His name is John. He is in his mid-seventies. His hair is long and looks unkempt. He wears a very odd mix of clothing, all clearly well-worn with frayed edges. He sometimes says odd things and has several unusual daily habits. He does not engage in conversation with strangers very well and sometimes stares a bit too intently. His general appearance and mannerisms often illicit suspicion or even fear.
I have often wondered what would happen if John showed up for a worship service here. Because, John is my uncle. John was diagnosed with schizophrenia about 20 years ago, a diagnosis that came about 20 years too late, as he suffered for a long time with no support. His disease caused him to isolate from my family and he would disappear for years at a time. We wouldn’t know where he was or if he was well. It wasn’t until he attempted to end his own life in downtown Rochester that we even knew he had been living there, in his car, for several months. That suicide attempt actually saved his life. He reached out for help from his two sisters, was hospitalized, diagnosed and medicated, got enrolled to receive much deserved VA benefits, and now lives independently with close relationships with his family. He is incredibly thoughtful and delightfully funny. He is gentle and kind. He looks frightening and acts strangely. So, I have wondered several times, what would happen if he were to show up here for a worship service.
And I turn this question onto myself. How would I react if he wasn’t my uncle? How would I react if a man who looks and acts like him came to worship on a Sunday morning? Would I greet him as enthusiastically as I greet those of you I see on a regular basis? Would I greet him with the same excitement as I would greet a young family? Would I welcome him into this space with the same love and compassion as I would someone who looked and acted like my idea of normal? I wish I could say with full confidence that I would. I wish I could know, deep down, that the hospitality that I would extend an odd looking and acting man – especially one that I have no previous interaction with – would be as extravagant as the hospitality I strive to show the people I know and love. But, I can’t say that. To be an honest and authentic member of this worshipping community, I can’t say that. Because I would very likely be suspicious. I would very likely be nervous and even fearful. Perhaps my outward reactions would show welcome, but I can’t promise my inner most thoughts wouldn’t be filled with prejudice and discrimination.
It is so important to me that I confess this to you from this pulpit. Not just because I believe that to be the best pastor I can means I must be fully human in everything I do and say, but also because I want to emphasize the ways in which this scripture and its implications for people today relate just as strongly to me as it does to anyone else. I want to make clear that what I am speaking about today from this pulpit is not something I am teaching you. It is something I am learning alongside you.
Today’s scripture seems fantastic, in the other-wordily, not really relatable sort of way. A man possessed by demons, not demon, but demons – so many they call themselves Legion. A man who, in his possession, lived amongst the tombs of the dead, naked and completely outcast from society. This man who confronts Jesus and asks Jesus a question that reverberates through history “What do you have to with me?” Jesus casts out those demons, so profound and powerful they cause a herd of pigs to throw themselves off of a cliff. Yes, this is a fantastic Biblical story that feels completely displaced for anything we know or understand today in 2019. But, that is simply not the case. In fact, I believe this is a story which has a profound lesson for each of us to learn.
The Gospels are filled with encounters between Jesus and the outcast or left behind. In fact, nearly every single story, encounter, parable, and lesson that Jesus teachings comes down to one simple point – nobody is unworthy in the eyes of God and therefore nobody is to be treated as less than. Because God loves you, then God loves your neighbor. Period. Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman, Jesus sitting at table with tax collectors, Jesus touching the leper – those stories are just as radical as today’s, but feel more tamed-down, more relatable. But this man, possessed by a legion of demons, well, that feels different. More frightening, more untouchable, less like something we want to talk about on a Sunday morning. In fact, even though this healing is recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels – it only comes around in the lectionary once every three years. We don’t deal with it very often. And maybe that is because it just seems far too unrelatable. But there could be nothing further from the truth.
According to NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness, and 1 in 25 experience mental illness that is considered serious. However, nearly 60% of those adults did not receive any mental health treatment in the last year. About 20% of youth between the ages of between the ages of 13-18 live with mental illness but only 50% of those children receive treatment. The largest barrier for children and adults to receive treatment for mental illness is access to reliable and affordable healthcare. This is a profound problem of our day.
Now, let me be clear: I am not suggesting those with mental illnesses are possessed by demons of the sort we see in horror movies. But, I have no doubt that if my uncle had been alive 2000 years ago and acted as he did before he received treatment, he would have been considered demon-possessed. And I also believe that had he met Jesus – Jesus would not have turned away from him in fear and disgust as so many have. Rather Jesus, the teacher and guide of our faith, would have approached him with love and compassion, embraced him as a brother in God, and welcomed him fully into community with him. And in that moment, that moment of inclusion and welcome, of acceptance and grace, healing would have occurred. Would his disease be gone, probably not. But, he would know that he too is loved by God.
But I also believe he would have asked the question, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus?” I think, again if we are honest with ourselves and one another, we have all asked that question at some point in our lives. When we are feeling particularly alone, when we are feeling frightened, when we are feeling overwhelmed by the troubles of this world. And for someone whose mind is out of their control, whose behavior creates separation not inclusion, whose life has been filled with reminders that other people are afraid of them – that question, “What do you have to do with me Jesus?” is even more understandable.
And Jesus’ response was to ask the man his name. Now, in that moment, the man was not able to identify himself outside of what tormented him. But, Jesus saw that this man wasn’t his legion of demons. Jesus did not see him as a disease or a symptom, but Jesus saw him as a person perfect and beautiful in the eyes of God. He looked at him and saw not an illness or a demon, but a person. And I wonder if that is the first time in that man’s life that has ever happened. I wonder if his entire life, everyone he made eye contact with him saw him simply as someone to be feared and cast out, and did not see him as a fellow human. I wonder if anyone had ever bothered to ask him his name. Perhaps that was the moment of healing. Perhaps that was the moment when he realized he was more than what tormented him. Being asked his name – to be seen as a person, to be seen as carrying within him the spark of the divine. To be seen as a part of God’s Kingdom, equal in the eyes of God, in the eyes of Christ, as everyone who had shackled and chained him.
I said earlier that Jesus’ lesson was simple, that we are all loved in the eyes of God and therefore we are to love one another without prejudice. And I also said earlier that I am still working on it. Because I too have seen someone on the street who looked or acted strangely and crossed to the other side. I too have seen someone come near me and been suspicious simply because of the way they looked. I too have assumed that someone on the street asking me for money was simply going to use it to buy drugs and therefore unworthy of my help. I too could have been one of the people who felt shackling and chaining a strange man in the woods would have been justified. And I too, just like you, just like the tormented man from the scriptures, just like my uncle, just like all of our neighbors, am drawn into community with Christ without any constraints.
“What do you have to do with me, Jesus?” It is entirely possible there is no other more profound question in our scriptures. It is entirely possible there is no other more profound question for our time. Jesus’ response, then and now, is to draw us into community. Jesus response, then and now, is to call us by our names, to see our personhood, to remind us by his actions that we too are beloved by God. And as people who strive to follow the example of Jesus, we are called to do the same. We will be imperfect at it. We will, over and over again, have to try again to do better. But we must try. And, along the way, we must be honest with ourselves and one another where we are falling short and ask for help. And we must, over and over again, remember this is not simply a way of being nice. It is far more than that. It is a way to live out our faith, to make it real.
I hope someday my uncle will come to visit us here. You’ll like him and he’ll like all of you. In the meantime, let’s keep drawing our circle wider. Let’s keep inviting to the table anyone and everyone. Let’s keep growing our community. So, when people ask us “what does the church have to do with me?” we can, honestly, say this is a place where you will find an unequivocal welcome into community. Amen.