Nobody does border crossings nonchalantly.
Going into another country, another jurisdiction. You become subject to another authority. People dress differently. They often speak different languages, embrace different customs, eat different foods.
Crossing borders means that you’re trusting people who don’t know who you are to treat well. Launching into the unknown is nervy business.
I watched, as many of you probably have, Department of Justice attorney, Sarah Fabian, argue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that immigrant children as young as toddlers—who are being detained at the border, who are sleeping on concrete with aluminum blankets and very little adult supervision—don’t need things like toothpaste, soap, or mattresses to be considered safe and secure.
These children and their families left the horror of their homelands to come here, so they could lay their heads down at night in peace. They crossed the border to find a little safety and security … but apparently our government’s definition of safety and security includes: no toothpaste, no soap, no diapers, no menstrual pads, no mattresses, sleeping on the concrete … with no idea what’s going to become of you.
When you cross a border, you never know what you’re going to find on the other side. It might just be a waterless wasteland with no relief in sight, or it might be a cold gray patch of concrete with fluorescent lights.
But it’s not always just crossing a border into a foreign country that gets dicey. Coming into your own country at this point can be a tough proposition. I read a story published yesterday about an American journalist, Seth Harp, who was coming back after seven days from working on a story in Mexico City.
Harp flew into Austin, Texas—his home town. He was pulled out of the security line for a secondary search by Customs and Border Patrol. When he told the agent that he was a journalist, he was pulled into a room, where he was questioned for three hours. He had his iPhone and his MacBook searched, as well as his luggage. They rifled through everything from his personal photographs to his email correspondence to his Internet search to his underwear.
When Harp asked if he was under arrest, the agents who’d gathered in the room said no, but that he was not free to leave. Neither was he able to call an attorney. He had done nothing wrong, nothing that merited a rousting by the agents from CBP. But coming back and forth across borders is risky business.
Jesus had crossed an important border himself in our text for this morning—going across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes. That is to say, Jesus went to the land of the Gentiles, a place no good Jewish boy ought to go.
But go he did.
And what did he find when he got there? A wild man, a man possessed by demons.
When this wild man saw Jesus, he fell down and started shouting, “What have you to do with us, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
Jesus said, “What’s your name?”
But there’s a problem with this answer. Legion isn’t a name; it’s a number. Legion is the number of Roman soldiers in an ancient Roman army unit—usually about 6,000.
Ok. Just so we have this straight. Luke presents us with a story about a man possessed by a Legion of demons that takes place in a land possessed by Legions of Roman soldiers. Get it? Not that subtle, is it?
Luke, following Mark, gives us a story that acts as a thinly veiled criticism of the Romans who continue to possess the land, and who continue to oppress the people.
Make no mistake, this is a story about power—who’s got it and who doesn’t.
In the ancient Near East of Jesus’ day, the Romans had power, and everyone else did not. And that power was ruthlessly used by the Romans to oppress anyone with the temerity to raise questions.
Jesus says, “What’s your name?” and 6,000 Roman soldiers erupt onto the scene—the very symbol of Rome’s tendency to throw its weight around, to put a boot on the neck of those at the bottom of the heap.
So, what does Jesus do? He shows everybody who’s really in charge. He speaks and the demons flee, that which had bound the man to life in a graveyard … life in a graveyard. If you were a fan of that mid-twentieth century school of literary interpretation—the New Criticism—you’d call that irony.
Jesus frees a man from bondage to the powers that tyrannize him. But for Luke, this man bound by the forces of Legion, speaks in an intentional way to the current system of tyranny that binds Luke’s readers.
But this isn’t a story about Rome’s ability to shape the world to its liking.
This is a story about Jesus crossing borders and having to contend with what’s on the other side—with the mysterious wasteland, with a man roaming about the cemetery in his own personal zombie apocalypse.
This is a story about Jesus unmasking the pretensions of the powerful, of any system that would render God’s children powerless, forcing them to be something less than they were meant to be.
