1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42-43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Last week one of you said to me, I don’t think I really know you, but I’d like to.
You never know what little thing might turn into sermon!
I could say the same thing about the person who spoke those words: I don’t think I really know you. The truth is, any of us could say something similar about anyone else. Even those we know & love—we can’t really say we know them well. Only God knows our full stories.
Two thousand years ago, nobody understood who Jesus was. Not the ordinary people. Not even the religious experts. So it’s surprising when Jesus travels through…foreign territory…& comes across someone whom we would call…mentally ill…who does know who Jesus is. I know who you are, Jesus, Son of the Most High!
What comes next is even more surprising. What is your name? Jesus asks.
When we meet someone for the first time, isn’t one of the first things we do to find out their name? Hi, my name is Scott. And you are…? Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus takes time for introductions? This man is strong, he’s violent, & he’s dangerous. Here we have the forces of good vs. the forces of evil.
What is your name? Jesus asks. It’s almost a friendly greeting.
Names are important. In last week’s reading the two main characters besides Jesus were Simon the Pharisee, and…what’s her name? Good old “What’s Her Name.” We know Simon’s name. He’s the good guy. He’s important. But all we about the woman is that she had a certain reputation.
She was called a “sinner.” No name. Just a label. Just, “a sinner.” Respectable people didn’t even know her name; nevertheless, she was known only by a single story, a story people believed to be true. But true or not true, people thought they could summarize her entire life by a single label: sinner.
We do that, too, don’t we? We speak of “those people”—whoever “those people” are—in a disapproving way. Those we love & trust—we use their names. Those we fear or distrust? Not so much.
Driving through downtown Renton this past week I passed a number of interesting people. But I don’t know any of their names. Nor would most of you. And I didn’t take the time to stop & ask. If we feel threatened by or uncomfortable with someone, it’s tempting to use a label. If it was the driver who cut you off, you might think, “Jerk.” If it was the abortion protester with the ugly sign, you might think, “Fanatic.” If it was the guy at the stop light asking for money, you might think, “Bum,” “Lazy,” “Mooch.”
Which, of course, is not their name. We don’t know their name. But—we think we have enough information to make a judgment about who they are as a person—so we do. We don’t use their name. We use a label.
It’s a lot easier to use a label than to take time to get to know someone & their story. I have an uncle whom some of you met a few weeks ago. He’ll strike up a conversation with strangers on the elevator! What’s your name? Where are you from? Surprising what he learns.
Jesus took time to ask the man’s name. The man answers, “Legion.” For some of you that word might have military meaning: e.g., “American Legion.” In fact, yes, it originally was the word for a company of 3000- 6000 Roman soldiers. Today, of course, we use it to describe a “large number.” But in the story—a large number of what? Luke says, “A large number of demons.” We might say, A large number of problems, or compulsions or addictions. People in his day would’ve said, a large number of sins.
This man was an outcast in his own community. How many people called him by his name? How many even knew his name? More likely, he was called, “Wacko,” “Lunatic,” “Crazy,” “Nut Case,” or “Psycho.”
For the first time in a long time someone didn’t use a label. Someone wanted to know his name. This man Jesus wanted to get to know him.
Think of the labels that have been used to describe you. Dummy, fatso, etc. Or, think of the labels that you’ve used to describe others. Those labels are convenient, easy. They keep relationships simple. If you have a label for someone you don’t have to think. You don’t have to risk.
This man’s name is Legion. “Legion” might be a good name for any of us. It’s the opposite of any of the labels we’ve been given over the years. It means that each of us is not just one thing. We have many stories. The more we know about each other the more we know this is true.
But we don’t know much about each other. One day soon you will gather to celebrate the life of Lois Rystrom. And people will tell stories about her, & you might find yourself thinking, “I didn’t know that about her!” Which is often the way it is at memorial services. Lois was not just one thing. She could not be reduced to a label. She was many things, a legion of stories which sometimes we don’t learn until a person is gone.
It’s easier to avoid thinking of our friends as just one thing. Harder to think that way about our enemies—those we fear or mistrust. We tend to stick labels on our enemies. And yet, Jesus not only asks the man his name; he not only wants to learn more about him; he listens to him & finds common ground.
Think about that. The demonic forces in the man beg not to be sent back to hell; they say, send us into those pigs. And Jesus says…Okay. The point here is that even when confronted by an enemy, Jesus respects their humanity. He tries to learn more about them. He tries to find something they have in common.
What an example for us all! We are a society that reduces individuals & groups to single labels. We prefer to think of the world in terms of good guys & bad guys. But Martin Luther had a name for each & every one of us that was more complex than a simple label: Simul Justus et Peccator: “Simultaneously Saint & Sinner.” We are complex. Neither all good nor all bad. This is true for those we think of as our enemy, as well. All are children of God. All were created in God’s image. All, as Jesus showed, are worth getting to know. The more we understand, the less we fear.
How we treat those who oppose us can be the difference between humanizing & demonizing. Jesus, faced with the mentally ill man, could have demonized him. But even this man, described as full of demons, was treated with love & respect by the one we call Lord.
Disciples are those who follow the teacher. We who call ourselves Christians have pledged to follow Jesus’ example. Christ has called us to find the humanity in each other & to treat one another as Christ has treated us. This grace we extend even to those we may think of as “sinners.” As we do, we become more Christ-like. To the extent we don’t, we lose a bit of our own humanity.
May Christ, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who has called us by name & who knows all our stories, lead us to love one another, in Jesus’ name.