by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
February 6, 2022
Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/221408353455236
Scripture: Mark 5:1-20
So, this is the story of the Gerasene demoniac. As you heard, it is a rich and complex story. It’s so rich and complex in fact that we are going to explore it for three consecutive weeks. Now, I understand this is a lot of time to be spending with this somewhat odd story. Perhaps no church has ever done it before! But you are going to have to just trust me on this one.
I especially want to note that we will be ending our Three-week Gerasene Demoniac Extravaganza hearing from Dr. Betty Kola. Dr. Kola is a counselor who works with immigrants and refugees here in Omaha, and she is going to help us explore the societal impacts on mental health…in other words, how the systems we have created can undermine people’s attempts to get well when they are experiencing mental illness. So that’s all to say, this is going to be a rich exploration of this text the next three weeks, and I hope you will stick with me today and next week and especially when we hear from Dr. Kola.
Today, I want to draw your attention to a few of the details in this scripture. As the story begins, Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes. The first thing that happens is he encounters this man who is struggling with demons. The Gospel writer shares some details about this man’s life. He has been living as an outcast. He has been locked away or hidden himself away from everyone else. He is attempting to live among the tombs.
We hear he had been shackled at one point, and someone must have put him in those shackles. But commentators aren’t sure if the shackles were society just locking the man away and wanting to forget about him, or maybe the shackles were for the man’s own good. Because we hear that the man, having broken out of the shackles, is using his freedom to injure himself. He is howling and bruising himself with stones.
We have this man who is in pain. Again, there’s debate among scholars whether these stories of demons in the bible might actually be people who experienced mental illness. Our Gospel writers had no framework for mental health, so maybe this is how they talked about it…in terms of demons. Of course, this demon business runs the risk of saying the person was somehow sinful or evil, and I want to be crystal clear that when we are talking about mental illness…it is an illness. It is NOT about a person being sinful or evil. Not any more than being diabetic or having asthma is sinful or evil. Right?
Now, if this Gerasene man was experiencing a mental health crisis, it was quite severe. He was physically hurting himself and was totally isolated from any other human being. He was living among the dead.
My own personal experience of a mental health crisis did not look like the experience of this Gerasene man. The way I was bruising myself was not with stones, but with thoughts and words. There was most definitely isolation. But on the outside, my life looked great.
It was about 14 years ago. My daughter Ruby was around three. I had stayed home with her for the first two years – something I imagined to be the “gold standard” for motherhood, though truth be told, it was not a very good idea for me. As much as I loved her, I was wildly grateful to return to work when she was 2. I had a good job at the Center for Health Policy & Ethics at Creighton. In fact, I was on the cusp of receiving a promotion. Matt also had a good job. We owned a home in the Elmwood Park neighborhood of Omaha. All three of us were physically healthy. Ruby was thriving in her Montessori School. On the outside, I had no reason not to be happy.
Except I most definitely wasn’t. The strain of becoming parents had taken a toll on both me and Matt. We were both working as hard as we could to create a white picket fence life, and we were miserable. I was distraught because I felt like I couldn’t make anyone happy anymore: not Matt, not Ruby, definitely not myself.
Now, I will admit this is all kind of blurry. It was long time ago, and it was a dark time. But I do have two very vivid memories, and they are both memories of me hiding myself away because I couldn’t bear to be around other people. One, I remember hiding in the basement doing laundry and crying. Unlike the Gerasene man, I did not physically hurt myself, but I did beat myself up with thoughts and words. I remember telling myself that I was a failure as a mother and partner, but at least I could get the laundry done.
The second memory is when I was hiding away in the half-bathroom off the sunroom in the back of our house. It was in that room that I sobbed, almost unable to breathe, and told myself “Maybe Matt and Ruby would be better off without me.” I never had an actual plan to harm myself, but I started to imagine the world being a better place without me in it.
Thanks be to God I had a good friend at work named Kate, and I shared some of this with her. She listened with deep care and told me about her therapist Lisa. I saw Lisa for at least a year, I think, before I even started going to church. It was some months after that even before I had my conversion experience I have told you about. Eventually, there at First United Methodist Church, I was able to accept and see myself as God sees me…as a broken and flawed human and also 100% worthy of God’s love.
I haven’t told you this whole story before. It’s not because I’m ashamed. As we’ve been talking about, we all have mental health. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. But I think I didn’t tell you this story because it didn’t go the way I wished. I didn’t experience the love of God saving me when I was folding laundry or at my lowest point in that little half-bath. Jesus didn’t show up and turn my mental health around on a dime.
I had to go to therapy first. I had to spend a year, every week, sitting with a person who saw me. I had to sit and say out loud to an actual other human being all of the horrible things I believed about myself. You know how hard that is? You know how scary that is? But you know what else? My therapist saw me and accepted me just as I was. She didn’t try to fix me or change me. She showed me what therapists call “unconditional positive regard.” We Christian folk might call it love.
When I was living in the tombs, injuring myself with desperate thoughts and harmful words…going to church wasn’t my first thought. I was not ready. That was fine because Jesus came to me: in my friend Kate and in my therapist. Those two people were God-with-skin-on for me. They came to me and showed me just a glimpse of the unconditional love of God. I didn’t encounter a disembodied Jesus in my basement. I encountered God-with-skin-on in my therapist’s office and in my friend’s love.
The Gerasene man was lucky. He got to meet the actual Jesus-with-skin-on! Of course, there could be an instantaneous conversion for him! We see this amazing image after Jesus casts the demons out into the pigs (I promise I will explain that part in two weeks)…we see this amazing image of the Gerasene man, “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.” He is no longer isolating himself. He is no longer injuring himself. He is calm and okay.
And he wants to go with Jesus. He wants to follow Jesus. Jesus says, “Nope.” Plot twist! He tells the Gerasene man, don’t come with me. Instead, go and tell all of your friends what mercy God has shown you. Tell them how you were healed and restored to community. That’s what you need to do next.
The Gerasene man does just that. In fact, one of our commentators (Laura Smit) notes that the next time Jesus comes back to this area called the Decapolis, “there are four thousand people gathered to hear him.” Smit writes, “Where do you think those four thousand people came from? Perhaps in part from this very man, who has been preaching, wandering about, and telling people what Jesus has done for him. This once-broken and now-healed man is the mustard seed sown out into the world” (Smit, p. 148).
So the Gerasene man goes out and spreads the good news. He tells his story. He tells of the time that he met Jesus-with-skin-on, and it restored him to wellness. Not only did it restore him to wellness, it made him a prophet and evangelist and encourager of the people. He goes out and tells his story again and again.
Now, if the Gerasene man’s experience is anything like mine, I would guess this: that even in telling his story, he is saved again and again. Even in telling his story, it reminds him that there is help so that he never goes back to those tombs of isolation again.
Even in telling his story, maybe he is able to BE God-with-skin-on…showing others the radical acceptance that transformed him so that they might too be transformed, so that they too might be freed to seek help, so that they too might know Jesus in a good friend, in a therapist’s office, in a psychiatrist’s office, and maybe even in a church.
And maybe that’s what is happening today.
May it be so.