“Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.” Luke 8:30
June 23, 2019 – Pentecost 2C
One of the more challenging things I’ve ever been asked to do is to teach an ethics course to eighth graders, which I did for many years during my days as a school chaplain. It’s not easy to get the attention of fourteen-year-old boys and girls amidst the rush of hormones coursing through their bodies, and harder still to get them to reflect meaningfully on something as uncool as their moral obligations to others.
One text I used in my class was Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 award-winning play, The Elephant Man. As you may remember, the play is based upon the true story of Joseph Merrick, a young man born in Victorian England with a genetic disorder that severely deformed and enlarged his head and extremities, resulting in a hideous appearance by conventional human standards of physical beauty. Abandoned by his parents, Merrick ends up exploited by a ruthless carnival manager who recruits him for a freak show, making him the laughing stock of the heartless masses of carnival-goers.
One day, however, Merrick is rescued from this plight by Dr. Treves, a well-meaning physician who is interested in learning about Merrick’s disease. Treves finds Merrick a home in a London hospital, away from the gawking crowds, and raises funds to provide for his care. What Treves discovers, though, is that the British medical establishment seems as interested in Merrick as the carnival-goers, and Treves is catapulted into notoriety as the doctor who has discovered this fascinating new object of study. While Dr. Treves may initially have been motivated by a certain measure of compassion toward Merrick, he too ultimately ends up treating Merrick, not as a fellow human being, but as a mere means to his own ambitious ends.
Merrick has occasional visitors in his hospital room from polite English society, friends of Treves who see Merrick primarily as a charity case, but he remains fundamentally alone, isolated by his disfiguring disease. He finds solace only by constructing an elaborate and beautifully detailed paper model of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a project Merrick pursues night and day in his room, until at last one night he dies in his sleep, suffocated under the weight of his enlarged head.
The play is on one level a somber and tragic story, and yet it never failed to elicit a thoughtful conversation among my students about the central importance of recognizing the basic dignity of others beneath the surface of their lives. The play likewise provoked discussion of how differences – differences in appearance, in physical and mental ability, in language, in all manner of things – are often used by all of us as a means of demonizing others so we can feel better about ourselves.
Before we would close our class discussion of The Elephant Man, I would always conclude with this question: “So, where is God in all this? Where is God in Merrick’s life?” And I’ll never forget the answer I received one year from a young girl in my class. “God is in the Cathedral,” she said. “Merrick wants to be beautiful, he wants to be seen as beautiful, and he knows that only God sees him that way . . . in the Cathedral.” And then she paused, and added: “Merrick is not the monster in the play. It is the rest of us who are monsters when we can’t or won’t see each other as beautiful.”
And so it is, I think, with our gospel story today as well. We are in the land of the Gerasenes, on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, in Gentile country. Here, on the margins, Jesus encounters a man possessed by many demons, living in the darkness of the tombs, naked and alone, shunned by all. The people seek to shackle the man’s arms and legs, but his afflictions are too powerful; they break the chains of all human efforts to tame his demons.
When Jesus asks the man his name, all he can say is “Legion,” literally meaning “thousands.” The man has been so ravaged by the “thousands of demons” that torment him that he has lost his identity, no longer able even to remember his given name. His humanity, his dignity, has been erased.
We can only speculate as to what set of mental or physical disorders may have been responsible for this man’s condition. Today we have names for these conditions and understand something about their underlying biological and psychological causes, but that understanding doesn’t in the least reduce the terrifying reality they embody for those who live with these demons. While few of us, thank God, are as tortured as this man called “Legion,” each one of us, to one degree or another, has our demons: our anxieties, fears, addictions, maladies of one sort or another, that isolate us, cut us off from the love of others, and rob us of joy.
