Text: Luke 8:26-39
The prophet Isaiah once walked around the land of Judah barefoot and naked – for three years. This likely falls under the category of “Bible stories I didn’t learn in Sunday school.” We are rather fond of Isaiah overall. This is the prophet who spoke of the peaceable kingdom: “the wolf shall live with the lamb…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Who declared, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” The same prophet who spoke of the coming of Immanuel, whose vision of a just and wise ruler we so readily connect with the person of Jesus. This prophet, Isaiah, one of the most cherished voices in Jewish and Christian tradition– once went three years without wearing any clothes – in public.
He did this as a sign. That’s what it says in Isaiah chapter 20 where this happens. The Lord, Yahweh, wanted naked Isaiah to be a sign to the people about what would happen to those who violently rebelled against the great empire of their day, Assyria. They would be stripped of all they had and utterly put to shame. Over the span of those three years, every time Isaiah passed their way, people would have to consider that it was their own nakedness that was really at stake.
Wendell Berry has a whole series of poems about The Mad Farmer. He’s willing to claim this title for himself because of his belief that in a world gone insane with greed and destruction, the only sane response is to go “mad.” We’ve borrowed the last line from one of his more well-known poems, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, for past Easter worship themes: “Practice resurrection.”
Here are some words from another poem “The contrariness of the Mad Farmer:”
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
Who’s the crazy one? The Mad Farmer who tills, and plants, and reaps, and dances at all the wrong times, or those who stand quietly in line at the gate of the Kingdom?
Who’s the crazy one? The naked prophet who walks in peace, or the clothed countrymen who prepare for war?
In Luke chapter 8 Jesus encounters a person who, by just about any measure, is crazy. Luke refers to him as “a man of the city.” Cities are hubs of civilization, where culture and technology and learning collide and collaborate in a cosmopolitan mix. We’re in one right now. But Luke goes on to describe how this man has abandoned the standard markers of civilized life. “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”
Along with being homeless and clothes-less, this man’s social manners leave something to be desired. Rather than greeting Jesus with a handshake, a fist bump, a hello, or even a silent head nod, he falls down in front of Jesus and shouts at the top of his voice. Luke goes on to fill out the picture of this man by noting that he was often kept under guard and even chained down, but that he would break the chains, and wander into the wilds.
In the first century, a person like this was said to have demons. We once called this condition insanity, and would now classify it under any number of mental illnesses.
A scholar and activist by the name of Ched Myers was the first person I ever heard suggest that more might be going on here than just a troubled individual in need of personal healing. Ched points to the interaction that happens after Luke has established this man’s symptoms.
Jesus asks, “What is your name?” The reply: “Legion.”
A legion was a Roman army contingent of several thousand soldiers. Jesus and this person whose name his momma and daddy gave him at birth was certainly not “Legion,” and all the people of the region lived under occupation, their land possessed by an uninvited, and unwanted power. What the people were experiencing collectively, this person was experiencing personally, with the possession and occupation of his body, his mind. The cycle of being chained and trying to break free, chained and trying to break free; the contradictions of needing to both suppress and express anger, anxiety and anguish, are all manifested in this one person. Everyone in the city, and in the countryside goes about their daily business, but all is not well, and this man is a sign of a much larger dis-ease.
A couple weeks ago I had lunch with Molly Shack. She was born and raised in Columbus and works with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. She spoke at a recent racial justice event in Columbus. Over the course of conversation Molly noted that she was close friends with MarShawn McCarrel who was the young man who died by suicide on the Ohio Statehouse steps in February. MarShawn was a Black Lives Matter activist. Molly said she experienced this as a major wake up call for how important it is for people like her and MarShawn to take care of themselves and not be overcome by the heaviness of their work. She felt like MarShawn was a healthy person, who had taken on too many of the demons of society. I told her I also had a close friend who took his own life in his twenties and how I had felt that Shem, rather than being blind, actually saw more clearly than most people. That he gazed deeper than most into the troubles of the world, and that he just couldn’t find a place to stand firm in the midst of it all. She nodded her head in agreement, and we had an unexpected moment of shared grief.
Who are the crazy ones? Who is the sign for whom? What are the prophets of Yahweh saying these days?
Please hear me that I am in no way saying that all mental illness can be attributed to the ills of society, or that suicide is always some kind of noble prophetic act.
What this gospel story asks of us is to consider all the powers that possess and colonize our minds, and how we do or don’t respond and resist. Who and what gets to define what it means to be healthy and sane?
Jesus is not deterred by the Legion. In a not so subtle wink of Jewish humor, he sends the pathetic demons into a group of nearby pigs, who proceed to rush to their own destruction, the legion army drowned in the sea just like Pharaoh’s horse and riders of long ago. While I’m not particularly fond of the idea of my precious Jesus allowing the death of all these animals, I can accept the point of the story. Jesus has cast out the power which occupied the man and the land. As a bonus, these unclean pigs running around Gentile territory have been removed from the premises to make it kosher for Jews to hang out. The man is soon clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus feet not as someone shouting obscenities, but as a disciple. All is now well.
Except, all is not well. The story isn’t done quite yet. Apparently there have been people watching this all along. There are witnesses. They see the transformation in this man, crazy ole’ Legion, who is now well. This is supposed to be a Monty Python moment when “there was much rejoicing.” Instead it says that the witnesses were afraid. When word spreads to others, people come from the whole surrounding countryside to see, and once again, Luke notes that they were “seized with great fear.”
Crazy ole’ Legion, that wild man who couldn’t hold down a job or a home and lived naked in the tombs, who mothers warned their children about, who men joked about and cursed in the marketplace, who older children told scary stories about to the younger children, who had become a thing of legend, everything evil and scary and wrong with the world projected onto this one individual, crazy ‘ole Legion.
Now there’s nothing wrong with him at all. He is just a normal human being. Now the people no longer have a safe place to heap all their own anxiety and anger and dis-ease. Now they must come face to face with what possesses them, and do their own soul work of resistance and healing. They had needed this man to be crazy, the village idiot, the scapegoat, the queer, the one out there who shelters them from their own dis-ease. This man is clothed and in his right mind, and the people are terrified.
The equilibrium has been disturbed. The family system has lost its homeostasis. He has exposed what was hidden. Luke reports: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Jesus must go. Now. If he leaves, we can restore the balance. Find another person or group to carry the blame. They can be crazy and we can be sane, and all will be well.
If he stays, then there is no outside. There are no outer spaces, no unclean haunts. There are no places left to hide our demons.
If the Christ stays, we will have to face our own deepest hurts and anxieties. We will have to confess our own complicity. We will be exposed.
If we send the Christ away, we can restore the balance.
If he stays…who knows what will happen?