Demon possession isn’t a uniquely individual affliction. Take a look around, there are a lot of people living under the soul-crushing oppression of Legion right now.
I came into the office one time to find a voicemail from a young man I’d never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one my professors whom you went to school with told me about you and about the work your church is doing.”
He went on to say that he’d done some research on Douglass, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBTQ people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.
Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.
He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. This is all on voicemail, mind you.
He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—you know Exodus International, ”pray away the gay.” It was awful. They put him through what could only be described as torture. In fact, he became an alcoholic. He’s attempted suicide on three separate occasions as a result of being told that God could never be happy with him the way he was.
When he thinks about these things, his mind returns to the issue of blame. Oh, his parents, of course. They have much to answer for. But really, misguided as they were, they were doing the best they knew.
He feels most hurt by Christians in general. The people who made him feel like a moral monster, and who did so in the name of God.
The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s hated church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.
Over a very short period of time listening to this voicemail, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.
He finished by saying something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”
What if the Legion that oppresses you lives in church?
I know right?
But that’s not the end of the story. Some time later, I got a call from Benjamin again—out of the blue. He said, “I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but Exodus International (the leading reparative therapy organization) is shutting down. They just announced it. Their director issued an apology to all the people they’ve hurt over the last 37 years.”
This was a big deal. I knew that right away—for him and for all those people who felt like they’d been shackled by the very people they believed would set them free.
Then he said, “I just wanted you to know, Pastor. I’m happy. I thought you should know.”
Now, why did he call me? Why did he say that?
It was pretty impressive, really. The people who should have been crossing borders to find him and set him free, crossed a border and chained him tighter to the tombstones among which he lived—alone and afraid, wishing only that he could die.
But he was raised on Jesus. Couldn’t get Jesus out of his head. So, after he felt like he’d been set free, he crossed the borders on his own, and came back to meet us.
He didn’t have to. Lord knows no one would blame him if he didn’t , if he’d just kept as far away from Jesus’ followers as he could. But because he’s determined to follow Jesus the best way he knows how, he risked the uncertainty of what he’d find on the other side, crossed a border to speak the truth, and in hopes of setting the church free.
Maybe there’s something in there for the us. Maybe the church could learn a thing or two from Benjamin. Because here’s the irony … to Benjamin, and to a whole lot of other people who feel like the place it all started to go wrong was among the folks who claimed to love God the most.
But Benjamin and folks like him love Jesus too much. So, he’s taking a risk. He knows the chains. He’s heard the voice of Legion. But he’s crossing the boundary anyway.
So, if we were going to follow this young man’s lead, we might ask ourselves: Where is Legion today and what responsibility do we have when we hear Legion’s voice? Where are those who’re being held in bondage by the powers and principalities, those who need to hear the voice of the liberator and to be set free from the chains that tie them to the tombstone society has made for them?
Because Legion still runs the graveyard wherever people’s race, or immigration status, or sexual orientation, or gender identity, or physical or mental capabilities prevent them from flourishing the way God intended.
Legion’s still in power wherever the poor are kept in their poverty by those who believe they have everything to gain and nothing to lose, wherever children are bullied, and the elderly are forgotten.
Legion still lives wherever people are made to believe that the way they have been created by God is not good enough—either for God or for us.
Legion still runs the show whenever little children are kept in concentration camps without toothpaste, soap, and mattresses—while the folks in charge stoke the fears of the credulous.
Legion is still pulling the strings wherever politicians threaten raids on the vulnerable to fortify their political standing.
So, here’s what I think: I think that we who would be like Jesus, we need to take the risk and cross the borders to go looking for the people Jesus himself went out in search of, and to speak the words and do the work necessary to see them free.
We need to brave the wasteland and go into the graveyards that house so many, and find ways to break the chains that keep them in bondage.
We can’t afford to wait and let them come to us.
When you cross a border, you never know what you’re going to find on the other side. It might just be a waterless wasteland with no relief in sight.
Or, you might just find Jesus already over there with a dump truck full of soap and toothpaste.
But you’ve got to go to find out.