This month, our “Two Texts” series takes seriously the advice of Karl Barth… that we should take the bible and take the newspaper and read both.
All sorts of stories have caught our attention over the summer and have led us to wonder what the Bible might have to say about that.
What do people of faith have to say about these issues of our day?
And how do we, as a congregation with many different perspectives, look at these stories in a way that respects one another?
I and Pastor Todd can’t claim to be experts on world events, politics, finance and sociology. But we do know this book. And so our series this month will not dive into the details of policies, but will instead point us to biblical themes that have a bearing on our world today.
Will you pray with me…
I must start in our exploration of diplomacy in the midst of disagreements by reiterating a confession I just made. I am not an expert on these topics. In fact, the roots of both of the conflicts we will talk about today started before I was born.
In 1960, Cuba took over and nationalized American-owned oil refineries without permission or compensation. The Cuban Revolution had overthrown the Batista regime, Fidel Castro was in power, and the United States and our economic leaders were … well… not happy. October 19th of that year began the United States embargo against Cuba.
Our national relationship with Iran also changed as the result of a revolution. In 1979, their United States supported leaders were overthrown. Eventually Iran became an Islamic republic, led by the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. There were a number of factors that eventually severed relations between our countries, but perhaps one of the greatest began on November 4 of that year. A group, angry that Iran’s former leader had been allowed into the United States, took over the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for over a year. Over the years that have followed, our sour relations have focused on the attempted development of nuclear weapons by their country.
Our anger, our fears, our troubled relationships have led us to keep both of these nations at more than an arm’s length. We see them as dangerous to ourselves and our interests. We have intentionally cut off our connection with both nations in an attempt to force them to change and keep ourselves safe.
When we turn to the pages of the Bible, I am reminded of someone else who was kept at a distance. In the region of the Gerasenes, there was a man no one could control. He had been possessed by an evil spirit and was causing chaos in his community. As the Message bible tells us, “no one could restrain him – he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. He had been tied up many times with chains and ropes, but he broke the chains, snapped the ropes. No one was strong enough to tame him. Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones.”
How should we respond to those we fear? Or disagree with?
Do we keep them at a distance?
Do we try to chain them up and isolate them?
Do we prefer to turn our backs, avoiding them at all costs, while they in turn self-destruct?
That is what the people in the Gerasene region did. They were helpless. They were scared. And they kept their distance. Can we blame them? They are human like we are.
But what do we do about a whole country?
We think of this biblical story as the story of a single person, but when we dive deeper, this is a story about communities.
As Jesus approaches the demoniac (the demon possessed man) he tries to cast out the spirit. And he asks the spirit’s name…
“My name is Mob.” “My name is Legion.”
The spirit was not one, but thousands. A Legion is actually a military term for an entire unit in the Roman army… between 3-6,000 foot soldiers.
An entire community was living inside that man, tormenting him and everyone around.
So the larger community did what they could. They couldn’t cast them out. They couldn’t change the man, so they chained him up. They isolated him in the hopes that the spirits would leave.
Much like the larger world community has used sanctions and embargos and severed diplomatic ties with Iran and Cuba in order to protect ourselves and to force a change in the regimes of these places.
This summer, we have seen our diplomatic ties with these places soften a bit. We have reached a historic compromise with Iran that we are now debating in our own country. We have warmed up to Cuba and will soon be opening a United States Embassy there. We have reached out as a nation to talk, to imagine new possibilities, to rebuild relationships.
When Jesus approached the Gerasene Demoniac, nothing about the man had softened or changed. He was still as dangerous as ever. But through God, all kinds of healing are possible. Where the rest of the countryside had given up, Jesus knew that the man could be saved.
And so Jesus and the Legion had a talk. They negotiated. They each made some diplomatic concessions.
There are three larger themes I think we can point to in this story.
First, knowing Jesus had the power to cast them out, they begged Jesus to be merciful.
Power is a dangerous thing. In each of the conflicts mentioned, military power has been a thread of both disagreements – whether it was missiles pointed at our country or the development of nuclear weapons. But our nation also has a strong measure of power that has kept the other at bay.
Each week this month, we are also including a bulletin insert from the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Maybe we can think of this as our third text. These are the official positions of our church on some of the issues we are exploring today.
This one, in particular, challenges us to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. It is a reminder that our first moral duty is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises. It is also a strong condemnation against nuclear weapons.
Above all, it is a reminder that our power to hurt one another is great. And as people of faith, our call instead is to always seek peace first.
Rather than destroy the mob of spirits, Jesus showed them mercy.
I mentioned at the start of the message this morning that I wasn’t even alive when these conflicts started, but I learned along the way that over half of the population of Iran wasn’t around for the beginning of this conflict either. Half of their population is under the age of 25. A quarter of their people are under the age of 15. They certainly didn’t start the conflict, but they are impacted by it.
Mercy in these situations looks like recognizing each nation as a part of the human family and prioritizing human values over military claims. It means listening to the hopes and concerns of the other as we seek a way forward.
Second, this story reminds us that there are no easy answers to these negotiations. There are sacrifices and consequences to be made along the way.
As Jesus showed the Legion mercy, he allowed them to enter a herd of pigs that were grazing nearby. As we heard our lay reader say, nearly two thousand animals were possessed and driven mad, they charged over a cliff into the lake and drowned.
While pigs are not clean animals and wouldn’t have been part of the diet of the Jewish families, this was a gentile region. Someone or many someone’s lost their entire herd that day. The economic livelihood of many families was probably destroyed.
Yet, you also have to consider that the economic well-being of the region was probably hampered to begin with if this possessed man had been terrorizing the countryside. Travelers and merchants probably avoided the area as much as possible.
Every negotiation has a give and take. Diplomacy is not easy and it is important to consider what must be sacrificed for the greater good. That doesn’t mean anyone will be happy… and the people of the region, though initially relieved were pretty upset with Jesus over the pigs.
In our diplomacy with Iran and Cuba, we might not all agree on the specifics of the deals. But we must remember that in all cases, a negotiation means we let some things go, so that we might reach other objectives.
Lastly, this is a story of reconciliation. Relieved, embarrassed, ashamed, the man who had been possessed by the Legion, now didn’t know what to do. He begged Jesus to allow him to run away with the disciples.
But Jesus refused. He ordered him to return to his own people, to his own community, to find his place there again.
In every encounter Jesus has with those who are displaced, shunned, or isolated, his end goal is to return them to their own community. It is not to rescue or remove them, but to reconcile them. Think of the Samaritan woman, or the prodigal son, the lepers or the hemorrhaging woman? In every instance, they are healed so they can return to their place in society.
If we are the Body of Christ, then we need one another. This church community needs those we disagree with and those we don’t understand. We all have something to teach one another.
On a global stage, we might not all share the same faith or belief systems, but we are all human beings. We breathe the same air and need the same water. Our economies and politics impact the people of this world, not only their leaders. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.
As we encounter the news and hear stories of our diplomatic ties to Iran and Cuba and other places where our relationships have been difficult, let us think of the Gerasene Demoniac.
Think of the man, the Legion, and think about how Jesus walked right up and offered a path forward. Not an easy path, but a just path, a merciful path, a path towards reconciliation.
May we seek these things in all of our relationships.
Image: Second Coming of Christ With Two Gospel Miracles
Detail: Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac
Artist: Alexey Pismenny