The 2008 movie “Mad Money” starring Diane Keaton, Ted Danson, Queen Latifa, and Katie Holmes is a comedy with some serious life lessons sprinkled in. Keaton and Danson play a middle-aged, upper middle-class suburban couple who are victims of the recent recession. Danson loses his job and like many 50 somethings can’t find another comparable one. To avoid losing their house, Keaton takes a job as a cleaning woman at the federal reserve bank in Kansas City where she sees thousands of dollars of old currency being shredded every day as they are taken out of circulation to be replaced by new bills.
One day on a shopping trip to Home Depot to replace a broken kitchen faucet Keaton sees a Master padlock exactly like the ones used to lock up the old money at the bank and she conceives a complicated scheme to smuggle lots of the old money out of the bank before it gets shredded. When he’s asked later by the cops what happened, Danson delivers one of the best lines of the movie – after a flashback to all the appliances and gadgets on sale at Home Depot, he says of his wife, “We live in a consumer society, and she got consumed.”
“She got consumed.” What consumes you? It could be something positive like providing a loving safe home for your family, or are you driven by a zeal to be the best teacher, parent, spouse, grandparent, employer or employee you can be? Is your whole life shaped by a passion to do God’s will and leave the world a better place than you found it?
Being consumed or passionate about something can be a good thing, but we also know we can be consumed or possessed like the man from Gerasa in our Luke 8 by a whole lot of evil forces that can destroy us and others around us.
I thought of one of my good friends, we’ll call him John, as I read this scripture because John and his wife experienced first-hand what demon possession can do to the best of people. About 20 years ago their only son became terribly addicted to gambling. He stole money from his parents and others to feed his addiction and eventually ended up in prison – not because he was an evil person or came from a “bad” family. He was raised in a loving Christian family and in the church—but the forces of evil are stronger than we can imagine, rather like the devastating tornados in Texas and Oklahoma last month that leveled everything in their paths.
That’s what life was like for the poor demon-possessed man in Luke 8. This man has no name in the Gospel accounts of his life-changing encounter with Jesus. His identity is determined solely by the evil forces that control his life. We usually refer to him as the Gerasene Demoniac. How would you like to be stuck with that identity? It’s not only an ugly name; it’s unfair and inadequate because it ignores what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story” in verses 32-39.
Luke tells us the Gerasene man was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but the demons still broke those bonds and drove him into the wilds. Perhaps you know first or 2nd hand what demons can do to lives and relationships. There are too many demons to name them all, but if you have fought with one or more you know their names all too well. When Jesus asks the Gerasene man his name, the response is chilling. He says his name is “Legion,” because many demons had entered him.” A legion in the Roman army of that day was 5-6 thousand men. Five or six thousand to one!!! No wonder we sometimes feel helpless and hopeless to ever escape from that which consumes us.
But here’s the good news, and if you are currently feeling consumed by some demon or demons, please hear this good news. God and Jesus are stronger than all the demons life can throw at us. This is such important good news that Luke spends several chapters making sure we hear it. In our lesson for today, Jesus is in the midst of a victory tour when he crosses the Sea of Galilee and enters Gentile territory for the very first time. That is very significant. It means Jesus’ power is not just for the nation of Israel, but is universally available to any and all people, including us Gentiles, who believe in that power. Another important point – Jesus doesn’t wait for the demons to come to him. He doesn’t build a church and wait for people to come to him. Jesus goes and confronts the demons on their own turf, wherever they are. There’s a clue there as to how we should do church.
This story is in the middle of a series of narratives where Luke is showing us who Jesus is and how vast and unlimited God’s power is. Jesus has revealed his power to the Jewish scribes in Luke 5, to his own disciples in chapter 7, and on the way across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes he has demonstrated his power over even the forces of nature by calming a storm at sea that scared the bejeebers out of his brave disciples. These guys who had spent their entire lives fishing those waters cry out to Jesus to save them, and he does so with just a simple command for the waters to be still.
Power like that is comforting, but it can also be overwhelming and scary. Notice how many people in this narrative are afraid of Jesus and the very power they need to be free. The demons recognize Jesus before anyone else does and beg him not to send them into the abyss. When the townspeople see the demon-possessed man restored to health and sanity you’d expect them to be amazed and celebrate wouldn’t you? But Luke says “they were afraid and begged Jesus to leave them for they were seized with fear.”
When my kids were about 7 & 4 my daughter best friend made a great comment about our son, the pesky little 4-year old brother. Christie said, “You know, Matt’s not so bad once you get used to him.” That’s true of our demons too. We get used to them, comfortable with them, and the fear of the unknown without them is sometimes stronger than the desire to be healed and set free.
