A message preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley on June 19, 2022.
This morning, we find Jesus and the Twelve disembarking a boat on the east/southeast portion of the Sea of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first foray into Gentile territory. The group has just experienced a harrowing storm the evening before. As their boat was getting swamped with water, they woke Jesus up from a snooze and he immediately calms the raging storm. This is where we pick up in the Story. Hear the Word of the Lord!
26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, 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 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 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. 32Now 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. 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. 34When 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 Jesus 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 Jesus 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.
Yesterday, the disciples witnessed Jesus take command of the natural elements and calm a storm. Now they see how Jesus commands the evil spirits who run amuck in the world. You must wonder what was churning in the disciples’ minds about this point. What did they see going on from their first-century Jewish perspective?
The first thing they would note is they’re not in Kansas anymore! They have traveled from the safety of their homes with all their familiar Jewish customs and ways and are not pulling the boat to shore in Gentile territory. You know those Gentiles, right? They were seen back then in Jewish eyes as “those kinds of people.” We don’t hang with the likes of them because they don’t see or understand God like we do. They’re different from you and me. They are not as spiritually pure and clean as we are; in fact, we’re better than those Gentiles are by virtue of our birth.
Not only have Jesus and the disciples landed in Gentile territory but they have set ashore in what we would call the wrong part of town. Of all places for their boat to land, it just had to get moored in a Cemetery and a Gentile one at that! But things appear to go from bad to worse. Now, some wild, hollering, buck-naked nut-job begins running towards them as the welcome party!
It’s interesting to note that even before the wild man uttered a word to Jesus, Jesus had already begun commanding the demons to leave the man. Jesus takes the initiative even before he was asked to; it’s a comfort to us because we see that God is working out the messes in our life even before we open our mouths in prayer.
Wild Man must have been a sight. His countrymen did not understand him and saw him as a threat to their own community and villages and then bound him with chains and got him as far away from the civilized population as they could. Wild Man’s countrymen incarcerate him in the lifeless environment outside of town. Ironically, they did not know what to do with him after he had been cleaned up, dressed, and sitting in his right mind. They were agitated and fearful of the positive changes that had taken place. The status quo had been shaken.
We also learn Wild Man’s malady has a name. Legion. Some people have migraines, others have slipped discs, but this man was inflicted with Legion. It’s right here we need to pause. If we zoom up to 40,000 feet and look down on this scene, we will remember the history of the location where all this took place. Along this side of the Sea of Galilee, the Roman military had swept in and violently captured all the land. It was referred to as the Decapolis, The Ten Cities Region. Now the residents of this part of Palestine may not have been Jewish but they were also oppressed and subdued by the imperial power that smothered the whole area. We also see from this 40,000-foot perspective that Wild Man’s malady is named after the brutal keepers of the peace for the Empire – the feared Roman Legion. A Roman Legion was comprised of anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000-foot soldiers along with several hundred horsemen and they had one job: They were a well-oiled and efficient killing machine whose sole purpose was to strike fear into the hearts of all their opponents and subjects. Legion. Let’s return to the cemetery once more.
The temptation in understanding our text today is to over-spiritualize it and get caught up in the fact Jesus has authority over spiritual powers and demons. I think Luke, a writer who was writing to a gentile, Romanized audience, uses his skill in crafting a story that had a not-very-subtle point: This Jesus movement is really a subversive movement that is more powerful than the Roman occupiers and empire. In other words, beloved, Jesus confronts and overturns the corrupt powers of the world’s empires. It is a Story that pits the Kingdom of God over and against the systems, kingdoms, and politics of this time and realm.
Our Story is one where Jesus is pointing out, calling out, the social system that keeps the marginalized incarcerated and shoved to the outskirts of society. He’s calling out a system that would rather have this Wild Man full of demons chained up and out of the way and have all their pigs to keep their local economy going rather than celebrate this human being’s recovery and a reintroduction to society. Jesus is calling out systems that put self above others. Jesus calls out those systems that perpetuate the causes that keep the marginalized on the margins. Jesus is calling out the system of the fat and happy status quo.
Today is Juneteenth, a day that is often referred to as Black Independence Day, when in June 1865, Union troops finally made it to Galveston, Texas to announce the slave’s emancipation. Today is a big deal to our black brothers and sisters. It’s a day when I as a person who was blessed to be born an upper-middle-class white man celebrate those blessings and make sure all God’s children have access to those blessings I have had. Today is a day I must critically look at myself and determine how I have contributed to systemic racism and prejudice. I may not be a slave owner but how have I unknowingly placed people of color, people of other sexual orientation, or who are of a different nationality than me into stereotypical categories of how society defines them? What about you? Have you ever thought about it? How has the church?
Have you ever heard of the Doctrine of Discovery? I don’t remember learning it in my history classes growing up but I have since learned the church had its own hand in fomenting the system of class division and racism. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued a proclamation called Romanus Pontifex which gave European kings and monarchs the right to go to new countries and enslave, plunder, or even kill indigenous populations – all in the name of Jesus.
The Doctrine of Discovery states that Christians can, “Invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Muslims and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all moveable and immovable goods whatsoever held and passed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to supply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit. The concept of European white privilege was promulgated through decrees like the Doctrine of Discovery. The roots of systemic racism, beloved, had its gensis from the Church.
But how does that happen? How do these concepts become systemic in people’s minds and cultures? Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman made the point that our social systems and the construction of our social reality are a result of the interface of three influences. The process begins with a person or group’s externalization (expression) of ideas. Over a period, those ideas are then institutionalized, and concretized, by a community system. And finally, the institution’s support of those values has the capacity to then internalize (think, “inject into”) those ideas into an individual’s identity and value-set. So, for example, Pope Nicholas externalized his desire for financial gain and popular support and those desires were then institutionalized first by the Church, the Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain and then were later internalized by later generations of individuals who inherited those beliefs and values. Over time, their future generations embedded those behaviors as “normal” and accepted. Even the Presbyterian Church in the mid-1800s split over slavery and abolition and did not reunite until the mid-1980s. Look at Nazi Germany: Hitler externalized values of Arian superiority and the empire attempted to institutionalize those beliefs into the German churches to be an arm of Hitler’s Reich; the hope was with the blessing of the church, members would internalize those beliefs and thereby bless the extermination of Jews in the Second World War. Churches today are still wrestling with old stereotypes such as can women be in church leadership, or can gay people really be a good Christians and parents? Really?
Sisters and brothers, let us remember Jesus wants the Church, wants you and me, to transform unjust systems of power into egalitarian systems of grace. We are called to honestly reflect in ourselves about whether our heart breaks for the things that break God’s heart. Legion, beloved, can be exorcised and healed. But Church, it starts with us.
You know, some umpires are prone to call balls a lot. Others are prone to call strikes. You, me, the Church, needs to call ‘em the way we see ‘‘em. And like Jesus, call out Legion when we see it. It is time for us to speak up and speak out. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So be it.
© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 Feasting on the Gospels–Luke, Volume 1 (p. 540). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 The Rev. Dr. Otis T. Moss, III, A lecture given May 18, 2022 at the Festival of Homiletics, Denver, CO, “Dancing in the Darkness: Daring to Preach While Staring Into the Void.” Dr. Moss provided a wonderful exegetical analysis of this text.
 Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration. How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 77.
 Mark Charles and Soon-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths. The Ongoing, Dehumanizing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2019), 24-29.