Thinking about Orlando

 

The Psalmist said it so well:

Why are you so full of heaviness O my soul? * and why are you so Disquieted within me?[1]

Well, here we are again. We keep adding to our lexicon of code words that speak of tragedy, violence, hatred, sudden death, terror: Oklahoma City, 9/11, Columbine, Nickel Mines, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, Paris, Brussels, Bagdad, Kabul, Nairobi and so on. And now to that list we add Orlando. Here-to-for, the name brought to mind Disney World’s Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom. From this time forward Orlando will also evoke the Pulse Night Club and a night of horror.

IMG_1334 (1)Let me say right up front that there are no easy words of comfort to take away the sting of death. We are here this morning, grieving, grieving right along with people across this nation and around the world—grieving for the dead and injured in Orlando—but also for our world and what seems like a growing spate of shootings and bombings, an epidemic which we have little ability to prevent. We are engaged in warfare that doesn’t end.

Elijah lived in a time like that. Israel in the eighth century BCE was a place of lawlessness, violence, and greed. In today’s reading we find Elijah running from the forces of the evil Queen Jezebel. In despair, he sat down in the shade of a solitary broom tree, nothing more than a desert shrub, and asked God to let him die. But God provided him with food and water. Elijah continued to run away, all the way to the Sinai Desert to Horeb, the mountain of God. And there he hid in a cave.

But God found him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Come on out and stand at the entrance of the cave, for I am about to pass by. Then there was a tornado, an earthquake, and great fire—but God was in none of them. Following these mighty events there was a great silence in which the still, small voice of God spoke to him again—asking the same question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah explained that he was alone, the powerful were after him, and so he was hiding. Then God, not accepting his excuses, sent him back to engage. Elijah’s prophetic work was not finished.

And neither is ours. The church is an alternate reality to the ways of the world. Called to proclaim God’s realm, God’s values, God’s way of being in the world—we dare not run away to some figurative cave and pretend that there’s nothing bad out there. Despite the tempests, earthquakes, and fires—God’s still, small voice calls us to witness to another, a better, way, the way of life.

The Gospel reading assigned for today is about another man who was very much alone . . . cut off from society, family, and friends. The ancients thought that he was possessed by a demon. The Gospels are filled with stories of healings and exorcisms—so many that at times they don’t give us any details. At one point Mark wrote, “And (Jesus) went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”[2]

But in this story we’re provided a great deal of detail. Jesus actually has left Jewish territory and entered a Gentile region. One clue is that they owned pigs—something that would never happen in a Jewish village.

The man in question is called the Gerasene Demoniac. He lived among the tombs in the cemetery outside of the village. He was naked. In Luke’s telling of this story, we learn other details. “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.”[3]

He was clearly mentally ill. His family and friends had tried to restrain him with shackles and chains to prevent him from hurting himself, but he broke them in pieces. As happens so often with mental illness, social isolation occurs. Sometimes that’s a result of paranoia on the part of the person. At other times it’s a reaction by people who are afraid and who shun those they don’t understand and make them uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it seems that the man’s people and community had given up on him.

When Jesus healed the demoniac, we’re told that he was clothed and in his right mind. He was instructed to return to his home and to share the story of his healing. What’s clear is that his period of isolation was past, and along with his mental health, his relationships were restored as well.

Professor Greg Carey points out that

“The connection between mental illness and social disruption works in both directions. When things are wrong with society, psychological problems increase and intensify. Our current malaise has produced an astonishing increase in reports of mental illness. Depression increased from 6.6 percent of the population in 2001 and 2002 to 9 percent in 2010. Social scientists around the world observe the link between social oppression and mental illness. In short, mental illness leads to social problems, while social distress contributes to mental illness.”[4]

Now let’s consider the demon.

“At first, it seems that the man was possessed by one, albeit really bad, demon…. But when Jesus demands the demon’s name, the response is chilling: “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.”[5] From this point on, there’s no confusion. We’re dealing with a host of demons.”[6]

Jesus cast out the demons, and at their request, he sent them into the herd of swine that were feeding on the hillside. Then the swine rushed down the steep hill and drowned in the sea. According to Mark, there were 2,000 pigs who died that day. Luke just says that it was a large herd.

But as New Testament professor Carey points out, “In the ancient world, “Legion” had one and only one meaning. Legion was the basic unit of the Roman army, comprising up to 6,000 soldiers.”[7]

The Legion that occupied Palestine, during the time that the Gospels were written, The 10th Roman Legion, had as its emblem, a boar or pig.

“It seems our story is making a social and political point to go along with the point that Jesus delivers individuals from demonic oppression. Legion, pigs and the sea: What would any faithful Jew desire more than to see those Gentile (pigs) Romans (Legion) chased back where they came from (the sea)? Indeed, lots of biblical and ancient Jewish imagery depicts the Romans as coming up from the sea (see Revelation 13 for a famous example) and envisions their being driven back into the sea. Jesus, it seems, frees people not only from their individual afflictions but also from social and communal exploitation.”[8]

There is one other group in this story — a group deeply unhappy with the healing of the demoniac. Some people saw his liberation as disruptive and upsetting. Freeing people from their systemic oppression doesn’t profit everyone: the owners of the swine, for example.

“We see this today in widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric, and we observe it when governments deprive minorities of access to the voting booth. The story of the Gerasene demoniac reveals that Jesus’ liberating power bears implications for individuals, for those who love and support them, and for the broader human community.” [9]

So just as we cannot hide away in a cave with Elijah, so God calls us to take up the cause of healing in a world of social disruption, mental illness, violence. Sometimes that ministry is pastoral and one-on-one – hugging, consoling, crying with the bereaved. But at other times it is to a prophetic ministry – calling out the oppressors, standing with the victims of injustice – calling the powerful and the decision makers to account.

If we try to hide or keep silent, if we try to avoid conflict and controversy, it’s quite likely that a still, small voice – the voice of God – will whisper, “What are you doing here? I’ve still got work for you to do. We have my kingdom to complete – here on earth as it is in heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Psalm 42:14

[2] Mark 1:39

[3] Mark 5:5

[4] Greg Carey, What Did Exorcism Mean to Jesus?, Blog post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/mark-5-1-20-exorcism-and-community_b_1628605.html, Accessed on 6/18/16

[5] Luke 8:30

[6] Carey, op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.