Sermon: “Holding the Hope” (Luke 8:26-39) [6/19/2022]

When Jesus steps from the boat onto the shore near Gerasa, the person who greets him has been labeled “demon-possessed” by his fellow townsfolk.  The man lives among the tombs and hasn’t worn clothes in a long time.  Today, we’d say he struggled with mental illness.  

When the man sees Jesus, he knows immediately who he is–‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Only Begotten of the Most High God?’  Then he says something heartbreaking:  ‘I beg you, don’t torture me.’  One wonders just how many times he’d experienced torture already, or to what extent his own brain was torturing him.  

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this story is the fact that the man with the tortured mind was alone, left to fend for himself.  In town, when the demons seized him, he was chained and kept under guard.  When he escaped into the deserted places, the townsfolk were probably relieved.  As long as the man stayed among the tombs, they didn’t have to deal with him.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  Or maybe “out of mind, out of sight” is closer to the truth.  

Historically, societies–churches, in particular–don’t have a good track record in how they’ve treated folks who struggle with mental illness.  Asylums, lobotomies, over-medication …Is it no wonder folks are sometimes afraid to talk about what’s really going on in their minds and hearts?

In today’s Scripture story, the man of Gerasa, whose mind is tortured, finds healing, he becomes whole again.  They didn’t have the powerful psycho-tropic medications we have today. So how did it happen?  How did that man find healing?

There are, of course, the pigs.  In the story, Jesus casts the man’s demons into the pigs and the pigs run head-long into the sea.  Seeing what’s happened to their livestock, the swineherds rush into town to tell everyone what’s happened.  

Yes, the thing with the pigs is pretty spectacular.  Our area has been known for pig farming for centuries.  Maybe we can work something out.  That’s a joke, y’all.  🙂

As I read the story, I wonder if the man’s healing began before the incident with the pigs.  Maybe the healing begins when Jesus looks at the man and asks, “What is your name?”

“What is your name?”  When the man had last been asked that question?  When had he last been addressed as a man, as a human being?

The townsfolk’s response to the man’s healing is curious.  When they see him sitting fully clothed and in his right mind, they are terrified.  You’d expect a celebration, right?  Look!  The one who used to live like an animal has been healed.  He has his life back.  He’s whole again!  But there is no celebration.  The folks in town are afraid…so afraid that they ask Jesus to leave.

Why are the Gerasenes afraid when they see the man healed of his affliction?  Luke doesn’t tell us, but I wonder if it had something to do with how they’d treated the man during his affliction.  Perhaps their fear was rooted in guilt over their cruel treatment of the man during his illness.  

What is a compassionate response from the church to people struggling with mental illness?  Wendell Berry’s story, Watch with Me,  might offer some ideas.  

When Nightlife appeared at Tol Proudfoot’s chicken coop that morning, he seemed off, not quite himself.  The people around Katy’s Branch creek had grown accustomed to the spells that overtook Nightlife from time to time, spells that left him sad, angry, confused, and maybe dangerous.  During his spells, no one could help Nightlife.  Sometimes, he had to go to the hospital until the spell broke and he was able to crawl back into his own skin again.

The night before he appeared at Tol’s chicken coop, Nightlife had presented himself to the preachers at the revival down at the church.  Nightlife told the two that he, Nightlife, would be preaching the sermon that night.  Tol and everybody learned later that Nightlife’s plan had been to tell what it was like to be himself.  The preachers said no.

That no–the church not wanting to hear what it was like to be him–sent Nightlife into this current spell, which sent him to Tol’s chicken coop that morning.  Before Tol knew what had happened, Nightlife had picked up Tol’s rifle, “Old Fetcher.”  Tol’s heart sank when he realized what had happened.  No telling what Nightlife might do with with the gun. 

Tol’s nephew Sam had dropped by, so Tol sent Sam to tell Tol’s wife, Miss Minnie, what was going on, and then to go get some of the neighbors to come help.  Then Tol set out after Nightlife.  He wasn’t sure what he could do, but Tol was certain Nightlife needed following.  

