Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming to worship today. I hope you’ve all had a great week.
Today I want to read a story most of us have probably heard before. It’s a story about how Jesus met a man with mental illness.
Back then, people had no explanation for mental illness. They thought it must be caused by demons or evil spirits.
People with mental illness back then were shunned or cast out from society. I hope that we’re a little more understanding and compassionate today. But let’s read it and find out.
Jesus and the disciples went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him.
This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.”
Jesus gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
The people tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.
When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.
Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.Mark 5:1-20
This is a strange and terrifying story. Can you imagine the fear and agony that this man lived through?
In his mind, there were a thousand screaming voices. He fought with people. He cut himself. Everybody was afraid of him. He was afraid of himself.
Nobody could help him. Nobody understood him. He was cast out from his family, from his friends, from the town he lived in.
There were no hospitals or programs available then. No medicine could help. People could hear him screaming, far away. The only place he could find to live was in the cemetery. Maybe he thought he’d be better off dead.
When people tried to restrain him, it was even worse. He broke every chain they had.
I’ve known people who had that kind of fear-driven, superhuman strength. I remember once, when I was an EMT, we were called to a person with severe, uncontrolled mental illness. He was wildly suicidal. At one point, he tried to hurl himself against the window of his third-floor apartment. It took six of us to hold him, and keep him from diving out the window and killing himself.
I remember another time, when a close friend was in the emergency room. He’d been given some medication which made him completely disoriented. They were trying to get an IV started, and he wouldn’t hold still. They tried to restrain him, and he broke the straps on the gurney. He was so strong, in his agitated condition, that I saw him lift two big firefighters, right off the ground, with one arm.
That’s what this guy in today’s story was like. He was tormented, he was strong, and he was terrifying, to himself and everyone around him.
I should stop here, and say that most people with mental illness are completely harmless. “Mental illness” covers a huge spectrum of different things, and the great majority of people with mental illness are no danger to anyone.
“Mental illness” covers all kinds of things – depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, trouble handling emotions. It doesn’t always mean seeing things or hearing voices.
Plenty of people are crippled by addictions, by mistaken beliefs and delusions. For every person who reacts violently, there are hundreds — thousands — who are no danger to anyone.
It makes absolutely no sense for most people with mental illness to be confined or locked up against their will. Most people need kindness and understanding. Some can be helped with medication, or counseling, or support groups. Only a few people with mental illness are like the person we read about this morning.
In the chapter before this one, it says that Jesus and his disciples sailed across the lake to get to the place. Actually, it says that they sailed their boat, through huge storm. The disciples thought they were all going to die.
Translate: Jesus risked his own life to come and help this man. The storm on the lake was a reflection of the storm inside his head. Maybe the man saw the mighty storm out on the lake, and saw Jesus calm the sea, and was afraid of Jesus’ power. “Who is this man, that even the winds and sea obey him?”
Jesus came looking for him, like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep. This man with mental illness was one of Jesus’ own.
When the man saw Jesus, he came running, shouting and screaming. We don’t know if he was running to Jesus for help, or if he was trying to scare Jesus away.
A lot of people with mental illness have that same reaction. They don’t know if they want help, or if they want to be left alone.
He screamed out, ““What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”
So many people with severe mental illness have suffered, not just from the illness itself, but from all the things other people have tried to help them. It may be well-meaning, but it can seem like torture, when things don’t work and it keeps happening again and again.
Now the story gets interesting. Jesus asked, “What is your name?”
It could be that Jesus was asking a simple, friendly question. Just getting acquainted.
Or it could be, Jesus was asking the man for his real name. Many people who live on the streets have a street name. People call them “Crazy George,” or “Wino Fred”, or maybe just “The Bag Lady.” People call them “crazy” or some other name, and forget there’s a real person.
Even doctors and mental health workers do this sometimes – they think of a person as a case or as a computer file or as a diagnosis, instead of as a person, a human being. Once they hang a name on you, you stop being who you really are.
So, maybe Jesus was just asking his name, kind of like, “Hi, my name’s Jesus. What’s yours?”
Another way to understand the question, is the way the man in the story understood it. In many cultures, the only way to control or cast out a demon, was if you knew its name.
If you called it by the wrong name, the demon would laugh at you, or refuse to come out, or maybe even attack you instead.
So, maybe Jesus was asking the demon’s name.
The man (or the demon) replied, “My name is Legion, for there are many of us.”
This opens up a lot of other questions. A legion was a unit in the Roman army. Typically, there were five to six thousand soldiers in a Roman legion.
Did the man really feel that there that there were thousands of demons in his head?
It can certainly feel like that sometimes, to the patient. It can also feel that way, sometimes, to people who are trying to help. Mental illness sometimes feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole. As soon as you beat one symptom or feeling down, another ten pop up.
Even people who are hopeful, even people of faith, even families who love a person, can get exhausted by this. It’s like it never ends. It’s draining.
There’s another possible explanation for what the man said, though, an explanation that also makes sense.
