January 28 | "We are many"

 

 

“We Are Many” 
Text: Mark 5:1-20
Speaker: Joel Miller

Where, oh where to begin?  This story of the Gerasene Demoniac is at times troubling, puzzling, and probably profound if we could only cut through the layers of cultural distance and hear it like Mark’s original audience 2000 years ago.  Or maybe they were just as baffled as we are.

Speaking of 2000, Why not start there?  

If you’re an animal lover, or just paying attention, it’s hard to get over those 2000 pigs rushing down the bank of the Sea of Galilee, drowning in the lake.  One minute they’re feeding peacefully on the hillside, the next they’re dead in the water.  All this with the seeming approval of our dear, precious, kind Jesus, who agrees to the plea bargain of the unclean spirits to possess the pigs rather than be cast out of the country.  If you’re a pig farmer, or grew up around pigs, you might be further scratching your head, knowing that pigs are excellent swimmers. 

Or, we could start a bit after that, with that wonderful phrase about this man post-possession - when he is sitting down with Jesus, “clothed, and in his right mind.”  It’s a good goal for anyone at the beginning of a day, to be clothed and in our right mind.  And if we manage the first, we don’t always pull off the second.  But he does, with Jesus’ help.  You’d think it would be something to celebrate after all he’s been through.  But when the townspeople come to see, Mark says they were afraid.  Afraid of what?  This man had been a nuisance at best, a terror at worst, howling night and day, harming himself with stones, breaking chains intended to restrain him.  But now he’s better.  He’s presentable.  He’s calm.  Maybe he’s even having full conversations at an appropriate volume.  What’s to fear?

We could start where the story itself starts.  Jesus and his disciples are getting off the boat, having crossed the Sea of Galilee.  Mark says they were now in the country of the Gerasenes, which is odd, because that town was 30 miles inland.  But the attention to geography fades quickly as they are immediately confronted by this man.  Along with the details of his condition I already mentioned, we’re told that he lives among the tombs, and that he has an unclean spirit.  For Jesus and his fellow Jewish companions, the tombs themselves would have been a source of uncleanness, not to mention those pigs.  Whereever they are, they are off the beaten kosher path.  Upon seeing his visitors come ashore, the man quickly runs from shouting distance all the way up to Jesus and bows down.  He then proceeds to shout “at the top of his voice,” begging Jesus not to torment him.  It’s a fair request from someone whose main interaction with people was them trying to chain him up. 

Or maybe we need to start even further back.  Last week Sarah Augustine continued our walk through Mark’s gospel by highlighting the parable of the growing seed in chapter 4.  It’s a chapter full of parables, drawn from the natural world, spoken to the vast crowds gathered around Jesus.  Mark notes that “he did not speak to them except in parables.”  Like the rest of Jesus ministry up to that point, all of this takes place around Jesus’ home region of Galilee, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.

But then, abruptly, Jesus says something we haven’t heard yet:  “Let’s go across to the other side.”  Jesus had been in parable mode, so it’s tempting to shift away from that mindset, to stop listening for symbols and deeper meaning and just take things at face value – Now they’re going for a boat trip.

But if there’s one thing to know about Mark, it’s that he, as an author, never really leaves parable mode.  These stories are structured in a way that the structure itself has symbolic meaning.  The Sea of Galilee serves as this buffer zone between the familiar territory of Jewish Galilee on the west, and the unfamiliar territory of the Gentiles on the east, populated by unclean tombs and people, and swine.  It’s not actually how that world was perfectly divided, kind of like how you don’t actually get to the country of the Gerasenes right when you land on shore, but this is the symbolic world Mark offers.      

It’s a rough passage to the other side.  This first time, at the end of chapter 4, a great storm arises and almost sinks the boat until Jesus calms the waters.  In a later crossing, Jesus will, memorably, walk on the stormy water.  In Mark’s telling, the point isn’t so much a nature miracle, as it is an illustration of the turbulence one always faces when one decides to cross over to the other side. 

