Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Free Us from the Tyranny of the Devil...

This is the manuscript for the last sermon I preached in preaching lab this semester.  The text was Mark 5:1-17.

Jesus stepped out of the boat onto the foreign shore of the region of the Gerasenes.  Nothing in our text indicates that the disciples followed him out of the boat.  I imagine they remained in the boat, looking at each other and echoing the question they had asked just a few verses earlier:  “Who is this man?  Even the wind and waves obey him”
So Jesus gets out of the boat and this “madman” runs at him.  In our sanitized, politically correct world, we would say that he was a “man with mental instability” or a “man with mental illness” or if we were psychologically savvy we might say he was a “man with schizophrenia”.   In any case, this was a man who was oppressed by many things.  Whether we believe that they were actual demons or we read it as mental illness, there is no doubt that he was oppressed. The text gives us signs of his oppression:  he lived in the tombs.  No person in complete freedom would choose to live in such a desolate place.  Our text also tells us that he had often been hand and foot and would wander around the tombs night and day, crying out and cutting himself with stones.  It takes a big kind of hurt to drive someone to resort to cutting themselves.  Any counselor or youth pastor who has worked with young people who cut themselves will confirm this.  You have to be hurting really bad before you start cutting on yourself.  And once you’ve started, the cutting itself begins to oppress you and you can’t stop even if you want to.
Whether this man was oppressed by literal demons or by a psychological condition there is no doubt that a whole legion of things was oppressing him, and what’s more, the Roman government with their legions of soldiers were oppressing the entire land.
We too live in a world that is oppressed.   Many countries are oppressed by tyrannical governments.  Many people are oppressed by generational poverty.  No matter how hard they try they cannot find a way out of the systems that have effectively kept them oppressed for so many years.  Last week there was a display in the atrium about human trafficking.  The fact that human trafficking is still happening, and even increasing,  in the United States is evidence that people in our society are being oppressed.  Oppression doesn’t just happen on global or national scale.  It also happens on an individual scale.   If we stop and think, we all know people who living under oppression.  We have friends, family members, congregants who are living under the oppressive thumb of controlling addictions.  We know people who are oppressed by mental illness, people who are oppressed by the pain of memories of years of abuse, people who are oppressed by chronic illness.  No matter what age group you work with, chances are high that someone is struggling under some form of oppression.  Perhaps you yourself are feeling very oppressed.  People who are being oppressed can’t see the way out for themselves.  Talk to a teenager who has a big enough hurt that they have taken to cutting themselves or one who has an eating disorder or a person who is addicted to drugs.  They will tell you that even though they want to stop, they can’t.  And, no one can stop them.   The oppression is real and it feels like it will never end.  The list of things that can, and do, oppress us is legion.
So this extremely oppressed man is running at Jesus, yelling at him, saying “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High G-d?  Swear to G-d that you won’t torture me!”   The man, or the demons within the man, knew who Jesus was and were terrified of him. They didn’t want to be tortured by him.  People had evidently tried to help the man before.  They had chained him up, evidently to keep him from hurting himself more.  For him, it must have been like torture.  Maybe he was afraid that Jesus was going to try and help him that way too.  But Jesus didn’t come blazing onto the scene with an agenda that he was ready to impose on the man.  Instead he engaged the man, and or the demons, depending on your view, in conversation.  He asked him his name.  He listened to the response, and when the legion asked to be allowed to go into the pigs, He said that they could.  
