Sunday, 26 January 2020

From Promised Land to Compromised Land

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
26 January 2020

Mark 5.1-20

Our journey through Mark’s gospel,
            brings us this week to the famous story of the Gadarene, or Gerasene, demoniac.

We’ll come to the man and his demons shortly,
            but it’s worth spending a bit of time first with the geography,
            not least because some of us here will be visiting this area later this year
                        on our next Bloomsbury trip to Palestine and Israel.

The reading began with Jesus and his disciples crossing the sea of Galilee,
            and going in to an area known as ‘The Decapolis’,
            which got its name from two Greek words,
                        deka, meaning ten, and polis, meaning cities.
The Decapolis was a group of ten cities
            which in the first century were on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

They formed a group because of their common language, shared culture,
            geographical location, and slightly uncertain political status,
with each city functioning as an autonomous city-state dependent on Rome.

They are sometimes described as a league of cities,
            although it’s unclear whether they were ever formally organized as a political unit.

In terms of contemporary geography,
            most of the Decapolis region is now located in Jordan,
but Damascus is in Syria
            and Hippos and Scythopolis are in Israel.

At the time of Jesus, the Decapolis was a centre of Greek and Roman culture
            in a region which was otherwise populated by Jewish people.
In other words, this was ‘Gentile territory’
            that Jesus was leading his followers into,
albeit Gentile territory with strongly Jewish links.

It was the land ‘beyond’ the Jordan,
            a place where less religiously observant Jews and God-fearing Gentiles,
            could live and trade alongside people
                        of very different cultural and religious convictions to their own.

If Israel was the promised land,
            the Decapolis was the compromised land.

And Jesus taking his disciples across the sea to visit it
            was a symbolic reversal of the journey taken by the children of Israel
                        at the end of the Exodus
            when they had crossed the waters of the Jordan
                        to take possession of the promised land.

And here I want us to pause for a moment,
            and think about that word I just used… did you spot it?

The word is ‘possession’,
            and its use to indicate ownership of land
            is going to be crucial to us in our engagement
            with the story of the demon possessed man from this region.

Let me read to you from the book of Leviticus,
            which spells out some of the purity legislation
                        that the books of the law
                                    recorded as having been given by God to the Jews
                        as they took possession of the promised land:

Lev. 20.22-26 
You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them, so that the land to which I bring you to settle in may not vomit you out.
 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.
 24 But I have said to you: You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God; I have separated you from the peoples.
 25 You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.
 26 You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.

There it is again - that slippery word ‘possession’.

And according to Leviticus, God gave the children of Abraham the promised land,
            for them to possess, for them to inhabit,
            for them to take from those who were already living there.

It’s uncomfortable at a number of levels, isn’t it?

I mean, do we really believe God works like this?
            Does God command people to displace other people
            and take possession of their land?

Some people believe this very strongly,
            and it’s the idea behind notions such as ‘The Christian Nation’,
but it also has very contemporary resonances for those today,
            who find themselves living in places that other people lay claim to.

Whether or not you agree that Israel in our time
            has the right to possess the land of Palestine,
there is no denying the strong biblical precedent,
            that passages such as this offer to such possessing forces.

One potentially helpful perspective might be
            that this passage from Leviticus, and others like it,
            rather than being a direct record of what God said to the Jews
                        as they stood on the east bank of the Jordan
                        looking across at the land flowing with milk and honey;
            is instead a later text,
                        attempting to theologically justify a historic act of violent possession,
            by claiming, post hoc, after the event, that God told them to do it.

Another, equally uncomfortable, aspect of this
            is the division that we find here between holy and unholy,
            between clean and unclean.

Do we believe that God was, at some point in history,
            only really interested in one group of people,
                        who were holy and pure and clean
                        where everyone else was unacceptable?
Certainly, the author of this part of Leviticus believed this to be the case.

We might, of course, conclude that such an isolationist perspective,
            was a betrayal rather than a fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham,
            that God would be his God, and his children would be God’s people,
because it denies that strand of theology within the Hebrew Bible
            which makes it very clear that the purpose of God calling one nation,
                        leading them into deeper discovery of God’s nature and purposes,
            was so that those people could then bring that blessing to others,
                        shining as a light to all the nations.

And we might conclude that when Jesus, early in his ministry,
            deliberately crossed the boundary into the Gentile territory of the Decapolis,
            to bring healing and restoration to those who lived there,
he was symbolically setting his ministry in direct opposition
            to those forces of religion in his own time
                        which were focussed on the nationalistic possession of land,
                        and on the maintenance of holiness and purity codes at all costs.

And so Jesus goes over the sea.

