A Catholic priest, who had become very deaf in his advancing years, had formed the habit of asking those members of his flock who came to his enclosed stall for confession, to write their causes for contrition on a slip of paper, instead of speaking them to him. The practice worked fairly well until one day when the father heard a heavily-breathing man enter the visitor's side of the confessional and fumble for a few moments as a small, crumpled piece of paper was passed through the curtain into the old cleric's hand.
The confession read: Two cans of beans; Quarter pound ham; Six pack of Coke; Four fish filets; Bread rolls; Toilet paper; Large coffee; Soap; Butter.
The priest studied the note for a puzzled minute or two and then silently passed the slip back.
Suddenly, there came an agonized voice from the stall beside him: "Mother of God, I've left my sins at the supermarket."
It would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if we could shed our sins by just leaving them somewhere...do away with whatever those things are that plague us with a sense of guilt, as easily as one loses a piece of paper.
No matter how many times we hear about the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus, yet we are still tormented with feelings of inadequacy...doubts about our own worth which often keep us from entering fully into life. And there are resentments, anger we harbor against a person or persons whom we feel have somehow wronged us.
These are the dark places – from where violence can spring, or defensiveness. When they talk about "road rage" they are talking about people who hoard their animosities and dump them out when they feel a transgression of highway ethics has been foisted upon them. Those of you who are drivers, think about the last time you found yourself irrationally angry at the slow moving vehicle up front hugging the right lane, or the person who fails to signal before turning right in front of you at a stop sign. Observe yourself and others waiting in an airplane departure lounge when you hear the announcement that there will be an unspecified delay in your flight's departure. Some people just shrug their shoulders and go back to reading their book or magazine. Others start to boil and fume...soon pacing.
A couple of months ago, I am not sure what was going on with me, but I was waiting in line at the prescription counter. There were three pharmacists, all of whom were dealing with customers on the telephone. Meanwhile there were five or so waiting to pick-up prescriptions and three of us waiting in line to drop one off. I must have been in a hurry, I usually think I should be, but suddenly I found myself stepping to the window and reprimanding the pharmacist: "How can you give priority to the phone-in customer when you leave all of us who have taken the time to come here in person waiting forever.” I didn't think I said it in a nasty way...but I can't vouch for it. All three pharmacists glared at me. I soon felt a bit of a fool. When I picked up my prescription about a half-hour later, I apologized. Ever since that occasion, the pharmacist knows my name. Is that good or bad?
The story in Luke says the Gerasene man was naked...that he had been driven out of the city, that he was living in the tombs, the dark places where all of his demons were exposed (important symbols, I think, in this story). Seething with raw hostility, he was a danger to others and to himself. This Gerasene demoniac had been stripped of all the constraints which usually allow one to keep emotions under cover...he was naked...without regulation his ranting and ravings have overwhelmed the man...and are exposed in all their ugliness. And Jesus tells them to come out of the man. And they do.
The New York Times magazine has a small article today called “Dysregulation Nation” in which the author, Judith Warner, talks about the wide panoply of areas in our lives where we have lost control. She refers to everything from sub-prime mortgages to eating disorders and addictions of all sorts. Appetite, emotion and impulse are merging in a time in our culture when there are few governors on what say or how we treat one another. Author Warner calls it an “anything goes atmosphere where it wasn’t just external controls that went awry on [Wall Street or Main Street]; inwardly people lost constraint and common sense, too.”
Unregulated desires can totally seize a life, can't they. We witness the extreme in the persons of high school kids who are taking up arms against their classmates – beatings and shootings are not just limited to the mean streets of our cities ghetto neighborhoods – they are evidenced in and among everyday kids who suddenly fly off the handle at a text message or post horrible, hurtful things on FaceBook and the like. Of course many more adults act out in violent ways, it’s just that when kids do it, we seem to notice it more.
The culture of excess and instant gratification has caused us to get out of sync so that our attention spans, our expectations of entitlements, our intake of food and drugs are out of whack with any kind of awareness of the consequences. The oil spill is just one example of the way the demand to consume energy caused a major corporation to suspend common-sense safety mechanisms and procedures with the result still gushing forth a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
The demons which were legion in the Gerasene man were these kinds of urges and appetites gotten out of hand so that he was a threat to others and a threat to himself. Jesus entered into the dark place where such urges fester and grow – the place where the stricken man had been consigned among the tombs for the dead. Here is where he had discourse with the demons and cast them out into the pigs.
