e. on the edge. This is where you usually don’t get lost. To get to Jerusalem there are shorter ways, e.g. through the area of Samaria. Furthermore, this story plays on the edge of Jewish culture. There is a herd of pigs. This is unusual for Jewish living conditions. Pork cannot be sold among the Jews. Anyone who eats pork cannot be a real Jew. The herd of pigs was probably intended for export. The encounter between Jesus and the possessed man takes place at the burial caves. This is also a place on the edge of life; a place where a pious Jew usually does not go. One does not tarry where death is to be found; one does best not come into contact with it at all. Because that only makes you unclean.
This person, in this story, is also a kind of marginal ﬁgure. His illness has pushed him to the edge of society. He lives in a place closer to death than to life. Nobody wants to have anything to do with him anymore. Those living w/ him have already tried everything to get along with him at least halfway. They have chained him up. They have tied him up. But the illness was stronger, and has kept the power over this person. He could not be restrained. The illness made him a marginal ﬁgure. Even communication with him is disturbed. When we hear this story today, it is not clear to us who is speaking. Is it the man himself who recognizes the Son of God in Jesus? Or are it the demons who speak of Him? Is it actually a demon or are there several who speak? Everything about this person is confusing: his appearance, his behavior, his way of speaking. You just can’t ﬁgure him out.
We know more about mental illnesses today than before. What was earlier called an obsession by a demon and thus also so explained, we would no longer call that today. We know much more detailed information about mental illnesses. They have nothing to do with devil possession. Often the chemical balance of the body is confused. In many cases one can help with medication and make the situation more bearable, both for the victim and for those close to him. But what has remained until today is the diﬃculty of the so-called „normal“ people with those who have psychological diﬃculties. They ﬁnd it strange, confusing and scary to be in contact with such people. The stigma remains the same: you have only one place -at the edge of society – but certainly not in the middle- for such people.
Jesus is not aﬀected by society’s edges. He seeks an encounter, whether with the People or whether with the Demon, in which is not clear at ﬁrst. So Jesus ﬁrst tries to create clariﬁcation. Who is this demon? I.e. what plagues this person? So he asks him for the name and gets the answer „Legion“. A legion, that was in Roman times an army unit, which comprised between 3,000 and 6,000 soldiers. The answer „Legion“ means then, „we are many“. But in the encounter with the demons, it is quite clear who has the upper hand: Jesus. They would have to ask him if there was any other way than to go into the abyss. Jesus gives them permission to go into the herd of pigs, which then plunges into the lake and drowns itself. This expresses that Jesus and the kingdom of God he proclaims have already won the victory over death and its powers.
But Jesus‘ work is not only in encountering the demons in Humanity. It is not only in ﬁghting against the ‚other powers and authorities‘. Also important is the encounter with this person himself, who has long since retired from the community of the living. It is important to bring him back into the world of human life and to reintegrate him. We experience this as this story continues: Jesus makes sure that he has clothes to put on. And as the onlookers go out to the cemetery, they realize that one can suddenly talk to this person quite reasonably. The marginal ﬁgure now takes centre stage and is found conversing; interesting by the others. The man has not only become healthy, as it is described by the onlookers. The Greek word at this point does not only mean „healthy“, but also „saved“. It points out to us that this healing is still one more thing. It tells us that this healing has another dimension than healing. Through liberation from demons, the man could open himself to salvation and to the sacred, to God’s world and His presence.
Another encounter takes place with the pig shepherds and the onlookers. They also meet this world of God and his presence. But with them it triggers fear. The shepherds ﬂee and the onlookers are so moved by fear that they prefer Jesus to leave the region. The encounter with the divine is healing in diﬀerent ways. And it has diﬀerent consequences! To the man: he ﬁnds salvation and healing. He can start a new life. For the onlookers: they are torn out of their ignorance. They are challenged to take a stand. Do we want to have this Jesus among us? Then other things could happen to us, in our lives. Or do we better send him and his disciples back to where he came from? Then we can have rest in our region…
Jesus meets a man at the edge of life and takes him/prods him into the center of life. But where is this center of life? This story has a strange ending at ﬁrst sight. After all these experiences, the man’s desire to stay with Jesus is understandable. Where else could the center of life be for him than with Jesus, to whom he owes his new life? But Jesus sends him away. He sees the Center of life in another place. At home, with the people with whom he had no place for a long time, because he had become unbearable for them. It is to these people of all people that Jesus sends him back and gives him the order to announce to them the great deeds of God.
This rather unusual conclusion also confronts us with the question: Where is the center of life for me? In other words, where is my place where I should follow Jesus and make him known? What people should I tell about Jesus and what he does in my life? When we recall the situations in life from which Jesus calls people to follow him, they are very diﬀerent. He pulls the ﬁshermen out of their work. He evokes Levi from behind the Tax-Stand. He sends the rich young man away from his wealth and possessions. It is always about people learning to direct their gaze away from what is familiar and important to them in order to look even more at Jesus. They have to leave one to win the other. So, there are also some disciples who do not go around with Jesus, but stay where they live. At the beginning of the chapter in which our history today is set, Luke mentions in his Gospel some women who are said to have served him with their possessions. They did not go around with Jesus, but they provided space and possessions to support Jesus. And now in this story of the healing of the possessed there is another reaction of Jesus. He does not take him with him as his disciple, but sends him home to proclaim the kingdom of God.
So following Jesus can mean quite diﬀerent things: It can mean: to leave everything standing or lying down and to go with or away to another country. It can mean: staying at home, providing space and property so that others can do the work of preaching. It could be: to sell everything and give to the poor, so that no more Stuﬀ holds me back. And then again, it can mean: to return to the environment that is familiar to me and make the kingdom of God known there. To confront the people who know me from the past and who have a completely diﬀerent picture of me. What I can guess out of this is the following: The way into following of Jesus often confronts me exactly with the task of life, which for me becomes the challenge of life. It is about the question: Do I stand in the foreground and in the centre or is my task not rather to point to the Lord of my life in whose service I have placed my life? This life task means something diﬀerent for each one of us, because our paths in life have been diﬀerent and our pain (soar points) points lie elsewhere. With the one it is the money – where it begins to pinch, with the other the question, I am suﬃciently secured. Others need a permanent residence, a home they can trust, for others the great challenge is to deal with their own family. For some it is diﬃcult to leave the crux of the matter and for others it is diﬃcult to settle down.
I don’t mean that this question is about self-torment, according to the motto: The more I have to suﬀer, the more important I am for God. It is rather a question of healing – as with the possessed one. Where do I cling to something that does not serve my life? Where am I bound, bound by something that does not let me be free? Where do I narrow myself down for Fear of losing something, something that I won’t be able to keep anyway? For this is what Jesus is interested in with his proclamation of the kingdom of God and with his call to discipleship: That we may be free
of everything that prevents us from belonging completely to him. Amen.