This is one of those weeks when it feels a whole lot more like I am Wrestling instead of Dancing with the Word. Indeed, a friend of mine will be away from her congregation next week and she was unable to come up with a supply pastor. They’d looked ahead, you see. They knew what the Gospel lesson would be. And they had no interest whatsoever in struggling with the challenging story and images before us now. I did not look ahead. Along with many of you, I will be climbing into a pulpit next Sunday and while it is tempting to grapple with the words from Isaiah or Galatians instead, I know that if it’s hard, there’s probably a reason I need to be stepping into it. And so let me offer you a sense of where I begin as I read again about the demon possessed man and a herd of swine who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Most of us will assume that what was experienced as demon possession in the time of Jesus was actually what we would recognize as mental illness today. If you have ever been with someone in the midst of a psychotic break you will know that they do suddenly possess superhuman strength — that it would not be beyond the imagination to see them breaking their chains and shackles and making a run for it. If you have ever spent time with someone who is depressed, schizophrenic, or struggling with an addiction, you know the compulsion to keep them safe at all costs —even if the cost is their freedom of movement, their fullness of life. While it is so that we are perhaps more enlightened about such matters than they were two thousand years ago, (and some would rightly argue this point), those in the throes of mental illness and those who love them know what it is to be ‘living in the tombs.’ We know what a living death looks like and feels like for in some ways we live it still.
Indeed, I am one of those whose family has been touched and in some ways shaped by mental illness. I have known the anger it produces in the one suffering from it and the anger and despair it engenders in others who love that one. I can imagine what it was for the parents of the man so tormented in today’s Gospel — how he may have been such a promising young man — how they remembered his smiling face as a little boy — or holding him close to feed him and celebrating his first steps. I can imagine how it seemed that his life and theirs were destroyed when powers so great overcame him. I can imagine their grief, their despair, their wondering about whatever god it was they worshipped — at their wondering where that god was — as their desperate prayers went unanswered. For I will never forget standing for the prayers in worship as a child and when it came to the part where we remembered silently those who were ill, I would pray with all my little girl’s heart for the healing of my mother’s sister. For this was our collective heartbreak. Those prayers have not yet been answered. At least not as I yearned for them to be answered.
So think of any family you know who has been on this particular journey. If it is your family, you probably find yourself wresting with this story much as I have. What would it be for Jesus to meet the one you so love and for those ‘demons’ to suddenly just be gone from him, from her? For a moment or for an hour or for a week or for a month you would probably not know how to respond. I don’t imagine your first thought would be for that poor herd of swine (although I will tell you I often think of the unfairness of how this all played out — for both the swine and those townspeople who counted on them for their livelihood.) I imagine we would not be able to catch our breath for the unbelievable wonder of it. And then when we do catch our breath? Well then we would have to re-imagine our whole future with him, with her, for all of us.
And no, I imagine there were those in the case of this man who were simply unable to imagine a different future with him and for him. If they wanted Jesus gone, I can only imagine they wanted him gone as well, for his newly found wholeness came at their actual expense. It’s no wonder he wanted to accompany Jesus from there on out. It was no wonder at all that he begged to leave it all behind and start again in a new place where he had no history to contend with.
For yes, part of the challenge of this story is just this. We have grown accustomed to the chains and the shackles — both those worn by others and those, hidden and not, which we wear ourselves. We have all gotten used to living in the tombs. And for those of us who have experienced healing of any kind, we may not even know where to begin to begin again among those who knew us before. We see the sideways glances and those hands and hearts which still seek to shield and protect. And sometimes, I would guess, we are those who are not so good at allowing others to abandon those chains and shackles either.
Oh, I know we are not there yet. I know we who still have the will to pray, still whisper out loud the names of dear ones who are bound up by powers which seem to always win. I know we still find ourselves and others ‘living in the tombs.’ And I don’t know precisely what this power of Jesus will look like when it comes one day, but I pray that when it does — and I can only trust and hope and pray it will — I pray that I will be able to recognize and embrace that new day and all it will mean for you and for me for neighbors and friends and family members who have known too long what it is to ‘live in the tombs’ — who are too long bound up by chains and shackles. And I pray that whatever the cost is to me and mine and us and ours that I will recognize it as so very small in comparison to all we have been given. That I will hear him ‘declaring all that God has done for him’ and simply join him in the declaration, adding my own story to his.
- What do you find especially challenging about the Gospel account before us this week?
- How does this story intersect with your own? Why do you think the townspeople are afraid?
- When you hear about the chains and shackles and the ‘living in the tombs’ in this story, where do you see people doing this today? Where and how have you experienced this yourself? While I speak only of mental illness above, it is also the known experience of those struggling with all kinds of challenges.
- How do you experience this story as good news? How do you see it living out in the world today?
- Have you ever known someone to be able to leave behind their ‘chains and shackles’ and take up residence among us again? What was that transition like? How did you experience them declaring God’s good gifts for them? How has this been part of your own story?
Re-visiting your commentary this morning as I prepare to preach on this passage today. I can hardly believe there were no comments made on it, either when it was first written, or in the last couple of weeks as the lectionary has led us to this place again. It is one of the most touching reflections I've seen on the issue of mental illness, and the effects of the stigma around it.
Bless you for inspiring me to tackle this subject in my own parish.
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