“Unraveled”
Rev. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
30 August, 2020
Sermon 12 of 12 in “Unraveled” Summer Sermon Series
Mark 5:1-20

Setting the scene:
Just prior to the event we will hear about, at the end of Mark Chapter 4, Jesus had calmed a storm at sea with the command to the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!” after which there was dead calm, and he asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  And the disciples were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”[1]

As you listen to, and perhaps read along with, this morning’s Bible lesson, imagine yourself as the various characters in the scene.  The disciples.  The Gerasenes, Gentile townspeople.  The afflicted man who is characterized as a “demoniac”.  Listen with an ear to answering the question: What is the prevailing emotion, the prevailing mental state, present in this scene?

[Read Mark 5:1-20]

Today marks the last day of our “Unraveled” summer sermon series.  The theme of “unraveling” has seemed divinely timed, given all that’s going on in our world.  Week by week, the stories have touched closely on so many things that have been affecting our own community.  And today’s theme seems well-timed given some of the concerns and experiences I’ve been hearing around the community about mental health and wellness, care-giving for seniors and hospitalized folks who are feeling isolated, caring for children and teachers who are starting back to school but very uncertain about how it will play out.  All of us are weary of the ways that the pandemic continues to throw up barriers to our human need to socialize and be present with each other, as well as being present to each other.

I’m going to invite you to share thoughts about some of these issues at the end of the sermon time, especially as the challenges of this story relate to our experience today, in 2020.

But before we do that, I wonder what you heard or imagine was the prevailing emotion, or mental state, present in our gospel reading this morning?  {Wait for answers.}

I think that once again, as in the scene just prior to our reading, the dominant emotion—the prevailing mental state—is one of FEAR.  There’s the man’s fear, and the disciples fear, and the fear of the townsfolk.

“Legion”, as the man identified himself, is a social outcast.  He doesn’t fit very neatly in society because his mind is unraveling.  He hears voices—too many to count.  Legions of voices.  Each one assaulting him constantly with fears and self-loathing so overwhelming that he becomes violent even toward himself, howling and self-harming, bruising himself with stones “night and day”, according to Mark.  His mental illness makes those around him feel unsafe, uncertain of how to engage him—except to lock him up in a dark place.  Which is why he’s out in the area where they buried the dead.

No doubt, those who approached him were put off and fearful of his violence, his plaintive howling, his thrashing about as he worked to rid himself of the torments that so possessed him they became like personalities unto themselves.

And the afflicted man, the so-called “demoniac”, would surely have feared and loathed those who approached him.  Because the only ones who ever came near, did so only for the purpose of controlling and subduing him.  Their objective was to wrestle him back into chains and into the tombs.  What mind could possibly hold together under those circumstances?

When he sees Jesus stepping out of the boat and beginning to move in his direction, there is an immediate recognition of the Messiah’s power, and a simultaneous act of submission and expression of hope as the afflicted man pleads for mercy.  Mark tells us that the man rushed toward Jesus and as he fell on his knees, he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg of you by God, do not torment me!” (Mark 5:7)

Fight-or-flight impulses would have been entirely natural under the circumstances.  But Jesus does not respond with a fear-driven need to flee or to dominate, or torment, or otherwise dehumanize one who is obviously deeply troubled and profoundly troubling.  “I beg of you by God, do not torment me!” he had pleaded.

Have you ever noticed that human beings, when they perceive another person or people as a threat to their ego, self-importance, personal security, or way of being, will frequently respond by attempting to dehumanize the threat?  By tormenting them in one way or another that seeks to diminish the humanity of the other?

I think for many people, it’s not even conscious or necessarily calculated; they just do what they’ve seen modeled by others.  In fraught situations, we can surprise ourselves by doing things we generally find distasteful, even reprehensible.  But, as stress causes various sorts of unraveling, and our instinct is to stay in control as best we can, we will assert whatever power we can muster.  And so, we may find ourselves using tactics that don’t reveal—and in fact, they obscure—the Spirit of Christ that is in us.  This is the nature of sin.

When physical force isn’t an effective option as a means to debase the other, we may resort to rhetorical, verbal, or psychological techniques.  Like mockery and insults.  Name-calling.  Twisting truths, spreading rumors, or outright falsehoods.  Or, we may work to undermine the others’ sense of confidence in their own grasp of reality by denying, ignoring, or actively suppressing the existence of demonstrable facts.  And, by not calling the other by their given or chosen name, refusing to dignify the person with the acknowledgement that they possess a meaningful identity.  All of these techniques are subtle but effective methods of undermining the dignity and humanity of another.

The people of Gerasene had long referred to the tormented man as “the demoniac.”  It was an easy way of distancing their humanity from his existence, referring to him as one not possessing a name but instead known by the most feared or threatening aspect of his lived experience.  (Or, their experience of his life.)

