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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
January 28, 2024
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The season of Epiphany, which we’re currently in, is all about the revelation that Jesus came for all people. And with that, the understanding that the Kingdom of God is our midst. It began when the Magi went in search of Jesus as an infant. They were outsiders in every sense of the word, and God got their attention with the star.
The revelation continued when Jesus was baptized by John and the heavens were torn apart. And it continued when Jesus returned from the wilderness and began healing people and calling the disciples. And the people Jesus called were not part of what might be called the “in crowd.” They were fishermen and tax collectors – people without a high social ranking.
But they followed. And their lives and the lives of others were transformed. As they learned more about God’s kingdom, what it’s about and that it was in their midst, it deepened their experience of it and, ultimately, their relationship with God and with Jesus.
And it encouraged them to keep following, to keep sowing the seeds of it – so to speak, so that others might experience it, too. In Mark’s gospel, up to this point, all of that took place in Jewish territory.
But in today’s reading, the revelation of who Jesus is for the world continues and expands again, this time in Gentile territory.
They had to get into a boat to get there. The crossing started out smoothly enough, but then a storm came up while Jesus was taking a nap. The disciples got scared and said, “Don’t you care that we’re dying?” Jesus shushed the storm and then asked the disciples, “Do you still have no faith?”
And then, when they get to the other side of the sea, a man with an unclean spirit met them.
Jesus had met people with unclean spirits before. In fact, his first act of healing in Mark’s gospel was to cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue. In both situations, the unclean spirits recognized Jesus as being of God. They recognized his power and authority when no one else did.
But the man Jesus met in the land of the Gerasenes was different. He didn’t live near anyone else; he lived among the dead. Society had completely ostracized him – not only had he been cast out, they’d tried to restrain him. He was oppressed and miserable. There was death all around him, and even a form of death within him that he couldn’t escape.
But Jesus saw him as a human being. He listened to the man and to the demons within him. He treated the man with compassion and dignity and healed him.
But the story is still troubling.
Micah Kiel is Associate Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. And he shares about a time he taught this story in a small, rural Roman Catholic parish somewhere in the middle of Iowa.
As he taught, a man in the back row raised his hand and commented: “Everyone in this town is a hog farmer, and I don’t know if you know this, but pigs can swim.” Professor Kiel admitted that he knew nothing about swine, so this was new information for him.
That started a discussion about the ways in which this story isn’t plausible. And from the point of view of people who are very familiar with pigs, aspects of this story and reactions of the characters seem illogical.
The farmers in Iowa noted that 2,000 dead pigs in the lake would have been disastrous, because it would have polluted the local water source. They were even more upset at the reaction of the locals in the story. When the people saw the demoniac sitting, clothed, and in his right might, they were terrified.
The Iowa farmers rightly focused on that reaction, saying, “They should be mad because their pigs are dead, not afraid because of a demon that disappeared.”
That’s the scandal of this reading. As far as the townspeople in this story were concerned, the demoniac had been dealt with. They pushed him as far out of town as they could, and they did what they could to keep him there.
But the Kingdom of God refuses to play by society’s rules.
So, for Mark’s gospel, the point wasn’t to tell a story that accurately represents a community and its pigs. Instead, it’s a story that illustrates how humanity hinders the in-breaking of God’s kingdom more than it facilitates it.
In other words, in this story, the people’s way of ostracizing and segregating the man with the unclean spirit isn’t acceptable in God’s kingdom.
In Jesus, God’s kingdom comes among us with the power to transform lives. It changes our perception about what is true, and shows us that God’s kingdom takes root in people who are marginalized, outcasts, and seemingly the most insignificant. It’s the opposite of the institutions people have built – even as they existed in biblical times, in which power, wealth, status, and influence are elevated.
This transformation happens in the man that Jesus just healed. Jesus didn’t treat him as someone to be feared or cast aside. He recognized him as someone that was afflicted, and treated him like a human being – with compassion and dignity and kindness and respect.
God’s kingdom took root in that man, and completely transformed him; he found unexpected grace and new life in a place of death. And he wanted to go with Jesus. Instead, Jesus commissioned him as a disciple in his home territory.
In our daily lives, we may or may not see an agonized person trying to break free from an unclean spirit – because spiritual warfare is real. But we know what evil is and what it can do to people. It shows up as genocide, human trafficking, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia – any of the systems humans have created to harm others.
Evil also shows up in our personal lives as lying, cruelty, jealousy, and love of power and money rather than love of God and our neighbor. When it shows up, our tendency is to ignore it or push it to the side or pretend it doesn’t exist.
But the Kingdom of God doesn’t allow us to do that. And for as harsh as that sounds, it’s good news.
God’s kingdom breaks into our world despite our flaws – despite the messed-up institutions we’ve created and the way they allow us to treat people. And in Jesus, we experience the transformational power it brings.
Instead of mistreating others, we treat them as Jesus did – with compassion and respect and kindness and dignity. And we recognize that when people’s lives are changed because of it, it’s nothing to be afraid of.
So, we bear witness to the experience of the transformation – to the miracle of it – wherever we happen to be. And as we do, Jesus continues to be revealed to the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.