Reflection: Among the Tombstones

January 26, 2020

Mark 5:1-20

This sermon is largely the work of Micah Royal, shared with the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group, and is used by kind permission and with great gratitude. Amended for Gordon United by Rev. Heidi Koschzeck

I was going to preach a different sermon this week, but then I came across some words from a fellow named Micah Royal I wanted to share with you.

Micah Royal is an American pastor who spent several years serving in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville is home of Fort Bragg, the world’s largest military installation and home of 50,000 military personnel plus their families and support workers. In his ministry Micah saw a lot of soldiers who were struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of them turned to drinking to deal with their trauma, and then joined Alcoholics Anonymous when they realized what the drinking was doing to themselves and their families. One person working these steps told Micah of a man he and his sponsor were trying to help. “He’s back drinking. And he is homeless again, sleeping in the graveyard, among the tombs. We aren’t sure what to do”. The veteran had been missing for weeks. When they found him, he was in that heartbreaking state.

Unknown to this man struggling with the demons of war in his soul, his story echoes the passage from Mark’s Gospel – another man wounded, driven mad by the stuff inside his head, lying in a graveyard. The poison in his mind had driven him away from his loved ones; he was subject to fits of rage, and people got hurt because he couldn’t control his own actions anymore – something else was in control. When language of possession, spirits, and graveyards comes up we imagine The Exorcist or The Shining. But spooky and terrifying things that go bump in the night are not necessarily what the Gospel of Mark has in mind when it describes Jesus delivering people from spirits that possess. For Mark, the world is a battle ground between God’s intentions for the world and “principalities and powers” that subvert those intentions.

Theologian Walter Wink has helped many Bible scholars see how The Powers are systems and patterns of relating that take on a life of their own. They take on steam in our life in ways that can be hard to change; they seem to have a mind of their own, and, when fallen, can shatter lives and communities. For example, some can drink responsibly, but for this veteran the drive to drink wrecked his life and the lives of many connected to him. Though being a soldier can be an honourable and worthwhile career, the military industrial complex’s drive for warfare without thought of the consequences in human lives shattered him and many in his community, returning them home in shambles. Systems can have impacts on individuals without us even realizing it at first!

A few parts of Mark’s story clue us in on the fact that Christ is confronting just such Powers, rather than going all Ghostbusters on us here. First, when Jesus asks the name of the spirit that possesses this man, the man says Legion. To Jesus’ audience, the word Legion would have meant something specific: the name for a Roman military unit. It is like answering I am possessed by the cavalry or by the air force. This Legion is driven out of not just a man but
“a country” as Legion declares. The military connection continues when we see Legion enter into pigs who rush headlong into the waters to drown. First of all, pigs are considered unclean, so this would be a great joke for Jesus’ hearers. In Jesus’ day Pigs was also slang for new Roman military recruits who enforce Roman law; a herd was a reference to a group of soldiers; and the wild boar was the symbol of the Legion occupying Jerusalem. The legion of pigs drowning in water echoes the destruction of Pharoah’s soldiers in the Red Sea, when God delivered Israel from the Egyptian army. This would be a really entertaining story for those who first heard it! They’d get the joke, even if we can’t, and they’d know what the story is about.

Once you realize all this, it becomes pretty clear what Jesus is confronting – the imperial power of Rome, which is expressed in its own military-industrial complex. Tacitus describes this system when he wrote, “They have pillaged the world: when the land has nothing left for men who ravage everything, they scour the sea … They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ‘empire’. They make a desolation and call it ‘peace’.”

Just as racism exists not only where overt acts of lynching occur, but insidiously infects and affects us all on many different levels, so the army of Rome not only harms those it kills out right but also infects the thinking of others, crushing them as low as the veteran in the graveyard.

Jesus’ confrontation of the Powers here speaks volumes about how we can confront Powers like alcoholism, racism, white supremacy, addiction to war and violence, in our times today.

