July 1, 2018

Pentecost 6   July 1, 2018   Mark 5:1-20     Legion

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Jesus drives unclean spirits out of a man so heavily infested that he’s been banished by the community – sent off to live alone in a grave yard. They’ve tried binding him with shackles and chains of iron – implicitly to keep him away from them – and to keep him from injuring himself or others. But he tears shackles apart and breaks his chains. Nothing they attempt works to hold or restrain him, as he howls and bruises himself with stones. The demonic forces that have taken over his life have that much power over him…

Which sounds like stories we hear of people and communities struggling with addiction. Much of the stigma of addiction, thankfully, is beginning to lift. But there’s still enough shame and complications that come with addiction – that people suffering from it are often still sent away to jails or out-of-sight rehab centers – where all the conventional shackles and bars intended to restrain addictive behaviors and heal addictions – so often fail to be effective.

Stepping out of the boat, here comes Jesus. The demons immediately recognize him, and know their existence is threatened. They tell Jesus “we are legion” – and beg to be allowed to go into the herd of swine grazing on the nearby hillside. Jesus agrees. Two thousand pigs rush down the hillside into the sea and drown…

Probably the most dramatic exorcism of demons in the bible. An episode that challenges us to consider – what is demonic.

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Last week we traveled with Jesus and disciples by boat across the Sea of Galilee,  where we were caught up with them in a raging storm at night – till Jesus commands wind and sea – using the same words of rebuke he uses to cast out demons. And wind and sea obey.

Now as soon as we hit land on the Gentile (non-Jewish) side of the lake – here comes a wild man afflicted with demons – rushing straight toward Jesus – and in a blur of contrasting imagery, he falls at Jesus feet, in obedience – while shouting, hollering, begging at the same time Jesus not to banish his demons from the land…

The man speaks in what’s left of his own voice, one moment – then speaks in the plural voice of demons – who are, as they say, legion – meaning many.

Notice – Legion also means a Roman military force of 6000 men – and we are in Roman-occupied-territory. The Roman Empire ruled Palestine and all the Mediterranean world around…. And the double metaphor of personal and political demons is no accident. As Jesus gives his word of command, and demonic forces leave the man with a shriek – and enter into the herd of pigs – who run into the sea and drown and are no more. (Early Late Show dark humor for Jewish disciples of Jesus, forbidden to eat ritually unclean pork. Not so funny for those who raise pigs for a living.)

The swineherds run and tell what’s happened. A large crowd gathers to gawk at the infamous demoniac – now properly clothed and restored to his right mind – looking like an all-new-person, reclaimed from the tombs of darkness. Alleluia! Great news!

Except – now the entire countryside – everyone, that is, except the man who has been healed – begs Jesus to go away and don’t come back.

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In the biblical book of Leviticus (16) priests symbolically lay the sins of the people on a goat and the goat then is driven into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people. Here’s where we get the term “scapegoat.”

And hearing today’s gospel as a parable for our times – I’m wondering if this village has designated this poor demon-afflicted man as a “scape-pig” for the community – sent to dwell in the graveyard with only pigs for neighbors… Symbolically bearing the guilt of the whole community… This may be just a guess but – when we notice pigs mattering more than people – it’s a sign we do need to look deeper into the story…

And if talking about scape-goating and scape-pigging seems overly imaginative,  consider – how little help we’re getting from the usual suspects.

Scientists and doctors can explain a lot about how our brains are reprogrammed with repeated exposure till we crave a particular rush or high. Scientists and doctors know a lot about how chemical dependence affects the brain, which in turn affects all our behaviors.

Sociologists and historians have theories of addiction that perhaps help explain why addiction historically occurred more some places than others.

Recently however, opioid addiction has spread to all sectors of society. Rich and poor, blue collar workers and Ivy League students, men and women… especially the young… are dying in large numbers from opioid overdoses. Narcan and other drugs have been developed to treat the symptoms of overdose and keep people alive longer. Still, more died from drug overdoses in 2016 (the  most recent year we have statistics for) than from car crashes and murders combined. More died of overdoses that one year than all Americans in the entire Vietnam war.

