Who's sick?

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, [Other ancient authorities read Gadarenes; others, Gergesenes] which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn [Other ancient authorities read a man of the city who had had demons for a long time met him. He wore ] no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus [Greek: he] had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, 39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

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Why is this man sick? Sometimes we get sick because there is a physical or a genetic problem. If you are coeliac, for example, then anything with gluten in it will make you really ill.

But a lot of what makes us sick is the society in which we live. Folk who end up in our mental health wards report a horrifying level of abuse in their life. Folk who crash out, and come in desperation to a minister, almost always have a huge level of stress in their lives, which can be traced back to the way society works. Perhaps most of the time... it is us— the city we live in— that makes us sick.

The story in Luke is written to indicate that the man is made sick by the city. He is called a man of the city
And that means... that when Jesus arrives on the other side of the lake, he is not only met by a sick man— he is met by a representative of the city... it is the city which is sick
And that... means.. that it is the city which needs healing, as much as the man does. In fact, heal the city, and we will probably heal the man.

There is a problem...  How do we usually deal with a problem in our city... or in our family... or our congregation? Too often, we blame a particular individual.  Many families have a "black sheep." They are the one who lets the family down. If it wasn't for them, the family would be a whole lot better... probably with no real problems at all.

There's a few things to say about black sheep. When we are dealing with real sheep— the ones with wool— then having black wool in the fleece can be a real problem for a farmer who wants to be paid for pure white wool; that's where the term comes from.

But when we talk about people as black sheep we are doing something else.

Firstly: As a society where white people are predominately in power, we are identifying blackness as a problem. There's a name for that; it's called racism.

Second: We are hiding from what we really mean when we say someone is a black sheep. We are making invisible the fact that we are blaming other people instead of dealing with the problems between us and them,  which always include our own contribution. Indeed, the problem can be us, and us alone.

And third: By saying "black sheep," or "problem child"... we are hiding from the fact that what we are really doing is choosing... a scapegoat.  In the old days, the rich folk in England would send their black sheep to Australia... they'd drive them out of the country, just like any other scapegoat.  But we know that scapegoating is bad. Jesus taught us that. So, often, we call our scapegoats "blacksheep," or something similar, so that we can keep having them and pretend we are not doing anything wrong.

In fact... it's often really helpful to keep our scapegoats at home. I mean, if you choose the kid you don't like, and you blame him for something that went wrong, and kick him out, what will you do then, when you have another problem? Kick out the next kid? We'll pretty soon run out... It's much better to keep the scapegoat at home if we can. We can quietly, or not so quietly, blame them, and it makes life a lot easier for the rest of us in the house, because then we don’t have to deal with our own problems.  We can just blame the middle child... or whoever it is we choose. I've seen the person chosen to take the blame for everything be Mum, or Dad, or Grandpa, or even Mrs Smith next door, who you'd think we would avoid like the plague given the trouble she causes....  but we keep on having her over at our place....   so we have someone to blame.

And the tragedy is that the scapegoat often accepts the role they are given.  I was badly teased at school, as a little kid. I was ostracised. I realise now that instead of complaining, or fighting back, I accepted it. Instead of keeping on insisting I be a part of things, I dropped out.  I fitted right in to the role they gave me. I didn't even say in my own mind, "This is not true. They are wrong." Actually, I used my role as the outsider amongst my peers to get what I wanted. And that came back to haunt me, years later.

What I was doing is what was happening in this story of life in the tombs as Mark tells it in Chapter 5. He has a line that Luke has left out: " 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones."

We know that if things got really serious then the city would stone the scapegoat. But here, the scapegoat is stoning himself. (Rene Girard)  All that is to say that the problem is not just the city, and not just the scapegoat, but all of us together.

None of us are in... our right mind... Usually we are all using the situation to avoid dealing with things that we are afraid of... I love cricket, but as a little boy I was sitting out of the playground against a tree when someone asked me why I wasn't playing cricket with the other boys.  I said to that person that I wasn't interested; I didn't really like cricket. What I said to myself was that they would not let me play— I was the outsider, the bullied one, after all. But I knew, really, that I was afraid of the hard ball.  It's not that the bullying was not happening— it was,  ... but I was using it as an excuse not to face my fears!

So something about Jesus brings the man in this story to his right mind. The text says Jesus drove out the demons. The demons are the ways of thinking, and the ways of being, that mean the man accepted the verdict of his community that everything was his fault.

And what happens when the man is healed? "All the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes... [they told the story] in the city and in the country... asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear."

The man has been living in the tombs. He is physically alive, but really, he is the walking dead. The city is suddenly afraid of him because in his right mind he is actually alive. You see, they are the walking dead, too.  And when they see real life, it's terrifying!

Real life, life with Jesus, means we have to change. It means we have to accept responsibility for ourselves.  It's down to us.

What real life means is this, among other things: In the new partnership with %%%%%%%% which we are trying to establish, real life means that when I say to us that we have to change... it means I have to change. Not John, not Audrey, not Valerie, but me.

But I don't want to change... I'm terrified about what we are doing as a congregation. What if it doesn't work? What if it means I don't know what to do? What if people get angry with me? What if I... fail?

You know what... ... I reckon it would be better if John changes. Then I won't have to. And if it goes wrong... well, it'll be his fault, and I'll be in the clear.

And what happens now, of course, in the normal course of events, is that the bloke called John says, "No. Not me!" And he chooses someone else who needs to change. If he's smart, he'll choose someone who can't fight back... and he'll choose someone who's a bit different to both him and me. Because then... together.... we'll have ourselves a very nice scapegoat to blame when things don't work out. And it will mean I can go on just the same as I always have, and tell all my colleagues what a dumb congregation you are when....   when... I was the one who was too afraid from the very beginning... and told Jesus to go away.

That's what happened in the city on the other side of the lake.

What are we going to do here on our side when things get hard and scary in the next few months... and when we have to give things up... and when we don't know what's happening... but we have to change anyway?

Will we sit at Jesus feet, in our right mind, and try to be a people together... or, will we start blaming and ask him to leave?  Amen



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