Friday, June 28, 2013

What's in a Name?

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Pentecost includes I Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

TGIF is code for nearly universal gratitude in offices and workplaces when Friday arrives. I look forward to Friday as the day I try to clear my calendar and dive into the coming Sunday’s scripture, hoping to harvest something from the deep, at least a sponge to help us soak in the Word, and a few oysters worth shucking in search of the pearls that are down there somewhere.

This past Friday, as I read the psalm at morning prayer, I realized that it could have been written by the man in today’s Gospel. Listen to Psalm 88, as if he were their author:

1 O LORD, my God, my Savior, *
by day and night I cry to you.

3 For I am full of trouble; *
my life is at the brink of the grave.

7 You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, *
in dark places, and in the abyss.

8 Your anger weighs upon me heavily, *
and all your great waves overwhelm me.

9 You have put my friends far from me;
you have made me to be abhorred by them; *
I am in prison and cannot get free.

15 LORD, why have you rejected me? *
why have you hidden your face from me?

16 Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; *
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.

17 Your blazing anger has swept over me; *
your terrors have destroyed me;

18 They surround me all day long like a flood; *
they encompass me on every side.

19 My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, *
and darkness is my only companion.

Whoever wrote these words knew the anguish of major depression; the tyranny of unwanted thoughts, actions, anxieties and impulses; and the social isolation that compounds the suffering of a person living with mental illness.

The boundless good news of this Gospel is that Jesus crosses a sea in order to reach and free this man. Healing him is Jesus’s missionary purpose in his journey: no other account of healing appears from this particular mission. It’s all about him, this man of the tombs. Jesus more than goes out of his way to find this man; Jesus and this man are able to meet and go deep, deeper than anyone else could ever go, because of who Jesus Christ is and what it means to him to save and redeem and heal. Anyone living a life conflicted by mental struggle or chronic emotional pain has good cause to be open to this Christ of God.

The early Church kept this story for two additional reasons. Alongside its gracious message of the priceless value and importance to God of every sufferer, and the delight that rises in God when the tyranny of suffering gives way to freedom and recovery, this story also makes a statement of Christology, announcing who Jesus Christ is. And it announces the most unexpected news about what God is up to in Jesus: that God’s love is not confined to the chosen people of Israel, but extended to people of every nation, culture, race, sex, class, gender, ability, and pre-existing condition.

Looking at the first of these added values of this story, it helps answer the Church’s primary question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” On this question hang the law, the prophets, the theologians, and the faith and practice of each of us. You’ll recall that the essential question Jesus put to his disciples was, “Who do you say I am?”

Essential existential questions weave their way through both testaments of the Bible. We heard such a question in the Elijah story today. The prophet Elijah is tied up in knots of fight or flight as he alternately confronts and flees the vicious behavior of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and becomes alternately frightened and vicious. To a modern eye, he looks bipolar. What does it take to reach him? Not a great wind, not an earthquake, not a wildfire; but in sheer silence Elijah finds God, finds God addressing him with a question that he cannot shake—nor should he, for it restores in him his own moral agency, his own personal responsibility, his freedom to examine his options and choose the best. The question God asks him—twice—is “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I can’t hear that question without remembering the one Jesus puts to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb on Easter morning: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Certain questions erase all the scribbling on the chalkboard and give a person a chance to start fresh. We hear two in our Gospel.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus?” Jesus is calling this man to open himself to a markedly different life; but this fellow, with what clarity he can muster, may be asking, “At what expense? What will I lose and what will I gain? I have no one now; just my daily routines and familiar haunts. This wandering teacher dismantles my life-- but will he stay to help hold me together?”

Instantly, Jesus asks him this question: “What is your name?” This gets a chilling answer: “Legion.” A Roman legion was a fighting force of five to six thousand soldiers. This man lives daily with a mob of violent impulses, voices, centrifugal forces within him that tear him apart.

But a legion is a disciplined force under orders of a higher authority. Ancient belief said that if you learned the name of the demon tyrannizing someone, you gained power over the evil spirit. Could it be that this man gives Jesus the handle it takes to reach within him and convert the wheel of the soul to centering centripetal movement inward? I think this answer gives Jesus the key he needs to unlock this man’s captivity, to quicken and enlist his cooperation. While we never hear it, this man has a name given him by someone who tried to love him, did love him, perhaps still loves him. Village playmates once called him by that name, until he withdrew or they rejected. And was there someone special whom he had loved, until it all became too much to manage?

“What is your name?” is the question that may remind him who and whose he is, the question that may quicken a sense of himself, may help reclothe him in his rightful mind.

Simultaneously going on in this Gospel story is the answer to a question posed earlier in the same chapter, en route to the country of the Gerasenes, when on the heels of a sudden storm on that lake Jesus rebuked the wind and waves and calmed his frightened disciples. “Who then is this,” they ask, “that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”

It’s as if the disciples don’t yet know how to answer that question. But in all his vulnerability, the man who lives among the tombs knows who Jesus is, calling him “Son of the Most High God.” Their healing encounter reveals yet more of the power of God at work in Jesus.

And the last of three lasting values of this story is its chronicling the mission to the non-Jewish world, the Gentiles. Sts. Peter and Paul made much of their embracing the wider world beyond Israel, specializing as apostles to the very people their upbringing had taught them to despise. But today’s Gospel reveals the actual start of this ecumenical, even interfaith, missionary movement of the Church. It started with a madman. Both St. Luke and St. Mark make it clear that this wounded healer became a forceful preacher among the Greek-speaking cities. God’s passionate care for the individual gives birth to a movement that earned praise from the pagans who reportedly exclaimed, “See how these Christians love one another!”

I know, I haven’t said a word about the pigs. Intentionally, since they’re a distracting first-century side-bar to the central story. No small matter if you were a pig farmer, but these piggies are in this story with certain cultural baggage. They represent a healthy regard for ancient Jewish law that considered pigs unclean and unfit for human contact. No pig is going to get a fair shake of a curly tail from 1st-century Jewish-Christian literature. It would have to be left for the mission to the Gentiles to discover a keener sense of ethics regarding the rights of animals, and perhaps of farmers as well. I’ll bet those are still very much works in progress. And aren’t we all?