If you’ve ventured that journey yourself, you know what he’s talking about.  Perhaps you’ve headed to the other side by admitting, for the first time, powerlessness over an addiction.  Perhaps by letting go of religious certainties, crossing over into unchartered spiritual territory.  Maybe coming out to your family was the other side you decided you had finally arrived at.  Or it could be something brought on you with no choice of your own, like moving from childhood into adolescence, which we’ll celebrate in next Sunday’s Coming of Age service for our six graders.  Perhaps you have left a stable and perfectly sensible career to follow an inner calling.  You can decide to go to the other side, but there’s no guarantee you’re going to make it there alive.  Stormy waters await.  And if you do make it, you better be prepared for someone shouting in your face as soon as you get off the boat.   

Jesus says “Let’s go across to the other side” and this story of the Gerasene Demoniac, as it’s called, is what happens on the other side.  In case we missed it, at the end of the story, Jesus immediately crosses back over.  He will return later.  But for now, this is the other side.

So maybe that’s where we start.  We start by crossing over, with Jesus, to the other side.  It’s a miracle just to get there.  And we made it, alive, terrifying as it was.  And what awaits will most certainly be puzzling, troubling, and probably profound once we get our balance on land. 

On the other side, things are not always as they first appear.  As troubling as this individual is, coming from the tombs, shouting, there would be some comfort in knowing he is just that, an individual.  A troubled singular person in need of help.  Perhaps we can consult the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, name the pathology, and begin to reintegrate him into the good order of civilized society.  Surely this is what he, and the townspeople he lives near, have been hoping for this long time.  Surely this is what Jesus intends to do by healing him.

But there’s no need to go digging for a diagnosis.  When Jesus asks him to name himself, he already has the answer.  “My name is Legion,” he says, “for we are many.” 

The singular individual is a plural.  He’s many.  There’s a whole village in there. 

Legion referred to one thing – the largest military unit of the Roman army – a contingent of several thousand soldiers.  A legion enabled the occupying power to possess the land, which is to say, to control it, to order it for its own purposes, often against the will of those it was possessing.  Legions upheld the good order of civilized society.  A legion was many, and their presence was felt everywhere.

On the other side, things are not always as first they appear.  But they do reveal themselves in new ways.  If being possessed by a legion is the source of order and the good life and prosperity and contentment, as everyone knows, why is Legion, the one possessed, so…disorderly….so discontent…so violent and uncontainable….why does he make his bed among the dead?  Why is the Legion we meet the opposite of what we thought legions were doing for us? 

Jesus knows what he’s dealing with here.  And he had been reading up on the principles of nonviolence.  He recognizes that the human being in front of him is indeed a human being, just like him, just like his companions, albeit possessed by a harmful power.  A harmful power that possessed not just him, but whole region.  It was indeed many.  And it’s the harmful power Jesus confronts.  It’s the harmful power that will meet its end, from which Jesus liberates.  It’s the harmful possessing spirits that will be cast out.  And it is the humanity of the person, and potentially the whole community, that will be restored.

It’s hard to tell how subversive Mark is being here.  Is he going so far as telling a story about Jesus symbolically casting out the entire Roman possession of ancient Palestine?  No more legions, no more occupation, no more lies about what makes for a good and orderly existence?  It does make for pretty good knee-slapping Jewish humor for Jesus to get rid of the occupying Roman army and the legion of pigs all at the same time, drowned in the sea just like Pharaoh’s army long ago. Those poor pigs though.

It does explain why the townspeople are afraid rather than relieved when they find this formerly possessed man clothed and in his right mind.  They had been pretty convinced they were in their right mind, but now that order has been upset.  What if they too had been possessed without knowing it?  What if the order they bought into meant they too had been making their bed among the tombs, even though they couldn’t see them.  The man has been restored to wellbeing. But the community is suddenly off kilter.  What are they going to do without Legion? 

They beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood, which he does, crossing back over to the other side, leaving them and this man to sort through this new reality. 

There are many places one can begin to better understand this story – the swine, being clothed and in one’s right mind, coming ashore and the first encounter with this man, crossing over to the other side. 

But here is a pretty good place to end.  To stay on that other side, even after Jesus leaves, and to ask the kinds of questions those townspeople had to ask.  What might be possessing us without our knowing?  What if the order we have bought into is an agent of death rather than life?  Can we even imagine a life held together by something other than the legions?

Jesus will return, back to the other side to check in on us.  He will spread a feast for the multitude, a story that Mark tells twice, once on one side of the lake, and the other on the other side.  We won’t have it all figured out yet, but we will all eat our fill, with an abundance of leftovers.  And we will wonder whether this is the picture of the community we’ve been searching for.