Come as you are

Luke 8:26-39

Well, well.  My, my. Here we are… back in liturgical “ordinary time” again.  Here we are… returning to the chronological and “orderly” account of Jesus’ three years of active ministry according to Luke… after a nearly four-month hiatus encompassing the seasons of Lent and Eastertide.  So, let’s take two or three minutes to get back on track.

It seems ages since the end of Epiphany, when we stood “on that level place” with Jesus and began to grapple with the implications of his “Sermon on the Plain.”  There on the plain we learned that suffering in this life will lead to great reward in the next, if we trust God to see us through.  We learned what it truly means to do what Jesus would do: to stoop and help those in need… to love and bless our enemies… to refrain from judging and forgive… and that the measure we give here will be the measure that we get back in the hereafter (Luke 6:17-38).  He would later speak in parables about the blind leading the blind (vv. 39-42)… trees that would be judged by their fruit (vv. 43-45)… and the importance of building one’s house on a solid foundation (vv. 46-49).  From there, Jesus went on to Capernaum where he performed a couple of healing miracles, including the resurrection of a poor widow’s son (Luke 7:1-17).  It was about this time that messengers from John the Baptist came to town asking if Jesus was really the Messiah… or should they be expecting someone else?  To which Jesus responded, in essence: “Really, Cousin? After all we’ve seen and been through together?  You’re killin’ me!” (vv. 18-23)

Then there was that great story about the big dinner party at the home Simon the Pharisee where a woman “who was a sinner” washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and then went over-the-top anointing them with expensive ointment.  Old Simon got pretty upset (maybe as much at being upstaged at his own dinner party, than for anything else), but Jesus used the opportunity to school him on the relationship between forgiveness and love (vv. 36-50).  More on that in a minute.  Since then, Jesus has been out in the countryside teaching… and telling parables… like the one about the sower and the seed that produced a hundredfold (Luke 8:4-15)… and about what happens to folks who put their lamps under a bushel (vv. 16-18).  Jesus explained to his disciples that his true family, his true mothers and brothers, were those who “heard the word of God and did it” (vv. 19-21).  It was on his way to the “country of the Gerasenes,” featured in today’s Gospel lesson, that Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee that threatened to swamp the boat in which he and his (very frightened) disciples were sailing. Where’s your faith? Jesus asked them.  The disciples responded in awestruck wonder: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (vv. 22-25)  Apparently they, along with John the Baptist, were still having trouble figuring that out. So now, we’re caught up!  Whew!

Scholars believe the country of the Gerasenes was on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, opposite the town of Capernaum, in the region of the Decapolis, in modern day Syria.  If you want to look at it on a map, see me after class.  The area was inhabited primarily by gentiles who were not bound by Jewish purity codes, which explains the presence of all of the pigs.  We don’t know the precise number of demons that inhabited the man in today’s story… only that they were many. In the vernacular of the time, a Roman “legion” consisted of four to six-thousand soldiers so, when we read that the demons were named “Legion,” we can assume that they were very many, indeed!

I’ve heard a few homilies over the years on this passage from Scripture.  I expect y’all have, as well.  In ancient tradition, it was believed that knowing the names of people and things gave one power over them.  Hence, the focus of a sermon will sometimes be on the power Jesus gained over the demons when they told him their name. OR… a preacher might spend some time talking about the fear experienced by the neighbors of the possessed man after Jesus had healed him. The demons, they could understand… and deal with, albeit crudely, with chains and shackles.  But a God, mighty to save… whoa!  That was too much!  I’ve also heard a few preachers use the occasion of Jesus allowing the demons to take possession of the local livestock to remind listeners that God’s grace and will for humanity may not always be “good for business.”

And all of these are worthy “rabbit holes” to explore… on another day.  But today, I’d like to circle back briefly to the relationship between forgiveness and love, which I mentioned a minute ago in the context of the woman who washed and anointed Jesus’ feet while he was at table with the Pharisee, Simon.  Simon was a “goody two shoes” kind of guy, who held himself to be relatively-blameless in the eyes of God.  The woman, on the other hand, knew herself to be a rank sinner and yet she presented herself before the Lord with all humility—and was forgiven her sins.  All of them!  As Simon looked on (probably with his mouth hanging wide-open), Jesus told a story about two debtors, both of whose debts had been completely forgiven by their creditor.  One had owed fifty denarii, and the other ten times that amount.  Then, Jesus asked Simon which of the debtors would love the creditor more?  And Simon guessed correctly: the one who had owed more would love more.  But Simon never realized that the story Jesus had told was biographical.  Simon, fine upstanding Pharisee that he was, believed he was better than most… and had little to forgive… and so he missed an opportunity to offer the full measure of his love and devotion to the Creator and Redeemer of the world.  And the more you love, the more you can allow yourself to be loved.  Too bad for Simon.

And this brings us back to today’s Gospel lesson.  Luke tells us that, “As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.”  Notice that Luke did not say, “Jesus met a man with demons.”  No… the man with demons met Jesus.  Despite his nakedness and poverty of spirit, the man had dragged himself… and all of his demons… to the shoreline to stand before Jesus as he got out of the boat. And Jesus took him just as he was… made him whole… and told him to stick around and spread the word about how much God had done for him… the first Apostle to the gentiles!  Ha!  I bet Paul was jealous.

Are you sometimes afraid to stand before God just as you are, warts and all?  I wonder if most of us don’t have demons of one sort or another… demons that whisper lies and lead us into the spiritual wilderness of uncertainty about our worthiness in the eyes of God and about how much, under the circumstances, God could ever love us.  It’s said that the most pernicious and convincing sort of lie is one that is partly true.  And what our demons tell us about our unworthiness is all too true.  We will always fall short of God’s will for us, but that’s what grace is all about: it’s un-deserved… and un-reserved.  Jesus’ message to Simon and to us is: Come as you are.  There’s more love and forgiveness out there than you could ever ask for or imagine.  You just gotta know you need it… and open your hands and your hearts to receive it. And, yeah, you’ll fall short from time to time, but keep getting back up and giving it all to God.  You’ll be forgiven and made whole.  In the immortal words of Rick Warren, founder and lead pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California: “God is not asking you to make a promise you can’t keep. God is asking you to believe a promise that only he can keep.”[1]  Let all God’s people say: “Amen.”

[1]https://www.lightsource.com/ministry/daily-hope/devotionals/daily-hope-with-rick-warren/god-says-to-come-as-you-are-daily-hope-with-rick-warren-april-5-2019-11807146.html.  Accessed on June 22, 2019.

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