Pentecost IV (C), Proper 7
June 24, 2007
1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalms 42 & 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Let us pray. Gracious God, as our prayers rise to greet you, gather us who are wounded and scattered into your realm of peace, justice and love. Amen. (Adapted from a prayer by Fredericka Harris Thompsett, Ph.D.)
When Christopher Columbus first stepped out onto the beach of what we know as The Bahama Islands, he greeted the native people with words that would shape the force and direction of European expansion into all of the Americas for the next 400 years.
Reaching out his clenched hand to the curious crowd of natives gathered around him, he asked (in Portuguese of course), "You got any of this?" Columbus opened his fingers to reveal a small variety of gold coins and trinkets. With all the beauty and wonder of the new world right in front of him, Columbus was completely possessed at that moment by a single thought: "Show me the gold!" (Show me the money!)
There is an old probably originated by an older child snatching away a toy from a younger sibling. The saying says that, "Possession is 9/10 of the law." If that is true, then it is equally true that the scramble to accumulate possessions probably takes up about 9/10 of our lives. We are possessed by our quest for possessions – captivated by our consumerism, ruined by our insatiable appetites for more, bigger, better, faster, and grander things.
The possessed Gerasene man that was healed by Jesus in today's gospel was possessed by not one or two, but a "legion" of demons, a possession which completely eclipsed his own mind and personality. This is the similar to what happens when we are possessed with a "legion" of all-consuming desires. Our minds and entire personalities become twisted as we recklessly and single-mindedly seek to gratify these desires.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac wields terrifying spiritual and psychological power since it touches on such issues as Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles, his role as the Messiah, discipleship, and even preaching. This is one of those rare occasions where everyone agrees that this story (which happens to be found in all three synoptic gospels) is an authentic Jesus story.
Healer/Messiah/"Son of the Most High," Jesus is shown once again to be keeping company with the wrong type of people (a demoniac), in the wrong place (the Gentile lands "opposite Galilee"), at the wrong time (before any Gentile mission was established). But in the midst of all of these social and ecclesiastical "wrongs," Jesus does everything "right." He heals, he banishes evil, he shakes up the local population, and he leaves an enduring visible and vocal sign of his work. The healed man proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ identity.
Luke's account emphasizes that Jesus has moved into foreign territory, the country of the Gerasenes, "opposite Galilee." The encounter takes place only after Jesus "stepped out" of the boat on the Gentile side of the lake. The person possessed by demons is almost certainly a Gentile as well, and even if he is not, his demon-possession has rendered him unclean. He lives like an animal – unclothed and outdoors. He chooses to live in the tombs – a ritually unclean place for Jews. So thoroughly polluted is this man and this environment that some commentators have suggested the entire story serves as a teaching based on a passage from Isaiah – where Gentiles are portrayed performing any number of unclean acts – “…offering incense to demons, sleeping among tombs, eating swine’s flesh, with the broth of abominable things in their vessels.” (65:1-4)
The demon addresses Jesus directly as the "Son of the Most High God" – a title that was technically correct, but when used by Gentiles in Gentile lands, it did not necessarily refer directly to the one God of the Jews. "Most High God" was a catchall title common among the pagans used for any local deity.
Jesus quickly overpowers the sarcastic, sadistic spirit speaking from the possessed man by commanding the creature to give up its name. In ancient Near Eastern tradition, by naming something you gained power over it. Yet Jesus has this demon at his mercy even before knowing its name, for the Spirit provides this true "Son of the Most High God" with all the information he needs.
Legion knew immediately of their impending doom, because they beg Jesus not to "order them to go back into the abyss" (v.31). This "abyss" was the designated place of punishment and imprisonment for demons as revealed in the book of Revelation (20:1-3). As an unclean spirit it was only natural that Legion request relocation into one of the most familiar unclean symbols – swine. The presence of a nearby herd once again reminds us that Jesus is in the midst of Gentile territory.
Surprisingly, Jesus grants Legion's request. When the herd of swine goes mad and plunges headlong into the depths of the lake it seems Legion's strategy has backfired. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word "tehom," the flood, or watery deep, is also translated as "the abyss." Legion ended up in "the abyss" after all.