But Jesus was never driven by fear, nor by a need to dominate.  And so, he looks the man in the eyes and asks him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” the man responds, acknowledging the countless torments that have come to possess even his own self-understanding, “for we are many.” And then he/they, Legion begged Jesus not to send them out of the country.  (Even terrorizing, terrified spirits prefer the familiarity of home.)  Spotting a herd of swine grazing nearby, Legion asked to be allowed to go and take possession of the pigs instead.

A person seeking to assert dominance might have felt threatened by the implicit power play in the claim, “we aremany”—especially given the guy’s reputation for breaking chains and overpowering others.  But Jesus’ relationships were not guided by a need to dominate; the power that allowed him to triumph even over aggressors was that he was grounded in God—who is Love.  As Love grounded and guided him, Jesus responded to the man with love.  He granted the request, and the man was dispossessed of all that had tormented him for so long, casting it all on an unsuspecting herd of swine.

Now, to the disciples or any other Jewish person, this may not have seemed like a big problem—because pigs were considered unclean.  So, allowing the “legion” demonic spirits to abandon a child of God and instead take possession of a bunch of unclean animals probably made sense to them.  But it was certainly distressing to the swineherds, whose income just disappeared over the side of the cliff!

I’m not sure I have a good answer as to why that seemed acceptable—though, it does seem to me that a healthy community that truly cared for each member would find a way to redress the financial hardship of those who lost their herds and livelihood.  Especially when it meant that another one of their community was also being restored to mental health and wholeness.  This entire scene represents a lesson about our call to respond to the plight of other people, and our different ways of being unwell.

One thing I can say with certainty is that the dignity and humanity of the one formerly known as Legion was restored.  And that’s because Jesus engaged the man with love; he acknowledged his humanity, listened to his plea, and treated him as a whole person.

Curiously (but also, not surprisingly), that threatened people.  Mark’s story continues that when the people came to check out what had happened, they found the man “clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.”[2] And all the people began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.

What were they afraid of?  Had they stigmatized and marginalized Legion so much that they couldn’t imagine how he could possibly be well?  Were they unconsciously afraid that they wouldn’t know how to deal with him, having mentally deprived him of his humanity for so long?  Maybe they were fearful that if he stuck around, Jesus would continue changing people and things—and we all know how popular change is, especially when folks are feeling stressed!

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read several journal articles and heard two or three different radio programs about the unraveling mental health being experienced by many people.  The pandemic and other social and environmental crises are creating and exacerbating extreme stress for people.  I know some of you are seeing it, experiencing it, hearing about it from people you care about.  I’d like to hear from you: what are you seeing, hearing, experiencing as the greatest unravellers of mental health?   And, as you think about our gospel lesson, how do you think God would have us respond as we try to follow Jesus’ example?

Is FEAR a factor?  Fear is a highly effective unravelling tool, isn’t it?  And, especially when we become isolated, the mind can become completely unspooled by fears that can wreak havoc.  What are some of the fears our society is grappling with today?

What can we do about it?  As Christ’s hands and feet and Body active in the world today, how might we in the Church help to heal the experience that so many are having of mental unraveling, the fear and anxiety that accompanies so much of what’s going on in the world today?

It’s crucial to remember in this very difficult time that, if you are experiencing fragile mental health or if you or someone you know is falling apart, you are loved and you are not alone.  Jesus did not judge Legion, or dismiss his fears and anxieties.  Legion cried out to Jesus to have mercy on him (we need to cry out, too, when we need help!), and Jesus listened.  With his response, he assured the tormented man of his humanity, dignity, and belovedness as a child of God.

If you need a listening ear, please call the church office, or email me, or call another member of the church.  This is how we experience and share the strength of Christ’s spirit as members of the same body.  This is how we overcome the demonic force of fear—which so often grows like a monster in isolation: as we reach out with love, either to receive the expressed need for connection from another, or to extend an expression of love to others whether they’ve announced a need for compassion or not.

One of the articles I read in the last couple weeks was in USA Today.  The concluding comment by Emory University Medical School Psychiatry professor Nadine Kaslow contained divine wisdom.  She said, “No matter how tired and burnt out we each are, we need to check in with people, to see how they’re doing, to let people know that we care. … People did a lot of that at the beginning. … As we get into this phase that people sort of call the disillusionment phase, I personally think we’re seeing a lot less of that. We have to be in this for the long haul. We have to take care of each other for the long haul.”[3]

May Christ so empower us to overcome our fears, to know that we are loved, accepted, cherished despite our human frailty, and may we share the Love that strengthens us with others … for the long haul.  Amen.

 

[1] Mark 4:39-41

[2] Mark 5:16

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/08/13/covid-19-takes-mental-toll-youth-minorities-essential-workers/3365719001/

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