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Sermon – June 20, 2010: Broke the Bonds

 Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Broke the Bonds

Psalm 42; 1 Kings 19: 1-15a; Luke 8: 26 – 39

The presence of gangs leads to crime. Isn’t that how we think about it? Isn’t that the

motivation for the gang-awareness and gang-discouraging programs being promoted in the

area? We know there are places where gangs dominate drug sales and crimes against

property and persons, and we expect that somehow physically keeping gang members

from coming here, or people here from joining gangs, will keep crime from happening.

It is not as simple as that. The truth is that the presence of crime leads to gangs.

Demand for illicit drugs, or demand for illegal opportunities of whatever kind, create a

situation best exploited, not by individuals, but by groups. There is safety in numbers, and

strength in numbers. Organized crime is, like organized anything, more efficient and more

likely to be effective. It is also true that something like a mob mentality can influence

persons to behave much more lawlessly as members of groups than if they were on their

own. It’s possible for people to be more wholeheartedly evil when they have companions

in wrongdoing.

The local paper carries terrible stories about beatings and killings which involve

multiple persons attacking an individual. Whether these are more spontaneous crimes than

the sort perpetrated by solitary persons I don’t know, but they often seem to arise out of

circumstances like drinking or partying; for some reason someone is identified as an enemy,

and things go from bad to worse. A person who might hesitate to get into a fight all alone

may be more willing to use violence if he thinks he has overwhelming force on his side, or it

may be that a contagion of brutality infects people and takes over events.

If there is a temptation to lawlessness and violence in groups, there is a

corresponding vulnerability in solitude. Persons alone are conscious of their exposure to

trouble, and when circumstances like having a relationship dissolve or losing a job occur, the

individual without a supportive circle feels dreadfully isolated. A person suddenly is

conscious of how few resources secure him from all the possible difficulties life harbors.

The story of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness to escape Jezebel’s death threat is

memorable for that still, small voice of calm which comes to the prophet in his hiding place.

God is the great companion and comforter of persons cut off from their former lives and their

human supports. When outer circumstances lose their certainty, inner strength becomes the

only salvation for persons, and that inner strength often results from a fresh encounter with

the reality and care of God. Many a soul has found, in a dark hour, new hope through

prayer, or through reading the Bible, and sometimes through that gracious illumination of the

depth of experience and presence of another world found in mystical vision. In the midst of

 
 

 

 

surrounding dangers, something quiet and serene and certain is the solace. That is one of

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the roots of religion.

There always are people who are beleaguered, who are not left in peace to live in

the world as they must, but who become the butt of jokes or targets of persecution. One of

the melancholy privileges of being a pastor is hearing people’s confidences. Those

people who are a bit different, who are not as gifted in some way as the rest of us, find a

way through life–but many of them experience considerable unkindness from others.

Human insecurity finds relief in discovering someone even more vulnerable than oneself,

and so the world’s oddballs get picked on. Those people for whom you feel a vague

sense of pity, perhaps mingled with apprehension–those people whom you are too

decent to bedevil, and have no need to insult in order to assert your superiority, are tested

and tormented by other people.

That’s what comes to mind reading the psalm. There are a number of psalms like

this, pleas to God for help in enduring the efforts of enemies to get one down. Some kind

of pecking order gets established, for whatever reason, and the person who offers this

prayer to God is at the bottom, kept down there by the collective effort of a number of

people who enjoy having someone to despise.

In our time there is great apprehension about bullying in the schools, and the most

ordinary confrontations and acts of self-defense are worried over in ways which never

happened in our childhood. At the same time we have developed a fascination with types

of entertainment in which groups gang up on perceived weaker persons to vote them off

islands or out of competitions, or to criticize their fashion sense or to find them inferior in their

efforts in the kitchen, or any number of other means of putting people down. Political

discourse, too, has degenerated into mean spirited skewering of persons who represent

policies or possibilities one doesn’t like. One sure kind of political bandwagon in our time is

the way that many will join in kicking someone while that person is down.

There are two groups who oppress the man Jesus meets in the country of the

Gerasenes. One group is that throng of evil spiritual influences which reveal their name as

“Legion”, there are so many of them. The other are the townspeople of the area, the

settled, law-abiding souls who feel they have no alternative but to combat the eruptions of

this unstable personality by putting him in chains and trying to confine him.

Confinement used to be the routine solution for people whose impulses and

energies and approaches to life were so out of whack with normal society that they

threatened the rest of us. In our time we have abandoned big state hospitals for the

mentally ill for two other approaches, one more humane and one less. Medication permits

many people either to be independent or semi-independent, and gives them an

opportunity to be more a part of society. That’s the better solution. When that doesn’t

work, people who once might have ended up in a place like Danville State Hospital now

sometimes end up in jail. That’s the worse solution.

 
 

 

 

I mention our current struggle to find a good way to deal with people with mental

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

illness because it helps us understand the neighbors of this man in the story with Jesus who

used to flee to the wilderness and bruise himself with stones. It is almost impossible to find

a compassionate way to handle people with whom one doesn’t have a common ground for

understanding.

That’s the way it is with this man before Jesus gets there. He has lots and lots of

voices in his head, some urging him this way, and others that. He is distracted, disturbed,

driven mad–and he acts out. Ordinary ways of managing an antisocial person–efforts to

persuade, to influence, to anticipate–don’t work.

Mental illness is like physical illness. Everyone has it some of the time, there are

varying severity and symptoms–and some are chronically ill with it. This man who has a

legion of evil spirits is a scary version of a not unfamiliar diagnosis–people with multiple

compulsions and self-destructive behaviors which dominate them. If they give up one

addiction they’ll engage in another all the more. If they stay sober the fact that they have

some other problem for which drink had been a naive self-prescription comes to the fore.

They represent a terrible possibility, and perhaps that’s why other people react to

them negatively. With whatever degree of justice, they are censured more than pitied, and

they come to occupy an exemplary state of disgrace. They become the town drunk or the

local hothead or simpleton, people keep them at arm’s length and categorize them. In the

order of the local society they have their own place, and once everyone gets used to that, it

is difficult for people to change.

We see that in the story from the gospel. Jesus heals the man. He is clothed, and

sitting calmly, and in his right mind for the first time. He is no longer hostage to the inner

demons which drove him from society. He remains, at least initially, trapped in the identity

he made for himself as a madman. People don’t embrace his cure, people aren’t eager for

Jesus to continue his miraculous healing in the area. Nobody sees him as an instance of the

compassion and grace of God. It is just as disturbing for him to become normal as it had

become commonplace to regard him as a maniac. That part of his illness–that part which

was his local society’s marking him as an outcast, as an impossible person to include–didn’t

get exorcised alongside the demons. It’s going to take people a while to accept him.

When we are young we believe people can change, and as we grow old we

decide that they can’t. It is hard for change to happen–it takes a miracle, quite literally, or at

least a higher power’s involvement, which is something that the A.A. people openly admit.

But since there is a God, and God loves people, it’s important for us to continue to hope,

and to pray, for new life for others, despite our having accepted them as flawed, and grown

comfortable with that role for them. The people on whom we’ve looked down, even if

we’ve looked down with sympathy more than scorn, sometimes disturb us by leaving that

position–but God intends for everyone to live, not by violence or confusion, but by that

right mind which hears the still, small voice of God’s reason and so knows how to live with

others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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