Sermon: My Name is Legion
Text: Luke 8:26-39
Date: September 29, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
The story of Jesus, the Gerasene demoniac, the pigs, and the terrified townspeople is exceedingly strange, don’t you think? I wasn’t going to say anything–but one of my most scholarly commentaries puts it right out there, saying that calling it “a strange story” is quite an understatement. “For the basic miracle-story has in this instance been enshrouded with elements of the fantastic and the grotesque.” Even if there weren’t the colorful detail of a large herd of demon-possessed pigs rushing like a bunch of lemmings to drown themselves in the lake, we moderns would be brought up short by the concept of demons overtaking someone’s personality. Free-ranging demons just aren’t an accepted part of our world-view as they were in Jesus’ day, at least not in most mild-mannered liberal Protestant churches like ours. That leaves us unsure how to understand and interpret the stories of Jesus acting as exorcist.
I appreciate the way religion scholar Huston Smith approaches scripture with his frank assertion that “it is not possible to read scripture seriously if we stay within the stifling confines of literalism.” Literalism is a trap that robs scripture of its richness and its usefulness. To support this point he offers this anecdote heard from a Native American who was trying to throw a bridge to a white man’s outlook in describing a cure a medicine man had accomplished. “There was a very sick man in the tribe, and the medicine man was summoned to effect the cure. A nearby anthropologist got word of the happening and turned up to watch the affair. The cure was accomplished quite quickly, and the anthropologist wanted to know how it had been done. The medicine man said that his incantation and gestures had rid the patient of the ants that were swarming all over the patient’s body, inside and out. When the anthropologist protested that he hadn’t seen any ants, the medicine man stared at him in incomprehension for quite a while, as if trying to figure out what he might say that would get through to this stranger. Finally he gave up and blurted out, “Not ants, Ants!” and walked off.” In the terms [Huston Smith] was using, what he said was, Not everyday ants, but metaphysical Ants. Our world has a metaphysical dimension as well as a physical dimension.
If we approach the gospel story like the literal-minded anthropologist who couldn’t see any ants, we’ll miss the beauty and the power shining through Luke’s narrative. Perhaps we can imagine medicine man Jesus turning toward our skeptical faces and saying “Not demons, Demons!” As in, malevolent powers that range around corrupting institutions and drawing tormented souls into despair. You don’t have to believe in a literal Satan with an army of demonic underlings to observe that there are sinister forces at work in this world that infect the souls of individuals and groups.
This week’s theme in our “Outsiders” worship series is “The Tormented.” The word pops up in Luke’s gospel, surprisingly, on the lips of the demon, who sees Jesus and cries out, “I beg you, do not torment me!” How Jesus–identified by the demonic spirit as the Son of the Most High God–would torment the demon is not spelled out. In this instant the demon reminds me of people who habitually accuse other people of the very thing they are doing at the moment—a liar calling their accusers liars, a crook calling others crooked. Because what is a demon for but to torment the one whose spirit has been overwhelmed? The young man in Luke’s story is certainly tormented, living naked outside the village, among the tombs. His condition, in the culture of the day, was shameful and unclean. He had been evicted from the village, for understandable reasons. He was out of control; even chains and shackles couldn’t hold him when he was being tormented by the demon that had a hold on him.
Tormented. Are you acquainted with someone who is tormented? Call up a picture of that person or persons in your mind. In what way or ways has the tormented person become an outsider?
One person that comes to mind when I remember someone tormented is a woman who dropped into our Fellowship Hall one afternoon this summer. It was a warm day, and she was wearing lots of layers of clothes. She was carrying a bag or two of possessions. She smelled bad and looked scary. The ladies who were preparing flowers for the Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers that day looked stricken as they motioned for me to come out my office and deal with her. The woman had several requests. She was hungry. She needed to charge her cell phone. She wanted some tea. She asked for candles to light so she could pray for her dead mother. I invited her to sit down and got her the things she needed, but it was easy to see that she was mentally and spiritually tormented, and these bits of food and drink and candles and electricity were not going to meet her deepest needs. She was rambling nonsensically non-stop, fidgeting, sweating, wild-eyed. She asked my name and I told her, but when I asked her name she came to a full stop. “Oh, I can’t tell you that.” Her name was a secret she seemed to need to protect at all costs.
She left after a little while, leaving spilled wax on the table and boosting the phone charging cord I thought I was loaning to her but apparently was giving to her. Honestly, all of us in the building that afternoon were quite relieved when she went on her way. She was a tormented soul. Her problems, in my estimation, were far from simple. There were layers of tormenting factors and forces: She was motherless, and maybe the rest of her family had cut her off. She was poor. She was hungry. She was homeless. She was a woman, which added to her vulnerability as a person without secure shelter. She was likely addicted to some drug; she looked high to my untrained eye. She appeared to be mentally ill as well; there was no rationality in her train of thought as she spoke to me or muttered to herself, and the pace of her speech and fidgeting was manic. Tormented.
You remember what the demon said when Jesus asked its name? “Legion.” Not so much a name as a number; a legion of soldiers in the occupying Roman army had six thousand soldiers. The woman whose name is a guarded secret who happened by EHCC one hot afternoon was possessed, occupied by a legion of tribulations, or so it seemed to me who does not know her or her story. To meet such a person makes me feel powerless.
I might still feel pretty powerless, I think, even if the tribulations all boiled down to one–that she was suffering from mental illness. What we call “mental illness” and what Jesus’ compatriots called “demon possession” are not exactly the same thing; but there is some overlap in our experience with people who, through no fault of their own, are unwell in mind and spirit. It’s possible, if not probable, that what our culture identifies as mental illness was identified as possession by demons and unclean spirits in biblical times—again, it’s not an equivalence but a similarity, and a difference in worldview and vocabulary.
