— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Luke 8:26-39; Galatians 3:23-29
My mother-in-law was quite the character. At 94, she painted, used email, watched every Atlanta Braves game, and her yard and garden were immaculate. A few months before she died, I received one of her email “pass-alongs” with an opening comment: “The best Living Will I’ve seen.” Here was my mother-in-laws suggested Living Will:
I…, being of sound mind and body, do not wish to be kept alive indefinitely by artificial means. Under no circumstances should my fate be put in the hands of pinhead politicians who couldn’t pass ninth-grade biology if their lives depended on it, or lawyers/doctors interested in simply running up the bills. It should be presumed that I won’t ever get better if a reasonable amount of time passes and I fail to ask for at least one of the following:
glass of wine
glass of Scotch
ice cream sandwich
When such a determination is reached, I hereby instruct my appointed person and attending physicians to pull the plug, reel in the tubes, let the “fat lady sing”….and call it a day!
On the day that my dad and mother died, sixteen and eight years ago respectively, the world granted me permission to grieve. When our golden retriever and American Brittany died, I gave myself permission to grieve. Rituals and symbols surrounding death usually help. Sometimes they get in the way. And by no means, when the last dead flowers are tossed is our grief over. Often, it is just beginning.
Getting “lost in time”…. That’s what grief often causes. An emotional paralysis that imprisons us in a cell of thoughts and memories.
Occasionally, it is fitting to acknowledge the important role that grief plays in our lives. Sometimes the cause of our grief is death…of a father, a mother, a spouse, a child, a close friend….
Sometimes the “death” is of a non-personal nature. It may be the end of an engagement, the end of a marriage, the end of a friendship. The “death” may be the end of a time-period…when our son or daughter grows up and enters the first day of preschool, graduates from high school, or gets married. Grief is sometimes the unwanted traveler as we leave one city to make our home in another.
Sometimes the “death” is the loss of a dream or a career…the loss of health or financial assets. Sometimes even the end of a wonderful vacation becomes the creator of sadness and silent mourning.
All three of the synoptic gospels carry the story of the man living among the tombs. The setting was on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee—the area of Decapolis—a Gentile region. After crossing the big lake and getting out of their boat, Jesus and his disciples were encountered by this man (a Gerasene or Gadarene) who was described as having demons or being possessed with an unclean spirit, as Mark interpreted the condition.
What we know is that he acted like a mad man at times, hardly wore any clothing, had broken loose from chains and straps when fellow townsmen had tried to constrain him, and that he lived among the tombs. This the description of a first-century diagnosis. Today, medical professionals might diagnose him as manic depressive. And, if I speculated, I would say that his condition might have something to do with the death of someone important to him. He lived among the tombs. He chose to stay close to the burial sites rather than live among his people.
The man wasn’t antagonistic toward Jesus, but ran to him and worshipped him. Jesus asked, “What is you name?”
“I am Legion, for we are many.” “I don’t know who I am…one person today, tomorrow a totally different person,” we might say. Jesus had been calling for the demons to come out.
Then, the unexplainable is described…the demons were “given leave” and entered a herd of pigs nearby. They rushed toward the sea and drowned themselves. The story abounds with difficulties. Did the demon-possessed man, in one last untamed act, vent his rage wildly upon the hogs and stampede them? Were the herdsmen equally frightened by this notoriously strong and uncontrolled person? (I have no worthy 21st century explanation of this 1st century account.)
At any rate, when the herdsmen returned with other townspeople, the man was sitting, fully clothed in his right mind. He had been healed.
Grief has a way of causing one to want to be left alone. Unanswered questions and unresolved anger often have a way of taking over.
Some years ago, several weeks after the funeral of her mother, a young woman in her mid-twenties stopped me in the hall outside my church office and asked if she could come by and talk. A time was set during the week and then I said, “Your mother was a sweet person.” The blank stare I was given let me know I had just made my first mistake as her counselor.
In the weeks that followed, I listened to her anger and frustration as she recounted the way she and her mother had related to each other…feelings of being controlled and manipulated and spoken to with little respect or kindness. On one afternoon, I suggested she write a letter to her deceased mother and bring it with her the next time we were to meet. The next week was a direct outpouring of long, pent-up feelings as she read it to me. The next week followed with another follow-up letter. For the following week, I suggested she write another letter, but that she write this letter for her mother in response to her own previous two letters. Insight into her mother’s ways and the pain from the loss of this complicated, important relationship followed in the weeks afterward.
For most people, grief has its paralyzing moments…its unexpected bursts of tears and pain that makes one feel that the heart will burst open. Usually, these periods are interspersed among the normal chores and routines of every day. But for some, the process seems overwhelming and they get “lost in time.”
In my first pastorate, I remember one such woman unable to move “beyond the tomb of her mother. “Mama” had died years before. She and her family lived in “mama’s” Victorian house. This woman had left her mother’s bedroom exactly intact for years—furniture, pictures, and even the clothes in her closet were still hanging just as they were the day she died. This middle-aged woman lived among the tomb of her mother…creating much turmoil for husband, a son, and a daughter (as well as her pastor) until she took her own life the year after I moved to my next church. “Mama” was a very present trouble in a time when help was needed.
Jesus’ response to this Gadarene was similar to his response to everyone he met…he wanted to set him free from that which bound him. As an early Christian writer put it in one of his letters:
…we too must throw off every encumbrance (and the sin) that all too readily restricts us, and run with resolution the race which lies ahead of us, our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…
The process of grief is our friend. It enables us to accept our loss and helps us to understand what has happened in our lives. It does it in its own timely manner. Like a good therapist, grief, if listened to and respected, will let us relive important events, exchanges of words, moments of laughter and celebration until we have made friends with death and are ready to move on in a healthy way.
The apostle Paul put the feelings of losses for believers in proper perspective: We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.
8:26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.
8:27 As he [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
8:28 When 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”–
8:29 for Jesus 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.)
8:30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.
8:31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
8:32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.
8:33 Then 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.
8:34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.
8:35 Then 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.
8:36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
8:37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
8:38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,
8:39 “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.
1 Hebrews 12:1-2, REB.
2 1 Thessalonians 4:13 NRSV