He had been this way for a long time, they said. His hair hung ragged around his shoulders, and his face was streaked with dirt. If he looked straight at you, which he didn’t usually do, his eyes were vacant and blank, and you couldn’t be entirely sure what it was that he was seeing. He ate things that people just shouldn’t eat. He drank things that people just shouldn’t drink. He slept outside in places where people just shouldn’t sleep.
The children of the town used to sneak up to the place where he stayed in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, and when they did, they would run shrieking all the way back to their homes ... and then they would tremble as they told their friends about that crazy man who grew wilder every time the story was retold. Their parents told them half-heartedly to stop, but the truth is that they, too, had a guilty fascination with this strange misfit of a man.
If you asked them, the village grandmothers would tell you that he was a sweet child once, that he had laughed when they tickled him and cried when he skinned his knee. But their faces would darken as they told you that then something happened; he went away for a while and came back different; they said a demon had entered him. Now he lived the life of a shadow, flitting around the fringes, visible and invisible at the same time. Ever since he had come back from his tour of duty in Iraq, there had been legions and battalions marching up and down inside his head, trampling his sanity under their steel-toed boots. He raged and he ran and he wrestled with those demons until he couldn’t see straight, but he just couldn’t get away from them. He had come back from the war alive, but in the eyes of that village, he was all but dead.
He had been this way for a long time, the story says. The Gerasene man wore no clothes and lived not in a house but in the tombs. His hair hung ragged around his shoulders, and his face was streaked with dirt, and his eyes stared vacantly.
The children shook at the sight of him. Their parents turned their faces away when they happened by the place where he sat. The ones who had once been his friends tried to help him, if chaining him and shackling him and and keeping him under guard can be called help. But he would break the chains and tear free from the shackles and return to the wildness of the tombs, where no one would grimace or stare or call him names. In the eyes of that village, he was all but dead—perhaps worse than dead, for he was a threat to the living. He was unclean; he was unsafe; he was unpredictable; he was unwell; he was unwelcome.
He had been this way for a long time, the story says, until the day that Jesus came to town. On that day, this man was the first one to greet Jesus. He had overheard some of the old men talking about this teacher and healer from Galilee, telling how he had cured a man with an unclean spirit in Capernaum. He had overheard the children frightening each other with tales of the demons and evil spirits that Jesus had cast out of the troubled people who had come to him. These stories had kindled a new feeling in this man, something almost like hope, and he had begun to wonder whether a transformation like that might be possible even for him.
So this man came and stood before Jesus as he stepped out of his boat. They locked eyes, and he felt Jesus looking at him the way no one else had in years. Do you know how that feels, when someone looks at you and you know that he really sees you? Do you know what it’s like, when someone looks at you and you know she really gets it? Do you know what a difference it makes to be seen, really seen—to be known, really known?
In that moment that felt like an eternity, Jesus looked at him and saw through the nakedness and the wild hair, through the chains and the shackles. Jesus looked at this man who was so afflicted that he no longer knew his own name, this man whose entire identity had been subsumed by the demons that plagued him. Jesus did not grimace; he did not shriek and run away. He looked at this man and saw a child of God who did not know that that was who he was. Jesus looked at this man and saw a child of God to whom nobody had ever said the words we said today to Bailey and Gwyneth and Clarence. He looked at this man and saw a child of God who did not know that he was loved unconditionally, that he was forgiven completely, that he was beautiful in God’s sight.
They locked eyes and looked at each other for a long, pregnant moment, and then something happened that’s hard to explain. The story says the demons left the man and entered a herd of swine, and the pigs then plunged to their deaths in the sea, taking the demons with them. If you’re like me, your 21st-century mind doesn’t quite know what to make of this part of the story. How did Jesus do it? Why did the pigs have to die? Couldn’t he just banish the demons outright? Did this even really happen? If you’re like me, you wonder about all these things and more. And if you’re like me, you wish someone would stand up in the pulpit and explain them to you ...
Friends, if you’re like me, you’re out of luck, because I can’t explain precisely how this miraculous healing occurred. But here’s what I do know: somehow, everything changed. Everything changed. The man who had been naked and raving among the tombs found himself sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus, fully clothed and in his right mind. The one who had been dwelling among the dead returned to the land of the living. The one who had been reduced to the status of an animal became human again. The lost one was found; the broken one, made whole. Somehow, in that moment, everything changed.
But the story doesn’t end there.
The swineherds whose pigs had plunged down the slope went and told their employers and their families and their friends what had happened, and the people came out to see it with their own eyes. When they saw the man restored to health, freed of his demons, they were afraid. Afraid, perhaps, that his cure was only temporary. Afraid that soon he would be back to his old ways, breaking chains and running naked up to the cemetery. But more afraid, perhaps, that they had been wrong when they had given up on him. More afraid, perhaps, of the power of this man Jesus, who had done what they had thought impossible. The man’s complete transformation was too much change, too fast, and so the people asked Jesus to leave, and he complied.
As he turned and stepped back into the boat, the man begged Jesus to let him come along and follow him. It’s only natural, isn’t it, that he would want to stay with the one who had brought him back to life? But Jesus—here’s the important part—Jesus said no. He said, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
I think Jesus knew that this man who had been a stranger in his own land for so long needed to go home. I think he knew what God had said, way back in the beginning—that it is not good for humankind to be alone. I think he said, “Return to your home, and do not leave until your father has kissed both of your cheeks and wept at the sight of you. Do not leave until those children who used to torment you are sitting on your lap and telling you their stories.”
I think Jesus said, “It’s not going to be easy, but you need your people, and your people need you. So return to your home, and do not leave until you are part of the family again.”
I think that’s what Jesus told him to do, and I think that’s what he did. I think he went and sat in his grandmother’s kitchen and ate the freshly-baked bread she set before him. And when that old, vacant look came back into his eyes, I think she held him close and told him that she loved him, that it was not a dream, that he really was back, that he really was going to be ok.
And then I think he went and found the shack on the outskirts of town where the girl lived whose parents had kicked her out when she got pregnant. I think he brought her meals when she was hungry, and held the baby when she needed a rest. I think he told her his story, and little by little by little, he convinced her that if someone like him could be loved, then surely she could, too.
And then I think he went and found the Iraq war veteran shaking change in a cup on Boylston Street, and I think he saw through the ragged clothes and the smell of cheap wine to that strong young man who’s still there on the inside. And little by little by little, I think he helped him start to face down the demons of PTSD. It wasn’t easy, and sometimes that old, vacant look came back into his eyes, but he held him close and did not let go until he was part of the family again.
Sisters and brothers, here’s the thing: when Jesus sent that man back to his home, he knew two important things: that man needed his people, and his people needed him. When Jesus sent that man back to his home, he healed a whole village. He taught a whole town that things do not have to stay as they are, and little by little by little, they learned how to be people who nurture wholeness, who celebrate healing, who embrace transformation, who bring one another back to life.
If you think Jesus was right, if you think that’s good news, if you want to go and do likewise—then say Amen.