Proper 7C Sermon (2007)

Proper 7 (June 19-25)
Texts: Luke 8:26-39;
Galatians 3:23-29

IT TAKES A WHOLE COMMUNITY TO SCAPEGOAT

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. — Luke 8:37

That’s a curious reaction to such a great healing, isn’t it? Their fellow citizen, who had lead such a tortured existence, was sitting peacefully, fully clothed and in his right mind. Yet their reaction was to ask Jesus to leave. In most places, they had been begging Jesus to stay because of his incredible powers of healing. Here was perhaps his most dramatic healing yet, and these folks of Gerasa ask Jesus to leave. Why? Was it the thing with the pigs?

I don’t think so. You’ve become aware this year of the anthropology which puts the cross of Christ at the center has played a huge role in my life and faith. Well, this passage is a classic one for seeing the scapegoating structure to human communities, the structure which the cross of Jesus is meant to reveal. This healing story is also a revelation of that structure. Why were the people of Gerasa afraid of Jesus and ask him to leave? Because he took away their scapegoat. The man among the tombs had been carrying all their demons.

The fact that this man’s demons are named “Legion,” or “Mob” in another popular translation, is one clue to the scapegoating structure. A scapegoat carries all the bad stuff for a community. The vital thing to see here is not just the healing of one person, as dramatic as that was. But that it took a whole community for this man’s illness. There are two other clues in the Gospel stories that help us to see the community-wide aspect, namely, that this man was the town‘s scapegoat. In more ancient communities, there arose several ways for a whole community to execute their scapegoats while being careful not to contaminate themselves. One was stoning. Well, in St. Mark’s account of this healing, he adds this detail to the demoniac’s illness: “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). Do you see the comfortable arrangement the people of Gerasa had? They didn’t even need to stone their scapegoat. They could keep him perpetually on the margins of town, and the poor man would stone himself.

Stoning was one ancient means of scapegoating. Another was running the scapegoat off a cliff. This was very big in the Greek world all around Jesus. Luke’s story of Jesus’ ministry begins with his hometown of Nazareth trying to run Jesus off of a cliff. Well, that’s in this story, too, except Jesus reverses it! Instead of this poor man being run off of a cliff as the scapegoat, the demons which tormented him possessed a herd of pigs which then ran off of a cliff. In other words, instead of a scapegoat being run off of a cliff by an angry mob, with Jesus the mob was run off of the cliff by the scapegoat’s demons.

Now do you see why these townsfolk are upset and ask Jesus to leave? They’ve had a comfortable arrangement with a scapegoat who carried all their demons for them. Jesus messes it up big time. The man is healed. They will now need to face their own demons, or find another scapegoat. If Jesus had stuck around, he might of been it. He might of become their scapegoat.

The Good News for us this morning is that Jesus did allow himself to become our scapegoat, but in order that we might be healed of our need for scapegoats. He didn’t just come to heal this poor man. He came to us on the cross to become the scapegoat for the whole world in order that the whole world might eventually be healed of its need for scapegoats. On Easter morning he comes back to us as forgiveness so that each of us might not only begin to face our own demons but to see the community-wide aspect of this scapegoating problem. It can’t be healed with only one person. We need to be healed as whole communities. That’s a big reason why, for better or worse, we are given the church. The healing which we need can’t be complete on our own; our communities need healing, too. We have to be reborn into a community where the scapegoat, the Lamb of God, is there himself at the center as the source of healing.

We don’t often talk in terms of demons anymore, so let’s take a moment to try to translate this into a more 21st Century way of talking about it. Scapegoats happen on all levels of human community. Let’s reflect for a moment on the basis of all human communities, the family. Families have scapegoats, right? It’s usually the person identified at the moment as sick, as in trouble, as being “at risk.”

