Today we are on a journey through one of the most dangerous gospel readings in the New Testament. This is a reading in which Jesus comes into direct confrontation with powerful cosmic forces. In the proceeding section Jesus calms a storm and reveals he is up to the task. In today’s gospel Jesus immediately steps out of a boat onto land and a naked man lurches towards him. The man lived in tombs among the dead, bound by chains and shackles, possessed by a powerful demon. This seems a setting for a zombie movie. We yearn for a story about loaves and fishes, something uplifting.
Another typical detail in narratives where Jesus casts out demons, is that the demon is the one who recognizes Jesus and cries out for Jesus to leave it alone. This is another hint towards Jesus’ divinity that even powerful demons are afraid of Jesus. This particular demon’s name is Legion, which as commentator Judith Jones points out, in Jesus’ time “Legion” had one literal meeting, “a unit of 6,000 Roman soldiers, an occupying army.” These are subtle but clear political undertones, especially when we consider what happens to Legion in the story.
Thinking they can be spared being sent into the abyss, Legion asks Jesus to cast them into a herd of swine. Oddly Jesus grants this request, a rarity in stories about casting out demons, and then the ironic twist. The demons enter the swine only to charge down the hill and drown in the sea. It comes back to being careful what you ask for. Thinking about historic commentary that would have been apparent to early Christian listeners, this is a subversive story. On the surface this is a healing story of a troubled man who had been driven as an outcast, chained and shackled, living among the dead in the tombs. The subversive reading is this is Jesus destroying the occupying Roman forces, sending them to their deaths.
Judith Jones explains that the setting of the story in Gerasenes is poignant because it was the setting of a genocide of Jewish people at the hands of Roman forces. The ancient historian Josephus traces the violence back to 60 CE when Romans killed 1000 young men and occupied the city of Gerasa. As well the symbol of Legio 10th Fretensis was a pig. How fitting Legion was welcomed to enter a herd of swine, which were seen as unclean animals by Jews, and undergo this ironic reversal.
We hear our gospel with different levels of meaning, both the surface reading of a healing story of a particular man, who Jesus personally heals. And also the deeper meaning revealing God grants Jesus cosmic powers to overturn systemic violence and injustice. It is also a healing story for an entire people.
Let us put the gospel story on hold for a moment, which we’ll return to again. Now I want to share with you a story about my first visit to the BC Synod Office in New Westminster outside Vancouver, which happened yesterday. I am serving on a Truth and Reconciliation facilitating group. —>
For those unfamiliar with Lutheran ecclesiology, the BC Synod represents the ELCIC our Lutheran denomination for all of British Columbia. Bishop Greg Mohr, who serves as leader for Lutherans in BC, is based in the synod office.
When people think about bishop’s offices people imagine opulence and grandeur. In case you have not visited the synod office, imagine Luther House, the student house next door, with a couple offices and a Keurig machine. They are renting the former parsonage of Mt. Zion Lutheran which is next door. Perhaps it is fitting the bishop has humble digs and a good place to gather in conversation. The Truth and Reconciliation facilitating group is made up of a half dozen Lutherans, including two Indigenous leaders in the church and a handful of non-Indigenous folks, including the bishop and me, wondering where to begin.
For lunch we gathered at a nearby hotel, hoping that it would provide a quiet space to continue our conversation. We also needed to get some air. You can’t just sit in the bishop’s office for over five straight hours. It was a pleasant space and the conversation was going well until people started getting hungry. After awhile we realized that our orders were taking over an hour to come out of the kitchen. One member of our party, a woman of colour, was fed up and went to speak with the management. No one had visited our table in an hour or explained there would be a wait. She was right to be upset. In the end a manager came over to our table explained the kitchen was also catering for a convention with seventy people and their food was being prepared first, since they had made an earlier booking. That’s fine except no one explained this to us up front. The staff could have told us, “you are welcome to dine with us, but by the way, your food will take over an hour to prepare.” And then we could make a choice whether we wanted to stay or go somewhere else. But there we were an hour into waiting for our food that the truth came out. The manager offered to give us a bit of a discount on our meals, but that was the best he could do. Again a member of our party was still angry and she wasn’t going to be polite about it and just sit there and take it.
Fair enough really. After a lifetime of white people giving you the short end of the stick, why would you find any of this acceptable? Why respond politely to yet another daily injustice? The manager replied, “Ma’am there is no need to use that tone.” How often as white folks do we levy this charge, tone policing people of colour? Would the manager’s response have contained the same level of contempt had the bishop complained? I wonder.
