Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9 and Psalm 22:19-28 • Galatians 3:23-29 • Luke 8:26-39
Locally the big story of the last forty-eight hours was the storms we had Friday afternoon and evening. These storms hit the entire Midwest, knocking out power from my parents’ home in Des Moines to points throughout Wisconsin, through Chicago and then moving east. I had plans to see some sketch comedy at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville, but the afternoon storm killed all the electricity on the west side of Clark Ave. so that as I was arriving there were clusters of people, and performers in full make-up standing uncomfortably on the sidewalk in front of the theater while just across the street people dined comfortably in restaurants with the windows open.
The storms came back a few hours later, after my friend and I had relocated to a pool hall a little further down the street. In minutes the sky went from light blue to pitch black. Sheets of rain combined with gale force winds knocked tree branches down and pushed anything not bolted to the ground down the street. Pedestrians ran into the nearest open establishment, and soon the pool hall was packed to the gills with people soaked from head to foot.
It’s not hard to see why people in the ancient world had a healthy respect and more than a little fear of the sea. The bible is full of language and stories that show how our predecessors in faith regarded the huge bodies of water, the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, that both made life possible and also occasionally became wild and destroyed property and lives.
In the story from Luke we hear this morning, Jesus and his disciples have just come through the storm as well. Jesus decides that they should cross the lake in order to leave the land of the Jews and take their message to Gentile lands. As they are crossing, Jesus falls asleep and an unexpected storm comes up. Soon their boat is swamped with water, and the disciples fear for their lives. They go to wake Jesus, who evidently is a heavy sleeper because during the middle of a storm on a sinking boat they still have to yell to get him to wake up, and Jesus speaks to the storm itself – rebuking the wind and the rain, which then stop. Jesus asks the disciples, “where is your faith?”
I suppose that as they all got off the ship, they were happy just to put their feet on solid ground, but no sooner does Jesus step onto the land but he is confronted by a man “of the city” who is naked, homeless, and possessed by demons. He has been pushed out of the city and chained up in the tombs, which he would frequently break and then roam the wilds until those in the city could chain him up again.
This man, known by tradition as “the Gerasene demoniac,” is in my opinion one of the most haunting figures in scripture. The writer of Luke uses every possible image to let us know how unclean he is: he is a Gentile, living among the dead, near a herd of swine, chained outside the city. It is as if the writer, or Jesus, went looking for every possible Levitical law of purity and holiness just so that he could break them. But it is the demoniac’s question that is most haunting, “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
Jesus arrives in Gentile country, surrounded by his Jewish disciples, and this man – dispossessed of his home and possessed by demons – knows that these men should have nothing to do with him. Even his own countrymen will have nothing to do with him. No one wants to come near him, except – when he occasionally bursts free of his bonds – to chain him up again.
Studying these texts, I was reminded of a story I heard on Chicago Public Radio last Tuesday on a juvenile detention center in Washington, DC that is showing remarkably good outcomes for the young people sentenced to serve time behind its bars. Unlike most juvenile detention centers, which typically have 50% or higher recidivism rates, the facility in Washington, DC has cut its rate of return almost in half, and is even helping its detainees get into college. What’s the difference? Well, flying in the face of conventional wisdom about how to treat violence offenders, at this facility the inmates are given the chance to take real high school and life-skills classes. Art instructors are allowed to use scissors and sharpened pencils, and miraculously no one has been stabbed with them. Incarcerated young people are actually being rehabilitated, not just warehoused.
Listening to the detention center’s head administrator, I couldn’t help but be inspired. The greatest challenge he faces, he says, isn’t the young people – who are convicted murderers, rapists and thieves. It’s a society that believes they are incapable of changing. People don’t want them to be treated well, society doesn’t want them to be rehabilitated, people want them to be punished – made an example of. But the warden isn’t interested in liberal or conservative arguments about prison reform or human rights – he’s interested in results. His argument is simple. When you treat human beings like animals, you have to live with wild beasts in your community. When you treat people humanely, you restore human beings to their right state of being. He has chosen to the do the latter, and he has the data to show that it’s working.
Scripture doesn’t have much tolerance for human hypocrisy, and hates it when we scapegoat the sins we all share onto one person or class of people. The reading from Isaiah this morning is a great example. When God speaks through the prophet Isaiah with words of condemnation, you could swear he had the Gerasene demoniac in mind:
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels.
But God isn’t speaking to, or about, the Gentiles and their unclean ways – he’s talking about the nation of Israel, and their inability to keep the law. Not only their inability to keep the law, but their terrible hypocrisy. So that they do the very things they are commanded not to do, but then turn to one another and say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
That seems to be the spirit behind the burst of legislation coming out of the state of Arizona, which in the last three weeks has enacted immigration enforcement that relies on racial profiling, has banned ethnic studies in the schools, and is attempting to do an end-run around the 14th amendment by denying citizenship to those born in the United States whose parents aren’t already
citizens. “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
We want to lock up children guilty of theft, but our nation continues to financially support the nation of Israel as it blockades the Gaza strip in a policy of collective punishment that denies food and medical supplies to families and children. We want to punish, and not rehabilitate, juvenile offenders guilty of rape and murder – but we continue to wage a war in which women and children are among those most affected by our air raids and military occupations. We condemn those who do for themselves what we pay others to do for the benefit of us all.
But we don’t have to look to the world stage to see examples of this kind of hypocrisy. In our own lives, we are critical of those whose public face is messy or unmanageable – but we would hate for the world to know the struggles we bear in private that make us ashamed to look at ourselves in the mirror. We judge those who struggle with one addiction, while denying our own unhealthy dependencies. We refuse to forgive those who have offended us, while ignoring the offenses we commit against others.
And Isaiah, speaking in God’s voice, says “These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.” Yet God is ready to set our offenses, private and public, individual and collective, aside. Paul puts it like this,
Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” What have you to do with me, the juvenile offender, the undocumented laborer, the chronically depressed, the marginally housed, the culturally despised? Do not torment me with your religion if you are not ready to transform our relationship. There are so many of us in the world that you will have nothing to do with, that you will avoid, that you will deny. We are legion.
On this Father’s Day we celebrate the deepest, truest reality that we are all children of a God we can proudly call our father, all of us. There are no Jews or Gerasenes, no Arizonans or Mexicans, no Americans or Afghanis or Iraqis. There are no illegal immigrants or unwelcome refugees. There are no irredeemable sinners or lost causes. There are no more naked, homeless, demon-possessed strangers. There are only brothers and sisters, clothed with Christ, sharing the home God gave to all of us together as a gift out of God’s own loving heart. We, who are many, are one.