Inspired by Mark 5:1-20
In its most general sense, the dictionary definition of the word “reconstitute” is, “to restore to a former condition.” To restore to a former condition. It’s not a common word to use in everyday language but when it is used it’s found in a wide variety of subjects. The word “reconstitute” is used in cooking, in medicine, it’s a military term, and it’s a business term as well, just to name a few of it’s uses. Now, when I think of the word reconstitution, my mind goes immediately to food.
And until now I would have thought of dry milk, but then I learned that adding water to dry milk is not called reconstitution, that’s called rehydration. So, what’s the difference? I’m so glad you asked! The difference is this, you rehydrate something that has been completely dehydrated, like dry milk, which has no liquid left in it whatsoever. But you reconstitute something that has been mostly dehydrated. It’s not dry, but it’s not exactly a liquid either. It’s kind of in this moisture limbo. For instance, frozen orange juice. Even when it’s melted, it’s more of a sludge than it is a liquid. So, you add water to it, to reconstitute it, to restore it to its former condition, to bring it out of its moisture limbo and back into the marvelous world of the breakfast table, where it belongs.
"What in the world does pastor have in that coffee mug this morning!" It ain’t orange juice that for sure! It’s just water, as always, but you know me, I am going somewhere with this, just be patient! So, let’s turn our attention to what is probably one of the most disturbing stories of the Bible. In the past, I’ve described it as creepy, as an example of the horror genre found in the Bible, but this time around I’m just very disturbed by it. More than that, I think that was Mark’s intention. So, Jesus continues to teach and heal throughout the region, and at this point of the narrative, he is outside the land of his Jewish community, in the territory of Gentile peoples. The biggest clue is the presence of swine. No Jewish community would have a herd of swine as they were thought to be unclean and unholy.
By mentioning this, Mark is pointing out that the people who live here, are people who the Jewish community have considered outsiders, less than, not one of us, people who were thought to be outside of God’s purview. In other words, whatever happened to them wasn’t their responsibility, nor was it God’s responsibility. They were on their own. All this is set up by just the mention of swine. So, depending on who you were when you first heard this story back then your reaction would either be, “Why is Jesus even bothering with those people?” or “Jesus took the time to come to one of our towns?” Either way, this was odd behavior in their eyes. Jesus had no business going there, let alone caring for anyone who lived there! And yet, there he was.
I’m sure his followers were just hoping he’d make an appearance, teach a few lessons, say a few prayers, and get back home as soon as possible, before anyone even knew they were there. Of course, Jesus had to disappoint them once again. Not only could this not be a simple visit, but the news of what occurs there traveled far and wide, much to the dismay I’m sure of the twelve disciples. They wanted Jesus to be taken seriously, and would have avoided anything that might hurt his legitimacy as a rabbi, teacher, prophet, let alone as the chosen one of God.
So this scene with the demon-possessed outsider was not good PR in their minds. And yet, there goes Jesus into a graveyard, next to a swineherd, and now he’s talking to some stranger who is clearly disturbed. They’re probably thinking, “Can’t we just have one day when we just have a normal outing with the savior of the world?”
So, Mark shares with us that there was a person living among the dead because the townsfolk were not strong enough handle to handle this person, which, is usually coded language for, because the townsfolk didn’t want to deal with this person. And so, this poor demonized soul was left with no other option than to live among the dead, putting this person in a very odd limbo, no longer considered to be among the living, but also not dead either.
It would not surprise me at all if the townsfolk had begun to refer to this person as an “it” and not a person at all anymore. Because it’s easier that way, it’s easier to dehumanize someone, or a group of people, when we “can’t handle them”, isn’t it. Whether we’re talking about the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, or the homeless we pass by every day, we often use coded language that dehumanizes, that puts them in a limbo that makes it easier to dismiss, if not altogether ostracize.
|The Swine Driven into the Sea|
by James Tissot (1836-1902)
The one who had been living among the dead, in limbo, neither living nor dead, was now being told, by the savior of the world, to go home, “Go home to your people”, Jesus said. In other words, you have been restored, you have been reconstituted, back to what you once were, despite what anyone may say. Jesus says, “Go home.”
If I only had the opportunity to share one thing that Jesus did while he was here on earth in human form, it would be that Jesus was in the reconstitution business. I know, that doesn’t really have a nice ring to it, but even more than who Jesus was, God’s firstborn, the savior of the world, it would be to share what Jesus did, over and over throughout his ministry, and that was this continual work to reconstitute people from the limbo that society or life’s hard knocks had put them in, and back into the land of the living, in community with their people. That’s what Jesus was all about, that’s what Jesus continues to do for us, and that’s the work that Jesus calls us into. And Jesus knows this work isn’t easy. Jesus knows that better than anyone, because it got him killed.
However, because we have been restored, because we have been reconstituted back into the loving and welcoming arms of God, because we have been brought out of the land of the dead and back into the land of the living, we have been called to take a look around and see if anyone else has been left behind, to see if there is anyone else left in limbo by society, by us, who still need to be reconstituted, who still need to be restored. And sometimes that work is as simple as reminding ourselves to not dehumanize others in our everyday lives, to remind ourselves that everyone we meet are children of God just as we are, to remind ourselves not to be like those townsfolk who just could handle someone so different and off-putting as that poor demonized person they ostracized.
I’m reminded of a time during my last call before I became pastor here. I would go each Ash Wednesday and give ashes and communion at a local homeless shelter in Fresno. As I was preparing to go that first Ash Wednesday, I was going over the little service I was putting together for them and I came across the words that the pastor says when giving the ashes in the sign of cross on the person’s forehead, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I was caught off guard because I thought to myself, how can I say that to them, how can I say that to a people whose existence is already in the dust of society. This is their life now and I’m going to have the audacity to tell them that this will be their future as well? That just didn’t’ feel right.
So, I called up one of my mentors for some advice, someone I trust to not only guide me but to give it to me straight. So, I asked him to help me come up with words that would better suit the needs of the homeless community that I was scheduled to visit and give ashes to. His response will stick with me forever. He said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I asked, “Why not?”
He said, “Well, what if you have someone who knows the words to expect because they’ve grown up in the church, and here you come along and give them different words. They might wonder why they weren’t good enough for the usual words given with the ashes.” That really hit me hard. Granted, my heart was in the right place. I was just trying to be considerate to the predicament they were in but what I ended up doing was just regarding them differently, and not regarding them like I would any other human being that I would give ashes to on Ash Wednesday.
That may seem like an oversimplification of what Jesus’ mission is in this world but I often think we make following Jesus more complicated than it really needs to be. If at the end of the day Jesus sees that you’ve made a few course corrections here and there, that you’ve changed the way you’ve thought about this or that, all to help you see others better as fellow human beings, as children of God, when you didn’t before, then I think Jesus would be quite satisfied. I think Jesus would be tickled pink to tell you the truth! And so, may we be ever grateful to have a God who has reconstituted us, who has restored us, so grateful that we feel compelled to join in that work of reconstitution, of restoration, wherever God sends us, however big or small the task may be. Thanks be to God. Amen.