Hopefully I’m not the only person who’s had the experience of being greeted by someone as if we were the person’s long lost best friend, carrying on a friendly but somewhat stilted conversation, and after the person walks away have found ourselves standing there wondering, “Who was that?” I must confess that as many times as I’ve heard this morning’s reading from Luke, it was only after Bingham asked me to preach today, and I read the lesson with that in mind, that I found myself asking, “Who the heck were the Gerasenes?” Researching the question really didn’t get me very far because there seems to be some disagreement among Biblical scholars as to which of three possible cities the Gospel writers were referring. What is clear is that the people in today’s story lived on the other side of the lake, that is, the Sea of Galilee, in what is modern day Jordan, an area populated by non-Jews.
Now with only a couple exceptions, Jesus confined his three-and-a-half-year ministry to his fellow Jews. Oh yes, he ate with sinners and the unclean, but they were still unclean Jewish sinners. We don’t know what prompted Jesus on this occasion to direct his disciples to set sail for the other side of the lake. What we do know, from what Luke tells us, is that taken purely at face value, what greeted Jesus would be fodder for a sitcom. Picture it! Jesus arrives at a place he’s never been before to find a naked guy who’s normally confined to the tombs maniacally running about begging for help. Jesus manages to calm the poor soul by giving permission for whatever it is that possesses the man to enter a herd of pigs who just happen to walking by, who then, lemming-like, commit mass suicide by running down the hill and drowning themselves in the lake. The swineherds, rather than immediately slapping Jesus with a lawsuit for completely destroying their livelihood, run back to town to tell people you won’t believe what’s going on down by the lake. So everybody rushes out to the lake, only to find the naked crazy guy dressed, and calmly listening to some foreigner from the other side of the lake. This is the point when one sort of story teller would exclaim, “I am not making this up!” while a native American storyteller would say, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.”
So let us go deeper, for as always, there is much to explore in this reading. The fact that this story appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels gives us reason to believe that at some point Jesus did decide to take his message to the Dekapolis, a region of ten Greek and Roman cities on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. While there may have been Jews living there, the majority of the population would have been pagans, or Gentiles. The first one, or ones - in Matthew there were two demoniacs, to greet Jesus was a deeply disturbed individual. Now we don’t speak of demons all that much nowadays, but we certainly say things like, “I don’t know what possessed him, I don’t know what got into her,” or “I don’t know what they were thinking,” when describing people, sometimes children, who have behaved in a manner completely foreign to their normal way of being. So we do have a sense of people being taken over by some force, some urge that causes them to misbehave, or do something very much out of character which is often woefully self-destructive. When such forces become all consuming, we have a variety of technical terms to describe the person, but in general we say they’re mentally ill, and we have a tendency to discount them or anything they have to say because, well, she’s a little different, or more caustically, the man’s crazy! But notice, it was the unclean spirits, the demons afflicting this man, who addressed Jesus as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” The Jews hadn’t figured that out about Jesus yet, his disciples hadn’t, but the crazy side of this man’s personality had. We need to be careful whom we discount; even the most different among us may see some things vastly more clearly than we do.
There are many healing stories in the Gospels. Indeed, as Jesus’ reputation spread, he was clearly known not merely as a teacher, but as a healer. When people heard that he was nearby they brought their sick friends and family members to have Jesus heal them. People strained to touch his clothes as he passed by, convinced that doing so would heal them, which at least some of the time, it did. There’s the story of the folks who lowered a man through the roof to get him in front of Jesus because the crowd was so large they couldn’t get to Jesus any other way. So whatever they did or didn’t understand about Jesus’ ability to heal, the Jews were more than willing to take advantage of it. The sane members of the Gerasene population, however, were not. They came out to the lake, saw the man who had been chronically out of his mind sitting calmly, clothed, listening to Jesus. Rather than rejoice, they were terrified. Rather than try to take advantage of the situation, they asked Jesus to leave.
We could speculate as to what their concerns were, and the possibilities work equally well in the first and the twenty-first centuries. He was a foreigner from the other side of the lake, he was of a different religion, he didn’t behave as they were used to people behaving; he didn’t ask for any sort of compensation for his efforts for example. The bottom line is, they didn’t trust him. Trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose, and once lost it can be extremely difficult, even impossible to regain. And for those of us who have been betrayed, life is never the same again. Depending on how serious the betrayal our shock and pain can harden into the angry resolve that we’ll never be stupid enough to put ourselves in a situation like that again. But that in turn leads us to a decision never to trust again. And where does that leave us? Completely, utterly alone. Human beings, not to mention Christians, are not meant to live alone. Humans are a social species. We need to be emotionally connected to others in order to survive, let alone thrive. To be faithful Christians we’re called to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves, so we have to be able to trust God and the people with whom we interact. But that can be really hard to do.
