Break Free

Luke 8:26-39

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.


34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.

Last week in Duncanille, just south of Dallas, a man entered the Duncanville Fieldhouse with a gun. Shots were fired, but none of the 250 children participating in summer camp activities were harmed. Police killed the gunman. Later his family said he was bipolar and was having an episode. They don’t know how he accessed the weapon. After every traumatizing event, one of the first responses from just about everyone is to seek to answer the question, “How could this happen?” Then we’ll start hearing voices of people without any mental health expertise begin to speak to the need for better mental health services. If these are political leaders, often these same people have slashed mental health resources in the most recent budget cycle. It’s part of the endless cycle of trauma/calls for change/inaction we see over and over again. 

I am not a health care expert either, but looking around at our society and world it’s pretty clear the need is real. In a country where health care is a privilege for those who can afford it and not a guarantee for all who need it, the mental health crisis is an ever-present challenge. Public health funding began pouring in to Uvalde following the school shooting there last month. Still, quoting this week’s Texas Tribune: “According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Uvalde has about 15 mental health professionals based in the town, and those include marital therapists and substance abuse counselors. There is one psychiatrist affiliated with Uvalde Memorial Hospital, where emergency room beds for mental health patients are most often used for drug cases. There is no dedicated mental health hospital or residential treatment facility. Wait times for services can be months, even for suicidal patients…” Rural areas all over Texas  face a significant mental health crisis: “...millions of people scattered across the rural counties of Texas are vulnerable to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than their urban counterparts — yet they have only limited access to patchwork mental health services from a handful of understaffed or underfunded providers.” 

“Texas still ranks 51st among states and Washington, D.C., in per capita state spending. Of six counties that border Uvalde, with a collective 125,000 people, not one of them had a working psychiatrist full time in 2020, according to Texas Dept of State Health Services. Statewide, some 61% of adults with some form of mental illness reported that they weren’t treated. About one-fifth of adults with mental illness are uninsured in Texas, according to Mental Health America’s recent survey, twice the national average. Texas ranks in the bottom fifth of states when it comes to youth mental health services.”

This week our District Superintendent Rev Todd Harris sent an email to all district clergy with the attachments and message included in your extra large bulletin this week. Inside your bulletin you'll see 3 posters with various information about mental illness, suicide, and the ripple effects associated with mental illness. Just a quick survey of the statistics listed there are frightening: Nearley half of those who die by suicide are diagnosed with a mental health condition; 90% of people who die by suicide have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition; the overall rate of suicide has increased 35% since 1999; 1 in 8 ER vistis are related to mental and substance abuse disorders. I hope some of us at Grace will be able to attend the Zoom call with Reverend Harris and Becky Hightower of the National Alliance on Mental Illness on June 30th at 11 a.m. It would be great for us to have people at Grace who are resourced in ways to appropriately respond when people exhibiting mental illness needs come to us for help. 

When this particular text comes up in the lectionary, many preachers jump to mental health, much like politicians do following a traumatic event. Demon possession was a catch all term for various health challenges in biblical times, many will say. That may be true, but for me it sounds like we’re fishing for answers. I’m hesitant to connect the man’s needs with mental health, because I do not want to, unintentionally or not, negatively associate his condition with mental illness. There is too much negative stereotyping around people facing these challenges already. What I do think is going on in the Luke text is something deeper. It’s a spiritual issue, not a psychological one. And not just with respect to the man in the cemetery. If you recall Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan, Luke concludes the encounter with these words: “After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.” Perhaps the tormented man in the cemetery is one of these anticipated future encounters. After all, Luke does tell us when the demons seized the man they pushed him into the wilderness.

Let's be clear that the man in the cemetery did nothing to deserve his current state of mind. His spiritual challenges were not the result of his sinfulness or any other moral failure on his part. He was the victim of an invasion of demons into his mind. Unable to deal with him in any way, the townspeople banished him to the cemetery, where he's chained to stones. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “Some are guilty; all are responsible.” He has fits of screaming, where he breaks his chains and frees himself. His freedom is always temporary though- those in authority quickly subdue him and return him to bondage. When the possessed man, in one of his fits, sees Jesus, the demons inside of him shout, “What have you to do with me Jesus Son of the Most High?”- not only naming Jesus but sharing one of his titles. Jesus turns the table on the demons, demanding the name that they go by. The name given is “legion,” which isn't a name- it’s a number. It refers to 5,000 or 6,000 Roman troops that would have been assigned to a base in the area. So this person is plagued by 1000s of voices that haunt him.

