Sunday, March 11, 2012

Living Among the Tombs

Mark 5:1-20
Lent 3 
March 11, 2012
William G. Carter

And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

            I want to begin with a story, a true story from last November. As my older daughter will tell you, I like to visit her at college once a semester or so. It’s some time for the two of us to connect and catch up. Her university is about four and a half hours away, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. I will drive out there, meet her after classes will finished. We will make a Walmart run to fill up a cart with microwave popcorn, Ramen noodles, and shampoo. Then we go somewhere interesting for dinner. After that, I say, “Do you have your bathing suit?” She pulls it out her bag, and we go over to the Hampton Inn and jump in the hot tub. That’s what we did on my visit last fall.

            The hot tub was warm, we were chatty. As we got in, a young man with a beard got out. He turned away and walked over to the shallow end of the pool and jumped in. Katie and I were talking. When the hot tub got a little too warm, we got out and jumped in the swimming pool. The young man with the beard got out, walked back to the hot tub, jumped in, and turned his back to us. We looked at one another, shrugged, kept talking.

            The pool was refreshing, but we wanted to get back in the hot tub. As we did, the man with the beard immediately got out, went back to the far end of the swimming pool, jumped in and turned his back to us. It was getting a little strange, and both of us noticed it. I didn’t say anything. Katie was confessing to a fraternity party that she had survived, and I wasn’t going to interrupt.

            But the routine happened a few more times. We got out of the hot tub and jumped into the pool again, the bearded man got out of the pool and returned the hot tub, always turning away from us. It was odd. Soon we left to change into street clothes, and I took her back to her dorm room. That was that.

            Two weeks later, she called me. “Did you see the news today?” Well, sure. The big story was that the FBI had captured a crazy man who had fired an AK-47 at the White House. Katie said, “Did you see where they arrested him?” No, I had not.
            She said, “They arrested him at the Hampton Inn in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He had stayed there two weeks ago.” I quickly looked online. Sure enough, same guy. Same young, shaggy bearded guy who kept turning his back on us and avoiding the same pool water.

The officials said he had a history of mental illness and had arrest records for drugs, domestic violence, and attacking a police officer. Just 21, he had left his family in Idaho and told a girlfriend he was on a secret mission from God. He bought an automatic rifle, drove to Washington D.C. by way of western Pennsylvania, took his shots, and then abandoned the car and rifle which were both registered in his name. Then he returned to the same Hampton Inn to hide out.

            Say what you want about him. I say he was out of his right mind. Somehow he had crossed the dotted line from sanity to madness.

            He sounds a lot like the man that Jesus encountered in a graveyard in the fifth chapter of Mark.  In one of the most gruesome descriptions in the New Testament, Mark tells of a man who was crazy as hell.  Mark means that in the fullest possible sense – the man was crazy, and hell had gotten into him.

            They tried to put him in a straight-jacket, but he ripped out of that. If anybody got close enough to put him in shackles and chains, he broke out of them. In daylight, he screamed at anyone who approached him. After dark, frightened children heard him howling at the moon. They tried to keep him out of sight and earshot, but nobody ever knew when he would suddenly appear. And when nobody was around, he spent his time picking up stones and pounding his body. He was crazy as hell.

Mark says he lived among the tombs. His address was 666 Death and Destruction Boulevard.

            There’s no telling how he got that way. Some of the scholars draw attention to his name. To gain a handle on the man, Jesus asked, “What is your name?” He said, “My name is Roman Army. There are a lot of voices yelling in my head.” A legion of soldiers was 5,120 soldiers. Here is a man living on the east shore of the sea of Galilee. It was quite possible the stress of living in an occupied territory, with soldiers rampaging your home and pillaging your family, that might have been enough stress to drive him out of the house and to the tombs.

            It’s a reminder that we live in a world where terrible things happen. We can call God the King, but God’s kingdom is a disputed sovereignty.

I remember a movie that I saw as a young adult. It was called “The Fisher King,” and gave me nightmares for a week. Jeff Bridges plays a cynical talk radio host named Jack, kind of like Rush Limbaugh without a conscience. Robin Williams plays a literature professor named Parry. One night Jack is mouthing off on radio, and it sets off a deranged murdered who goes into a Manhattan restaurant with a gun and starts firing. In the aftermath, Jack gets fired from his job, declaring all the time that he was not responsible for inciting anybody to murder.

            A couple years later, he’s down and out. Some teenage thugs mistake him for a bum, douse him with gasoline, and try to set him on fire. Jack is saved by a mysterious man who chases away the attackers. It’s Parry, the literature professor, now homeless. He is also a widower. His wife was one of the victims shot and killed in the restaurant while Jack was on the radio, mouthing off that night. Now their stories intersect. Both of them are trapped by the tragedies that nobody deserves. It’s a movie about the bad things that happen and multiply.

            This is the kind of world we inhabit. It hasn’t changed since the Gospel of Mark. Irrational evil breaks out for no apparent reason. It can scare the life out of us. There are people like this demoniac, living among the tombs, bruising themselves when nobody is around. Either they are too fragile to fight off the physical attackers, or they are too vulnerable to defend themselves from the voices inside of their own heads.

            Am I telling you anything you do not know? Of course not. We know what kind of world this is. That’s why we put deadbolts on the doors. That’s why we pay tax money for national defense and local security. That’s why so many people are so damaged, and there is never enough help to go around.

