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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 11, 2015 – The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5:1-20


When I was young, I used to hold my breath whenever we drove past a cemetery. Somewhere along the line, someone had told me that ghosts could get inside you if you breathed graveyard air—and I certainly didn’t want that. Thankfully, I’ve moved on from that particular superstition, or I wouldn’t last very long in an office that overlooks the churchyard… Indeed, cemeteries can be lovely places to walk, or sit, or meditate, or pray. But that was not the way they were seen in the time of Jesus.

Two thousand years ago, in ancient Palestine, cemeteries were always located on the outskirts of town, and they were not places where you would spend time voluntarily. Graveyards were places of disease, places of contamination, places of uncleanness. Even now, most people would not want to live in a cemetery; all the more so then.

So the man in today’s scripture reading, the man who lived among the tombs, was surely not there by choice. He was there because his illness was such that he had been forced out of his village, cut off from his friends and family. The story says that people had tried to restrain him with shackles and chains, but he broke his way out of them, and no one had the strength to subdue him. Excommunicated from his community, he lived a marginal life there among the tombs, with only the wild animals for company. Any human contact he might have had would likely have been marked by fear or disgust or stigma, for then as now, this kind of illness was not well understood.

And then Jesus showed up, and rather than turning away, he turned toward that man. Rather than averting his eyes, he look him straight in the face and saw his humanity through the grime and the bruises and the howls. Rather than assuming that the man’s identity had been subsumed by his illness, he asked him, “What is your name?” Jesus engaged with this man as one human being to another. He saw him as a child of God, beautiful even in his brokenness. He addressed him with love and compassion—and that made all the difference in the world.

There are many such stories in the gospels—stories of Jesus healing people with a variety of illnesses and afflictions. And every time, he seems to connect with the afflicted person in a way no one else has done. And in that connection comes healing.

But it doesn’t stop there. Time after time, and again in today’s story, the healing is not just about the individual’s personal wellness. It is also about their relationship to their community. Someone who was ill in the way the Gerasene man was ill would have been utterly isolated. The same is true for many of the other people Jesus healed—women with hemorrhages, men with leprosy, children possessed by demons. For Jesus, and for these people, healing was about addressing the illness itself, but almost more importantly, it was about restoring the person to their community, reconnecting them with their people.

We see that in today’s story, when the formerly-ill man comes to Jesus and begs to go with him as he departs to continue his ministry, but Jesus says no. Jesus sends him home to his friends, because Jesus knows that the man needs his people, and his people need him. It is not good for us humans to be alone, isolated, cut off from connection. And when such a break in relationship occurs, it is a loss both for the individual and for the community.

Because there are still many forms of suffering that cut us off from one another, it is important for us as disciples of Jesus to be agents of this kind of healing. And it is important for us to start right here in our own community—for here, too, there are people who bear secret, silent sorrows, and who bear them alone. It is our call as a community of faith to overcome that isolation, to bear one another’s burdens together—to be willing to help carry another’s load, and to be willing to allow another to help us with our own. It is in that spirit that I invite you into a time of healing prayer. We have done this each of the past two years around this time, and every time we do it, we grow deeper in our connections and find new forms of healing.

In a few moments, we will enter together into a time of prayer. We will sing gentle hymns and invite God’s Spirit to enter in through their melodies and words. For some of you, that will be enough; you might choose to stay in your pew and sing, or hum, or pray quietly. For others of you, if you feel led to do so, I invite you to come forward to pray with myself and the deacons. You might come silently, trusting that God already knows your deepest need. Or you might come and share a few words about a place in your life where you need healing—a broken relationship, a mistake for which you can’t forgive yourself, a loved one for whom you worry, a fear that holds you in its grasp, an anger you can’t let go of, an illness with which you struggle, a grief that weighs you down. Know that what you share will be held in confidence. The deacons and I will respond with the gentle touch of a hand on your shoulder and with some simple words of blessing.

There are also candles available here on the tables. If you feel so moved, you might come forward to light one as you lift up a prayer. In so doing, we will invite God’s light to shine into the dark corners of our hearts, our lives, our world.

I realize that this might be a new thing for some of you; it might feel different or a little uncomfortable; it might feel a little more vulnerable than you usually feel in church. But if you open yourself up and give it a try, you just might find that in the midst of that discomfort and vulnerability, there is wholeness, and restoration, and peace, and healing. You just might find yourself very close indeed to God—buoyed up by God’s love and filled with the peace that passes all understanding.

May it be so.


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