Most of you know my dad was a priest. He was also an alcoholic. While life at home was more than challenging, there’s no question dad was a fine priest. I was deeply touched by all the kind things friends who had attended his church on Long Island had to say about him when I went back for my thirtieth high school reunion. That said, life was hard for him and us for a number of years, but then as can happen with those suffering with problems of addition, Dad had an ah-ha moment when I was a junior in college and realized that he had a problem, so he went to the bishop to ask for help. The bishop responded by telling Dad he’d lost his vocation so he should go back into business, and forced him to name a severance date. I was so hurt and angry I could hardly breathe. Dad had given the best years of his life to the church and when he asked the church for help the church tossed him and us - we lived in a rectory so my parents had to scramble just to find a place for us to live - out on our collective ear. By the time I went back to Rochester in the fall of my senior year my rage with the Episcopal Church was so all-consuming I started going to mass. I refer to those next five years as my Roman Catholic period. When I moved to Oregon and settled in Cottage Grove I tried to go to the Roman Catholic church there, but I just couldn’t seem to get myself to go in. A friend suggested I try St. Mary’s Episcopal, saying her parents generally attended here when they visited from Grants Pass. So on a given Sunday I showed up at 11:00 and cried through the entire service. I was home. But I was also not about to be hurt by Episcopalians ever again. So I began attending the 9:15 service where I allowed only one woman, behind whom I sat every Sunday, to know my name. I maintained that status quo, anonymous and alone, for seven years. What got me out of my pew? Dorothy Bergquist, whom many of you will remember, came up the aisle one Sunday as the crucifer. I knew she was the woman who trained the acolytes so I figured someone had probably failed to show up. But the second time it happened I wondered, could it be possible that adults were allowed to be acolytes? I had wanted to be an acolyte for as long as I could remember, but when I was young only boys could be acolytes, and by the time girls were allowed, I was too old. Long story short I became an acolyte and well, here I am. The bottom line is there was something I wanted so badly I was willing to risk being hurt in order to get it. That was the situation with the demoniac. He didn’t care who Jesus was he just wanted peace, and frankly had nothing to lose by asking for it. His well-off neighbors from town were much more cautious however. They weren’t about to risk their wellbeing dealing with this stranger with supernatural powers. Most of the time we tend to be more like them than the long suffering soul from the tombs. We’re much more prone to maintain what we consider to be a safe distance from others than dare to trust them.
So how do we change that in a world where we’re constantly being warned about all the reasons not to trust? Ours is a world where scammers are everywhere, in which we teach our children about stranger danger when they’re young, and pray that they won’t be hurt by the friends they make, the people with whom they choose to associate, as they grow older. As in so many other areas, I believe we strive for balance. “Trust in God but tie your camel tight,” states an ancient Persian Proverb. That certainly describes me; figuratively speaking I most surely keep my camel tied tight. But we can be cautious without being cold and we can be caring without being foolhardy.
God gave us the gift of reason after all. We need to use it. We need to make an effort not to be universally distrusting by genuinely reflecting on what about a particular individual or group causes us to be uneasy. Is it their physical appearance, that is their skin color or their clothes? Is it the situation in which we encounter them? Is it their speech pattern? Is it because they remind us of someone who hurt us in the past? Less than a year after I came out of my pew, I was indeed hurt again. St. Mary’s more or less blew up in my face, so once again I was adrift. But that time I didn’t leave the Episcopal Church, just this particular parish, and not forever. I had formed bonds with enough people in the one year in which I had involved myself with ministries here that fourteen years later, in spite of having been hurt, I found my way back to St. Mary’s. I am so profoundly grateful that I did.
The Gerasenes turned away the person whom the least among them recognized as the Son of the Living God because they were slow to trust and quick to fear. How many times have we failed to see the Christ in a person who may well have changed our lives because we were afraid to trust? We need to remember that trust and faith are very closely related. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple, faith supplies its own verification. There are qualities in a person which they will never show us until we trust them; and for that reason the untrusting person will never see them. Such a person demands the evidence before he or she trusts; and from the nature of the case it is only by trusting that the evidence can be found. The demoniac trusted Jesus because he had absolutely nothing to lose. Our charge is to learn to trust God and our neighbors because we have everything to gain. Amen.