Sermon for June 19, 2016: Who am I? (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen here:

What does it mean to hear voices?  In our society, when someone says they hear voices, we usually assume it is a symptom of mental illness and offer therapy and medication to help make the voices stop.  This is helpful for the many people who recognize the unreality of their situation and are frightened by it.  But for others, the costs of taking medications, vicious side effects, and the sense of being “doped” and “not themselves” are not worth the “cure.”

I sometimes wonder, then, if our real motivation for “rescuing” people from mental health symptoms like hearing voices is more about society’s discomfort and fear than the individual’s.  We worry that someone who hears things will disrupt the communities we live in or act out violently.  The idea that mentally ill people are prone to violence is common – but wrong.  Studies tell us that the vast majority of individuals who suffer from severe mental illnesses are not dangerous.[1]

What mentally ill individuals are is isolated and stigmatized.  Mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.[2]  It is estimated that more than 124 thousand homeless people across the US suffer from a severe mental illness.[3]  We see such people all the time and, for many of us, walking near them can seem scary – causing us to try to get away from them as quickly as possible.  This, of course, is the exact opposite of what people with severe mental illnesses need.  Their symptoms have separated them from others; what they need more than anything is to be restored to full membership in their communities.

Our first century brethren would recognize this dilemma because they demonstrated similar fears of the people who heard voices in their time.  In today’s gospel we heard that when Jesus and his disciples arrived in the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he was immediately confronted by the cries of a man described only as having “demons.”  The man has no name, no profession, and no apparent family – in essence, his ravings have become his identity; he is simply “the man with the demons.”  But he was not always this way; he was once a man of the city, who now lives among the tombs outside of his community allegedly in order to keep both the afflicted and the unafflicted safe.

According to Luke, when Jesus arrives, the man – or the “demons” in him – immediately recognize him and asks Jesus his intentions.  “What have you to do with me”? he cries, and then begs, “Do not torment me – do not taunt me.  Do not pretend that you cannot help me when I know you can.”  And the first thing Jesus does is to name ask the man to name his “demons” – to identify the source of the man’s pain for what it is –something that is well-known to a people occupied by the Roman Empire.  The man has been overcome by a “Legion” –a multitude of oppressive feelings so great that he has been left powerlessness over his own mind.

This story is important enough to appear in all three “synoptic” (similar) gospels.  It is thought to be the first narrative in which Jesus heals someone who is not Jewish and does not live on Jewish soil.  It is also considered authoritative for those who practice demonology, faith-healing and exorcism; not to mention the writers of horror films.  So it’s particularly interesting to look at what the story does not say.  It does not say that Jesus acknowledged the man’s torment as being the result of external demons.  It does not say that the man himself is sinful.  For that matter, it doesn’t even say that the “demons” inside him are evil.  It just says that the man’s condition drives him away from others.  The possession that Luke describes has not taken away the man’s morality.  It has taken his identity.

That’s a crucial difference – because it tells us that even if we take this story literally, so-called “demon possession” is not about the battle of good versus evil.  It’s about the struggle for identity.  For most of us, there is nothing more frightening than not knowing who we are or where we belong and being unable to control our own thoughts and actions.  This loss of self is at the core of mental illness.  It is also, I believe, at the center of our unraveling American social fabric.  It is the loss of our collective identity – our knowledge of who we are and what we stand for – that has led to so much separation, isolation and pain in this country.  And it is our failure to respond when we see someone “possessed” with such pain that is evil.

But Jesus did not fail to respond.  Jesus heard the man’s cry for help and healed him by restoring his identity and his place in the community.  He also gave him a new purpose.  Having experienced the power and mercy of God, the man of Garasene was given the opportunity to spread that good news to the members of his community.   In this way, the very deep woundedness of the Gerasene demoniac became, for his friends and neighbors, a catalyst for their own redemption.  In using his power to heal the man, Jesus provided him with the power to restore others to God.

But some people weren’t happy about it – because it scared them.  It scared them for someone to enter their community and insult their Roman occupiers by symbolically disarming one of their oppressive legions.  It frightened them that Jesus demonstrated that he and his followers cared more about the mental health of one person than the group of swineherds who lost their business as a result of the healing.  Or perhaps it was simply too much of a miracle.  They might have been used to the not uncommon wondrous actions of itinerant healers who came through their territory, but they had never seen someone so changed as the Garasene man had been by Jesus.

But that’s what true faith does.  It changes us.  It frees us.  It allows us to escape from the roles and masks we put on in order to function in our world and releases us to live in another – in the world of true life in Jesus Christ.  “Before faith came,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “you were imprisoned and guarded by the law” because you could not be trusted not to hurt yourself or other people.  Like the Gerasene demoniac, you were not in your right mind.  But now that Jesus has come, now that you have faith, you no longer need to be afraid of yourself or others- because all of you are one in faith.  All of the things that divided you – race, culture, gender, politics, social status – none of those things matter anymore, because by trust alone you are free to participate in the life of Christ together.  You have been restored not just as individuals, but as a community of Christ.

This is what Paul believed would happen when people accepted Christ as their savior – when their faith became their only truth – when it guided their lives and drowned out the noise and distractions of the world.  But we all know that that didn’t happen– and hasn’t happened yet.  We know it because we still separate ourselves from one another.  We are not one.  We are still Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  We call ourselves Evangelicals or Catholics, Muslims or Mormons, Anglicans or Episcopalians.  The noise of humanity’s distractions – its petty squabbles, angry retorts, and jealous fears – continues to prevent us from doing the one thing that Paul says is necessary for his idyllic vision to come to fruition; we seem to be unable to participate in the life of Christ together.  We yell at each other so loudly that we cannot hear the voice of God.

That’s what happens when you are afraid.  It is what happened to Elijah.  Having done all that God asked of him – triumphing in a contest of power with the prophets of Ba’al, demanding the resignation of the king himself, consistently declaring God’s most controversial word – Elijah inexplicably lost his nerve and ran for his life into the wilderness, where he sat in a cave and asked God to let him die.  But ours is a God who answers cries for death with life – and with restoration.  Jesus restored the man of Gerasene to himself.  God restored Elijah to Godself, reminding him that he had not been alone in his struggles; that God had been and remained with him.  That it was Elijah who had forgotten the sound of God’s voice.

Perhaps we have too.  Perhaps we need to be reminded of the difference between the voice of God and the earthly voices that possess our thoughts with anger, fear, and despair.  God’s voice – whether it thunders or burns or whispers –never separates.  God’s voice always restores.  It restores us to ourselves and to one another.  Trust in that voice – and you too will be healed.  You too will be restored.  AMEN.

[1] Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).

[2]Jonathan Metzl and Kevin MacLeish, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240–249.

[3]Rick Jervis (August 27, 2014), “Mental disorders keep thousands of homeless on streets,” USA Today,  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/27/mental-health-homeless-series/14255283/.

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