Proper 7C: Freedom is Scary

Proper 7C: Freedom is Scary!

Luke 8:26-39

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

Long before I knew the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds or any variant version of the Baptismal Covenant, I knew this story. As a seven-year-old Southern Baptist boy I thought it was hilarious. What I found funny, mostly, was that a herd of pigs drowned themselves. The idea of a group of pigs running from a hillside into a lake because they were full of demons was hilarious. I always wondered, ‘What did the demons do after the pigs died?’ In my giggles about a stampede into a lake I noticed that Jesus had the power to cast out demons, but I missed that in casting out demons Jesus liberated the man from a host of shackles and restored him to a full human community.

The man whom Jesus sets free is a man outside the realms of society, bound in more ways than one. He’s often under guard and literally bound and chained. Whenever he breaks those chains he’s driven outside of his community. While he can free his literal, bodily bonds he is powerless over the spiritual forces that trap him. He cannot free himself, nor does he have to.

As soon as Jesus is out of the boat, the man possessed is crying out. Verse 29 suggests that this man and Jesus have had previous encounters and there may be more natural than supernatural explanations for this man’s (and his demons’) knowing Jesus’ name.

Earlier in Luke, Jesus is described as one who has come to bring freedom to the captives. Jesus’ first act of liberating this man is the beginning of restoration. Jesus does not simply banish the unclean spirit to the abyss thoughtlessly: Jesus has a conversation; he asks the sprits’ names; and he listens to and grants a request for how they will be dealt with.

Jesus restores the man to contact with other humans by joining him on the outskirts of society. The women who bear witness to the Resurrection look for the living among the dead. Jesus finds the living among the dead and treats the man as fully alive, fully human. This one-on-one conversation with Jesus is just as much a part of his liberation as the demons’ being banished into the herd of pigs.

“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.” The man formerly possessed by demons can’t seem to win with his neighbors: possessed by demons, they tie him down; delivered from demons and in his right mind, they’re afraid nonetheless.

This man has encountered the Reign of God come near and made manifest, and that scares those around him. He is no longer bound by straps, chains, or demons. He has seen a newness of life made abundantly clear in Jesus, and that scares those around him. Although the text doesn’t mention it explicitly, it likely scares him too. Many post-Resurrection encounters with Jesus leave the other people scared, and not just because they think he’s a ghost.

Longing for freedom, being scared when it is offered, and doubting or fearing those who have experienced it are not limited to Jesus’ casting demons from a man across from Galilee. It’s discussed and experienced when talking about crab mentality. Contemporary lyricist Greg Kotis notes it in the song “Run, freedom run” from Urinetown. Unlike crabs in a bucket or those bound in Plato’s cave, the characters in Urinetown name their fear. Their revolutionary leader says, “As well you should be. Freedom is scary. It’s a blast of cool wind that burns your face to wake you up.” [1]

The blast of freedom that has come to the town has the people so scared that rather than asking Jesus to heal more people or loose other bonds, they ask him to leave. The blast of cool wind on their face burns too much waking up. They want no part in Jesus’ liberation (perhaps particularly if “Legion” and “swine” are references to Roman occupiers, and Jesus’ liberation means upsetting the government status quo.) They’re scared of sanity, of a change to their local status quo, of a man who no longer breaks his own chains.

With his neighbors scared of him (even in his sanity) this former demoniac is likely scared of the continuing bondage of isolation. He has woken up to being freed by Christ and wants to go on a continued journey with Jesus. As Jesus interacts with the crowd and the man, Jesus continues to embody and emphasize being in community, including listening. He concedes to the crowd’s request that he leave, but does not give the man permission to come with him.

After this man has been freed from his bonds, Jesus sends the man home to “declare how much God has done for you.” This is a man who has been bound and chained by those in his home town, has lived among the tombs because spirits in him drove him there, and has been set free. Now he’s being told to go back to those who tied him up and tell them about what has already scared them.

The text doesn’t say he has any fear about this, but I certainly would. The text reads as though he can’t wait to jump at the chance to tell those who’ve rejected him how much Jesus has done for him. Perhaps he can’t wait to tell them. It would take me a little longer to start spreading that “blast of cool wind to wake you up” good news, but that’s exactly what Jesus tells him to do.

It’s also what Jesus tells preachers and the baptized to do. In my tradition we commit to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Jesus gives his disciples the power to cast out demons.

Casting out demons in this text starts with Jesus having a conversation and the demons saying, “We are Legion.” Jesus then sends the demons to the pigs and the man back to his community.

In my life, losing the demon of shame and the closet started with my saying, “God, I’m gay,” and God replying “fearfully and wonderfully made so,” before helping me to find a community of people to uphold me and support me on the journey from the darkness of a closed closet door to the light of truth in my dealings and interactions.

In many lives bonds start being loosed by saying, “Hi. My name is N., and I’m an alcoholic,” and having a group of people enthusiastically responding, “Hi, N!” only to later say “We’re glad you’re here” and “Keep coming back.”

This passage from Luke offers not only a story about Jesus’ supernatural power to cast out demons. It offers an example of how Christ sets humanity free. This is a story about a real life changed by Jesus’ being in community with a man on the margins and integrating that man back into society. In doing this Jesus sets free literal, bodily bonds as well as spiritual bonds. This is a story that invites Jesus’ disciples through time to see the Reign of God come near, tell how much Jesus has done for us, talk about the demons that have been cast out, and start casting demons out ourselves.

[1] Kotis, Greg. Urinetown. “Run, freedom, run.”

 

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews (@josephpmathews) is an Episcopal priest who serves as the Working Group Head for Communications for the Episcopal Diocese of California. He and his husband Brandon live in San Francisco with their two cats Margaret Diana (Maggie) and Stanton (Stan). In his spare time Joseph binges on crime procedurals from Law and Order to Bones and enjoys wine tasting in Sonoma County. He’s an amateur textile artist (sewing and knitting) and expert show tunes lyric rememberer.

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