First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Too Hot to Handle: Conversion

Too Hot to Handle: Conversion, Luke 8:26-29, 32-33, 38-39
First United Methodist Church, June 23, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer

This morning’s scripture about the healing of the demon-possessed man in Luke 8 is possibly one of the wildest stories ever told about the ministry of Jesus.

It begins as Jesus takes his disciples and crosses from the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee—on the western shore—to the Gentile side of the lake. As he does this, it reminds us of how Jesus had this way of crossing over the tribal or religious or gender or economic or political dividing lines that we have the habit of drawing in this world.

As they head toward the territory of the Gerasenes, headed toward people whom his own people want to avoid at all costs, there is a terrible storm. But Jesus keeps going.

When he and his disciples make it to the other side, the first person who comes to him is a man whose life is a wreck. Luke says that the man has demons.

There are a couple of ways we can interpret that: my first thought is that back in that day, people didn’t know how to explain why folks might be mentally or even physically ill. Their ability to understand and diagnose illness of the mind and body was very limited. If an infant was born with a physical disability, it might be attributed to the sin of his parents. If a person’s behavior was unexplainable—if she demonstrated signs of mental illness—then that would be attributed to demon possession.

My second thought when considering this man’s “demon possession” is that even today there are times when evil and brokenness seem to go beyond human explanation. I don’t believe in a red-suited devil who carries a pitchfork and has a forked tail, but I do believe there is evil in the world that seems to be a living, dynamic entity. I’ve experienced times when there is so much good and blessedness happening and then—it seems as though evil steps in and attempts to destroy it. I don’t know what that’s about.

But this man on the other side of the lake is such a mess that he runs around naked all day and he lives out among the tombs. People have long ago written him off as a hopeless case. We tend to do that sometimes, even when we try not to. We know someone who is so deeply immersed in addiction, or who so consistently makes terrible decisions that you can’t imagine they can ever pull themselves out of it. You don’t expect they’ll ever change.

This man lives out among the tombs with the other dead because, for all intents and purposes, his life is over.

This man (we don’t know his name) runs up to Jesus.

As soon as Jesus sees him, Jesus tells the unclean spirit in the man to leave. Jesus knows this mess has gone on for too long.  Jesus knows that God wants more for this man than to live out there among the tombs. So Jesus tells the darkness, the demon, the unclean spirit, the addiction, the affliction (whatever word you want to use) to leave.

The man drops down on his knees in front of Jesus and shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me.” At first you may think that it’s the man who is speaking, but Luke suggests that it is actually the unclean spirit begging to be left alone.

Jesus heals the man. Jesus gives him back his life. He is healed.  We might say he is saved, he is restored, he is transformed. 

That’s when the story takes a strange turn. The demons in the man don’t want to be sent back into the abyss where they came from. There is a herd of swine nearby, and the unclean spirits ask to be sent into the swine. Jesus is gracious and grants their request. The demons enter the swine who react by racing down a cliff. They jump into the sea and they all drown.

The pig herders are shocked. Their business plan for the year is wrecked.  “Underwater,” so to speak.

When Jesus starts preaching, when he heals, everything changes. Here, that healing not only impacts the formerly-demon-possessed man, but it effects his community, as well. It turns things upside down.

In the part of the story we didn’t read this morning, the pig herders go back to town and tell everybody what they’ve seen. Of course, the community comes out in force to see for themselves. Their response?  They ask Jesus to leave them. Go away—we’re not sure what just happened here, and we aren’t sure we even want to know!  Just go away.

The healing of the man threatens the economic order in the region, so the people go to Jesus and beg him to leave.

Here is how Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Message says it: “A great many people from the Gerasene countryside got together and asked Jesus to leave—too much change, too fast, and they were scared.”

They ask him to go bless another town and leave them alone! They’re afraid about what might happen next.

Now, there’s a detail to the story that you might not have thought much about before.  After everything else has happened, maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But here it is: As Jesus gets ready to leave, the man who has been healed comes to him (v. 38) and begs Jesus to take him with them.

Let me go with you, Jesus.

Maybe he’s afraid that the pig-herders and the community will blame him—make him responsible for the loss of the herd. For a long time, he hasn’t been able to do anything, to pay his own bills, let alone pay for whatever the insurance adjusters might suggest is appropriate compensation. If he went with Jesus, maybe he could avoid all that.  Pull up roots and get lost in some unknown place with this strange healer and his band of friends.

Let me go with you, Jesus.

Maybe he wants to go with Jesus because he knows how slow people are to forget. Remember how Joe used to run around naked in the cemetery all the time? And now he wants to sign up to take some classes? Work in the gas station down on the corner? Are you sure?  Do you really want to accept him into your classroom? Trust him with your business?

