a sermon on legions within and without

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-15a | Psalm 42-43 | Galatians 3:23-29 | Luke 8:26-39

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For the world of Luke’s gospel, the word “legion” has only one meaning: a large unit of the Roman army, numbering about five thousand soldiers.1

The person in our story is possessed by Legion. They are naked, homeless, in chains, and living among the tombs because of Legion.

And just to really drive the point home here, to make it clear what the story is really about, the gospel writer uses military language throughout this story. Like when Jesus “meets” the person with demons, the verb there is the same as the one Luke would use to describe two armies confronting one another in battle. And when Luke describes the person being “seized” by the demon, that’s the same word Luke uses elsewhere to describe people being arrested and brought to trial.1

This isn’t just another healing or exorcism story; this is about the brutality of Roman occupation.

Rome as an occupying power is a major theme in Luke’s gospel. Remember that this is the gospel that never misses a chance to remind you of the political context. From chapter one of the gospel of Luke, we know that it matters who is in power.

The birth of John the Baptist begins:

In the days of King Herod, there was a priest named Zechariah (parent of John).

The story of Jesus’s birth begins:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

And when John the Baptist comes back on the scene as an adult, the gospel writer gives him this introduction:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberiuswhen Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Roman occupation and the power of empire matters to the writer of the gospel of Luke because it mattered to people’s lives, and it matters to Jesus. Jesus makes it very clear in his very first sermon that he is here to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of senses to those who cannot perceive, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And that task–Jesus’s mission–stands in direct opposition to the way things are under Rome.

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The image of this person–isolated from their community, naked and in chains, overcome by the power of these demons and living in the tombs–gives you some idea of what Luke thinks about the occupation of the Roman legions.

And Legion doesn’t only affect this one person; it also affects the rest of the people from Gerasa in different ways. In this story, we can see that they are afraid. They are under threat of military violence.

In fact, during the time between Jesus’s life and the writing of Luke’s gospel, the city of Gerasa would face horrific violence at the hands of Roman soldiers. During the Jewish revolt, a thousand young men were killed, their families imprisoned, the city burned, and villages attacked.

By the time Luke was writing his gospel, everyone who had been to Gerasa would know that the tombs there held countless bodies that had been slaughtered by Roman legions.1

And here is this person, living among the tombs, possessed by Legion.

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To be possessed means that something outside of you, some force of evil, takes root inside of you. I don’t know to what extent demon possession is part of your own spirituality, but to me it makes sense. Because I’ve seen how the evil forces that are outside of us do take root in us.

Just this last week, we commemorated Juneteenth, the day of freedom for enslaved African Americans in Texas over 150 years ago. And just two days earlier we had remembered just four years since nine Black worshippers at Emanuel AME church in Charleston were killed by a white supremacist. In our own country, even when the outer evil of slavery rooted in white supremacy is destroyed, the legacy of that evil that has taken root in human beings continues. And our country is still possessed by the demon called white supremacy.

I wonder what it was like for the Geresene person with demons.

I wonder when they began to be possessed by Legion. Maybe they had an experience of trauma. Maybe it began sort of slowly, or maybe it came on all at once. Either way, the story says they’ve been in this state for some time.

I wonder how they felt about the demons.

I wonder if after a while it got confusing to sort out which part of them was them, and which part of the demons. Or if that questions even makes sense.

Sometimes I use the phrase “internalized oppression” to describe how I see demon possession playing out in our world today. Forces of evil occupy our world and they take root inside of us too.

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The Camp Donna facility in Texas holds 750 migrants. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Take for example the evil that is happening at the southern border of the U.S. with Mexico right now. We’re learning more and more each day about the brutality and human rights violations there. The military is taking over border detention operations which means there will continue to be little oversight or accountability. Activists and legislators are using the words “concentration camps” to describe the places where migrant families and children are being held in cages exposed to the elements with little or no sanitation, food, water, or medical care.

Meanwhile, the government planned expansive ICE raids and deportations for this weekend in cities across the country including Chicago, only to postpone the raids for now.

And of course, this is the version of the story right now, but this is only one chapter in a long history of xenophobic crackdowns.

That’s the oppression on the outside. Meanwhile, inside of people—inside of us—the oppression lives in a different way. Seeing people being detained or deported is scary. It can make us ashamed or afraid, especially if we have immigrants in our family. We might have learned the story that we have to work harder, be better, achieve more, if we don’t want something like that to happen to us. For others of us, we might have learned through poverty or struggle that surviving in this world is so hard, and that other people are our competition. That the only way to make it in this world is to make sure that others don’t make it.

Call this demon what you want—call them Legion, or capitalism, or global inequality—the point is, they take many forms and all of them leave us with the marks of possession. Living by their lies of scarcity and fear leave us alone, bound by the chains of our own stifled imaginations, and in a place of total lifelessness and disconnection.

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Out of that god-forsaken place, the person with demons makes their way towards Jesus and asks, “Jesus, Son of the Most High God, what do you have to do with me?”

Which is a really good question.

What does Jesus have to do with these demons, inside and out?

The answer comes in action. Hear the story: The demons are terrified. They tremble and beg not to be cast into the abyss. Jesus casts out the legion, sending them into a herd of swine, who then charge right into the abyss, so the demons end up in the abyss anyway. For Luke’s community who knew the Legion in this story, the defeat would have felt complete and satisfying. And the person formerly with demons is completely changed.

Of course the Roman occupation is still in place. They still occupy the land, but not the person. No longer will the legions be able to use this person as their military outpost. They were made for more than that, and Jesus sets them free.

And still Jesus is setting us free. With Jesus, no longer will the forces of domination and violence in our world be able to use us as enforcers for the status quo. Jesus is casting out the demons that isolate us, bind us, keep us in places of death.

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And let’s be real, exorcisms are scary. Especially when it isn’t so clear anymore which parts of me are me, and which parts are the demon. Sometimes, someone trying to cast out my demons can feel like they’re attacking me, and I might get defensive.

And freedom is kind of scary too. I mean look at the people in the story: Did you catch the no one is afraid until after the demons have been sent out!? They’re not afraid of the possession, they’re afraid of the freedom.

But in the midst of all this — The story ends really simply. Jesus tells the person what their job is, and they only have one task: Go and tell everyone how much God has done for you.

Look at what God has done for us.

When the oppression inside us is uprooted and cast out, look at what God has done for us.

When you are no longer ashamed of who you are, look at what God has done for us.

When I stop competing with strangers I’ve never met, and believe God when God says that there is enough and enough to share, look at what God has done for us.

When white supremacy is named and confessed and healed, look at what God has done for us.

When border detention facilities and ICE raids are a thing of the past, look at what God has done for us.

When every single lie you’ve learned about who you are and what you’re worth disappears, and you are left with the truth that you are a beloved child of God, look at what God has done for us.

Legion may still be out there, but it sure isn’t in here any more, look at what God has done for us.

God’s liberation is taking hold as Jesus is casting out every legion of demons, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In Jesus, all forces that occupy, isolate, bind, and kill are thrown into nothingness, and life is taking hold. Life that clothes and shelters, life that unshackles and frees, life together, life with Jesus.

Amen. Look at what God has done for us.

______________

Works consulted:

  1. Judith Jones, Commentary on Luke 8:26-39 (Working Preacher, 2019).
  2. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2008).

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