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What's Your Name?

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jun 23

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 8: 26-39

Introductory Remarks Before Reading:

Our appointed text for this fifth Sunday after Pentecost is from the eighth chapter of Luke’s gospel. It is the story of Jesus healing a man possessed by demons. Before I read it, there a few things I invite you to be aware of and also to listen for.

First, the story’s setting: Within Luke’s gospel, we find it amidst a string of stories in chapter 8 that all tell us about the ways Jesus channels God’s power. In the verses just before, Jesus has calmed the sea – his power over nature -- and in the ones just after, he cures illness and raises someone from the dead – his power of sickness and death.

In more geographic terms, we learn the story is set in the country of Gerasenes, opposite the Galilee. We are no longer in Israel, and this fact is underscored by the presence of swine that have an important part of the action. This story is the first time in Luke that Jesus crosses a border from Jewish to Gentile territory.

Also, when you hear this story, if even for the very first time, I invite you not to be too put off by the presence of the so-called demons. We don’t have to take this literally, after all, we all have our demons, do we not? More on that in a moment.

And last, throughout the story, listen for what is God doing here. If indeed Jesus is once again channeling God’s power in this story, what is God up to and for what purpose is such power being used?

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8: 26-39.
8:26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 8:27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 8:28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me"-- 8:29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 8:30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. 8:31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 8:32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 8:33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.8:34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 8:35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 8:36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 8:37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 8:38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 8:39 "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Even if you already know the answer, turn to you neighbor and ask each other: “What is your name?” Go ahead and tell them. Turn to another neighbor, if possible someone you don’t know and ask them “What is your name?” Go ahead and answer! What is your name? If we had more time, I’d ask you to tell each other, the best you can, what your name means, or at least where it comes from.

Did you notice how this was part of the story I just read? Jesus asks the Gerasene man who had demons: what is your name? The man answers: I am Legion, for many -- apparently an entire legion of -- demons had entered and occupied him. At the time, the name legion would also conjure the occupying forces of the Roman military, which given the violence of that regime may well be the gospel writers way of asserting the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ ministry.

Back to the question: what is your name? When uttered by Jesus, a question like this has the power to heal and transform peoples’ lives. All demons aside, I want to start by cutting to the chase of what I think this story is really about! Ultimately, it’s about a remarkable transformation of identity. Consider the changes that occur to Legion in Jesus’ presence. Legion starts the story naked, living in tombs, possessed, scattered in mind and soul by an untold number of demonic influences that were laying claim to his being. By the end of the story, we find him clothed, sitting as Jesus feet and “in his right mind”. We might well wonder whether he took on a new name after the demons had left, or did he stick with Legion to remind him of what God had done. The story doesn’t say. We at least know he’s taken on the mantle of a new purpose, to proclaim God’s grace and healing throughout the city. And it all starts with a simple question: what is your name?

Before I go further, I must hasten to say that this text has been used and misused any number of times to address the topic of mental illness. I don’t intend to go there today, especially since I know our hearts our tender this morning having recently learned of the news of Terry’s leave of absence. I will say this though. In as much as I see God’s grace and healing shining through Terry’s and our Mental Health and Healing ministries, I also see a proclamation of grace and healing in Terry’s decision to step back for a time to care for himself, and to name his own fluctuations and his needs. Let’s keep him and also Brent in our deepest prayers in the weeks ahead and join them in the hope and trust that he will be back with us soon.

Again, the heart of this story is about transformation, and whether we are part of that ¼ of the population that has a diagnosable mental illness or not, when we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we are all need of some kind of healing and wholeness and transformation. Indeed, we all have our demons, as individuals and no doubt as communities as well, and we all need help in calling them out! Setting aside the demons even, the phrase “in his right mind” may be enough to conjure a sympathetic, “I’ll have what he’s having” posture towards Legion. In the midst of the myriad of unwanted influences in our lives and world, in the midst of the often crazy-making pace of our digital age, we may notice in ourselves a certain longing. What would it look like for any of us to achieve a so-called right mind, especially one that is affirmed as such in the presence of the divine. The story tells us: they found him sitting at Jesus feet, clothed and in his right mind. Can we even begin to imagine what this would look like for us?

Now, allow me to bring all this talk of transformation home to this community and connect it to our own story, today, on this day when we say goodbye to our much beloved Interim Minister, Reebee. For those of you who have been wondering – how is he going to make this story fit the occasion? – well, here comes my best shot.