The other day a colleague posted this meme on his social media:

And I couldn’t help but think about the man chained up in the cemetery. Not that he was comforted by his spiritual condition; but the comfort the townspeople found in that man being chained out there away from them. Hearing a visitor has done something worth checking out, they come out to the cemetery. Seeing the man dressed, his hair combed, in his right mind, sitting there listening to Jesus terrified them. They fear the possibility that this man had experienced some measure of healing. They ever so politely ask Jesus to leave because they are so terrified at the possibility they too need to experience the same transformation as the person that they once chained up among the tombstones. Uncleanliness surrounds the whole atmosphere of the story: the man was in the cemetery that's an unclean place; he was possessed by demons- a source of uncleanliness; the demons were dispatched into the bodies of pigs- themselves unclean. Most concerning of all is facing the uncleanliness of their own thoughts and actions. They have been set free from that which offered them so much comfort- the false security of ostracizing, shaming, isolating one who was different. Whether the story can be attributed to psychological or spiritual trauma, it is trauma nonetheless, and people suffering from either condition often suffer the same consequences: separation from family and friends, absence of a loving, supportive community, and all the associated labels. “It’s not easy to break free of that which once offered you such comfort.” When I saw that meme I wondered what it would take for the townsfolk to break free of their fear. 

This is the only episode in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus attempts to enter Gentile territory. Jesus quickly dispatches the demons, offering freedom to the man and the possibility of freedom to the community. They are not ready; they ask Jesus to leave. As the Lord prepares to leave, the man from the tombs wishes to become part of the disciple team; Jesus sees a more important purpose for him: remain in his community and tell his story. The Gentile mission will have to wait until Peter and Paul take it up in the Book of Acts; until then, the formerly possessed man is the only ambassador for the love of Jesus Christ in the area.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann said, “Life is not sustainable without intentional investment in a human future.” Jesus restored the man’s humanity by banishing that which tormented him. Was he mentally ill or spiritually tormented? Is there a difference at the man’s core? Facing our mental health crisis, too often we are willing to chain up those in need in jail, homelessness, or violence. Perhaps the healing Jesus offers today is to send the false comfort we find in dismissing the needs of others off the nearest cliff. Set free from that which falsely comforts us, we rediscover our humanity. 

In the baptismal covenant in the United Methodist tradition, the commitment to live a Christian life begins with renouncing evil in every way it is presented: 

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

reject the evil powers of this world,

and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?

How we overcome evil, how we celebrate and maintain freedom from all forms of evil, is what defines us as United Methodist Christians. There is a reason why so many hospitals around the country have the name Methodist on the building. This year it was announced that Golden Cross, a faith-based program of Methodist Health System and the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church established in 1921, will provide a three-year grant of $262,580. It will create the Faith Community Nursing Program and hire a registered nurse to catalyze holistic wellness efforts at these new “hub churches:” Salem Institutional Baptist Church, St. Luke “Community” UMC and Wheatland UMC. This kind of creative, compassion driven work may well help to prevent large scale tragedies that have dominated the news recently, or the smaller, everyday ones that escape our fleeting attention. Healing and restoration begins with compassion. Seeing others, in whatever spiritual, mental struggles– hidden or visible–with the eyes and heart of Jesus is the first step.

Friday night I was given the great privilege to open and close the Juneteenth celebration here in Sherman. A recent post on shared this history about Juneteenth: “On June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, federal troops under the command of Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. They brought a life-changing message for the estimated quarter-of-a-million slaves in the state: ‘All slaves are free’ and entitled to payment for their labor. This important day in history became known as Freedom Day, or Juneteenth, now a U.S. federal holiday.” As we began our walk through the area of town which was once a thriving Black-owned business community before the rioting of 1930, I prayed the following prayer. Listen for the call to celebrate the freedom and restoration offered to all of God ‘s children in whatever their condition: 

Almighty God, Source of all that is,

Giver of every good gift:

You create all people in your image

and call us to love one another as you love us.

We confess that we have failed to honor you

in the great diversity of the human family.

We have desired to live in freedom,

while building walls between ourselves and others.

We have longed to be known and accepted for who we are,

while making judgments of others based on the color of skin,

or the shape of features, or the varieties of human experience.

We have tried to love our neighbors individually

while yet benefiting from systems that hold

those same neighbors in oppression.

Forgive us, Holy God.

Give us eyes to see you as you are revealed in all people.

Strengthen us for the work of reconciliation rooted in love.

Restore us in your image, to be beloved community,

united in our diversity,