First, it is important to notice that the strange behavior and attitudes this man exhibits are from him internalizing the oppression system of which he is a part. This internalization of oppression is a contemporary way of understanding what happened to this man. We can see this kind of internalization when a child of an alcoholic who doesn’t have a drinking problem lives in fear of speaking their true mind or feelings. We see it when a person victimized by racism begins to live as if she doesn’t deserve as much as a white person or when I as a white person react suspiciously when I see young people of color standing in a group on the street. These messages of these oppressive Powers can take root in my mind and heart in ways I can easily fail to notice. That Christ confronts the powers means we must confront the ways we internalize such oppressive patterns, and work to change them.

Next, Jesus confronts this Power head on, ensuring it is named. Right now we live in a time when people want to talk about “alternative facts”, avoiding naming the truth of what is happening all around us. And yet ugly things happen, whatever pretty words we use to conceal it – kids end up in cages and teens suicide one after another, politicians with racist and neo-Nazi connections get elected, laws don’t apply to those with power and money, and people end up abused and mistreated because of the color of their skin, who they love or what religion they practice.

When harm is being done by the patterns of the Powers around us, Jesus demonstrates that naming it and inviting others to name it makes a difference. Part of our training as United Church ministers these days is education on Racial Justice – so we can learn to name our own and others’ complicity with the Powers that marginalize people.

Jesus also breaks the hold of the Powers by acknowledging the difference between people themselves and the Powers that warp their thinking. Probably many who had walked past this Gerasene man had seen him as a wretch, deserving only scorn. He is in chains and afraid Jesus will torture him. Yet he too, was a child of God, beloved and deserving belonging. Remembering and naming that is important. This is why Desmond Tutu said to those fighting apartheid, “Be nice to the whites; they need you to rediscover their humanity”. Ultimately, those swept up in the influence of racism and other Powers are not the same thing as the racism or other oppressive power itself.

There are always those who profit from oppression and from others’ despair. The hateful rhetoric that is on the rise now flows from those who feel threatened to see others who are different than themselves finally being treated with dignity. When people have dignity, they no longer accept dead-end jobs, sub-standard housing, second-class treatment, polluted water and high death rates. They demand and expect justice and fairness – and there are those who don’t want that to happen. In other words, if we experience resistance in the cause of justice, it probably means we’re actually making an impact and the powers that be are getting scared!

Micah had one more wonderful story he shared with us online this week: Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, spent the last 25-30 years resisting the oppressive power of racism and white supremacy in a surprising way — by befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. The friendships he has built on this journey have led over 200 Klansmen to realize their hatred of men like Daryl, based on the color of their skin, was wrong, and to give up their Klan robes. I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a bit of extra time to share this!

Speaking of the first such friendship he made, Davis says, “I was playing music — it was my first time playing in this particular bar called the Silver Dollar Lounge and this white gentleman approached me and he says, “I really enjoy you all’s music.” I thanked him, shook his hand and he says, “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I was kind of surprised that he did not know the origin of that kind of music and I said, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” He’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “He learned it from the same place I did. Black blues and boogie-woogie piano players.” That’s what that rockabilly, rock ‘n roll style came from.” He said, “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. I ain’t ever heard no black man except for you play like that.” So I’m thinking this guy has never heard Fats Domino or Little Richard and then he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?”

“Well, now I’m getting curious. I’m trying to figure out, now how is it that in my 25 years on the face of this earth that I have sat down, literally, with thousands of white people, had a beverage, a meal, a conversation or anybody else, and this guy is 15 to 20 years older than me and he’s never sat down with a black guy before and had a drink. I said, “How is that? Why?” At first, he didn’t answer me and he had a friend sitting next to him and he elbowed him and said, “Tell him, tell him, tell him,” and he finally said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

“I just burst out laughing because I really did not believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg. As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo on there, the Klan symbol and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn’t joking. And now I’m wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman? But he was very friendly, it was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with this band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it.”

Like Davis, let’s keep planting seeds, healing relationships, joining Christ in the work of naming, confronting, and removing the hold oppressive Powers have on us, on others, on our communities, and our world. Amen and Amen.

Sermons are primarily meant to be preached, not read, so the content of any sermon may not be exactly as written. If you wish to share these sermons with others in print or on the internet please contact Rev. Heidi for permission.