I recently read a biography of Louie Zamperini. Louie was a very promising runner in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and expected to be the first man to break the 4-minute mile and bring home several gold medals in 1940 Olympics. Except there were no 1940 Olympics. Louie’s life and dreams were derailed by the demons of fascism and World War II. Much of this biography by Laura Hillenbrand describes in almost unbearable detail the 2 years of inhumane brutality Louie and others suffered as Japanese POW’s. Against all odds Louie survived that ordeal only to encounter much stronger internal demons that haunted his dreams for years after the war. Those demons drove him to self-destructive behavior and alcoholism once he was back in the U.S. No amount of therapy or pleading by his wife could break the chains of the demons that consumed Louie. But, here’s the good news again, and this time not in ancient Galilee or Gentile Gerasa, but in Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.
The title of Zamperini’s biography is Unborken, and like all good titles it is a multi-faceted description of Louie’s life. He was not broken by the death of most of his crew when his B-24 crashed in the south Pacific; unbroken by 47 days adrift at sea, unbroken by the extreme cruelty of his captors who singled him out for torture because of Louie’s celebrity and strong spirit that were a challenge and an affront to them; and unbroken when his war injuries ended his dream of Olympic gold. But when he was consumed by nightmares and hatred and alcohol that were destroying him and his family after the war, Louie was almost broken by the fear of his own salvation.
When a Billy Graham crusade came to L.A. in 1949 Louie’s wife went and heard the young evangelist preach about Jesus’ power over all demons. She went home and urged Louie to go back with her to hear Rev. Graham. Louie refused her pleading over and over again, but as spouses often do Cynthia Zamperini persisted and Louie finally gave in to shut her up. He listened skeptically to Graham’s message and when the invitation came at the end of the sermon to come forward and receive Christ, Louie didn’t walk, he ran the other way and out the back door. This happened not once, but several times; but Cynthia didn’t give up on Louie and neither did God. In God’s good time Louie did finally surrender his demons to Jesus one night at another Graham crusade. Miraculously the demons and nightmares and anger and alcoholism that had consumed him were gone for good – they never returned. You may be skeptical, as I often am, about such instantaneous miracle healings, but this one was real. Louie went on to live a productive long life of ministry to countless young men at a camp he founded and as a motivational speaker. He was truly unbroken and restored to wholeness by a power greater than all the demons known to humankind.
Of course, not all releases from demons are as dramatic and immediate as Louie’s or the Gerasene Demoniac’s. When our conference consultants were at our church few weeks ago working with us on designing the future of Jerome UMC, one of the activities we did was to practice telling each other our God stories. A God story is what people in the business world call an elevator speech. For entrepreneurs an elevator speech is a catchy, concise two minute description while you have a captive audience in an elevator of what your business can offer to a potential client or customer that will pique his or her interest enough to ask for more information. A God story is the same thing offered to invite someone you meet to a closer relationship with God by telling them what God has done in your life.
I had trouble with that activity. As I listened to other great God stories of how others in our church had experienced dramatic changes in their lives by someone sharing Christ’s love with them, I was jealous in a weird way because I grew up in the church from birth. I had no dramatic conversion experience. For me there is no before and after I met Jesus because he was in my life from birth on.
That doesn’t mean I’ve not struggled with demons or had moments when I turned my back on God and rebelled against rules and regulations I thought were old-fashioned and foolish. It means my God story is not a dramatic moment of liberation from demons, but a lifetime of a sometimes contentious love-hate relationship with a God who simply refuses to let the demons control my life. Part of my story is a liberation from a narrow, legalistic view of a God that I feared, to a more universal, loving God who calls me to move out of my comfort zone and work with others to transform the world to a place of peace and justice for all of creation that brings God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
The church is called to invite new people everywhere to experience the liberating love of God that sets us free from demons. But that’s only part of our job description as disciple makers. Personal salvation and freedom from our demons is absolutely necessary, but the process doesn’t end there. God sets us free not for freedom’s sake, but to serve God and others in whatever places and ways God provides.
All of us, whether we are brand new Christians or seasoned veterans of many church wars, or those who have been turned off by the church or angry at God for tragedies in our lives – wherever we are in our faith journey, we all need to continue to deepen and nurture our faith always so we have a better God story to share and live every day.
What’s your God story? No matter how short or long, it may be a tragedy or a comedy, dramatic or mundane, short or long. Without hearing your story I know three things about it: 1) You’ve got a God story or you wouldn’t be here today, and 2) your God story is still being written. And 3) someone needs to hear your story and God wants you to share it by your words and your actions.
Most of the folks in this Gerasene story are afraid of Jesus’ power and run away from it like Louie Zamperini did. So it’s OK if we are we also afraid to let go of our demons. Are we nervous to share with others what our demons are because we foolishly think we are the only one with demons? Guess again. It’s our demons that bring us to worship week after week, and when we put on a happy face and pretend otherwise God can’t help us – just like a Dr. can’t help cure an illness we refuse to admit we have.