The place where it happened, was a territory where the Romans had savagely put down a rebellion not long before. More than a thousand Jewish protesters had been slaughtered, by a Roman legion which was famous for its mercilessness and brutality.
It could be that the man in the story was a Jewish survivor of the massacre, who was haunted by the memories. Or it could be that the man in the story was a former Roman soldier, who had been there and followed orders and had PTSD.
We really don’t know enough to say, but it’s a possibility that would explain a lot. Victims and veterans can both be tortured for decades by the memories of what they saw and did.
Then there’s a part of the story that’s either terrifying, or tragic, or even humorous, depending on your point of view.
In the ancient understanding, demons always have to go somewhere. If you cast a demon out, it goes looking for someone else to bother, or somewhere else to live.
There’s an almost-quite-logical side to this belief. All that demonic energy has to go someplace. After causing so much pain, so much disturbance, the energy doesn’t just go away. It has to be transferred.
So, the demons begged Jesus, “Can we please go somewhere else? There’s a herd of pigs over there. Can we go and infect them?”
Part of us thinks, “Stupid demons! Why would they want to do that?” The pigs all panicked, ran down the hill, over a cliff, and drowned.
Most Jews, or Jewish Christians, would have said, “Pigs are unclean! See what happens when demons get into an unclean animal! That’s God’s justice for them!”
But there’s another possible explanation. Remember, I said that this was the site of a terrible massacre, where over 1,000 Jews had been killed by a Roman Legion?
This was a famous unit in the Roman army, the 10th Legion, which later attacked Jerusalem and destroyed it.
The 10th Legion’s badge or symbol was the wild boar – the mad, crazy pig. They carried it into battle. They shouted it as they charged. If this was a case of psychological trauma or PTSD, it would make sense for the demon to go into a herd of pigs, and for the pigs to go crazy, and panic and drown.
Anyway, the man was healed. The gospel doesn’t say what Jesus said, or what Jesus did. All the people from the town had run away.
When they came back, they saw the man was clothed again, and in his right mind. Who gave him some clothing? It had to be Jesus. Jesus gave the man his own clothing to wear.
And to understand the story even deeper, Jesus had to have touched the man. Jesus was probably sitting next to him, holding his hand, or with his arm around him.
It would have been unthinkable for a holy person, a great rabbi, to touch a person like this. Especially a person with mental illness, who might have a demon, or especially a Roman soldier.
For Jesus to touch an untouchable, for Jesus to reach out to someone with an illness people thought destroyed his very soul – that was amazing.
Did Jesus care about a man with mental illness? Most definitely. Does Jesus always care about people like this? I think so. That may be the real point of the story.
We all know people who suffer from mental illness. Some of you may have even experienced it yourself.
Most families have someone who has it. Families know how scary it can be, how frustrating and exhausting it can be.
People go from doctor to doctor, from counselor to counselor, from program to program, trying to get help. Many times, they wait for months before they’re seen, or they’re misdiagnosed, or the medication doesn’t work, or there are side effects that make people quit their medication.
It’s a pain and a tragedy which is compounded by shame and guilt and secrecy. Families wear themselves out, and spend all their money, and give up completely.
I have nothing but compassion for people with mental illness of any kind.
But if Jesus wasn’t afraid to reach out, then Christians need not to be afraid, either.
Remember, there are all kinds of mental illness, and for most people, it’s not a matter of will power to get over it, any more than it’s a matter of will power to treat cancer or a broken leg.
People need help. They need family and friends to listen and to make the long walk with them. Families need help, and so do caregivers, and mental health volunteers and professionals.
If you are struggling, or if anyone in your family is suffering, as your pastor, I want you to know that I stand with you. I will pray for you. I will visit. I will do whatever I can to support you.
You don’t need to be ashamed, or afraid with me. I don’t blame people, or judge people, because that’s not something Jesus did.
Right now, our meeting doesn’t really do anything to minister or support people with this type of illness. It’s one of the greatest needs in our society.
I would love to see our meeting make a space available to support groups which need a place to meet. At the last meeting I served, we opened our doors to 5 groups every week, and we almost never had any trouble from them.
I would love to see us reach out to people who are trying to stay sober and straight. And I would love to see us provide space to family members and to teenagers who are dealing with this. It’s a ministry that we could offer.
But most of all, I want you to keep in your mind a picture of Jesus, sitting next to this man in the story, giving him his own clothing, being willing to touch him without fear.
Do you remember how the story ends? It says the man wanted to come with Jesus and follow him.
Jesus called a lot of people to follow. Fishermen, farmers, tax collectors, rebels, people of all kinds.
The Christian church isn’t made up of perfect, squeaky-clean people. And disciples aren’t all the same, cut out with the same cookie cutter.
But instead of telling this man to follow him, Jesus said, ““Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
The man was healed. But his family and friends and neighbors weren’t healed yet. They needed to be healed, too. They needed to believe, against all the odds, in God’s healing and love and mercy.