And here we have a slight confusion within the textual tradition,
            because it’s not quite clear which town is being talked about here.

There are two towns near each other,
            with similar sounding names.

One of them is Gerasa, and the other is Gadara,
            and depending on which ancient manuscript you’re reading,
            the exorcism either takes place
                        in the region of the Gerasenes, or the Gadarenes.

Why does this matter, you might well ask?

Well, the problem is that the better textual tradition is for Gerasa,
            which is what our pew Bibles go with.

But Gerasa, as you can see from the map, is quite some way from the sea of Galilee,
            which means that two thousand demon possessed pigs,
                        running all that way to the sea to drown themselves,
            is rather hard to visualise.

That part of the story would make much more sense at Gadara.

However, Gerasa may be the location of a notorious Jewish revolt against the Romans,
            referred to by the Jewish Historian Josephus,
in which a thousand rebels were slaughtered by the Legionaries of Rome.

Possibly what’s happened here
            is that Mark has run a couple of different stories and locations together,
giving us the confusion we’ve inherited from the maps and the manuscripts.

It doesn’t really matter, of course,
            because Mark isn’t writing history, he’s writing theology,
and the theology is clear enough wherever the story is set.

Jesus and his disciples cross the sea,
            to the region of the gentiles,
making the journey from promised land to compromised land,
            from purity to uncleanness,
from in, to out.

And what they find there is the demon possessed man,
            living amongst the tombs,
            unable to be bound,
            and self-harming in torment.

Today’s sermon isn’t a sermon about poor mental health,
            but I do just want to say at this point
that there will be those of us here this morning
            who find this story distressing,
because it records a level of self-hatred and harm
            that will resonate with our own experience.

Wherever people are victimised,
            there is the capacity for us to internalise and enact
                        the rejection we experience,
            finding ourselves compelled by forces we cannot control
                        into actions that harm us, either individually or collectively.

And whilst I do not doubt that an encounter with Jesus
            can open a path to healing and wholeness,
            for those whose souls and minds are in torment,
I firmly believe that path includes appropriate medication and talking therapy,
            supported by the prayerful love of the Christian community.

The key to understanding how Mark uses this story
            to reveal more of the person and ministry of Jesus
lies in the geography that we’ve already been paying attention to.

The man is possessed by a demonic Legion,
            which is the word for a large military unit of the Roman army,
            sometimes as many as five or six thousand men,
            but always over a thousand.

And clearly, for Mark, the man is a metaphor,
            for the Roman military possession of the land.

The land given by God to the Jews to possess,
            had been in turn possessed by the Assyrians, the Babylonians,
                        the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.

This is a story of possession going back centuries,
            and the demonic legions currently occupying the land
            are just the latest manifestation of a much greater and more enduring evil,
which is the cycle of oppression and domination
            where one group of humans possesses another.

We might dress it up as being about land, inheritance,
            glory, and divine right.
But ultimately this is a story about power.

Who has the power to possess another?
            Whether the ‘other’ is a man living among the tombs,
                        or the region of the Decapolis,
                                    or the nation of Israel,
            or any other people, tribe, or demographic,
                        which finds itself dominated and oppressed.

This man isn’t just a metaphor for the land of Israel,
            he’s a metaphor for all possessed peoples anywhere.

This story unmasks all such dominating powers as satanic in origin,
            and this is true whether we’re talking about one nation possessing another,
            or an ideology possessing an individual or a group of people.

From the lone suicide bomber,
            to the so-called just war,
acts of violence find their ultimate origin in evil,
            as people idolise dogma and the Legions march once again.

So, Jesus meets the man with the Legion of demons,
            and the man starts shouting at Jesus,

Mk. 5.7 
"What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?
I adjure you by God, do not torment me."

In an earlier sermon in our series on Mark,
            I suggested that the reason Jesus kept silencing the demons who tried to name him
            was because he didn’t want to accept titles
                        that would align him with the Jewish system of purity legislation.

If part of Jesus’ strategy for bringing healing and wholeness to the land and the people,
            was the casting out of the evils of exclusion,
                        and by declaring to be clean that which was previously considered unclean,
            the demonic attempt to name Jesus as just another preacher of righteousness,
                        was always an attempt to rob him of his power,
            because it aligned him with a religious system
                        that had already demonstrated its failure
            to bring good news to those excluded, suffering, and marginalised.

So Jesus commands the demon to leave the man,
            asking him to give his name.

The demon then replies using both military and geographical language:

Mk. 5.9-10 He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many."
And the Demon begged Jesus earnestly not to send them out of the country.

At which point Jesus cast the legion of demons
            into a conveniently legion-sized herd of pigs,
which promptly rush into the sea and drown,
            returning the demonic legion to the waters of chaos.

