Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts bring us closer to the word that you have for us this day. You, O Lord, are our rock and our redeemer Amen.
As you may know, I along with 8 others from our church, are just back from a racial justice pilgrimage to Montgomery Alabama. The pilgrimage was organized by City Mission, a local justice ministry partner of ours, and included over 40 people from faith communities in the greater Boston area. Together, we spent four days immersing ourselves in the history of the African American experience in this country from the time of the transatlantic slave trade to the Civil Rights Movement.
It was a shattering and inspiring experience, one that I am still metabolizing. I hope that my fellow travelers and I will be able to share more fully with you in the months to come about the experience and the learnings we gleaned. But for now, I’d like to begin with one story that for me has become emblematic of the entire experience.
The pilgrimage began a week ago Thursday. After an opening orientation, the nine of us from this church headed over to “Dreamland BBQ” to have dinner together. After a delicious and messy meal of the most delectable of offerings which included a delicious basket of fried okra, we took time to share with each other why we had come on this pilgrimage. It was a wonderful way to begin.
The next morning, some of us were chatting with Michelle, our African American, local history guide and teacher who accompanied us on our pilgrimage. As we were chatting, Michelle asked us where we had eaten the night before. “Dreamland’ we replied. “Oh that’s good!” “A good choice” she remarked and then she inquired whether we had gone downstairs. We were perplexed by the question and asked why? Why would we have gone downstairs at the restaurant?
Because, she said “downstairs, was where one of the slave pens had once been.”
The juxtaposition of Dreamland and a slave pen was jarring and disturbing. Perhaps it was only a coincidence that a restaurant named “Dreamland” would come to be located above what could only have been a nightmare, a truly terrorizing all too true reality, but I don’t think so. I think the stones, the brick and mortar the land itself was preaching a message I needed to hear.
For, the slave pen below Dreamland was not the only slave pen in town, I came to learn. Slave pens lined “Commerce Street” the street where the enslaved men, women and children were paraded up until they reached Market Plaza (which it is still called today!), to be put on the auction block and sold.
As I came to see more fully the history and present day realities around me, I felt convicted by the revelation of what I had not known or taken the time to notice. From that first night, I had a powerful sense that the Spirit had something very important to say to me and that was “Show up, open your eyes and your heart, listen and pay attention.”
Over the course of our days in Selma and Montgomery, I would be challenged to see in new ways. I would be challenged to see how powerful obfuscation has been at work in my life and how it has kept me from seeing clearly. Waking up from a dream, beginning to see more clearly, pulling back the lens to take in a wider, deeper narrative than one that I had known, coming to see the proverbial slave pens below Dreamland, was the disorienting and often disturbing work that I found myself deeply immersed in while on the pilgrimage.
And it continues to be my work now that I have returned.
Such it was this week. The passage from scripture this morning is what the revised common lectionary had assigned as the reading for today. I read the passage through a few times last week as I put the final touches on the bulletin for today. Last week, before I went on the pilgrimage, I had a pretty good sense where I would go with the sermon. The passage seemed pretty straight forward. I would ask us to consider: Who are the ones in our world today that are marginalized? Who are the ones who have been set a part — deemed less than? Who are the ones in chains today? And then I was pretty sure I’d charge us to go to these ones and minister to them just as Jesus had done so long ago.
But early this week, fresh back from this pilgrimage, I reread the scripture and experienced again that falling away of certainty and the disorientation I felt as a deeper reality presented itself to me.
As I stayed with the text, as I read and reread its message this week, I began to see that if I were anywhere in the passage for today, if I were to locate myself in this story, I was most surely not among those following Jesus. If I were anywhere in the passage, I came to see that I would most surely be the one, among the tombs, demon possessed and in desperate need to be set free.
And I came to see what a remarkable thing it is really that Jesus came to such a one. As Soo mentioned, Jesus crosses over. He leaves the familiar and takes the disciples into a strange, scary and dangerous land. He goes there because, there are ones who need to know the truth so that the truth can set them free.
