It is important to me to have control. I don’t think I’m a ‘control freak’ but I do like a certain predictability and a sense of being able to manage and organize. I know not everyone is like this. But I think it is true that many people do like to know the outcomes of events, have an idea what the future holds, be able not only to predict but also to have power over what the future holds. I think as a general rule, we are more comfortable with the predictability brought about by control…at least I am. Less anxious, more at peace.
In the gospel story there is a character who is totally out of control. A character who does not bring peace or stability. And I’m not talking about the man who is possessed by demons. He is probably the one most under control. Although his actions seem wild and erratic, he is completely overpowered and controlled by a power outside himself. He’s controlled by the demons, of course. How controlled was this man? He was so in thrall by the demons that he could not even utter his own name. When Jesus asks him, “What is your name.” He says not his own, but the name Legion. The demons throw him to the ground, cause him to do harm to himself.
I hesitate to attribute or associate mental illness or addiction to demons or to equate the two, but it does put me in mind of the ways that those things have control over people who are immersed in them. There are similarities in the outcomes of isolation, derision, self-destruction. We likely all know people – some who are a part of our community and our community ministry – who have had the experience of isolation and cycles of self-destruction because of addiction or mental illness.
So, if it’s not he who is out of control, then who is? I think you have probably guessed by now that the one who I propose is out of control is, that’s right, Jesus. That guy is out of control. He cannot be held back. The demons surely recognized this the moment Jesus speaks. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” the man cried, “I beg you, do not torment me.” The power of the God cannot be stopped or controlled and Jesus is bringing that out of control power to bear on the man possessed.
I think it’s accurate to say that Jesus disrupts the control of the legion of demons over the man, the mob of evil spirits has him in thrall. And not only that. He interrupts control and he sends the spirits off to control other animals. They are in fact ‘out’ of their control over the man and the cycle is broken. The problem with this is when the demons lose control over the man, so does the community. They are not happy with Jesus about this loss.
For the man is under not only the control of the demons, he is also under the control of the people in his community. He’s called “a man of the city,” who, “for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” So we know that he was considered a part of this place is some way. And yet, he was kept separate – both by the demons who drove him away – and by the people themselves. Even though he’s become isolated in the tombs, they’ve further constrained him. “He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles.” They seem to have an interest in, and be invested in him being ‘the man who is possessed by demons.’ In the narrative, he is always referred to in relation to the demons. He is in his place there in the tombs. They have a system. It is a system that works. Control.
Rene Girard talks developed the theory of the scapegoat. I’m sure many of you are more familiar with it than I. The terminology originates from the sacrificial system in which communities would symbolically pile their sins and wrongs onto a sacrificial animal – a goat – and make a sacrifice of it, cleansing the community of it’s sin. It was a way for individuals and community to separate themselves from their own and others sinfulness and chaos. A way of controlling sin. Well, this man is the communities scapegoat in some ways. So long as he is there and wild and filled with demons, they can control the situation, can separate themselves from him, can use him as an excuse for what is wrong.
Our communities operate this way still. I think in some ways our Community Ministries and individuals who are part of our congregation and community can be scapegoats in Lake City. It’s understandable. Not having a place to direct our fear and our frustration is anxiety producing. It is understandable too that when Jesus interrupts the cycle of control and the system of management that they’ve developed that they need to drive him away. Just as they separated themselves from the man with the demons, they drive Jesus out of their midst.
How are they supposed to be community now that this man who has been totally defined by the demons who have possessed him is no longer ‘the man who is possessed by demons.’ Now that he has a name other that ‘legion’ what are they to do with him? What if he goes off the rails again? What if they can’t control him? How are they supposed to relate to him? He seems like he’s in his right mind, but what if it doesn’t take? What if the demons are loose among us? What if? what if? What if?
It makes us anxious when a situation that we think is under control is disrupted and we no longer know the outcome or can control what will happen next. I think we understand that kind of anxiety, but we’re called on to trust the lack of control. In the story, we do not know what happens to the people of Geresene. We do know that the Jesus did not let this man follow him. If I was in his position, I would have wanted to follow Jesus to. Both out of gratitude, but also out of fear. He may have had the demons cast out, but the man also doesn’t know how to be in this new state. He has some ‘What if’s’ as well. How can he be expected to stay among these anxious people and feel safe? These are the poeple who have previously made him a target. They have known each other in a different way.
Our Epistle talks about how we are redefined through the gift that Jesus offered. We are no longer controlled by the things that describe us. These are familiar words but hear them again: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Paul iterates over and over again in as many ways as he can think to say it – you are one in Jesus. But it takes giving up control to Jesus to allow this oneness to truly transform us.
That man who was healed and freed by Jesus needs to readjust to a community that has defined him by the control that the demons have had over him. The community who defined themselves as the ones who knew where and how to keep people like him. Now they don’t have that same control. They are powerless.
A powerlessness and lack of control is something I think many of us feel in our congregation. Right now, I think we are called to the trust that Jesus invited the healed man into when he said to him, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” It’s not easy to declare this in the face of anxiety about how you may be received or how you might be community with those from whom you have once been declared different.
This weekend at PNMC, we open by naming those places where we have seen God working in our midst. In fact our theme was “Speaking God’s Deeds of Power.” Many congregations gave testimony to sightings of God in their midst. These were especially dramatic in the stories of Hispanic and Anglo congregations who once were separate and have begun worshiping together and each of their communities has been enlivens. And many congregations, like ours, are challenged to be discerning and seek the Spirit of Jesus who unites us.
People of Seattle Mennonite Church, may we embrace the out of control Jesus with a trust that we are united in him. May we trust that his call to speak to the power of God’s work will yield the fruit of new life growing in our midst. May sing in our hearts the song I heard Melanie humming last week, “None can stop the Spirit, moving now inside us.” Amen.