And those of us who have a concern for animal welfare,
            might well, at this point, be somewhat miffed with Jesus
            for solving the problem by killing two thousand pigs.

It’s not easy to explain,
            and I don’t really think from a contemporary perspective it can be justified,
but there is a possibility that it may be understood….

From a Jewish purity law perspective,
            pigs were unclean animals.
They were not to be touched, or eaten.

But of course, we’re not in a Jewish area,
            or at least, not entirely.
We’re in the compromised land, remember, not the promised land.

Here, people keep pigs,
            in quite large number it would seem.

The Jewish and Gentile population of the Decapolis
            was multi-cultural as well as multi-ethnic,
they were people who lived in the grey-area of compromise:
            ‘You like bacon? Have bacon!’
            ‘You don’t want bacon? Don’t have bacon!’

You get the idea.
            It’s not exactly modern metropolitan liberalism,
            but it’s a step in our direction.

But from a Jewish perspective,
            and of course Mark’s readership would have been predominantly Jewish,
this is the perfect end to the story:
            the unclean pigs get their comeuppance,
and there’s a not-so-subtle joke about Legionaries being pigs.

We think that insulting the police in this way is relatively modern,
            but people have been doing it for millennia.

Anyway, the man is now in his right mind,
            the possession is ended.
But the locals don’t seem very happy.

The local population now beg Jesus to leave,
            primarily because he’s just killed their pigs!
You can see their point.
            From their perspective, the compromised land is just fine,
                        and the last thing they need is some Jewish ‘purity prophet’
                        coming along with miraculous powers,
            killing their unclean herds
                        and challenging who knows what else lucrative practices!

They don’t want a radical reformation,
            they don’t want some religio-political revolution.
They just want to be left alone.

And so they plead with Jesus,
            begging him to leave their neighbourhood.

They don’t want the legions gone,
            they want Jesus gone.
They are comfortable with their compromises,
            they have learned to survive under oppression,
            and some of them are even doing very well from the resident Legions.

The reason the man had not been healed before
            was because of the dysfunctional co-dependency that had been reached,
            between his suffering and the local economy.

He had become for them their convenient scape-goat,
            the weird man in the tombs, who was both scary and useful
            they bogeyman to keep the kids in check,
                        and the person to blame when things went wrong.

But they didn’t want him gone,
            any more than they wanted the legions out of their land,
because just as they could scapegoat the man among the tombs,
            so they could blame the occupying forces
            for things that they felt were beyond their control.

There is a strange resistance to freedom,
            where those who have been oppressed for so long
            are scared when the opportunity to be and live differently presents itself.

The locals haven’t grasped that the casting out of Legion
            is good news not just for the man,
but for everyone,
            Jew and Gentile alike.

And this is at the heart of what Mark is trying to tell us
            about the nature and ministry of Jesus.

Jesus, as we are discovering, isn’t just another first-century Jewish purity-prophet,
            he hasn’t embarked on a mission to reinforce the boundary between ‘in’ and ‘out’,
            or to declare people ‘unclean’ and worthy of punishment.

Rather, he is playing a much deeper and more dangerous game,
            by challenging the very ideologies of exclusion
that create the context for people being possessed and declared unclean in the first place.

So at the end of the story Jesus doesn’t silence the man,
            rather he sends him to tell everyone about the mercy God has shown him.
This man doesn’t need to be kept quiet,
            because his testimony is to the way Jesus has healed him,
            by going beyond the boundaries of national identity and religious purity,
            and by challenging the demonic powers that dominate and possess the land.

This is a revelation of God in Jesus,
            who goes where he is not even sought,
            to bring peace to those who don’t even recognise it as a desirable objective.

And so how do we hear this story in our world?
            Where are the powers of enshrined violence to be found?
            Where are the demons that Jesus would cast out?

Let’s name a few,
            but there are many more, because their names are Legion.

Racism is a demon.
            Poverty is a demon,
Powerlessness is a demon,
            Homophobia and Transphobia are demons,
Oppression is a demon,
            Disempowerment is a demon,
Hatred is a demon,
            Self-righteousness is a demon,
War is always a demon,
            Any ideology that ends in ‘ism’ can become a demon,
Lack of hospitality is a demon,
            Denying the image of God in another is a demon.

And I could go on, and on, and on….
            but I’ll leave each of us to write our own lists.

And as we do,
            looking deep in our hearts to the darkness that lies within,
sometimes, we may discover that we do not want our demons gone,
            because we have got used to them,
            or because we have developed dysfunctional co-dependencies with them.

But the casting out of evil is always, in the end, good news,
            because how else are we to be fully human before God?