The startlingly good news of our gospel story, however, is that there is no disorder or condition beyond Jesus’ reach; there is nobody who is God-forsaken; and there is nowhere Jesus is unwilling to go to seek out and heal those who are broken and hopeless. The power of the story resides in Jesus’ willingness to encounter “Legion” as a human being, to see past the outward signs of his horrible affliction to the humanity within, to move beyond fear of the outcast to a compassion that offers love and healing.
But there is a troubling aspect to our gospel story as well. Notice how the people respond to Jesus’ healing of Legion. They don’t rejoice in the restoration of the man’s dignity. They don’t praise Jesus for his saving act. Instead, Luke tells us, the people are afraid. “The people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. . . . and they asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”
With his act of healing, Jesus had upset the established order of things. The people had constructed a social order for themselves, one that they understood, where some people are well and some are unwell, where some are in and others are out, where some are good and some not, and the rules are clear as to who really belongs. And so they are afraid of what Jesus has done, upsetting this order by loving the unlovable.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was once asked why he thought the South had such a difficult time accepting the emancipation of black Americans after the Civil War, and fell back into other ways of enslaving people of color. He said something like this: “How hard it is for people to live without someone to look down upon – really to look down upon. It is not just that they feel cheated out of someone to hate. It is that they are compelled to look more closely into themselves and what they don’t like in themselves.”
We human beings have a long history of demonizing others so that we can feel better about ourselves. Deep down we’re afraid that maybe God won’t love us as we are, and so we construct social orders to reassure ourselves that we do indeed have the valued traits or characteristics or possessions that make us worthy. We need to put down others in order to raise up ourselves.
The trouble is that this is not how God works. God chooses the weak and the powerless and the vulnerable as the primary lens through which to shine the light of his love.
One of my favorite Christian writers is Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who achieved great prominence late in his life, ending with an appointment at Harvard Divinity School. But Nouwen was profoundly unhappy at Harvard, among all the overachieving faculty and students. So, in 1985, Nouwen decided to leave his post, and made a move that most of his friends thought was crazy.
Nouwen left academic life altogether and instead moved to Toronto to join L’Arche, a residential community for disabled persons founded by his friend, Jean Vanier. L’Arche’s philosophy is not primarily to provide services to disabled persons, but rather, in the words of Vanier, to say loud and clear to such persons: “we love you, and with you, we want to create a place of belonging.” Nouwen would spend the last decade of his life there living in community with people rejected by the rest of the world.
Asked why he made the move, Nouwen said this: “Living in a L’Arche community is seeing a world where people open themselves up in a spontaneous way, no contrivance, no artifice, no strategizing . . . . The people in this world are uninterested in impressing you with achievements and credentials. They are just themselves – broken and without cosmetics or rationalization. They helped me to see beyond the easy divisions we put in place between the well and the unwell, and they gave me the courage to relate to them not in spite of my frailties, but in and through them.”
And then to drive the point home, Nouwen told a story, the story of a little disabled boy, Jacques, who was making his first holy communion at the chapel in the community. After the liturgy the family had a party, at which an uncle whispered to the boy’s mother: “Wasn’t it a beautiful liturgy? The only sad part is that Jacques didn’t understand anything.” The little boy happened to overhear his uncle and, with tears in his eyes, said to his mother, “Don’t worry, Mummy, Jesus still loves me as I am.”
This is the gospel truth into which L’Arche communities try to live, and into which Henri Nouwen sought to live. It is the gospel truth, too, that animated Joseph Merrick’s construction of a beautiful replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a place where he knew God appreciated his beauty and goodness. And it is the gospel truth that liberated Legion from the torment of a disordered life.
And this is what Christ offers us as well: an altogether new identity, as St. Paul explains in our lesson from Galatians. No longer are we Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, abled or disabled. We are all one in Christ Jesus, freed from the divisions that separate us. In Christ, we come to understand that God loves us in our frailties and differences, and that because he does, we need no longer seek glory and accolades from others; but instead, we are invited to bask in that love, and then to go out into the world, like Legion did, not afraid, but empowered to declare and share that love with others.