Shuck and Jive

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Taking on Legion--A Sermon

Taking on Legion
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 20, 2010

Luke 8:26-39

The Jesus Seminar determined that Jesus probably was an exorcist. He was believed to be successful in casting out demons. Now that doesn't mean the Jesus Seminar thinks there are or ever were demons, but the pre-modern culture in which he lived did. Afflictions that we might understand as mental illness would have been in Jesus' time and place caused by unclean spirits. People who could get rid of these unclean spirits would be holy men and women. Jesus apparently had skills at this.

However, the Jesus Seminar voted this particular account as a fiction. It has the feel of a horror movie. A horror movie that ends with a comic twist. Demons named Legion asking for and taking up temporary residence in the pigs and drowning them in the sea must have been an amusing detail for those who saw pigs as unclean.

The author of Luke copied this story from Mark. Mark has more detail that Luke left aside. Here is how Mark describes the man:
He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.
Mark also provides a detail of the number of pigs, 2000.

That number, that Luke misses, is interesting. I think it is one of a number of clues that the original storyteller was telling us a story. The demon is named Legion and Legion enters 2000 pigs and is drowned in the sea. Wink. Wink.

Legion was the name of a Roman fighting force. A legion could contain anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000 soldiers. Palestine was occupied by the Roman army. Jesus was killed on a Roman cross. The New Testament is a response to this Roman occupation. Jesus is drowning the Roman army in the sea.

Mark, as crafty storytellers will do, shows us without telling us what this story is really about. The story is not about Jesus casting out a demon as if that is all that is wrong. It is a story of resistance to and liberation from Roman oppression.

The Roman occupation is the unclean spirit. The shackles and chains, the howling and the bruising, are the effects of this occupation. This is the human suffering, the toll that is taken on the people of Palestine by this occupation.

For Mark it is a battle between Jesus and Caesar and Mark throws down the gauntlet in the first sentence of his gospel:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Proclamations throughout the Empire would begin with good news from the emperor, son of God. Mark spoofs that pompous proclamation.

Mark is taking head on Roman Imperial Theology. The real son of God, the real power, is not in Caesar and his standing armies and his weaponry and his legions and his economic system based on slavery and his unsustainable lust for land and his abuse of people and of Earth. No, the real son of God, who represents the empire of God, of justice and peace, is in this peasant-teacher-exorcist--rabble-rouser, Jesus, and his movement of non-violent resistance.

Even the demon, Legion, knows who Jesus is, according to the story. When the demon sees Jesus coming, shouts out,

"Don't torment me!"

Don't torment Roman occupation? That's funny. Jesus had told the unclean spirit to leave. The 2000 pigs represent a legion of soldiers (pigs!) drowning in the sea as YHWH drowned Pharoah's army in the exodus from Egypt. That is the power of the good news Mark and Luke are telling us.

Who are the people who own the pigs and who ask Jesus to leave because they are afraid? Maybe they are those who benefit economically from the oppression of their own kin. In the logic of this story they are not innocent farmers, they represent the interests of the occupation. They are doing just fine with Rome and with Legion and they don't take kindly to Jesus messing up the good thing they have going.

Another detail. The man possessed by the unclean spirit lives in the tombs. The land of the dead. Being occupied is death. It is being shackled. At the end of the story, the tomb is empty. This living person is no longer in the tomb.

Fast forward to the end of Mark's gospel. After Jesus' crucifixion, the women go to the tomb to cover his body in spices. When they get there the tomb is empty. The tomb that the Roman occupation put Jesus in cannot contain him. The man or angel at the empty tomb tells the woman that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised and has gone ahead to Galilee. Follow him. The woman run away afraid and that is how the gospel ends. It ends with a question mark. Will we be afraid like the owners of the pigs, or will we follow? Will we continue the resistance?

None of this is literal or supernatural. It is symbol and metaphor.

And it is true.

Well it could be true.

It is true to the extent that we trust that it is true and act on its truth.

It is true if we use our imagination and our courage and bring this story to the present.

This is where Bible class ends and preaching begins, I suppose. You can apply the story of Jesus casting out Legion to the present in many different ways. That is the power of a symbolic story.

The story of the man in the tombs is a great story for coming to terms with addiction. Drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behavior keep us in the tombs howling and hurting. The only solution is to name the demon and send it away. That requires brutal honesty. No denial, no anger and blame, no depression or feeling sorry for oneself will help. Legion is an unclean spirit that won't stop until you are dead. Get rid of it. It can be done. No excuses. Anyone who is in recovery knows that. Those for whom recovery does not work are those as the AA manual says:
"constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."
The story of the man in the tombs is a great story for recovery from addiction on the individual level. With honesty and help that is available immediately, addicts can rise from the dead and lead healthy, whole, productive, unclean spirit-free lives.

