This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 23 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 8:26-39.
In the 1980s, going to live overseas as missionaries with small children, people worried about us, especially those that didn’t understand what it meant to follow God’s call. We were crossing several boundaries, including that of religion. Those Muslim terrorists—aren’t you afraid for your own lives and those of your children? The call to prayer five times a day was something we really had to adjust to since the mosque was close to our apartment. I came to love it.
And the boundaries of culture took a while to learn! You do not cross your legs, showing the bottom of a shoe because that means you consider the other person no better than the dust on your shoes. Women’s shoulders are considered sexy, so you can’t wear sleeveless outfits. And if you wore shorts—you were surely a prostitute because only someone of that ilk would dress in such a way.
But these were some of the most meaningful, marvelous years of my life. The Arab culture is one of total and complete welcome. No matter how busy one may be, if you came to their home expected or unexpected, they would drop whatever they were doing to spend time with you. That is what was supremely important, to make a guest feel welcome.
We are not the only people who crossed boundaries. Jesus did so as well: going places and doing things he shouldn’t have, at least according to some people. He made a clear distinction between the Jewish community and the wilderness and Luke offers us several occasions where this boundary is crossed, which is good news.
Jesus’ first boundary crossing was traveling to the country of the Gerasenes, a place inhabited by Gentiles. You can tell this by the fact that people there made their living as swine herders. Pigs are considered by the Jews as unclean and Jewish people are forbidden to eat pork. This is the only time in Luke where Jesus goes into Gentile territory to bring salvation. Earlier prophetic voices declared Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles (2:32) and that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6).
Second, as Jesus enters this foreign land, the one who met him was demon-possessed, embodying the alienating wilderness of despair and fear. This man was afflicted beyond belief: naked, beyond the bounds of civilization, homeless—living with the dead in the tombs. He was tormented physically, shackled like an animal, isolated and abandoned by his community. Even here, among the tombs, Jesus is unafraid of bringing wholeness into chaos. Religious Jews shouldn’t be hanging around places of the dead. This too would make Jesus unclean, prohibiting his access to the Temple in Jerusalem.
There is a cost to restoration—not only to the one healed but to the community as well. For example, a church might find that reaching out to the poor and needy can be costly when those who socially and economically differ from regular worshippers attend worship, fellowship or other church activities. Being inclusive is likely to cost social comfort, financial resources and perhaps even reputation. We know something about that, don’t we?
Jesus’ third border crossing is that between the isolated man inhabited by demons and the united community. He who was so out of his mind by the habitation of demons that had invaded him and could not be contained crossed a boundary as well. He crossed the border from chaotic craziness to being clothed and in his right mind (v. 35).
The last boundary crossing was that of the man returning to his own community, in obedience to Jesus’ command to “Return to [his] home, and declare how much God has done for [him],” (v. 39). Crossing this final border demonstrated the restoration of this man’s full humanity. Here he is the first missionary to the Gentiles! He is the witness of God’s boundary-crossing, demon-exorcising, life-saving grace.
What does Jesus do for us? We may not struggle with demons, but there are things that likely plague us. There are desires, attitudes, issues of health, relationships, time and many other things in life that we struggle with, that show how much we need Jesus to set us free.
How many of us feel overwhelmed by voices raging at us from inside and out, driving us to places of loneliness and despair? There was a time in my life when I reeled like everything was swirling around me and I had no control over anything happening. I was in the middle of a divorce with my first husband. Relationships were outside of my control, finances (my ex-husband was not good with money), my health (I was out on disability after knee surgery) and my work. I thought I had no control over any of these parts of my life and that I had no choices. I later learned that we always have choices.
Martin Luther struggled with depression and needed reminding that he was a child of God. When Luther felt oppressed by the devil, he would shout, “I am baptized!” This reminded him that his confidence in salvation and healing were grounded in God’s external act of making him part of God’s family through the water and word of baptism.
Are there things that haunt you, that seem impossible to shake? Remember the healing power of God Almighty in our Lord Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. It is only in Christ that we will experience true freedom. The grace we see in this story is not just for outcasts, but for each and every one of us.
The names and claims of the voices of this world do not have the last word. We too can declare that we have been made God’s own beloved children in the waters of baptism. When the church council last met, I shared a devotion about our being God’s beloved—each and every one of us. Then I asked them to tell each other that they are beloved. We all need to hear this. Please take a minute and tell at least two people that they are beloved of God.
How shall we respond to the power and grace of God? Shall our response be like the people of the land of the Gerasenes who were afraid and asked Jesus to leave because “they were seized with great fear?” (V. 35). They did not rejoice in the wondrous change in one of their countrymen but rather found that this could be costly for them. They knew how to manage the man when he was driven by demons. It was a matter of the devil they knew was better than the freedom they did not know. Change is scary. After all, Jesus had already destroyed their livestock and the livelihoods of some of them. What else could happen if the people let Jesus stay and proclaim and demonstrate the power of God?
These words are a death knell to any system, “We haven’t done it like that before.” But if we put a comma where the period is, things change. “We haven’t done it like that before, but why don’t we try?” The comma is the difference between rejecting the life Jesus offers because of the changes it would mean. I like the tagline of the United Church of Christ, “Don’t put a period where God put a comma.” That leaves us open to change and to life and to all the good things God has planned for us.
Shall we be like the man Jesus freed? He wanted to follow Jesus so badly and to literally go with him. That was not what Jesus had in mind though. There was a city in need of the gospel, the good news. This restored man was just the person to bring it to them. He chose to serve Jesus in a way no one else could.
Can we follow Jesus even if it means doing what we may not want to do? While some of us may be excited to travel to far off places for Jesus, others of us are more homebodies. From the time I was 15, I wanted to serve God overseas as a missionary. It was hard for me to wait. God may challenge you in totally unexpected ways to share what he has done for you. Just ask any of your fellow congregants who have been to Honduras to share Christ’s love. Just ask any of your fellow worshippers who have shared their story of what God did in their life right here!!
I like the way author and pastor, Frederick Buechner writes about witness:
And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business (not like so like many peddlers of God’s word but as men and women of sincerity) to speak with our hearts (which is what sincerity means) and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by the true word of his holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all. (From A Room Called Remember).
David G. Forney, Feasting On the Gospels—Luke, Volume 1
David Lose, Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember