"What is your name?" Another Question Heard 'round the World

Inspired by Luke 8:26-39

I am envious of the kind of pastor that can throw their sermon out the window, the one that they spent all last week preparing, because something else was on their heart. I’m sure there were a lot of pastors who did that last week after the terrorist attack in that gay night club in Orlando. I could not. Like many of you, I needed time to process. That, and I am in internal processor. Thinking out loud is not one of my gifts. The positive to that is that I am not a very reactionary person, which can get one into trouble easily. The negative to that is that I often don’t speak up when I probably should. But we are all a work in progress aren’t we?

As I have processed that senseless tragedy over the past week, I have done a lot of listening. Both in conversations with people, and by listening to how various people have been responding to it around the nation and the world. I have read some heartfelt and powerful responses from celebrities and theologians alike. So powerful that I began to think, what could I possibly add to the discussion? What more could I say that hasn’t already been said? So many others are so much more articulate than I, smarter than I, more caring that I.

Two things occurred to me that brought me out of that. One, it isn’t always about what we say or how we say it, but that we speak—that we break our complacent silence, our complicit silence. It is not enough to stand in solidarity, we must speak, and we must speak loud and bold, because the voices of hate are loud and bold. And the other thing that occurred to me, is that, if we speak about anything, we should, first and foremost, be proclaiming the gospel. And I mean that in two ways, with a big “G” and a little “g.” A, we need to be sharing the gospel, the good news, that was brought to us two thousand years ago. And that gospel is this, that Christ died in this world and rose in this world, so that, we too can die in this world, and rise in this world.

And B, what does our Gospel reading for today have to say? Can God speak through a Gospel reading that was selected well in advance of the tragic events of last Sunday? Of course God can! Because God is God! So with that, let us take a look at our Gospel story that we have before us. I’m gonna be honest, this story really freaked me out as a kid! It scared me. In the same way that a horror movie scared me—it’s creepy, it’s eerie, it’s violent, it just seems over the top. It almost seems like an over-reaction on Jesus’ part. Once you get over the creepiness of it all, you’re left asking, “Really? Really Jesus, you had to go there?”

I’m not an animal rights activist but, what did a pig ever do to you Jesus? But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s take it from the top. So, Jesus sails across to the other side of the lake to the land of the Garasenes. Why is that important? Well, that was the author’s way of telling us that Jesus was crossing into outsider territory. Remember, Jesus lived in a society where you were either Jewish or you weren’t, you were either and insider or an outsider, clean or unclean, one of us or one of them. That’s the stage that the author is setting for us. And Jesus then encounters a man that is suffering from demon possession.

Now, how we interpret demon possession is important, that could mean a lot of different things. We could interpret demon possession in the very literal sense. And this may surprise you but I am ok with that. I believe there are forces in this world that are unexplainable, and I also believe that those forces are not always there for our good. However, for the purposes of this sermon, it might be more helpful if we take a look at demon possession in a more figurative sense. Because let’s be honest, even if all the claims of demon possession around the world were authentic, they would still be a very rare occurrence. So, a sermon on literal demon possession would not be very helpful to our daily lives would it?

So another way to interpret demon possession in the Bible is to see it from a mental health perspective. In ancient times people didn’t know about human biology and the chemistry that plays into our mental health like we do. So anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or bipolar, were labeled as demon possessed. They didn’t know what else to call it. And the unknown oftentimes breeds fear. So Jesus finds this man chained up, and does the same thing he did in last week’s gospel story from the previous chapter of Luke, he asks a question. It’s one of only two times in this passage that Jesus speaks, and I probably only noticed that because I read from a red letter bible.

And this question, like last week’s, seems very simple and benign. But, of everything we know about Jesus, when is he ever simple or benign? He asks the man, “What is your name?” And then it turns super creepy because not only does the man not respond, not only does a demon instead respond, but multiple demons respond! And they respond with one word, one name, Legion. It’s enough to give you chills. So, why does Jesus ask this question? There are all kinds of things I’d like to know in this situation. Asking, what is your name, would not be first among them!