It is also a great story for recovery from addiction on the collective level.

We, and particularly Americans, who at 4% of the population use 25% of the world's oil, are addicted to fossil fuels. President Obama told us that a few days ago from the Oval Office. Addicted. That is not a figure of speech. That is a reality.

We are possessed by an unclean spirit.

For the past 150 years the human population of Earth has increased from under 2 billion to over 6 and one-half billion because of fossil fuels, particularly oil, the elixir of the depths.

It isn't so much that we are addicted to oil as we are addicted to the economy of oil which is unlimited growth and consumption. Food, housing, transportation, everything is based on the abundance of cheap oil. It is a lifestyle that a former president said is non-negotiable. That is an addict talking. That is Legion.

Oh, yes it is negotiable and Mother Earth will negotiate on her terms.

The numbers are telling us that global oil production has peaked. This means Earth will provide less and less oil as we demand more. The implications for Peak Oil are sobering. There are plenty of books, videos, and websites that tell what these implications are.

But we are in denial. We are addicts. Addicts lie to themselves and to others.
Oh, when the time comes we will switch over to solar power, or wind, or we'll drive those cute little hydrogen powered cars, or we'll burn corn in our tanks.
Addicts will believe anything as long as they don't have to change. None of that is feasible. Not even close. We will need alternative sources in a post-peak world for human survival, but nothing will replace fossil fuels and keep us on our current addictive lifestyle or anywhere close to it.

Watching on our computer screen 60,000 barrels of oil pour into the Gulf each day because of our desperate drilling adventures should be the bottom that addicts need to hit before they realize they need to change. But so far, no.

Rome fell because it overextended itself. Its energy was slavery and in order to expand it had to continually conquer more land and hence more slaves. It was a military-slavery economy. It finally reached its limit, its peak, and it imploded.

We have a military--fossil fuel--consumptive economy. Infinite growth and finite resources yield collapse. We are there.

Folks may check out at this point because it is too depressing. My answer to that, in my most pastoral voice possible, is tough. You need to stay with us. We do not have the luxury to be depressed.

We need to buck up and face it. We cannot stop the grieving process at denial, or depression, or anger, or bargaining. We have to move to acceptance of reality. Only then can we face the decisions we need to make.

We can cast this demon out.
We can get rid of Legion.
We can change pro-actively our addictive lifestyle.
It will take brutal honesty.

As Americans we no longer have the luxury of denying reality. We live in a representative democracy. For it to function, every citizen must be informed. Each of us must act as if we were president and realistically think through the options. We need to know the numbers and the facts, not the corporate spin, not the blind patriotism, not the polarization of left and right, but the facts.

The future is going to be local. Local food. Local energy. Little driving. We need to prepare our local governments for this. We need to use our influence in Carter County and Washington County and Sullivan County, wherever we live, to prepare ourselves realistically for a post-petroleum world. This is not for some time in the future. Now.

In our Bible story, when Jesus casts out Legion, the people were afraid and they told him to leave. We need to accept that telling the truth will anger folks. Addicts can't handle the truth. It is no use directing anger at the oil companies. They supply our addiction. It is no use directing anger at the government. We are the government.

Now remember, and this is most important. The story in Mark’s gospel is a story of good news.

The man possessed, shackled and hurting found his right mind.
He didn't solve all of his problems.
He found a clear head in order to face them.
He found a mind of peace and joy.
Waking up, naming our addiction, and facing the future realistically is good news.
Ending our unsustainable addiction is good news.
It will result in clean water.
In healthy food.
In justice.
In peace.
In life.

We really have no idea what this new life free of addiction look like.
Our great-grandchildren will.
We need to live for them now.
We cannot poison their waters, their food, and their air for our addiction.
We need to live for them.

There will be a new Earth on the other side of this great change.
It only looks scary from this end.
Addicts cannot imagine how they will live without their drug.
When they recover they recover day by day.
They don't magically solve the problems.
They are clear thinking enough to face them.
It is time to wake up and face our addiction and begin the road to recovery.

The story in the Bible is a story of courage.
It is the story of honesty and trust.
I believe it is a true story.
It is a story of the power of truth to set us free.
Let us live it.


  1. John

    You missed the REALLY funny part about the pigs. The demons want to go into the pigs. Unclean spirits, unclean animal, Ha ha. But the pigs even thought unclean have the good sense not to hang around on earth filled with unclean spirits. They commit suicide instead. Or you could read it the other way around. The demons are ashamed to be in pigs and commit suicide rather than remain in unclean animals. All of which could also be said, I think about the Jewish revolution in the late 60s AD and the Bar Kochba revolt. Of course that last bit isn't funny at all.

  2. Let's also remember that bible commentaries point out that everything after Mark 16:8 was added at a later date.

    I guess just ending up with an empty tomb didn't have that pizazz they were looking for.