Jesus freed the man from his oppression and the pigs went running down the bank into the lake. The man was free from his oppression and responded in gratitude.  The swine herders on the other hand, were angry and asked Jesus to leave.  Were the swine herders not grateful that the man had been set free from his oppression? Where they really so cold hearted that they wanted to see him suffer?    I don’t think so.  I think they may have even been among the people who tried to “help” this man.   If they routinely herded their pigs in this area, they couldn’t have wanted a madman running around.  Maybe they were the ones that chained him, hoping to help him or even cure him. But they were ticked, completely and utterly ticked.  Their entire livelihood, all two thousand of them, had just committed suicide by running off the cliff into the lake.  I’ve known more than a few pig farmers.  Each pig was valuable.  If anything happened to one of them, much less the entire herd, it was devastating.  The entire livelihood of these swine herders was invested in these pigs and they were gone.  They were so upset by their loss that they failed to see the incredible gift of freedom that had been given to the man. 
I’m sure they wanted this man to be healed.  If they were praying people, I imagine that they even prayed that he was healed.  No one wants to see another person live under than kind of oppression.
When we have someone in our life who is living under oppression, we want them to be freed from it.  We try to help them anyway that we know how.  We pray for them.  We ask G-d to remove the weight of oppression from them.   I still remember the October night when my dorm room phone rang at about 10:30. It was a friend of mine, Kugel.  A mutual friend of ours, Big David, was sick.  She wanted to know if I’d come see him.  I grabbed my medical bag and headed across campus.  I spent the next couple hours assessing and dealing with what I could.  At that point things didn’t look life threatening or worthy of a midnight trip to the emergency room. The next morning Kugel took him student health and from there he went to the hospital.  From the local hospital he went on to the hospital in Des Moines.  I prayed for him.  The entire community on campus prayed for him.  We asked G-d again and again to relieve his oppression.  We wanted our Big David back.  As soon as the doctors got one problem under control another one popped up.  We watched a blood clot in Big David’s brain spontaneously dissolve.  We watched his kidneys fail and then improve.   We rode a crazy roller coaster of emotions, all the while hoping for a miracle. 
We learned more than we ever wanted to know about the medical system and the human body.  Did you know there was a level of care above and beyond Intensive Care?  Neither did I. It’s called Critical Care and there are more nurses than patients on that unit.   I spent many long hours on that unit, sitting with his fiancé and praying.  I spent hours in the prayer room on campus praying with friends.  We begged G-d to remove this legion of oppression from our friend.  And He did.
I wish I could say that this story ends with Big David getting better and coming back to campus and marrying his fiancé and the two of them living happily ever after.  But I can’t.  We buried Big David just before Christmas that year, about two weeks after his 20th birthday.  His fiancé stood in a funeral line receiving condolences instead of in a wedding reception line receiving congratulations.  We listened to his eulogy instead of his psychology research presentation.
Did G-d fail to answer our prayers for deliverance from this legion of oppression?  Did He not hear us?  Did we not pray enough?  Should we have fasted more?   I don’t think any of that is true.  I believe that G-d did answer our prayers.  It just wasn’t in the way that we expected him to.  We expected him to heal Big David.  We expected Big David to have many more happy years.  G-d had a plan to relieve Big David from the legion of oppression that he was suffering under.  Big David was set free from his failing body, from his diseased brain to spend an eternity rejoicing with Jesus.   We expected one thing from Jesus, but He gave us another.
The Jews expected one thing from Jesus as well.  They expected him to liberate them from the oppression of the legions of Roman soldiers that were oppressing them.  But Jesus had a far greater plan. He planned to liberate all of us from all oppression for all time.  That’s what we remember on Easter.  We remember the gift of Jesus’ blood covering all our transgressions and setting us free from the tyranny of the devil.  And we are grateful for it.  The prayers of the Jews for a Messiah were answered, just not in the way that they expected.
The swine herders wanted the mad man healed, but didn’t expect it to come at the cost of their livelihood.  We wanted Big David to be healed, but didn’t expect it to come at the cost of his life.  What oppression have you been asking G-d to free you or someone you love from? Have you gotten angry at G-d for not answering?  What if he was answering in a way you didn’t expect?  Jesus is still in the business of freeing people from oppression, just like he freed the madman of the Gerasenes.  But like the swine herders, we need to be prepared for him to do it in unexpected ways.

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