Lectionary 12C (June 19, 2016)

Those of us who are trained in family systems and those of you who did Healthy Congregations are likely familiar with the term “Identified Patient.” Edwin Friedman defines the Identified Patient as “the one in whom the family’s stress or pathology has surfaced.” He writes: “When an unresolved problem is isolated in one of its members and fixed there by diagnosis, it enables the rest of the family to ‘purify’ itself by locating the source of its ‘disease’ in the disease of the identified patient. By keeping the focus on one of its members, the family, personal or congregational, can deny the very issues that contributed to making one of its members symptomatic, even if it ultimately harms the entire family.”

This might be a way to make sense of what happens in the Gospel. Luke writes, “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.” The crazy naked guy now clothed and sane frightens them. They weren’t upset when he was crazy and naked, are upset now. His wholeness and health frighten the townspeople because now their unresolved problems are no longer isolated in him. They might actually have to face their own problems.

The way the demons identify themselves might speak more to this, as well. A “legion” in Jesus day was eleven or twelve thousand men, split evenly between main fighting units and auxiliary troops. While the “spokesdemon” probably doesn’t mean “literally, there are six thousand main combat demons and six thousand auxiliary demons holed up inside this guy,” he is indicating a lot of demons, a lot of problems. Rome parked its legions in those days on the imperial borders—on the Rhine and Danube, Egypt and Spain, and Syria. Their job was defense against external threats. I have to wonder to what extent this town planted its legion of problems in this crazy naked guy and stuck him on the border—the tombs—so they could feel like their problems were all gone.

I don’t know their problems any more than I know the proper name of the man Jesus heals. That much left open invites us to see ourselves in the story. It invites us to consider our own problems. Who are our identified patients? If you look at our politics, both parties appear to have picked their presidential candidates. Polling indicates that most Americans dislike both. I freely confess that on the night Clinton clinched I tweeted, “Ok, seriously, where are the real candidates? This stopped being funny a long time ago.” Many see Clinton as being too tied up in big money and established political power structures, or suffering from her husband’s notorious wishy-washiness. Many see Trump as a dangerous person with irrational beliefs not rooted in reality, or sitting atop a movement of angry and unpredictable people. Luke 8 invites us to see them both as identified patients.

How do we feel about living in a country that regularly tinkers with the sovereignty of other countries, where corporations are people and can spend obscene amounts of money on politics, where we’re encouraged to make decisions based on which celebrities endorse which positions, where facts are considered insulting, where deeply held personal convictions are grounds for any sort of behavior, where nonetheless many find opportunity, safety from war, prosperity beyond the wildest dreams of most of humanity, and ideals that are worth protecting? That’s a confused mess. Rather than sift through the complexities of our world, it is much easier to claim that the problem is Hillary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, and then tune out the whole thing. And we do not necessarily do this consciously. It is something systems often do without realizing it.

People living in the First Century Roman Imperial system knew that this “Gerasene Demoniac” was safely outside. Touching him was dangerous, so there was added deterrent to anyone trying to integrate him. Running around naked and living in a graveyard is creepy to most of us. To Hebrews, these are major violations of purity laws. Add that this is apparently a major pig farming area, and it is really something a Hebrew like Jesus should avoid. Just going near the Identified Patient will sully him. Jesus goes into this impure place of death and brokenness, gives this man new life by drowning his demons in water and then clothing him. It is a baptism. When we’re baptized, Paul says, the Law ceases to be over us.

Paul calls the Law our “disciplinarian.” In Paul’s day, rich boys had disciplinarians, slaves who followed them everywhere. You messed with the kid, the disciplinarian kicked your butt. The kid was rude, the disciplinarian gave him a good thwack with his rod, much like the stereotypical catholic school nun with her yardstick. At the onset of puberty, a boy was considered a man, and had outgrown his disciplinarian. In the same manner, Paul writes, the law protected us from things. For all its faults which we are quick to point out, the Law has some good stuff in it. It helps you determine liability in property and bodily harm cases. It provides care for orphans, widows, and immigrants. It spells out punishments for offenses. It says No killing, No Stealing, No cheating. To the extent that laws work, it protects us. In baptism, we have to grow up. We’re big enough now to see how the Law can also hurt, how it can be used to pin all our problems on one guy and make him live naked in a graveyard and say that anyone trying to help him is now impure.

Jesus strides through the boundaries set up by the Law. He exposes himself to impurities under Hebrew law and whatever curses the Gerasenes said would come, so that he can heal this man. This man, whose suffering is necessary for the functioning of his people, will suffer no more. This man who lived with a degree of suffering most of us can only imagine is now restored. His fellow Gerasenes can no longer pin their problems on him. They have to face their problems, whatever they are. That’s the power of Holy Baptism on display in Luke 8. Among the gifts bestowed in Baptism is that the baptized cannot be held solely responsible for society’s ills. In a sense, Jesus says to the Gerasenes, “I would like to talk to you about your town and your people.” They say, “We don’t have any problems, Jesus; they’re all his problems.” And Jesus says, “Oh, no, I baptized him. He’s cool. So, let’s have that talk.” That one healing opens the door to other healing. It makes the town’s healing possible because the identified patient is out of the equation, and now everyone has to face the difficulty.

Being baptized means facing the complexity of life. It means no more easy rules from our disciplinarian. In a time like today, a week after the shootings in Orlando, it means facing the complexity of the matter head on. When Janet French and I were planning the Vigil here on Thursday, we noted how many different groups feel like this shooting was about them. LGBT folks feel it is about them. Latinos feel it is about them. Pro- and anti- assault rifle lobbies feel it is about them. Human beings who have no immediate ties to the incident and are moved by a simple decency to mourn the dead feel it is about them. And each group is busy telling us how when another group talks about themselves it erases the first group’s experience. For a hurriedly organized vigil including many moving parts, we decided the best option was no one would talk. We would read some scriptures from the represented traditions, have a secular song, and otherwise have a lot of silence. We would march to City Hall in silence, in solidarity with all those who feel silenced. Sometimes that’s how you have to face the complexity of the situation: be quiet and be present with everyone who is hurting.

And sometimes, you have to be loud. That’s what happens at the end of the gospel today. The no-longer possessed man wants to follow Jesus. Jesus tells him, “The way you do that is you go back home and tell them what happened.” So he does. Luke writes, “He went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” For Jesus has healed him. And Jesus has healed us. Jesus has forgiven us and made us right with God. Jesus might have gone away, left the town like at the end of the story, left the whole scene when he ascended into heaven. But Jesus is still very near. He is present in those loudly proclaiming what he has done. He is waiting, patiently, unceasingly, for when we are ready to have our difficult conversations with him; for when we are ready to ask what Jesus could do for our community.