As I'm sure you know, MARAH – the charity that offers food and support to homeless and vulnerable adults in and around Stroud – offers open house for lunch at “Fresh Ground” twice a week. I've recently been invited to spend some time there, as a kind of unofficial chaplain “loitering with intent”, hearing stories and offering support where I can. It's a privilege to be there, seeing those whom we might struggle to engage with because of their challenging behaviour welcomed in as friends and served as honoured guests. It's a joy to realise that some of the volunteer staff first visited as clients...and to hear their stories of transformation and hope. It is a constant reminder that new starts are always possible by God's grace, no matter how messed up we are – and that once transformed, even we can become agents of God's love for others.
The demoniac in our gospel takes the phrase “challenging behaviour” to a whole new level. Small wonder that he is excluded from normal society. He's as frightening as he is frightened - not simply because of the shouting, the antisocial behaviour, the unnatural strength. His vulnerability is alarming too – a brutal reminder of our own frailty (“unaccomodated man is no more than such a poor bare forked animal as thou” says the Fool to Lear) Naked among the tombs, he is prey to the elements, and to other forces beyond his control, beyond OUR control.
Apparently beyond help he is cast out by his community,cut off, left to a living death. Isn't it always easier to turn away from those who challenge us, who make us uncomfortable because they don't fit into our patterns of acceptable behaviour? We might not speak of demonic possession today – but many people find themselves at the mercy of feelings, thoughts and patterns of behaviour that they would never have chosen...driven by addictions beyond their control..And we are still wary – disguise our own lurches off the tightrope of acceptable behaviour – urge wobbling friends to seek help – cross the road to avoid direct contact with those who make us nervous.
But in this place of fear and fragmentation we meet Jesus. We shouldn't be surprised to find him there. Others may have written the demoniac off – but not Jesus. He always pays particular attention to those shut out, literally and metaphorically -- those with nothing, beggars at the gate, lepers, loose women and dead children.
He thinks nothing of engaging with the ritually unclean – and here he is in unclean Gentile territory, underlined by the presence of that herd of swine...
Jesus is never choosy about the company he keeps -for he is intent on restoring not just the individual but the community as well....Again and again he confronts everything that stands in the way of wholeness, everything that divides us from one another, everything that prevents us from knowing the love of God in loving community.
Here in this wasteland of death and destructive behaviour Jesus stands – and sees that within the alarming person of the demoniac is one of God's own precious children. The demoniac recognises Jesus too – asking him a crucial question
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most high God”
Naming is powerful. The demoniac has lost his own name, his own identity. He is at the mercy of fightings and fears, within without...but Jesus speaks into that maelstrom and brings healing – for that is always his purpose as he comes into our lives.
Paul recognised this as he wrote to the Galatians, who modelled a society no less entrammelled by fightings and fears...Like us, they were quick to show suspicion of the stranger, eager to draw lines, to exclude some and approve others. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – divisions all the way...some are “in” and others firmly “out”. But that's not Christ's way.
In Him these divisions are overcome – along with all the others that prevent us from living as citizens of the Kingdom. Can we name some of those demons? There's Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Religious Bigotry. There are all too many such powers in this world, a thousand varieties of hardness of heart that shut out some people, and imprison others.
But clothed in Christ we too can recover our right mind, and learn afresh the deep truth that we are all children of God through faith -- none less worthy of good food and clean water, shelter, medicine, or education, of love and hope.
Clothed and in our right mind, we have a new purpose...to share in Christ's ministry of healing and reconciliation in our turn and, like the demoniac before us, to declare how much God has done for us.