I presume everyone present knows someone who struggles now or has struggled with a variety of mental illnesses. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers some insight into just how widespread mental illness is in America: “1 in 5 U.S. adults (more than 47 million in 2018) experience mental illness each year. 1 in 25 U.S. adults (more than 11 million in 2018) experience serious mental illness each year. 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.” Whatever else you might say about mental illness, it would be wrong to say it is rare in our time and place. It is practically commonplace.
The NAMI website offered some additional statistics in a snapshot of the impact of mental illness on our communities and institutions:
- Mental illness and substance use disorders are involved in 1 out of every 8 emergency department visits by a U.S. adult (estimated 12 million visits)
- 20.1% of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. have a serious mental health condition
- 37% of adults incarcerated in the state and federal prison system have a diagnosed mental illness
- 70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness
- Mood disorders are the most common cause of hospitalization for all people in the U.S. under age 45 (after excluding hospitalization relating to pregnancy and birth)
I don’t mean to stun you with numbers. But sometimes numbers tell a story, or clarify what’s going on when all we have to go on are vague impressions. To me, these numbers tell us, at the very least, that people who are experiencing mental illness need not feel alone. And they help us see the correlation between legal troubles and troubled minds and spirits. Stir in poverty, racism, and military service which all raise the potential for developing serious mental illness and we see how “Legion” is still an apt description for bundles of powerful problems.
There’s still a lot of negative stigma around mental illness, a great deal of shame and embarrassment attending the manifestation of mental illness even though it is so pervasive. People are often reluctant to talk about it; we may do symbolically what the Gerasene demoniac’s people did to him, sending him away to the cemetery where they wouldn’t have to see him and deal with him every day. When they did catch a glimpse of him, naked and tormented, they were ashamed of him and probably ashamed of themselves as well because they didn’t know how to help him.
We don’t always know how to help folks struggling with mental illness. But one thing we are able to do is resist the temptation to ignore the reality of what’s happening. Silence keeps people isolated, shackling them in the place of the dead-to-me. Encouraging people to tell their story of mental illness in themselves or in their families is a beginning of healing. I’m so grateful to those of you who have shared your journeys with depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and so forth with our congregation; you’ve helped bring our faith community out of the place of dead silence. I was reading the story of a congregation in North Carolina that began talking more openly about mental illness after one of their youth died by suicide—they described their early conversations as being “defrosted.” Now they are in the process of hiring a director of wellness to serve their faith community.
The congregation described in the article has 6,400 members—more capacity than a smaller congregation like ours has to do something like add a Wellness Director to the staff. But any Christian or Christian community can reach for wellness, strive for wellness, believe in wellness. Mental illness is not easily healed or managed; but it’s not impossible. We need to maintain faith that healing is attainable. When I hear people say things like “he will never change” or “people can’t change” or “things will never change” I wonder where their faith is. Healing mental illness or complex social problems is not simple but it’s not impossible. I dipped into a book I have titled The Demonic and the Divine that refreshed my perspective on this. Author Daniel Day Williams suggests that “if we determine to be faithful to all the evidence when we express our Christian hope, one consequence should be the exercise of proper restraint in making predictions about the future.” We must, he says, recognize the limits of our human sight and reserve judgment about what can and cannot happen.
Williams writes about resisting demonic forces in his book, drawing on stories such as the one we heard in Luke today to remind us that “a power greater than the demons can be invoked.” That point is made clear over and over in the gospels. Williams prompts our memory that God is “a power making for sanity and freedom…the divine thrust toward wholeness [is] at work. God works out the divine way in history, within our understanding but far beyond it, and God’s clash with the demonic has depths we cannot fathom. We can be grateful for it, and we can try to see where it is and to provide conditions for its fuller working.” It seems like we forget sometimes that God’s will for sanity and freedom, for wholeness and wellness is always at work in this world in powerful ways. We cannot manipulate divine power but we can try to, in Williams’ words, “see where it is and provide conditions for its fuller working.”
Today’s gospel story is a story of hope on several levels. God is present in Jesus helping the one possessed by a demon to return to his right mind and to his community. The devil is duped into sending the legion of demons into the swine in order to avoid the abyss, but the swine take themselves there after all. There are political overtones in the story which Luke sets in a place known for the Romans violently squashing a rebellion. The pigs were probably meant to supply meat for the Roman soldiers in the region, so to see them kill themselves is a subtle message of hope for those who heard and told the story; even the occupation will come to an end someday. At every level, God is at work to defeat demons and demonic forces abroad in the world.
Too bad the townspeople react to the show of unexpected wholeness and healing with fear, and ask Jesus to get the heck out of town. One of the versions of the story we read on Tuesday said the people were “possessed by fear.” That’s one demonic force that’s always abroad in our world. It’s natural to be afraid of disturbed people like the troubled woman who came by here last summer. It’s normal to feel fearful about complex social problems that raise our collective stress. Yet we must resist being possessed by fear, possessed by despair.
Let us be possessed by hope, if we are possessed by anything. The problems that confront us as a society are Legion. But the indomitable force for healing and wellness that God in Christ brings to human history will overcome. Let us make room for hope as we deal with mental illness and social ills; our hope gives God elbow room to work healing in and around us. Precious Lord, take our hand; help us heal, help us stand.
 Fitzmeyer, Joseph A. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981, p. 734
 Smith, Huston The Soul of Christianity San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, p. 24-25
 Williams, Daniel Day The Demonic and the Divine Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990, p. 17