I have a confession to make (I haven’t publicly made one in a while)…I have seen almost every movie that deals with exorcism. I am fascinated by the idea that a person can be possessed by some evil spirit, contort their body into various positions, levitate, speak in foreign tongues, and then when all hope seems lost, be saved by the prayers of a devout priest yelled into the darkness and chaos… “the power of Christ compels you”. I find it terrifying and mysterious. And since becoming a priest, I have been asked many times (mainly by students when I used to teach in the classroom) if I believed in exorcism or had ever performed an exorcism. I always laugh, but this question troubles me. Do I believe in exorcism? Not the way it’s played out on tv or in movies. But I do believe that sometimes we are possessed and have to be liberated. Have I ever performed an exorcism? No…and I wouldn’t want to if it is anything like what we see in the movies.
But I’m not telling you all this so we can spend the morning thinking about all the movies we’ve seen (or avoided seeing), I’m sharing this with you so that we can acknowledge that there is something terrifying and mysterious happening in this Gospel text from Luke, but then move toward the more interesting and empowering events of liberation and healing.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus has traveled by boat to the opposite shore from Galilee…he’s in Gentile territory. And as soon as he steps out of the boat, he is face to face with a man. Now this man is not the head of the hospitality committee, he’s not well dressed or offering Jesus a place to rest. No, this man is violent, naked, and lives among the dead…in every respect, he is “unclean” by Jewish law and tradition. And according to what he tells Jesus, he is possessed by evil spirits.
Jesus does not ignore this man, but rather, he engages him and asks him who he is. “Legion” is his response. He doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t have an identity of his own. Instead, he identifies as that which possesses him… a “legion” of all his problems.
This got me thinking about how we identify ourselves. Are we also “legion”…identified by our jobs, our social status, our age, our health, our relationships. Sometimes our identity as “legion” helps us to feel complete, that we’ve achieved something in life. But these identifiers can also be what possess us…our problems at work, financial pressures, broken relationships, bad health. The “legion” by which we are identified vie for our attention, eat away at our resources, and strip us of our true identity. The “legion” is very real.
But here is the moment of healing in the story, both for this possessed man and for us. Jesus liberates this man, exorcises his demons…all those things that have possessed him and made him unclean, and then he sends him home to tell others about his experience. His identity as a child of God is restored. As one theologian stated it, “The grace of God reached beyond every barrier that sin had built”.
When we come before Jesus will our “legion” and ask for help, we too are healed and restored to our true identity as children of God. The healing that Jesus offers us is holistic…the “legion” of problems in our body, mind, spirit and relationships can be exorcised.
And what happens when we have been healed and restored? Like the man possessed, we return home to tell others. We become evangelists of the good news of the salvific healing, love and grace of God.
While I’m not always a fan of the Apostle Paul’s theology, I think the pairing of the reading from Galatians with today’s gospel is an important one because it reminds us that even when we are possessed by our own “legions”, when we turn to God in faith, we are no longer separated or different from others, but rather, we are all identified as children of God.
The other day I was talking with some friends about “rules” and “laws”. I think the conversation was spurred on by a movie advertisement I’d seen recently called “The Purge”. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I could totally be off base here, but from what I gather, the idea is that all year long, citizens are expected to follow the rules, and then one night a year, the government turns a blind eye and you can do anything you want…you can break all the rules. My friends were discussing what rules they would break, and I found myself having a hard time finding a rule I would want to break because they all seemed to potentially lead to harming someone else. So some rules are good…they keep people safe, out of harm’s way, they keep order.
But some rules don’t always make a lot of sense. Sometimes we question some of the Old Testament laws or rules…they seem irrelevant to us…not mixing fibers in clothing we wear, not eating shellfish or pork, women covering their heads. But in their time and place, these rules were made to help the Israelites establish their identity as a people separate from others…chosen by God.
By the time we get to Jesus, some of these laws/rules were still being heavily enforced. There were laws on everything from ritual sacrifices, idolatry, and blasphemy to land ownership, warfare, justice, and sexual purity. The Pharisees in particular were concerned with ritual and purity laws. But Jesus always seemed to be breaking the rules…or at least bending them. And that’s where we find ourselves this morning in our reading from Luke.
Jesus has been asked to dine at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. It would have been customary for the host to have offered Jesus a water basin and towel to wash the dust from his feet, his hands and his face. But instead, Simon ignores the custom. By ignoring the custom, has he committed a sin? Has he broken a law or rule? Technically no.
But in comes an unnamed woman who not only washes Jesus feet, but does so with her tears, and then dries them with her hair. She continues on to anoint Jesus with an expensive perfume. Again, she is ignoring custom. She is a woman who appears unattached to any man who is gathered there for the meal, she has let her hair down in the presence of men (which was really taboo), and as Simon points out, she is a sinner. Other than being labeled a sinner, she has only broken customs…but she hasn’t broken a law or a rule.
Yet, her actions cause her to be rebuked by Simon the Pharisee. She is out of place, out of line, and unwelcome. Her sin is her cause for not being included among “the chosen” as far as Simon can tell. But Jesus has a different understanding of the situation. Instead, she is welcomed as a child of God by Jesus because she has offered love. Jesus understands her washing and anointing as a sign of repentance and love, and so he offers forgiveness and love in return.