Here’s a real-life example about healing for a family whose identified patient was the daughter, who was becoming anorexic.(1) She had lost 10 pounds and wasn’t eating. Their therapist took a risk and coached the parents to try so-called “reverse psychology” on her. That is, they were able to stay loose about this terrifying disease of anorexia by coaching the opposite. Her mother did things like serve the daughter absurdly small portions and playfully warn her about calories when she was hungry. It worked; the daughter began to eat normally again in response to her mother’s absurd playfulness on the issue.

It can be risky to try “reverse psychology.” And I think we need to see not only why it is that it sometimes works but also how the family scapegoating is healed. I think we often mistakenly assume that “reverse psychology” works because of a child’s resistance to us. We think that the problem was this daughter resisting what this mother wanted for her, which was to eat healthily. So, we reverse things to the mother telling the daughter not to eat healthily, and she resists by doing what her mother wants her to by eating healthily. Right?

I don’t think so. Let me suggest another interpretation, that what is going on here in the first place is that the daughter is reacting to her mother’s chronic anxiety about things. She is carrying the family’s anxieties, a legion of demons. Like the demoniac bore the demons for his town, this daughter is bearing the anxiety for her family, with similar kinds of symptoms for hurting herself. Instead of stoning herself, she is not eating right. So the so-called “reverse psychology” works not on the daughter so much as on the mother. The mother is coached into acting less anxious. She, in essence, is taking care of her own demon of anxiety, and so the daughter no longer needs to carry it.

The counselor’s further therapy with this family was to work on the relationship between the parents; and the real home run came when the mother was able to face the demon of her relationship with her mother. The girl’s mother was finally able to distinguish her own basically happy view of life from her mother’s constant pessimism. There is little likelihood now that her daughter will become anorexic. Do you see what I mean here? Their daughter’s potential illness was a symptom of not simply their daughter’s own demon, but the demons she was carrying for her family. She got better when everyone else faced their own demons, so to speak, and got healthy.

Does your family have a scapegoat from time to time? Is each person facing their own demons and asking Jesus’ help and forgiveness and healing?

But I’d also like to lift up another opportunity for grace in our families. It comes through the way in which scapegoats happen on wider levels of whole communities and nations, and now even on the level of our so-called global village. What are the scapegoating structures on these bigger levels? Can you name those demons? Probably the most insidious one in our modern world is the one called racism. White people foist their demons on People of Color. It’s built into the structure of the way we do things that People of Color bear more than their fair share of the bad stuff in our institutions. One of the key insights of the anti-racism model used by ERAC/CE in our community of greater Kalamazoo is that racism has been structured into our institutions ever since white people came to dominate things on this continent over the last four centuries. The Civil Rights movement made many of the legal structures illegal. But centuries of shaping all our institutions to serve white people doesn’t go away overnight. The People of Color in Kalamazoo have been speaking out about racial profiling. Can you sense how this is about still foisting more of our demons on one segment of the community?

There still is so much to address with racism, not just on the level of personal prejudice, but also so much on the level of politics that shape our community life together. These demons simply cannot go away without having real talk about power and the ways in which it is unevenly distributed in a scapegoating structure. The keen insight of this morning’s Gospel is about how such things work across entire communities. Even now, do we welcome Jesus into our communities if he comes showing us the comfortable structures we have with our scapegoats? Do we welcome Jesus if he tells us that we still have a lot of hard work to do with our demons of racism?

Jesus became the scapegoat for the world in order that he might bring us forgiveness and healing. And he calls us to stand with those who continue to be scapegoated until that day when God’s way of peace will be all-in-all. Jesus comes to us again this morning in the sharing of bread and wine that we might be fed on this journey of healing, each of us strengthened to face our own demons. Fed by that Good News, we seek to be instruments of God’s peace in this hurting world. We are called to a ministry of standing with this world’s marginalized, those who live on the fringes carrying our worst demons. It can be a frightening ministry for those of us who don’t live on the margins. But the assurance of the Gospel is that, as we bring the Good News to this world’s scapegoats, we will find ourselves sitting together, fully clothed in Christ Jesus and truly in our right minds. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 24, 2007

1. Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (Guilford Press, 1985), pp. 107-08.

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