True Identity

+ A sermon for Pentecost +2C/Lectionary 12C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on June 23, 2019 +

Text: Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

There he was.
There, by the sea, far from his friends and family—if he even had any friends and family left.
There, living in the graveyard, cut off from the living.
There, far from the city, far from everyone.
No matter what the townspeople do, he refuses to stay put, but insists on returning to the tombs.

Though I wonder how hard they really fought to keep him around.
I wonder how much they really wanted him in town.
The man would shriek and scream.
He’d wander in the wild lands and make his home with the dead.
He kept going on about the demons that possessed him.
He refused to wear clothes.
No, I bet the respectable people of that town were perfectly happy to let this man do his thing as long as they didn’t have to see it.
Even when he was in town, they kept him locked up, incarcerated so no one would have to deal with him.
No, I bet they were fine with him being out of town, not their problem.
I bet they were happy to let someone else help him, someone else feed him, someone else talk to him, someone else see him as a fellow human.
But I bet no one did.

Isn’t that how it goes?
Let the government help him.
Let the charities feed him.
Let the shelters give him a place to sleep.
Let someone else deal with him.
And no one did.

iszelenie-besnovatogoNo one really cared—until Jesus came.
Jesus, who really shouldn’t even be there!
You see, Jesus and his disciples were on a boat in the Sea of Galilee and then he decided that they should go over to the land of the Gerasenes, which is in the Decapolis.
Now, if you’re not up on your biblical geography, the Decapolis was the region east of the Sea of Galilee.
It was the home of Gentiles who were culturally Greek.
So Jesus and his disciples cross the sea and go into foreign land filled with people who worshiped differently, thought differently, acted differently, basically everything differently than they did.
And when they arrive, they see this man who was outcast by his town, relegated to the fringes of society, and forgotten by everyone.
And they see this man approach them and demand that they leave, yelling at the top of his voice—I’d imagine it was an intimidating sight.
But when Jesus sees him, he really sees him.
He sees a man who needs help, he sees a man with God-given dignity, he sees a man worthy of love and respect.
So rather than move on, rather than scoot on by to make his way to the town, rather than mumble a half-hearted apology that he doesn’t have any cash to give him, Jesus approaches him, he talks to him, he asks his name.
Jesus treats this man as the beautiful child of God he recognizes him to be.

Then we hear what I think is the most tragic part of this story.
When Jesus asks the man his name, he responds with “Legion.”
Now, a legion was a Roman military unit with more than 5,000 soldiers. maxresdefault
And like Galilee and Judea, this region was under Roman imperial control.
If telling someone your name is like telling them who you are, it’s as if he telling Jesus how oppressed he is, how afflicted he is, both internally and externally.
His name is like 5,000 soldiers occupying his homeland.
His identity is like 5,000 demons tearing him apart inside.
In other words, he has a myriad of brokenness, an unimaginable weight that is separating him from the world.
And he is feeling so broken, so assaulted, that he can’t separate his own identity from the things that are tormenting him.
It’s as if his very self has been consumed by everything that has separated him from society and he can now only be defined by the worst parts of himself, by the things that robs him from joy and health, by the things that prevent him from living his life and feeling love to the point where he doesn’t even have a name any more.

And there stands Jesus who sees past the things that are holding this man back, who sees past his alienation, who sees past his afflictions and sees this man.
And not only that, he heals him, he offers him freedom and release and wholeness.
Because, as we re-integrate ourselves into Luke’s gospel, we remind ourselves that Jesus’ very mission is to “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
And that’s exactly what we see here: release to a captive, freedom to the oppressed, healing to the suffering.
And while the man wanted to go with Jesus and be a disciple—to follow Jesus and join in his ministry—Jesus urges him to stay home and to proclaim the good news of what God has done for him to his people—to become an agent of this same ministry in his own land.
And then Jesus and his disciples go back to the boat and sail away, as if the entire journey across the sea, this detour to a foreign land and all the discomfort it brought was worth it to bring healing to this one child of God.

healing_of_the_demon-possessed.jpgNow, I fully admit that this story of the Gerasene demoniac may sound a little strange to our modern ears.
It’s full of demons, possession, and a mass suicide of swine—not stuff we usually talk about these days.
But I think there’s a nagging familiarity to this story too.

How often do we reduce people to their circumstances, to the condition they find themselves in?
We disregard people as homeless, as mentally ill, as junkies and we forget to see them as people, as beautiful children of God with a name and a story and a life beyond whatever their afflictions may be.