Brian Stevenson the founder of the Equal Justice initiative whose Legacy Museum and Justice and Peace Memorial we visited, writes in his book “Just Mercy” that his grandmother would often draw him close to her, hugging him mightily and would tell him. “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. Bryan. You have to get close.” She told me all the time.” He writes. (p. 14). And getting close is exactly what Jesus did. He goes to the other side, he gets out of the boat and is met by one who clearly is not in their right mind. Naked (read vulnerable), living not in a house but among the tombs (read exposed), scared (preferring their familiar torment than what they see in the face of Jesus). It is to this one that Jesus has come.
What is your name, Jesus asks them? Legion they reply. Now here we need to turn to a bit of history recorded by Josephus, a first century Jewish historian whose extant Biblical writings offer context for our story today. According to Josephus, this region was the site of massacre that transpired shortly before the time of the story we have today. What happened is that a Roman General sent a commander to the region to take it. The commander slew a thousand of the region’s young men and enslaved their families and then told his soldiers to plunder the households, taking whatever they wanted. After which he set fire to their houses and went away to the surrounding villages and any man that wasn’t able to escape they slaughtered them and then the Roman burnt everything to the ground.
This is what has possessed the one that Jesus encounters today. Violence, exploitation, domination at any cost. This is what possesses this one who Jesus meets.
As a parenthetical, I am a bit surprised that that this one is the only one out there among the tombs? Right? Have all of the rest of them accommodated themselves to such violence and cruelty as a means of social control that they think nothing of it? Is no one else tormented by it? Why is this one alone among the tombs?
What happens next is my deepest prayer for myself and our nation. That we may be exorcised of that which has kept us from our right mind. That there may be truth telling and that we may be delivered.
Commentators point out that what happened on that hillside with all those pigs rushing into the water is really code for the Exodus work that God is all about. Just as Moses led God’s people out of enslavement to Pharaoh, just as the waters closed on the army that was in pursuit of the people as they crossed over into freedom, just as three waves of people hungry for freedom crossed the Alabama River on that Edmund Pettus bridge, so too is Jesus desiring to lead us out of the enslavement of our time.
For far too long, I think that we who are in positions of privilege and power have seen ourselves as liberators. What this pilgrimage and the text today has helped me really come home to is that it may very well we who are in need of liberation. It may very well be we who need to be set free from being tied up in a legacy of violence, cruelty and domination that sorts some as worthy and others as not.
If I may, I’d like to close with a final story.
Brian Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative is not only naming the violence, injustice and cruelty that runs deep within our history as a nation, they are also creating space and beauty to remember those who have lost their lives because of it. On a hillside just a few minutes shuttle ride from downtown Montgomery is the Peace and Justice Memorial. Peace and Justice. Peace and Justice.
The memorial is a very large square, open aired structure. As one enters one sees rust colored slabs, dozens at eye level with the name of a county in the United States and underneath the names and dates of those that were lynched.
As one enters the first leg of the square that is the memorial, the slabs are on eye level, but as one rounds the bend to the second side of the square the floor starts to fall away, slope downward and in doing so the slabs start to rise. Until by the time one turns to the fourth side of the square the slabs hang above.
I was bereft when I walked that final stretch of the memorial with those slabs overhead.
I needed some air, but did not want to leave the memorial all together and so I passed through an opening in the inner wall and found myself on a gravel pathway that wound its way up through the grassy space in the middle of the square memorial that framed it. I wandered up and up until I came to the top of the knoll around which the memorial lie. At the top of the gravel path was a 4 by 4 wooden square. I stepped onto it. As I did, pure terror surged through me. I had this very visceral reaction as if I had stepped on to a platform whose floor was about to fall out from beneath me. I scanned frantically the square around me and saw there the silent presence of those who knew such terror and were witness of it.
I had been told to stay off the grass but could not help myself. I leapt off the wooden square. And then standing on the grass I looked again at the slabs handing on the four sides of the memorial around me and I saw a question in their eyes. “Knowing what you now know,” they asked me in their silence, “what’s next?”
And I have come home with their challenge. How can I be a part of the work of liberation?
I do not begin to pretend that I am fully “in my right mind” as the one was in our story today after their encounter with Jesus. But I do hear the challenge that Jesus gave the man, to go and tell what God has done for me. And so, let that be enough for today.
May dreamland be no more. May slave pens be no more. May a new reality of liberation from all that enslaves be born in this our time and may I in my humble way be a part of a new way that is The Way for all of God’s children.