"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...." it says in Luke 8, verse 35..."And they were afraid." The community responds to the healing with fear… not fear, I think, because they have seen something miraculous and don’t understand it, but fear of what it could all mean for them. There are appetites and habits and old hurts that we don’t want to give up – we wear them like a comfortable pair of old shoes that have already been broken down by the irregularities of our gait.
Jesus seems to negotiate with the demons – with the ultimate result being that the demons surrender to a kind of regulation. This dialogue and surrender is literally an act of taking a hold of oneself, risking an honest view of self and situation and opting to find freedom by taking on some rules. Faith here is not belief in doctrines devised by the church and other authorities. It is more of an attitude that accepts regulation that makes healing possible. Just as Jesus opted to give up the power of divinity to live among us – faith is accepting the option of living with limits. The power of love and forgiveness is something we chose to accept, and in accepting we are set free from the demons. No matter what our lives have been in the past, we are reconciled to ourselves and to the world. If we take hold of ourselves without fear we can be whole and at peace with others and ourselves. As Paul Tillich wrote:
The people whom Jesus could heal and can heal are those who did and do this self-surrender to the healing power in him. [They had been] ….hateful of themselves and therefore hostile to everyone else; afraid of life, burdened with guilt feelings, accusing and excusing themselves, fleeing from others into loneliness, fleeing from themselves to others, trying to escape from threats of existence into the painful and deceptive safety of mental and bodily disease….[Surrendering to Jesus means letting all that go.]… this surrender is what we call faith. But he did not keep them, as good helpers should never do. He gave them back to themselves, as new creatures, healed and whole.
God has never been about making lists and holding our sins against us….it is our fear which causes us to suppress whatever it is that is working on us, fear of addressing whatever it is that so intimidates us that we want it hidden. Even Cain, who killed his brother Able in the first murder and then sought to hide from God, when found received the mark of God to indicate that he was under God's protection...that is he was forgiven. It is that mark, the mark of baptism made with water in the name of Jesus, that dresses us in new clothing...and allows us to conquer the demons in our own lives.
A Hollywood movie of several years ago called Tender Mercies, contains a wonderful scene in which a vagrant, alcoholic, down-on-his-luck (you might say demon possessed) country music singer finds himself accepted into a new family which consists of a young single mother left to work a farm by the death of her husband in Viet Nam...and her young son, who is about 12. As the vagrant begins to accept the love of these two people...he begins to change. His life is renewed. As a mark of his new life, he decides to join the boy in being baptized at the local church. Sitting in the truck on the way home from that service of baptism, the boy inquires of the older man, "Do you feel any different?" The man pauses for a moment and says... "Not yet..." and says it in a way that you know means that he is certain that he will; that his life has been forever changed.
All of us have days when we just don't feel like a Christian...we are unsure what we believe. Various little voices seem to take precedence...in our heads....reminders of the our own needs...for the golf course or the cocktail lounge or the nice soft couch in front of the TV. We work hard...can't take too much energy thinking about the world's problems or our neighbor’s problems...we have our own problems. Maybe you felt very close to Christ at some times in your life...but over the years, your initial enthusiasm has waned. What then?
To a congregation of angry factions, divided by culture and economic status...Paul says...remember your baptism...you have put on Christ you are all one family. There are no divisions....live as if it were so, in Christ's name and soon it will be so. Not instantaneous, yet not something left for the end of life, we can expect to be changed if we begin the process with Jesus by trusting our faith enough to take hold of our lives and let go of the demons. "Our relationship to God is a matter of something that God has done to us (putting his claim upon us in baptism) before it is our doing something for God. We put on Christ and, in changing our clothes, exchange one set of externals for another...one set of values for another, we become a new being in Christ. We become a parent, a neighbor, a helper or a friend...by recalling the new clothes we have received in baptism...and living as the new people Christ has called us to be. We become what we profess...we put on Christ. Amen.