Think back with me to last August when Reebee was new here, and when she needed to ask many of us “What’s your name?” We were remembering as a staff this week how freakishly fast Reebee learned all of them! More deeply though, we all owe Reebee our sincere gratitude, for by virtue of her preaching, her pastoral care, her amazing leadership before, during and after my sabbatical, she never stopped as asking our names. Not really, for over the course of her time here, she invited us all into an experience in which God and Jesus could ask us those key questions: “What is your name?” As in: “Who are you, really?”

With wisdom and grace, she and other leaders together invited us into a new and rich and ongoing conversation about our identity. And, in the process, both the angels of our better nature and the demons as well began to come out of us so that we could see them and even name them. Indeed, both angels and demons were legion! But naming the demons especially is what I think led to some profound shifts in our being. Together, and with no small thanks to you, Reebee, we learned and are learning to name and call out the demons of our busyness, to name and call out the demons of our “buts” as in “it’s all good, but” with a strong emphasis on the ‘but’! We are naming and calling out the demons of our unsustainable ways and of our great ambitions that if we are not careful lead us to burn out ourselves, each other and the planet. We are naming and calling out the demons of our apathy when it comes to our stewardship of the earth.

Of course, if we asked her about any of this, she would probably say its all of our doing and even more its God’s doing, and she’d be right, at least about the God part, but our story for today reminds us that it takes someone to get the ball rolling, someone with a caring heart who can ask the right questions in just the right ways and be open to whatever the answer is. What is your name? What does it to mean you? Who are you? And who are those angels that need to be affirmed and who are those demons that need to go and jump off a cliff? Rich questions, and Reebee didn’t leave us there.

Once she learned our names, she started to give us new names to try on. Remember back in March, during Lent when we had our congregational listening sessions. I had just come back from my sabbatical and from a period of wrestling with some of my own demons. Those of you who were here that first day may remember me re-introducing myself. I said I’m Dan, or Danny as my dad used to call me, and I’m a recovering workaholic. Reebee was in the pulpit soon after that and preached an unforgettable sermon on Mary and Martha, first identifying herself with that story and then inviting each of us to name the ways that we were both Mary and Martha, for better or for worse. Do you remember those conversations? The Spirit was clearly at work, and so was Reebee, in helping craft those questions, questions that ultimately, for some exquisite moments of deep and heartfelt and honest sharing in MJH, allowed us to stop from all our busyness, allowed us to breathe and to shift for a time from our doing to our being, from our striving to our thriving. Like Legion, it felt like we too were restored for a moment to our right minds. And like both Legion and Mary, we too had our version of a moment of sitting at Jesus’ feet. Do you remember that this was Mary’s posture in that story of Mary and Martha, exactly that sitting at Jesus feet, was the “better part” to which Mary was called?

Reebee, I thank you, and we all thank you, for leading us with your profound questions, teaching, preaching and modeling. With the help of the Spirit, with Jesus as our guide, we’ve been called to ponder our identities anew. By God’s grace, we have been and are being transformed and we will not be the same! And while I can’t say that those demon-filled pigs are flying off any cliffs just yet – they are chomping at the bit to dive right back into us -- you have helped us to name and notice them, to release them and cast them out, all while letting our better angels shine through and hover round in ways we will not forget. What’s more, you’ve left us well prepared for our next minister to come and continue the job. Indeed. Before long, that person will be with us, bringing the question in a new voice: What is your name?

One last thing to notice about this passage is how the larger community responded to all this. Did you catch it? That the people of the surrounding country ask Jesus to leave? The Gerasenes were swineherders, pig farmers, afraid of the economic blow of such honest questions and truth telling transformation. Let’s be clear here. We are not pig farmers, and Reebee is not Jesus. And yet when we put ourselves in Legion’s place, the comparisons may become more apt. Once again, we are Legion, and with him, we too so wish we could stay with a beloved Rabbi, and she with us. And yet there is great good news in Jesus’ parting words in this story, an encouraging charge for all of us to hear and follow. Jesus was already in the boat to make his way to back to Galilee when he says to Legion, and for that matter the pig farmers, as well as all of us, “Return home and declare how much God has done for you!”

When I survey this past year in the life of this community, God has indeed done marvelous things. When I look back at this year in my life, God has done some amazing things. Reebee, through you, God has done and will continue to do marvelous things to us all, and through you, God has transformed us and will continue to transform us at the core of who we are.

As we part ways today, may we do so, “clothed and in our right minds” – clothed in our love and affection for each other. In our right mind, sure in who we are and full of faith and hope for the future. And may we continue to declare what God has done,
proclaiming God’s grace and healing in the congregation,
in the city and well beyond! Amen.

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