All told, 9 of Nightlife’s neighbors follow him that day and into the next.  They follow him up the hill.  They follow him to Uncle Othy and Aunt Cordie Dagget’s house and gasp when he walks in the door with the gun.  (They later learn all he wanted to do was to pray over their lunch.)  The neighbors follow him along Katy’s Branch creek.  

When Nightlife goes into the woods that night and they lose him, the 9 of them fall asleep.  At sunrise, they wake up to Nightlife standing over them, crying in disbelief, “Could you not stay awake?  Could you not stay awake?”  Then he wanders off again.  They pick up Nightlife’s trail a little later and continue to follow him…until a rainstorm comes.  At that point, they head for Tol’s barn.  

One wonders how the man of Gerasa’s story might have been different if some of those townsfolk had been following him all those years.  What if they’d watched him from afar, making sure he didn’t hurt himself or others?  What if they’d left food and clothes for him sometimes?  What if they hadn’t judged him or labeled him, but simply accompanied him while his brain tortured him?  

It’s telling that the people who reject Nightlife are the people who represent the church.  Too often, the church has failed people who struggle with mental illness.  Too often the church has offered “thoughts and prayers” and little else.

Nightlife didn’t need empty prayers.  Nightlife needed people to look after him while he wasn’t himself.  He needed people to keep him safe.  Tol and all the neighbors tracking Nightlife for a day and a half–being present to Nightlife in his darkness–that was the best prayer they could have prayed for him.  

The story of Tol and his friends caring for Nightlife in the best way they could, offers a picture of how we might be church to folks who struggle with mental health issues–we look to each other and band together to offer our support, even if we don’t quite know what to do.  And we stay present until the spell is broken…or until the meds kick in…or until the light begins to seep in through the cracks.

As Tol and company talk in the barn, rain pelting the roof, Nightlife walks in, still holding Old Fetcher.  Nightlife’s neighbors froze, uncertain what he would do.  Here’s what Nightlife said: “Brethren, let us stand and sing.”  As the rain pours, they sing “Unclouded Day.”  

After the hymn, Nightlife preaches the sermon he’d been wanting to preach about his life.  He tells the story of the lost sheep.  “Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren.  It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t.  The slopes is steep and the footing hard.  The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrown with bushes and briars, a hilly and a hollery place.  And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.”  “The others knew that Nightlife knew what he was talking about.  They knew he was telling what it was to be him.”

While Nightlife preached, Miss Minnie’s old setting hen came in.  She–the hen–was none too happy to find Nightlife preaching right in front of her nest.  “She began to walk back and forth at Nightlife’s feet…Now and again, she squatted and opened her wings as if to fly up to her nest, and then changed her mind.  At last, she crouched almost directly in front of Nightlife, and with a leap, a desperate, panic-stricken, determined outcry, and a great flapping of wings, she launched herself upward…she hung there in front of Nightlife’s face, flapping and squawking… until Nightlife slapped her away.”

By the time the hen hit the ground, Nightlife’s spell was broken.  He was back in his own skin and handed Old Fetcher back to Tol.  About that time, they heard the dinner bell ring and headed back to Tol’s house to partake of the feast Miss Minnie had prepared.

Years later, Miss Minnie summed up the story of what happened that day and a half this way.  “Poor Thacker Hample,” (that was Nightlife’s given name).  “They kept him alive that time, anyhow.  They and the Good Lord.”

“And that old hen,” Sam Hanks said.

“Yes, that old hen,” Miss Minnie said.  She mused a while, rocking in her chair.  Finally she said, “And don’t you know that old hen survived it all.  She hatched fourteen chicks and raised them, every one!”

They kept him alive that time, anyhow.  They and the Good Lord.  Yes.  That is our calling as a compassionate community–do what we can to keep each other alive and whole, us and the Good Lord.  As a beloved and loving community, we are called to hold the hope for each other.  (Video)   A Song About Hope | Hold The Hope by Lightning Lucas | Feat. C.S. Hurst and Nichole Barrows

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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