We know a lot about the physical causes and effects of addiction. We may also know more than we used to about sociological and psychological factors that contribute to addiction…

What we don’t know – or hear much discussion about – is – what is it about life in this time and place – that makes so many otherwise normal, reasonably well-adjusted young people – experiment with substances so obviously deadly? Why are so many in such deep pain – and-or –perceiving other deep needs – as to be willing to risk addiction and lose so much – for the escape offered by drugs?

I don’t want to overlook or diminish the saving-grace experience of the man healed of his demons. But I can’t help wondering – isn’t the main point here really about the addiction of the whole community? Addiction to demons of caring more about maintaining the status quo than about healing the wounded.

When we talk about drug abuse in America, shouldn’t we start with the history of legal drug marketing? The pharmaceutical industry detected a potential market – developed user-friendly-prescription-opioid products – Purdue Pharmaceutical’s OxyContin and other companies’ similar products – and very aggressively sold doctors and the health care industry on the concept of the consumer’s right to pain-free-living through (quote) “advancements in pain management” – spending lavishly, lobbying ferociously – claiming OxyContin was safe and very low risk for addiction (knowing it wasn’t) – pushing to make opium-based painkillers more and more widely available in larger and larger dosages, for relief of levels of pain previously treated with far milder drugs.

Then, as prescription drug overdose deaths sky-rocketed, with 200,000 over dose deaths recorded between 1996 and 2016 – drug companies finally, kicking, screaming and litigating, were forced to cut back on false advertising and reduce promotion – till prescription drugs finally became somewhat less easy to buy. But soon as the tidal flow of prescription opioids began to ebb, heroin (and later fentenyl) dealers filled the void, stepping in to feed the opioid habits of the addicted… One set of drug pushers taking over from another…

Not good news… If the story stops here. Which far-too-often is the way the story has ended for many people…

And at the risk of over-simplifying in the interests of time – we need to be very clear –  Jesus is willing and able to save and heal – any one, anywhere, anytime…

But Jesus won’t force us to go there. We need to ask – and be willing to let Jesus do more than quick emergency soul surgery. We need to ask him to stay with us through the long follow-up healing work of becoming new creation in Christ.

We need to be eyes-open aware of the risk of becoming like the villagers in this gospel episode – begging Jesus to go. More worried about losing their financial investment in pigs… than about healing the most vulnerable members of the community.

When I hear our town of Bourne saying, on the one hand, how much we hate drugs, and how much we love our kids – but then voting to allow members of the same commercial drug industry that co-sponsored the opioid drug epidemic to engage in commercial sales of pot, so we can tax it – as Thomas Jefferson said, I tremble for my fellow citizens when I consider God is just. All the more so as we consider how all this must look to people and families suffering from addiction.

Today the issue may be drug policy. Tomorrow gun violence. The next day rising sea levels. The specifics are different. The principle is the same. Listen to Jesus.  Ask him what he would do. Try to do it. Otherwise, we’re just trotting downhill towards the sea like a herd of pigs…

And sadly – at the end of today’s gospel story – it looks like only the man cured is glad Jesus came to visit. He begs to be able to pack up and go with Jesus. Jesus says “no.”

Maybe there’s no room in the boat for another person. Maybe this guy starting his recovery walk isn’t ready for travel. Most likely Jesus says no mostly because he’s needed right where he is.

Jesus tells him – “go tell your friends what the Lord’s done for you.” The man does. But he doesn’t stop with telling his friends – he keeps telling what Jesus has done for him all around the county – telling anyone who will listen – what Jesus has done for him…

Which is what Jesus asks of us also. Keep telling what Jesus has done and is still doing for all of us.

And all of us together tell the demonic forces – get gone! – don’t come back! And the darkness flees away – when, finally, we are united – doing what Jesus does – doing what Jesus asks us to do. Telling the good news – living the good news… of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thanks be to God. Amen.