And, honestly, there are times in my life that I have felt like this Gerasene man.
I’ve felt unloved.
I’ve felt excluded and forgotten.
I’ve felt rejected by my community, ostracized, cut off.
And while I may not have experienced the exact things described in the gospel reading, I know what it feels like to feel powerless against forces that oppress me—externally or internally.
I’ve felt shackled by fear, imprisoned by injustice, stripped of my humanity.

And I bet you have too.

While we may not experience the exact same things as this Gerasene man, there are a myriad of ways that we can feel isolated, so many afflictions that bind us and strip us of our identities, a legion of ways we can feel cut off from God and from each other.
And we can so easily allow these things to define us until we are nothing more than our deficiencies and disappointments, our failures and our hardships.
They become barriers between us and our neighbors and rob us from the abundant life and love that God intended for us.

Some of us combat addictions to alcohol or drugs, to money or perfection, to material goods or an unhealthy body image.
Some of us struggle with depression or anxiety, past trauma or lingering grief.
Some of us live with physical or mental disabilities that may or may not be visible to others.
Some of us have skin colors or accents or national origins or immigration status that single us out for oppression and hatred.
And in this month of Pride, some of us have sexual orientations and gender identities that have become barriers between us and our families, our faith communities, and our society.
And all too often, these parts of our identity can come to define us and marginalize us until we’re nothing more than an addict or mentally ill or a foreigner or a gay person.
All of a sudden we become nothing more than what divides us, what makes us feel isolated from our God.
All of a sudden we are separated by so many boundaries that we can forget who we really are.

But we know from our gospel story that we have a God who refuses to be limited by these so-called divisions.
We have a God who comes to us where we are and loves us as we are.
And we have Jesus whose mission is for us, too.

Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625). Jesus, the Gerasene, and the Unclean Spirits, from Art in the Christian Tradition

We have Jesus who will cross every boundary and defy any isolation just to be with us—to heal us so we can know freedom and release and wholeness.
We have Jesus who comes to us to remind us of our true identity as a beautiful and beloved child of God.

And Saint Paul tells us that there is no clearer reminder of this fact than the waters of our baptism when we were clothed with Christ.
Because in those waters we have been assured of our true identity that can never be obscured.
And no matter what else may define us, whether Jew or Greek, whether bound or free, whether male or female we have been united and joined in Christ.
Whether addict or clean, whether mentally ill or healthy, whether gay or straight, whether cis or trans, no matter our race or nationality or immigration status, we have been united in Christ so that nothing can ever divide us from God and nothing should ever separate us from each other.
Because while we can never erase these parts of us—and maybe we don’t want to erase them!—we no longer have to let them define us.
Because while our differences remain, they can no longer separate us anymore.
Because while society may obsess over these identities and use them to divide us, while we may hear that we’re broken or sinners or forsaken, we can be confident in the identity we were given at birth, we can be assured that we are beautiful and beloved children of God and nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.

And while we know that we may still feel isolated or different or outcast, while we may still fixate on our failures or let our differences consume us, while we know that there is still so much healing to do, we know that we have a hope in Christ Jesus that he is working within and among us, constantly reminding us of our true identity, constantly crossing all our barriers to be with us, constantly bring us the love of God that knows no boundaries.

S20190623-LEC12_01We have a story, my friends, about how Jesus has come to find us naked and ashamed, outcast and among the tombs, and how Christ has seen us, how he has reminded us of how much God loves us—never discounting our afflictions or differences, but seeing past them and perceiving the beautiful identity inherent in our selves.
We have a story of how Christ brings healing and life.
And we have a story of how he has commissioned us to proclaim everything that God has done for us—how this healing and life is meant for all peoples.
And now we get to join with Christ in his mission, to proclaim release to the captives, to bring freedom to the oppressed, to heal the suffering, to declare to our community and to the world how much God has done for us.
To go and be agents of Christ’s ministry, to join with God in making this same healing a reality for all those around us.

Where will we go?
We needn’t go far.
We don’t have to follow Jesus in Palestine to be part of his ministry.
But here, in our homes, in our towns, in our community.
Wherever we see a need.
Wherever people are bound and imprisoned.
Wherever we hear a cry for restoration.
Wherever we witness suffering.
Wherever we find people wrapped in fear, marginalized from community, cut off from the world.
No, we needn’t go far.
Whether its close to home or on the boarders, whether on the streets or across the world, we have been sent by our Lord to be his agents, confident in our identity, emboldened by God’s love, commissioned to bring Christ’s ministry of release and freedom and healing, to show the people of this world how beautiful and beloved they are.

So, go. Return to your home, proclaim it in the city, declare how much God has done for you.


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