Maybe it’s easier to be a new creation where no one knows the “old” you.

Let me go with you, Jesus.

Maybe he wants to go with Jesus because he can’t really imagine doing anything else but follow him and learn from him. Jesus changed his life. The world is now a different place for him. Now, because of Jesus, his life feels abundant and full and he’s alive in a new way.

Let me go with you, Jesus.

But Jesus tells him, Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.

Think about it. Is this the kind of man who you would think God would want to be a witness? They used to bind him in chains because they didn’t know what else to do with him. He’d go screaming off into the wild, and they’d either have to chase him down or just let him run out of gas. Can you imagine the embarrassment of his family?  What did you do to make your son the way he is?  Those were the kinds of questions they’d been asked.  But Jesus tells him to go back, be a witness to what God has done. Tell people what God can do.

In this story we’re reminded that God uses broken, common clay pots to hold the treasure of God’s love and grace and truth.

Years ago I knew a man named Ron who spent some time in prison because of something stupid he did while intoxicated. At that time, all he did was drink, and all he cared about was his next drink.  And then his life changed. As I worked on staff alongside him on an addictions unit, there wasn’t anyone better equipped to deal with the rationalizations and excuses, there wasn’t anyone else who could better confront the denials. I had knowledge and skills but I didn’t know addiction personally. My word contributed to the conversation, but Ron’s word pierced the armor and made the conversation real.

Think about it: God used a stammering fugitive wanted for manslaughter named Moses. God used a woman named Sarai who laughed at God’s promise. God used a liar named Abram who was always ready to bend the truth if he thought it would help him avoid trouble. God used a paranoid king named Saul to do good.  God used Solomon who had so much wisdom he wrote book after book, but couldn’t figure out how to say “no” to the woman he loved. God even used an angry, violent, uptight, religious lawyer named Saul to help the world get a glimpse of the amazing grace of the Living God.

The man begs to go with Jesus and Jesus says no. You stay here. Tell your story here. Bless people here. You’re exactly the right kind of imperfect, rough-around-the-edges, still-have-a lot-of-questions, I’ve-been-turned-around-by-God-and-I-can’t-explain-it kind of person that God can use to change the world. Right here.

The man doesn’t need to go off someplace to do good work for God. The man doesn’t need to go off someplace to bless people and speak truth with love. Jesus tells the man to stay put. Get a job here. Do the ordinary things of life, and in those ordinary moments, let the grace of God and the love of God and the truth of God come out in all sorts of small ways and big ways. 

Stay where you are, doing what you do, and see your life as a calling…an adventure of serving God and loving people…changing the world…right here.

That’s the message of this morning’s message. You don’t have to go away to be “in ministry.” You don’t have to go away from your life to have great significance as you let God work through you. You can do it right here, in your work, in your studying, in your home life. You’re being called to live an adventure for God right here and now. You don’t have to be ordained or go off for 3 years of a theological education. Right here, right now, God is giving you the opportunity to bless and heal the corner of the world where you live and breathe.

There are people who need to hear the message right here, in this corner of our world.

A couple of weeks ago, Katie Spencer and Diane Laudeman let me tag along with them to a workshop that they’d found called “Dinner Church.”  It’s similar to our community meal, but there’s a time set aside at the end of the meal, where they’re invited to stay for a brief time of worship.  Everyone is “warned” that it’s going to happen and they’re free to leave if they’d like. It’s not like the doors are shut and you’re stuck in a place where you don’t want to be.  There’s some music and the sharing of a Gospel story: a parable of Jesus, a story about the love and grace of God.  It’s not a sermon, but a chance to get to know a little bit about Jesus, and to hear that no matter where you’ve been, God loves you, the church is here, and we want to welcome you into the fold of Christ’s family.

Our community meal is only once a month, and perhaps feeding people spiritually as well as nutritionally needs to happen more often than that.  I don’t know.  It’s something to think about.  It’s something to pray about.  It’s something that maybe you’d be interested in being a part of.  If you are, let me know.

It seems there are always complications.  Our world here was a little less complicated a week or so ago.  I had thought that our kitchen renovation should be addressed before we set out on the Dinner Church adventure.  But I feel a bit like there’s that demon out there saying, Ha!  We’re distracting you again!  But no matter what happens, let us keep our mission before us.  Let’s see the lost and the lonely.  Let’s hear the cry of the hurting and the broken.  Let’s do his work in this place and shake things up a bit in Jesus name.  

“Take me with you,” the man begs Jesus.
And Jesus says, “You stay right here.  I’ve got work for you to do…right here.”
Sometimes God calls us and takes us away.
Sometimes God calls us…and leaves us right where we are because right here is where we are supposed to be.

Amen.