What is an acceptable tone for Indigenous people discovering that their traditional lands have been stolen only a couple generations ago? Land that is now real estate worth billions of dollars. Land you cannot afford to buy back. How would we feel if it has been our grandfather’s land or our great-grandfather’s land we were told would have been our inheritance, but alas it had been taken by an occupying power with no adequate compensation, but only treaties that are broken at the whim of the oppressors.
The other week the Canadian government released a report about Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) condemning Canada and Canadians for committing genocide against Indigenous women and girls. This brings to mind the Highway of Tears in BC on which countless women and girls disappeared along a single stretch of road. And what is the immediate result? Canadian media began a protracted debate about whether including the word “genocide” is too controversial, playing countless sound bites from politicians who took offence to the term. Classic move shifting the focus from Indigenous women and girls to white people’s feelings.
Just last week the federal government also declared we are in a climate crisis, which climate scientists revealed disproportionately affects unceded Indigenous lands among coastal and Northern communities. And then we hear that Ottawa will still go ahead and approve the Northern Gateway Pipeline between Alberta and the BC coast because of two reasons: jobs and the economy. Just like Indigenous peoples risked their lives trying to prevent building the gas pipeline in Northern BC , the Wet’suwet’en protests, here we are again. Canadian governments giving lip service to land acknowledgements, talking about the richness of Indigenous culture and peoples, and then running roughshod over treaties and promises when money and power are at stake.
What demons do we need to cast out?
Let us return to the gospel story, the healing of the man in Gerasene, the casting out of Legion into a herd of swine that drown in the sea. How is God speaking to us through these texts today? When we think about reconciliation and as we observe Indigenous Peoples Day, we hear these themes of healing and wholeness. Healing and wholeness both for individuals and also for whole peoples and societies.
We think about the individual’s relationships we have with people who are in need of healing. We think about the countless micro-aggressions Indigenous people endure on a daily basis that need healing. We think about people we see sleeping in parks and beneath our own church, who have been cast out of society in various ways. Just this morning on my ride into church, I noticed a sleeping bag on top of the flat awning of a new house. Someone looking for a damp-free space to sleep.
Healing and Wholeness
We also know that piecemeal reconciliation and healing will not suffice in the long-term. We need to repair the breech in a wider more holistic sense. Reconciliation is a journey to healing and wholeness for us all, both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Reconciliation is a living into a kingdom of love and relationship that is not instrumental. As we receive healing, we are freed up to serve others better.
Think about how in the onboard safety videos on a plane you are asked to secure your own oxygen mask before securing the mask of another. We depend on one another in this work. And yet there remains the asymmetry that as settler people we don’t get to decide when the process is complete. We are here to listen to Indigenous voices, to take initiative for our own learning and understanding.
This is why as a church, with the leadership of the congregation’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee we are offering a series of learning opportunities. Last month we offered a talk with Charla Huber of M’Kola who taught us best practices on showing up and building relationships with Indigenous people, bringing a letter of welcome and a small gift when visiting a chief or elder for the first time.
This coming Thursday we are welcoming Adam Olsen, local Member of the Legislative Assembly, and member of the Tsartlip nation, who is coming to tell his story and take questions.
On July 13, 3-7 PM at Island View Beach, we are hosting a picnic, inviting members of the Tsartlip nation among others to join us over a meal. As Charla Huber told us, “Prepare the meal and the lesson will come.” And we are looking at other events as well into the fall.
Wrapping up, as we are sent out into the world this morning, remember that we are equipped for the journey ahead. Remember that Jesus has been given cosmic power to disrupt oppressive forces as well as healing and wholeness.
I invite you to name and consider other parts of life needing healing. It can be hard to reflect upon reconciliation if you are tending to a sick parent, if your child, partner, or you yourself are going through health, job, study, or relationship related issues. And so we gather together under God’s grace. We gather around a meal in which we join together as one. Where the body is weak, other members bring strength. Where one person brings skills of artistic vision, another brings gifts of finances, and another teaching. Together we are the body of Christ working together. And together we can tackle the biggest issues of our day, including reconciliation, because we are undergirded and supported by the one whose very identity is love.
Reconciling with one another is work God is accomplishing through us, filling us with love and grace each day. Amen.
hrough us, filling us with love and grace each day. Amen.