The witnesses to this exorcism and the demons' destruction run to spread the news "in the city and the country" (v.34). But the reaction of the populace is anything but grateful. Confronted with the picture of this well-known raving demoniac sitting quietly at Jesus' feet "clothed and in his right mind" (v.35), the people become "afraid." Likewise, when they hear the details of the possessed man's healing, "they were seized with great fear" (v.37). Jesus has effectively with one stroke wiped out their livelihood – herding swine. No wonder that the people's response to Jesus' miracle is to ask him to leave (v.37). As a direct result of this healing, he has destroyed their economy!
A classic parable of our modern experience of demonic possession can be found in the story of the Titanic. The maiden voyage of the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic was another ocean excursion that met with as much success as Columbus' quest for new world gold. The swift sinking of that symbol of "unsinkable" modern technology and "untouchable" ostentatious wealth remained a mesmerizing horror story for the entire twentieth-century and up to the present. The 1997 Hollywood block- buster was only the most recent and most expensive replay of the Titanic disaster. If we want to look at the Titanic as an example of our worship of possessions, however, that movie is an excellent place to begin.
"To talk about Titanic is to talk about money." That is the way Newsweek introduced its coverage of the "Most Expensive Movie Ever Made." "With fine irony," the article notes that the director "has spent more money than any other filmmaker to make a film that denounces the rich; he has employed the most state-of-the-art technology to issue a warning about the hubris of Technology" ("Rough Waters," Newsweek, December 15, 1997, 64).
In case you missed the movie and only have a hazy recollection of the event, the Titanic was sailing on a calm sea on a clear night when it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, 1912, and sank early the following morning. Titanic was 882.5 feet long, 93 feet wide and weighed 103,774,720 pounds. She was the largest moving object in the world. Titanic was virtually a floating city, and a person could easily become lost on board; she had a swimming pool, gymnasium, squash court, verandas, a darkroom, a Turkish bath and a special compartment for storing automobiles.
But what the Titanic is most remembered for is being a $10 million tomb. Over 1500 people died when it sank. Only 705 were rescued. As was made clear in the movie, the primary reason for this high number of casualties was the fact that there were only enough life-boats to carry about half of the 2200 plus passengers and crew members aboard.
John Jacob Astor died on the Titanic; so did Benjamin Guggenheim, engineer Washington Roebling, and a host of other industrialists and luminaries. But while it is true that some very wealthy and powerful people perished aboard the Titanic, far more of the victims were found among the lists of the second- and third-class passengers. Sixty percent of the first-class passengers lived, compared with 44% of second-class passengers and only 25% of the steerage passengers (not to mention the even higher death toll on the cooks, dishwashers, waiters, cabin boys, stokers, etc.) – including two-thirds of all the children booked in steerage. While the Titanic was happy to carry second- and third-class passengers and take their money, it was clearly primarily a ship built to accommodate those living the most luxurious, privileged lifestyles. She catered to the very rich, meeting all their possible needs – including their need to survive any potential shipboard disaster.
The glaring discrepancy between the survival rates of first class versus steerage passengers, the cold-cash valuation of lives, laid bare the sins of the old Victorian-age class system. The Titanic disaster altered the way passenger trade was conducted – starting with the requirement that there be a life jacket and lifeboat space for every passenger. The disaster also altered our modern conceptions of social justice. Wireless communication capabilities reported the scene of the disaster to people all over the world almost at the moment the event was happening, comparable in some respects to the events of 9/11. These immediate, firsthand reports of the Titanic passengers' struggle to survive graphically described the scandalous and unnecessary loss of life.
After the Titanic disaster, there was tremendous backlash against the inequality of accommodations, the ranking of some persons over others. It was the beginning of the end for privileged, luxury travel. In the aftermath of the Titanic, travel accommodations increasingly became generalized. Instead of dividing travelers into first-class/second-class, upper-deck/lower-deck, everyone began to be lumped into one category of travelers: "tourist class."
But if the Titanic disaster temporarily fostered a popular resistance to public class systems (excluding of course those based on race, gender and age), the shipwreck did surprisingly little damage to our sense of technological hubris.