But notice another important thing about Jesus in this story. He doesn’t force himself on anyone. When the fearful people of Gerasa ask Jesus to leave them alone, he doesn’t nag them like a telemarketer who calls every night at dinner time; he just gets in his boat and goes back to Galilee. Why does Jesus give up so easily? Because he doesn’t care, or he’s given up on them? No, Jesus knows the power of invitation and the patience of allowing others the space and time to respond when they are ready. That’s a very important lesson for us to remember when we have the chance to share our God story with others.
Louise Hay describes that process this way: “Think for a moment of a tomato plant. A healthy plant can have over a hundred tomatoes on it. In order to get this tomato plant with all these tomatoes on it, we need to start with a small dried seed. That seed doesn’t look like a tomato plant. It sure doesn’t taste like a tomato. If you didn’t know for sure, you would not even believe it could be a tomato plant. However, let’s say you plant this seed in fertile soil, and you water it and let sun shine on it.
When the first little tiny shoot comes up, you don’t stomp on it and say, “That’s not a tomato plant.” Rather, you look at it and say, “Oh boy! Here it comes,” and you watch it grow with delight. In time, if you continue to water it and give it lots of sunshine and pull away any weeds, you might have a tomato plant with more than a hundred luscious tomatoes. It all began with that one tiny seed.
St. Paul says the same thing about God stories in I Corinthians 3. When talking about planting new churches and growing new Christians, Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Seeds take time to grow. My friend John’s son took years to be healed of his gambling demon. It nearly broke his parents’ hearts to drive 100 miles every week to visit their son in prison. I can’t imagine anything much worse. John has helped thousands of other people as a pastor in his churches and in countless mission trips he has led, but he will tell you those painful trips to visit his son in prison were the best thing he ever did. His son is now a productive citizen with a good career and a beautiful wife and daughter because his family and friends and God never gave up on him.
God wants us to plant seeds and for those seeds to prosper and bear fruit, no matter how long it takes. The Gerasene man responds to his healing in a most positive way. He is the only one in this story who is not afraid of Jesus’ power. In fact he begs Jesus to let him stay with him and follow him – but following Jesus doesn’t always look like we think it will. Jesus tells the man to go home and witness there – tell his God story to the folks at home. The former demoniac obeys Jesus because he has felt the power of God’s love and knows he has a story to tell – does he ever! Do we know what the response is when this man tells his God story? Not a clue. The Gospels are totally silent on that score. And that’s a faith thing. We don’t need to know the outcome when we tell our story and plant God seeds. Our job is to plant the seeds and not to pull them up by the roots when they don’t grow fast enough. Our job is to obey Jesus, to go and tell, and trust others to water so God can give the growth in due season.
The chance to live out your God story may happen when you least expect it, like in this story that has been floating around the internet for awhile: “A few years ago a group of salesmen went to a regional sales convention in Chicago. They had assured their wives that they would be home in plenty of time for Friday night’s dinner. Well, as such things go, one thing led to another. The sales meeting lasted longer than anticipated. Their flights were scheduled to leave out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and they had to race to the airport. With tickets in hand, they barged through the terminal to catch their flight back home. In their rush, with tickets and briefcases, one of these salesmen inadvertently kicked over a table, which held a display of baskets of apples. Apples flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they all managed to reach the plane in time for their nearly missed boarding, all but one. He paused, took a deep breath and experienced a twinge of compassion for the girl whose apple stand had been overturned. He told his buddies to go on without him and told one of them to call his wife when they arrived at their home destination and explain his taking a later flight.
Then he returned to the terminal where the apples were all over the floor. He was glad he did. The 16-year-old girl at the apple stand was totally blind! She was softly crying, tears running down her cheeks in frustration, and at the same time helplessly groping for her spilled produce as the crowd swirled about her, no one stopping or to care for her plight.
The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them into the baskets, and helped set the display up once more. As he did this, he noticed that many of them had become battered and bruised; these he set aside in another basket. When he had finished, he pulled out his wallet and said to the girl, “Here, please take this $20 for the damage we did. Are you okay?” She nodded through her tears.
He continued on with, “I hope we didn’t spoil your day too badly.”
As the salesman started to walk away, the bewildered blind girl called out to him, “Mister….” He paused and turned to look back into those blind eyes. She continued, “Are you Jesus?”
Do people mistake you for Jesus? Isn’t that what we want to consume us, so our words and actions in life reflect the love and grace of Christ to a world that is often blind to God’s power?
What are you consumed by? I invite you to make room for God’s love to possess you and then take that God story to share with those longing to hear it—to those literally dying to experience Jesus in you and me. Their life depends on it, and so does yours.
Originally preached at Jerome United Methodist Church, Plain City, Ohio, June 23, 2013