Have you been wondering about the picture on your bulletin cover? Many of you know Ron Oyer. He was one of the many who helped clean up our building and grounds a week ago. As you can see, after four hours Ron was a mess, from head to toe. Thanks, Ron!
But Ron the power-washer is squeaky clean compared to what we find in today’s gospel reading! You see, Jews had a certain way of doing things. Some things—some actions, some people–were considered clean, or acceptable. Others were considered unclean and to be avoided. Imagine that you’re someone from Jesus’ hometown and you hear that a man was healed—great! Thank you, Jesus! But no, if you were a good Jew you would have been troubled, confused, maybe even horrified by this story because practically everything about it is…unclean.
For one thing, if you were a good Jew you would notice that Jesus is not just out town but in a foreign land. Jesus arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. Yes, and “opposite” in more ways than one! Gerasenes were Gentiles—non-Jews—in other words, unclean! And then, a man who has an “unclean spirit” approaches him—today, we would call it mental illness. (Bus) But the man in the story was wearing no clothes in public, which was considered…unclean! (Solstice Parade) The man lived not in a house but a graveyard. Anything dealing with death was considered…unclean!
But there’s more. Although this troubled man—the one with the demons–seems beyond redemption, beyond hope, Jesus heals him and sends the unclean spirits into a herd of pigs. What do you know about Jewish faith and eating pork? Jews don’t eat pork because pigs are considered…unclean! Since the swineherds in the story are guilty by association they, too, are considered—you guessed it–unclean.
Do you see? Even though a man in this story was miraculously healed any good Jew would’ve had a hard time celebrating that fact; there’s a good chance that they would’ve been criticizing Jesus. He’d been in contact with all this uncleanness and according to Jewish law that meant he would be unclean—unacceptable even in the eyes of God!
But it wasn’t just Jews who would’ve been offended. Gentiles weren’t too happy about Jesus, either! Notice what happens when the Gerasene people hear that the troubled man they’d known all their lives is healed. They should be shouting for joy, right? But Luke tells us that when Jesus healed the man they weren’t happy; they were afraid! Before Jesus came along the man was out in the country, away from everyone. But now they had to figure out how to deal with this guy every day. Have you ever had a friend or family member return home after years in prison? In rehab? Or maybe, returning from combat overseas? It’s great that they’re home, but it can be very difficult for everyone to adjust.
So there’s that question: How do we welcome someone who has been away for a long time? But there was another problem for the Gerasene people, and this gets at an even more difficult question. Although Jesus had healed a troubled man and restored him to health, there was an economic consequence. The demons that were cast out entered some nearby pigs and the pigs ran down the hill and were drowned in the lake. A whole herd of pigs–gone! Think about that. Those pigs had been an important source of income, not just for the herdsmen but the whole local community. All of a sudden that income is gone. No wonder they were afraid! So they focused not on the power of God; they became focused on what they had lost. Jesus, we want your love, we want your power, we want your healing. Just don’t mess with our money!
A couple of weeks ago your treasurer, bless her heart, said to me, “You know, pastor, we haven’t had a stewardship emphasis in quite a while; maybe we should.” (Every church should have a treasurer like that!) Nancy knows that the reason Christians need to talk about money is not to pay the bills or ensure the survival of an institution. We need to talk about money because it can have as much power over us as the demons had power over the man in today’s story. Fears and concerns related to money can keep us as spiritually imprisoned as the man was bound by his chains. Sometimes, separation from our money can mean separation from our demons.
This congregation has experienced healing over the years. I don’t just mean healing from the deep divisions of almost 25 years ago. I mean healing as in, you’ve learned to focus less on your own needs than on the mission of Jesus Christ. Rather than treating the church as a service organization or a club you understand it to be a community constantly asking how we might welcome the stranger and heal the world. Rather than treating offerings as dues that entitle you to certain benefits and privileges, you see offerings as a gift freely given that God can multiply to bless a world in need.
In last Sunday’s bulletin you saw a long list of ways that Lakeridge Lutheran Church in recent years has done—and continues to do–the work of Christ in our neighborhoods and communities. This is something to be celebrated. Like the Gerasene people in today’s reading, we have the opportunity to celebrate God’s love, God’s power, God’s healing–to give thanks for Jesus’ attention to those who are on the margins or outside. Each of us has had that experience of being an outsider so we respond with gratitude by including and welcoming others.
That’s the option, unfortunately, that the Gerasenes didn’t choose. Instead, they chose to focus on their loss—especially, their loss of economic power. Unable to celebrate a man’s healing they ask Jesus to go away. Upset and afraid, they remained spiritually blind to the gift in their midst: the presence and power of Christ.
Money can have just as much power among us. It can be viewed merely as an investment or a tool to exercise influence. For example, it’s not unusual in congregations for people of means to withhold offerings when they’re not happy with how things are going in the church. It happens among us, too. In that case money is used not as a response of gratitude to God but as a weapon used to protest, punish and threaten. This is a spiritual sickness. Do you see? While the Gerasenes could clearly see the demons in the so-called crazy man, they couldn’t see the demons in themselves. They focused not on Jesus and his mission but on themselves and their own needs.
We also can become preoccupied by. Like the Jews we can become distracted by too much worry about clean and unclean, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. Or, like the Gerasenes, we can become distracted by money concerns. We can become resistant to what’s new and different.
Or, we can take our cue from the filthy guy on your bulletin cover. In this photo Ron is a mess—unclean!—at least on the outside. But on the inside he has a heart for the mission of Christ. And I don’t mean power- washing the concrete! I mean, asking how he can help serve the men of ARISE, how he can support the children of the congregation. Here is a man focused on the mission of Jesus Christ, willing to roll up his sleeves, to become unclean, to jump into the messiness of people’s lives. And so are you, people of Lakeridge Lutheran. Let us, then, focus not on distractions but on our mission among the people whom God has put in our path, that we might offer love, welcome, hope and healing. This is God’s work. This is our mission. With gratitude, let us embrace it with joy!