For Jesus, being “chosen” wasn’t about all the laws and rules about mixing fibers, land ownership, or purity, it was about forgiveness and love. Those who were willing to change their lives and their hearts were the ones to be included in the household of God…not just those who had been following the rules.
Now this is good news for us, right? I think it is because it means that we’ve got a chance of being part of the Kingdom! What I gather from this story, and so many of the stories about Jesus healing people, is that being welcomed by Jesus is less about “rules” and more about transformation, forgiveness and love. Now I know that we “know” this, but think about how often we get tripped up in our own self-righteousness or rigidity, how often we would rather make rules about who’s in and who’s out, without even thinking about the times when we’ve been forgiven and included.
Let me give you an example. I once served at a church that was so rigid in their understanding of stewardship. Instead of thinking about it as time, talent and treasure, they only thought about it as treasure…how much money could you give to the church. Treasure is where they put their value. So that winter, after all the pledge cards had been turned in, the stewardship committee made a list of all those who had turned in a pledge card and printed it in the bulletin. In their eyes, they were showing appreciation for the gifts that had been given. But there were a few in the church who could not afford to pledge, but they were active participants. Whenever there was a call for volunteers to help with a church supper or clean up, they were the first to sign up. Whenever someone needed a meal taken to them, these folks stepped up to help. One of them was on altar guild. One of them served in the nursery. These members of the church who could not make a pledge were valuable to the community because of their time and talent…and yet, they were excluded because their gifts were perceived as not being valued by the stewardship committee. Over time, little by little, this devaluing of gifts created some wear and tear on these church members, and some of them eventually found church homes elsewhere.
The intention of rules and laws is often good, but can be exclusionary in unhelpful ways. And for Jesus, when the rules and laws excluded someone from God’s presence, then they were no longer useful. Now I’m not saying that rules and laws are bad…but I do think we have to be mindful of their purpose and usefulness. And I think we have to be mindful of when we’ve broken the rules, but been forgiven and welcomed in love.
So I encourage you to spend some time in reflection this week on when you’ve felt like an outsider, but been welcomed in love, and when you’ve broken the rules and been forgiven. May this reflection and God’s love for you be a way for you to be welcoming and forgiving to someone else.
I love baptisms! I love them because I enjoy watching the families, the giggles and whines of the little one, and the wonderful smell of the baptismal oil. And truth be told, I love baptisms probably because I remember my own baptism when I was about 9 years old. It was in Warrenton Baptist Church, and it was done by full immersion. We had a big baptismal pool behind the choir area, and I wore a white gown, and the pastor also had on a white gown and big old wader pants. Three times I went down into the water, and three times I was told I was alive, born anew, resurrected. At the age of 9, I didn’t really understand these ideas of being “alive,” “born anew” or “resurrected” outside of the context that yes, I was alive and that Jesus had been resurrected. But what did these words have to do with being baptized?
While Brooke didn’t experience full immersion this morning the way I did, I would probably use the words “alive,” “born anew” and “resurrected” to describe her baptismal experience. Through the waters of baptism, she is “alive” in Christ, “born anew” into a community of all faithful people, and “resurrected” into new life. Now chances are, Brooke won’t remember today’s experience. Her parents and godparents will tell her about it in the future, and there will be photos, but what I hope they will share with her is that today she is named as a perfect child of God.
Now being a perfect child of God does have some responsibilities. Brooke will need to learn how to love others as God loves her. She will need to learn how to pray and share her love of God with others through deed and word. And she will need all of our support as she grows into the full stature of Christ. She cannot be Christ’s hands in the world if we aren’t first Christ’s hands to her and her family.
When Margot, Andy and I met to prepare for this morning, we talked about what this morning’s lessons have to do with Brooke’s baptism. We have the lesson from 1 Kings about Elijah resurrecting the widow’s son, we have Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he reflects on his conversion, and we have the resurrection of the widow of Nain’s son by Jesus. All of these stories point to being “alive,” “born anew” and being “resurrected” both figuratively and literally. The sons of the widows in both 1 Kings and Luke are raised from the dead…they are resurrected…they are raised to new life. And what we know about resurrection stories in the Bible is that resurrection living means a change in the way the person encounters the world…they go off to tell others about their new life in God. They become messengers of the Good News to others. And Paul’s conversion is a wonderful illustration of experiencing a “metanoia” or “turning around” or “change of heart”…he truly experiences being “born anew” into a faithful community of Jesus followers and as we know from Paul’s letters, he was very much “alive” in Christ.
But what moved me the most of the readings for today is the Psalm because I think it reminds all of us of our responsibilities for resurrection—or baptismal—living.
1. To sing praises to God
2. To put our trust and hope in God
3. Like God, to care for the oppressed and the hungry
4. To pray for those in prison, to pray for those who are sick and in need of help
5. To care for the friend and stranger
Don’t we see these responsibilities in our baptismal covenant? To believe in the Triune God, to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, and to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.
So this morning, let us join Brooke and her family in celebrating being born anew and being alive in Christ. May we all experience resurrection living as perfect children of God!
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.