If Jesus’ disciples had known what a horror movie is, they would have thought they were living in one in our New Testament lesson today. It opens the way most horror movies do: it’s clear that this is not a place that the disciples want to be, but they haven’t realized it yet. They think they’ve just escaped the danger, a sudden storm out on the Sea of Galilee. The bottom of their boat grinds up on the beach, and they fall out onto the sand, just glad to be alive.
Finally they look up and begin to notice the landscape around them in this strange Gentile country of the Gerasenes. The water is calm now, the air still wet and heavy from the storm. Mist is coming off of the water; shadows reach out like grasping fingers from the surrounding hills as the sun is going down. Everything is quiet; so quiet you can hear your own breathing, your own heart beating, as if this shadowy world is waiting for something to happen.
And then something does. Muffled sounds come from across the hills, growing slowly clearer into the sounds of hundreds and hundreds of pigs. Pigs! The most repulsive, unclean creature there is for Jews. They take a step back, look the other way, and if possible, that is even worse: rows and rows of tombs! The Law is full of commands to stay away from the uncleanliness of the dead. But not everything is dead. Another sound rises above the snorts and grunts of the pigs, something that sounds a little like a human voice in unspeakable pain and anger. They look at each other and start backing towards the boat, but it’s too late.
A wild shadow appears on the hills, darting from the tombs: a naked, demon-possessed man, heading straight for them – clearly, this is no place they want to be. Everything about this place and this person says “GO AWAY!!!” to respectable, law-abiding Jews: the Gentile lands, the pigs, the tombs, the man’s nakedness, the man’s demons; everything. But Jesus ignores all of that. Instead, in this strange, scary place he lays his own claim upon this raging madman, ordering his demons out. And the man’s response is a kind of boundary of its own, a waving off of the one who comes to help, an attempt to exorcise the exorcist, to make him go away.
The idea of demonic possession may be difficult for us to swallow in the 21st century, or even to talk about, but some of us may know more about it than we realize. A parent who turns into a different person in the depths of an alcoholic haze. A child who you’ve always trusted that you find stealing from your wallet to feed a drug addiction. A friend who is withering away from an eating disorder, refusing to listen to anyone but the voices inside her head that tell her she’s still fat. Our world still has its demons: demons that take hold of people and won’t let go, demons that drive them away from their family and friends and send them out among the dead, demons that make them shout out, “I can handle it! Just leave me alone!” when we swallow our fear enough to try and help. And we stand there, in horror and fear and despair, because we can barely recognize the person we love in the tormented figure before us. Yes, we know something about demons, after all.
It’s really the demons telling Jesus to go away in this story, which makes sense, because they’re who’s really in control of this man. And of course the demons want to be left alone to torture the man; that’s what demons do. What’s truly disturbing about this story is that, for some time, everybody else around this man has taken the side of the demons. He must have been a familiar sight to the swineherds in the story, but they never ran off to get help when the demons were tormenting the man; that doesn’t disturb them. But they are very disturbed when Jesus shows up and casually deposits the demons in their herd of pigs, driving all of them into the sea. That’s when they run off to seek help.
The same goes for the townspeople who come when the swineherd calls. This man is certainly not a stranger to them; he’s been like this for some time. They’ve seen him lurking or running about, heard him when his cries carry on a clear night before they continue about their business. At best, when that happens, they pause, shake their heads, and frown sympathetically and then go about their business, convinced there’s nothing they can do.
What’s far more likely, given the cultural and religious beliefs at the time about demonic possession, is that they believe the man deserves what he’s gotten. He did something to invite them in; they probably thought – it’s too bad, but it’s his own fault. And even more than that, they believe the man’s suffering is necessary to keep them safe. After all, if all those demons are occupied inside of him, they’re not out there roaming around and threatening everyone else. And so they turn a blind a blind eye to his plight, viewing it as something between a sad necessity and just desserts. It’s only when Jesus shows up that they get really disturbed.
The simple truth is, it’s not the man with the demons who is the threat; Jesus is the threat. He walks into a place where he is a stranger, stampedes the local economy into the sea, and turns the social order upside down all for the sake of one man that nobody even cares about. Maybe the townspeople should be afraid. If a man is willing to do all that, who knows what else he might be capable of?