At first, the pride in technological achievements that had led pundits to dub Titanic "unsinkable" would appear to have suffered as much fatal damage as the great ship itself. Titanic swiftly became a favorite preaching topic, its story a 20th-century retelling of humanities fall from Grace. Clergy were the first to interpret the meaning of the Titanic as a condemnation of the demon of materialism: "It was a huge ocean joy ride," said the Reverend James O'May of Chicago's Park Avenue Methodist Church, "and it ended where joy rides generally stop." The Titanic symbolized the ruling ideology of American culture: "Make what you can, can what you make, and then sit on the lid."
The ship's loss was also viewed as a prime topic for a sermon on the demon of pride. Pride in our technological abilities, coupled with pride in the luxurious caterings to the wealthy, was seen as the real iceberg that the Titanic encountered. Methodist minister Fred Clare Baldwin asked the question, "Who Was to Blame?" in his poem that could have been written yesterday he writes:
After 95 years the sermons preached on the tragedy of the Titanic have begun to lose their sting. In postmodern culture we are beginning to see a real return to the old class systems that divided the Titanic passengers into the treasured upper classes and the "expendable" in steerage class. The topic of affordable housing on this island is a prime example. Or how about this: Have you recently found yourself waiting in a long check-in line Logan airport only to have some smartly dressed and pressed executive stroll up to the empty "Gold Club" or "Medallion Members" window, flash a card and be taken care of instantly? Have you seen the different size of seats in "first class" or "business class" as opposed to the cramped conditions of "coach"? To ride in privileged style – not just to arrive – is a reborn demon making itself known in the last few years.
And despite a whole century of notable technological disasters, the Hindenberg, Challenger, Chernobyl – our ongoing longing for never-seen-before technological toys remains undiminished. Instead of bigger, of course, the trend now is toward smaller. It is the miracle of the microchip, not the power taller turbines, the immense cruise ships that fascinate us now.
Some contemporary version of the Titanic, the newest technologically-driven luxury liner, is probably sitting in your study, or on your child's desk, or hidden under the hood of your car, or nestled in your pocket right now. The power of the microchip is the power and wealth of information. The "information age" is not the "gilded age" by any stretch of the imagination. But the power that is released by our fingertips on a keypad is as ensnaring and possessing as the gilded age's power that came from glittering chandeliers and ornately carved staircases. Our "materialism" may have transformed itself into "informationalism” but it is the same demon.
I don't hear what I am saying this morning as a yearning for the "good old days." Many of us wouldn't be here this morning if it were the "good old days." George Washington died from the bleeding treatment, and his method of remedying sore throats was onions boiled in molasses. English doctors in John Wesley's day treated the pain of toothaches by filling cavities with mashed ladybugs. It worked. You no longer thought about the pain of the tooth, but about your mouthful of mashed bugs. Technological advances aren't in themselves evil. The Internet is not the "abyss." Your e-mail address is not the "mark of the beast." God calls us forward into a new future, challenges us with new and exciting ways of experiencing our world and exploring our universe.
But even as we enhance our lives with the tempting technological toys of this new world, we must keep in mind what was essentially Titanic's greatest and most fatal flaw. Her builders were so convinced of her "unsinkability," her owners so determined to make her nothing but fast and luxurious, that Titanic was equipped with far too few lifeboats. Unadorned, low-tech, back-to-basics as these simple wooden rafts were, they became the key to survival for all of Titanic's passengers – rich or poor, learned or simple, young or old. If you didn't get a seat on a lifeboat, you didn't survive in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
To escape the Gerasene syndrome, being possessed by the demons of our possessions, to safely navigate our way through the entombing entanglements and enticements of this Information Age, we must keep our own simple, our back-to-basics lifeboat always close at hand. And what is that lifeboat?
Quite simply, our lifeboat is the same as that of the Gerasene demoniac, and is made out of the rough, blood-stained wood of the cross. Only by keeping afloat in our faith in Jesus Christ's redemptive love and sacrifice can we escape Titanic Possession and navigate safely the uncharted waters of the twenty-first century. Amen.