I think part of it is power. There is power in knowing a name. There is power in the connection that it begins to make between two or more people. Imagine if I, as your new pastor, didn’t care or put any effort into knowing your names, wasn’t constantly reminding you to wear name tags because I desperately want to remember your names, was constantly asking forgiveness for not remembering names I should by now. What would that communicate to you if I just didn’t put any effort into it? Knowing names, making connections is powerful, in and of itself. Hold that thought.

After this, Jesus allows the demons to enter into a herd of pigs, and they jump off a cliff and drown themselves. And, as I said before, this just seems a bit excessive. Was that really necessary? I mean, yes, the demons asked for this but Jesus didn’t have to grant their request! He could have said, “Just get out of here!” So, why all the dramatics? I believe that Jesus was trying to make a point, trying to make a statement. I believe this was Jesus way of saying, you do not have power here, not even here in this place, where the outsiders live. No, I am in charge here, I’m calling the shots, says the Lord.

So, how can we apply this today, especially in the darkness of last Sunday’s massacre in Orlando? I see three stages to this story and I think we can sum them up like this: naming the demon, dealing forcefully with it, and speaking our stories. The first one, naming the demon, what demons do we wrestle with, what demons do we suffer from? Racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and all the other “demons” that we wrestle with. And you know, we do a fairly good job at naming them. You know how I know that, because I hear them mentioned in the prayers of the church often, in both the written ones and the ones that you say out loud.

And that’s good, that’s a necessary first step, because until we can name our demons, we can’t deal with them. Until we can say, I battle with homophobic thoughts, I battle with transphobic thoughts, I battle with sexist thoughts, I battle with prejudiced thoughts, we can’t get to the next step and deal with them forcefully, harshly. In the same way that Jesus dealt with that man’s demons forcefully and powerfully, we need to look our demons dead in the eye and say “You do not have power here! You are not in control here! Christ is the one in power here, in this human heart. And if Christ is in power here, than you demon, cannot be!”

Our story ends with the man, now healed, sharing, telling, speaking out loud, his story of what Jesus had done for him, and it spread like wild fire. We Lutherans do not have a good reputation when it comes to this last step, sharing our stories. We’re getting better at it, but the world needs to hear what Jesus has done for you. That’s where the real power of the gospel, the good news, is. People who are searching for answers, trying to make sense of the world we live in, are probably not going to initially respond to our theological perspectives, or our liturgical practices, or even our service projects.

All of which are important of course, but I’ll tell you what people will respond to—changed lives, transformed lives. People want to know if Jesus is doing anything in us! Is Jesus changing us? Is Jesus transforming us? That’s what people want to know. That’s what people want to hear. Because if Jesus isn’t, why should they bother coming. Now, as your pastor, I know Jesus is making a difference in your lives because, well, I’m your pastor, and the more I get to know you the more I see that. But they may not, and by “they” I mean anyone we encounter outside these four walls.

Outsiders, or as our author Luke put it, the Garasenes. Jesus wasn’t just telling that one man to go tell what Jesus had done for him. Luke didn’t share this story as an isolated incident. Luke told this story to urge us to tell our stories, to share with others what Jesus has done for us, how Jesus has changed us, how Jesus has transformed us. And if we can’t think of anything to share, well, than we are really in trouble and that’d be a whole different sermon. But I believe that we do, that we have many stories to share.

What would it look like, in our everyday conversations, to share with people, this is who I was, and this is who I am now. These are the demons that I have fought, and this is how Jesus and I overpowered them. May we have the courage to name our demons, deal with them forcefully, and then speak, louder than the hateful voices of this world. People are dying, and the world needs us to speak, loudly, boldly, sharing our stories, sharing another way, the way of Christ, who died and rose in this world, so that we too, can die and rise in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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