            I was talking to my stepson Josh. He’s finishing up a master’s degree in social work. His interest is drug and alcohol counseling for returning vets. In his last semester, he spends a day at Marworth, three  days at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Wilkes Barre, and Fridays at Tobyhanna army depot. I said, “Tell me about drug and alcohol counseling.” He shakes his head and says, “It’s a growth industry.” We know what kind of world this is.

            And let me say this is the kind of world that Jesus comes into. That’s what Mark wants to tell us. Jesus comes into a world so tangled, so twisted, so tormented. It’s a world where people hide in graveyards and hurt themselves with stones. The people of the nearby village want that man to stay up there. Stay up out of sight. It’s still that way. Keep people like that where we can’t see them. Keep them in the asylum. Keep them in the prisons. Keep them on the streets. We don’t know what to do with them. Keep them away from us.

            Yet when the man sees Jesus, he moves toward him. “Don’t torment me,” says the tormented man. “I know who you are, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.”

“What’s your name?” says the healer. The man says, “My name is Roman Legion, because there are so many of us.” He is possessed yet he senses the power of the healer in front of him. Jesus looked at him and did not say the village crazy man. He saw beneath all the wreckage, and saw a child of God. Torment had seized the man’s soul, but Jesus came with the shalom of God. He ranted and yelled, but Jesus was full of peace. Looking intently, the healer said, “Come out of God’s child, you filthy mess.

The noises inside the maniac began begging to get their own way, “Don’t send us out of the country, we like it here. Send us over to that herd of dirty pigs.” Jesus nods in agreement, raises his hands, and says the words. There was a mighty scream, the beating of bat wings, the squeal of two thousand pigs, the mad rush to the sea, and then a dead calm. Peace. Shalom.

That is our Bible story. And there are four things that we need to say about it.

First, Jesus is all about this kind of work. He is a healer who delivers us from evil. Both before his death and after his resurrection, the God who comes in Jesus Christ is an exorcist. He takes on evil wherever he finds it, particularly the evil that damages the children of God. He sees it honestly for what it is. He confronts it. He chases it away. This is his work. Slow but steady, one person at a time.

Second, this work is costly work. A herd of two thousand swine may not have mattered much to a Jew, but it mattered greatly to their Gentile herders. Real health care is never cheap. It takes a lot to make us well. And it always costs something. Just ask the family with the alcoholic teenager; it’s not the kid who is sick, it’s often the whole family, the whole system, the whole addictive neighborhood that hooks us. It’s going to take a lot of effort to pull out the weeds and not let them grow back.

Third, healing is threatening to many, many people. They hope they never get ill like that man up in the tombs. But the thing that really unhinges them is when the ill person is made well. That’s threatening. Did you notice the response in our story? The villagers don’t want Jesus to stick around after the exorcism. They want him to go. They don’t want to deal with any more healings or any more exorcisms. They want the world to stay as scary as it is, because at least that’s predictable. The power of Jesus is too disruptive. His love is too fierce. He is going to change their world, and they do not want that.

Fourth, those who are healed will not stay silent. They have a story to tell and they will tell it. Jesus says something kind of funny to the man up among the tombs. After he is healed, the man wants to travel with Jesus, but the Lord says, “No, I don’t want you traveling with me.” Then he says to the man, “Go home and tell your friends what God has done for you.” Wait a second – go home and tell your friends? Tell your friends? Does this man have any friends? He’s been living up among the tombs. “Go home and tell your friends”?

Well, he must have had some friends. Or he must have made them pretty quickly. But he did not keep anything quiet. “I found somebody who could make me well. I found somebody who is not afraid of the noises in my head. I found somebody who helped me work through my issues. I found somebody who came into my dark night and stayed until the brand new day.”

            And when people come out to see what is going on, it is just like Mark’s description of Easter morning. They go among the graveyard. They see a man clothed with a new garment. He is seated and speaking is his right mind. This is the very picture of Resurrection Power. It restores and it alarms. The power that we see in Jesus Christ signals that nothing is going to stay the same ever again.

            There is a moment in that movie I mentioned, “The Fisher King.” I don’t know if you ever saw that movie, which is now many years old. A lot of painful things happen in Jack and Parry’s lives. But one day it dawns on Jack that, for all the guilt he carries, he will never be free until he helps Parry lift the pain that holds him down. But what to do?  Parry is hospitalized, nearly catatonic after being beaten by the same two thugs who had attacked Jack. All these stories intersect.

            But Jack is becoming a changed man. He’s cleaned up his life, gotten a job, told his girlfriend that it’s time for the two of them to settle down together. And in an insane moment of risk, he decides to do something for Parry. His friend has convinced himself that the Holy Grail, the cup of Jesus Christ from the Last Supper, is hidden in a small castle turret on the Upper East Side. So Jack climbs up the turret, breaks into an apartment, and get a small trophy on a bookshelf. It’s not the real thing, of course, but it’s enough to bring Parry out of his frozen state. And for the first time he says, “I miss my wife.” “I miss my wife.” He names the demon. Finally he has authority over it.

            Next day, a friend stops by the mental hospital to visit him. Parry is not in his bed. No, he’s out in the gathering room with Jack. They are leading all the patients in a song: “I like New York in June, how about you? I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” And for the first time, it’s clear: they are free. Free from all their haunted dreams. Free from all the damage of the world.

Leading a song in the lounge of a mental ward, they were completely in their right minds. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Did you have something happen to you, something so healthy and good that you couldn’t keep quiet?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely story, can I edit and print as tracts to youth in my area(Adebola from Nigeria)