Monday, April 8, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "We Are Legion" (aka Part IV of IV)

Mark 5:1-9

Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the lake, to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a man possessed by an evil spirit came out of the tombs. 3 This man lived among the tombs, and no one was ever strong enough to restrain him, even with a chain. 4 He had been secured many times with leg irons and chains, but he broke the chains and smashed the leg irons. No one was tough enough to control him. 5 Night and day in the tombs and the hills, he would howl and cut himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from far away, he ran and knelt before him, 7 shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” 8 He said this because Jesus had already commanded him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!” 9 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He responded, “Legion is my name, because we are many.” (CEB)

“We Are Legion,” Mark 5:1-9

If you were there for Good Friday, you knew a small piece of the story of the woman I spoke of to begin my message, Pastor Kate Braestrup, the chaplain of Maine’s state search and rescue.  I return to her memoir Here If You Need Me  today, to retell this particular story.  She writes:

What are the odds of this?  On an ordinary weekday morning, a young woman named Christina left her dorm room at St. Mary’s College in Waterford, Maine.  She was planning to drive to Portland for a dental appointment and then to meet her mother for lunch.

A man was waiting in the parking lot—not for her, particularly, but for any one of the two thousand or so female undergraduates that might have appeared in that time and place…He forced her into her vehicle, made her drive him to a remote area, then dragged her into the woods and took her life.

After Christina’s body was found, a state police detective telephoned the offices of the Department of Probation and Parole.  She asked for a list of their clients in the area whose records and profiles suggested a capacity for violent assault.  Probation and parole provided a list of more than three hundred names.

And writing about this horrific tale years later, Pastor Kate reflects on the three hundred names by simply quoting Mark 5:9, when Jesus healed a Gerasene man possessed by them: “’We are Legion,’ the demons sneered, “’for we are many.””

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene demoniac, for we are many.  Evil is, and can no longer be seen as, a single devil with horns and a pitchfork, or Heath Ledger under Joker makeup with a plan to see the world burn, no, evil has many names, many voices, many faces.

Pastor Kate continues:

Within three days, the murderer was in custody…”Why did they let me out?” the murderer asked Detective Sergeant (Anna) Love.  “They should have kept me in jail, where I couldn’t hurt anyone.”  The Gerasene demoniac sought refuge among the tombs of a graveyard.  Perhaps he, too, sought refuge from his own potential for evil; what harm could he do, what sins could he commit, surrounded by those who were already dead?

Pastor Kate pauses the story here for the moment, and it’s here that I want us to pick up.  Because there is another dimension to the Gerasene demoniac’s self-imposed flight to the graveyard: it is not, as is so often for demons who are sent out, into the desert, where one truly is alone.  This demon is still around a community, it just happens to be a community of the dead.

And that action alone speaks volumes about not only the demon’s nature, but it’s crime as well. 

There’s a specific meaning attached to the demon’s name, Legion.  Today, we know the word ‘legion’ as simply connoting a large group or horde.  But in ancient Israel under Roman authority, it was the basic unit of the Roman military, like a regiment or brigade is today.

So a legion, a brigade of Roman legionnaires, would have represented a group of legionnaires numbering up to 5,000 in all.  These 5,000 would be divided up into centuries of 100, under the command of a centurion, which is how we get the modern meaning of the word “century” today.

But none of that matters right now.  Jesus is still faced with a man whose body has been invaded by so many demons that there are, literally, thousands.  It’s a dramatic standoff.

And it is supposed to be—if we were to continue into the story, we would see, of course, Jesus emerging over the demons by exorcising them from the man and casting them into a herd of thousands of pigs, who then leap en masse over a cliff and drown.  And I wish I could make this sermon about bacon.  But I can’t.

This story has anti-imperialist undertones—the “legion” of demons, representing the Roman military, are cast by Jesus into a herd of ritually unclean animals and killed.  It is the Gospel’s way of saying that the Roman Empire, and its occupation of Israel, was dirty.  Unclean.

But it’s more than that.

It’s more than that to us, today, for whom the idea of a Roman legion is a thing for history books.

For us, a legion can, quite simply mean to us today, a great many of people.

And it is here that the demon’s true crime lies.

The demon tries to claim the name of the multiple, of the plural, of the more than one.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene demoniac, for we are many.

And to our modern ears, that line should send chills down our spines.  A demon, what we would tend to associate with evil itself, is claiming to be many.

Evil is many.

And therein is the true sin of the demon, its true delusion, its true lie.  Good can be many as well.

I can imagine that some of y’all sitting there and listening to today’s Scripture text, were maybe thinking to yourselves, “Wow, this really is an unusual passage for Pastor Eric to elect to preach on for the Sunday after Easter.  Is he maybe a few beans short of a full burrito right now?”

And that’s fair.  Not just today, but probably always.  I am always a bean or two short!

But I get it.  The Revised Common Lectionary’s recommended Gospel reading for today is the story of Doubting Thomas needing to actually be able to touch the Risen Christ in order to believe in the Good News—it’s a post-Resurrection tale.  Here, we are rewinding all the way back to closer to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and picking up there.  It’s an odd one-off.
But it’s a message that needs to be underlined: in the wake of the Resurrection, in the joy and confusion and fear and madness of the initial news of the empty tomb, it is, I think, crucial to remember that the empty tomb brought the disciples back together again, around it.  The disciples, who had been on the lam, hiding, ever since Jesus’ arrest, have gathered together.

What we do on Sundays is in mirror image to what they do—six days out of the week, we are going about our lives on our own, sometimes swinging by church for a Bible study or a potluck, or hanging out with someone at their home or at Starbuck’s, but in today’s day and age, with the pronounced division of living between household to household, we muddle about on our own.

Except for today.  And we gather together.  And except for last Sunday, when, like the disciples, we gathered around the empty tomb to be asked that soul-searing, mind-boggling, accusatory, reassuring, ridiculous-sounding question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And standing in precise mirror image to this gathering is another gathering, of the demons within this man, who do the exact same thing the disciples did…they bring themselves to the land of the dead.  The lonely demoniac, the evil many, seeks spiritual community not in among the living, but among the dead.  Just like us at first, before hearing of the Good News of the Resurrection.

And hearing that Good News changes everything.  The disciples can believe once more.  The church can be born, in the Pentecost story of Acts 2.  So we can worship the Risen Christ today.

It is the greatest reversal possible, and that is why this story made, in my eyes, such a wonderful post-Easter text!  It takes death and evil and isolation and reverses all three for a community who reads this story and sees an agent of evil claiming its name as the many, as the more than one.

And that reversal continues to this day.  Pastor Kate wrote later in her book about what she saw as this murdered girl whose body they discovered, as this girl’s restoration in this world:

It was in the image of those dear and decent men…moving with swift and loving purpose toward her body where it lay between the trees, bearing with them parenthood and friendship, grief and anger, order and care, and bearing beneath their badges their undefended hearts.

“We are Legion,” the demon sneers.  No.  WE are legion.

The reclamation of that name Legion, that name that represents the “many,” that is our post-Resurrection mission as Christians—to reclaim that name on behalf of the many who believe.  Of the many for whom Christ says there is forgiveness for sins.  Of the many who lived and died so that the church could light the world the way it has for two millennia.  Of the many who long to believe in something, anything, greater than themselves.  And of the many that is us, here, today.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene demoniac.  No.  You, me, all of us, we are Legion.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 7, 2013

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