This time, when the people protest and reject Jesus, he agrees to go. He leaves, but he won’t stop doing this kind of thing. Here, he pulls a man back into the human community from a life amongst the dead. Later, Jesus enters the land of the dead himself, executed for refusing to leave people alone, to leave the world alone. In the resurrection, Jesus violates the ultimate boundary of the natural order, the very power of death, to save the world despite itself. And after Jesus gets a hold of it, the world would never be the same again.
That’s what this passage and, indeed, the gospel itself is all about. They’re about something much more miraculous than simply an exorcism. They’re about the miracle of God’s refusal to abandon us. They’re about the miracle of God’s insistence that we belong to God, no matter how battered or broken or lonely or hurting or rejected we are. They’re about God’s adamant and insistent grace, that no matter where we go or what situation we find ourselves in, we cannot escape, resist, or be cut off from God’s determination to restore us to wholeness, health, community, and peace. They’re about our identity, always and ultimately, being not in our circumstances or our social status, but as one who bears the image of God, for whom Jesus died and was raised from the dead in order to save.
One of the biggest and most enduring songs of the band U2 is a song entitled, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It’s most famous and recognizable for its soaring guitar track, particularly its intro and conclusion, which sound something like the jubilant pealing of bells. But its significance is in the title. The band formed in Dublin, Ireland in the mid-1970s, during the so-called Irish “Troubles,” the violent ethno-nationalist conflict about the status of Northern Ireland that took on religious dimensions because most of those who wanted Northern Ireland to stay a part of the United Kingdom were Protestant, while most of those who wanted it to be part of the independent Republic of Ireland were Roman Catholic.
The lyrics of the song arose from a story Bono heard about what it was like to live in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, during the Troubles. It was said that you knew a person’s whole identity from the name of the street they lived on: their religion, their income, their social status, their politics. And so the song focuses on imagining a place where the streets have no name, where the boundary lines dividing people based on their identities are erased and they live in full harmony and community with one another.
Interestingly, when you listen to the song, it’s not clear whether Bono is singing about a reality he hopes for on earth, or whether he’s envisioning what heaven is like. In fact, that vagueness is part of why Bono himself remains a bit disappointed with the lyrics, despite it being one of the band’s biggest and most influential songs. He’s been quoted as saying that the lyrics were “just a sketch” and he always intended to go back to polish and complete them, but that never happened.
The producer of the record, though, disagrees with Bono, saying that the ambiguity there allows the listener to finish the incomplete thoughts. I think he’s right. The final lyrics say, “When I go there / I go there with you / it’s all I can do.” That conclusion is about community across difference in its most elemental form: when I go there, I don’t go alone, I go there with you, whoever and whatever “you” are. And it’s all I can do; if I am going to go there, there’s no other way than to go with you; it’s both a blessing and a responsibility, whether “there” is here on earth or in heaven itself.
That’s the same message that this miracle is telling us. The whole point of a miracle is blurring the lines between heaven and earth, making that division ambiguous for a moment; it is a demonstration of what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And whether we’re talking about living into God’s presence and God’s will on earth or in heaven, we don’t do it alone. There’s a reason Jesus summarized all the Law and the Prophets by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
We don’t get to choose between loving God and loving our neighbor; you can’t do one without the other. And our neighbor is not simply a person who shares the same street name with us: someone who looks like us, lives like us, thinks like us, acts like us. Our neighbor is anybody who, like us, bears the image of God and for whom Jesus died and was raised from the dead in order to save.
If we are to be followers of Jesus, that means we have to go where he goes: across every line, every boundary, every division, in order to get to any neighbor in need, ignoring the way the world is in favor of the way God intends it. But when we do so, we are certain to find Jesus, because that is where he always is: across whatever lines people draw to keep some in and some out, and especially to keep him in or out, crouched down next to those who are sick or poor or rejected or oppressed or persecuted or denied their basic human needs or dignity, singing softly to them about the kingdom of heaven: “If I go there, I go there with you; it’s all I can do.” It’s up to us to join in the song.