February 24, 2019: In the Cemetery

Pastor Steve Mechem

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Mark 5:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

Erik, the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera,

Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,

Sloth in the movie The Goonies,

Angelous on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,

Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame,

The Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,

Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Me,

The monster that Dr. Frankenstein built,

Yannis in the fifth season of Orphan Black.

Characters from literature and film that are locked away, isolated, left behind, secluded, exiled, secreted away, watched over.

Pushed away from society because of deformity, or a sense of developmental disability, or a supposed propensity to violent behavior.

Sometimes they are cast out by their families or their community. Sometimes they isolate themselves hoping to protect the world from their depravity.

On the page and on the screen, they are often the antagonist and sometimes the protagonist, but almost always in the end one ends up feeling something akin to sympathy for them and their plight.

Now I wouldn’t pretend to infer that you or I have ever felt like Quasimodo or Boo Radley or Yannis. But I would suggest that there are times when we feel isolated and alone and intentionally left out. I would further suggest that this kind of sadness is debilitating. It affects our relationships with other people and with our God.

There is one last character to mention as we have listed these characters who seem bent for shame. And let me suggest a backstory.

There is a village just up from the east shore of the Sea of Galilee. In fact, there are many villages in the flats before the hillside grows up. This one is a small village with a few handfuls of families. The villagers are primarily farmers and tradespeople. Into this small community a child is born. His parents love him, he is embraced by his neighbors, but by the time he reaches adolescence everyone in town fears him.

There’s something about him. He’s always in trouble. He’s always in scraps and scrapes. When anything goes wrong in that small community, this boy is accused. As he enters adolescence, his behavior becomes more erratic and violent.

He is punished by his parents, and by the community time and time again, but his inappropriate behavior and violent outbursts continue. Unfortunately, the punishments leave the boy physically and emotionally scarred and disfigured.

After one particularly heinous bout of behavior, the elders of the community come together to pass judgment on the boy, who has become a young man. They banish him from town. His parents beg for mercy but their ruling stands.

On a very sad day for the boy and his parents he is escorted, to the edge of town and told not to come back.

Well, he comes back. At first, it is under the cover of darkness when no one can see him, but the havoc that he creates is immediately associated with him.

His parents are warned to keep him away from town, but they can’t physically do that.

After a time, the man begins to enter town in daylight, creating numerous problems (think Ernest T. Bass with violent anger issues)

One day, he barges into town in broad daylight sparking mayhem and practicing violence on anyone who gets in his way.

Finally, a group of villagers tackle him, hold him down, tie him up, and lead him away to the cemetery just outside of town. Since there are numerous caves in the hillside that fronts the cemetery they drag him into one of those caves. They put chains around his waist and tie him to the stones outside the cave. He has shelter, and space to move, but is unable to wreck havoc on the community. His parents, and a few compassionate community members, bring him food and leave it within his reach.

The man is incensed, obviously, and fights and kicks and yells and howls to no avail. After period of time, the man breaks the chain, and lumbers towards the town intent on exacting pain and retribution.

His goal is to attack the elders but several of the younger men in town are able to wrestle him to the ground. They take him again to the cave at the cemetery and chain him up again. And again, after period of time, he breaks the chain and heads into the village.

Once more he is tackled by townspeople and this time he is brought before the elders. The elders confer and declare that the man is hopeless, incorrigible, irredeemable and full of the devil. Therefore, he should be put to death. His parents are overwhelmed with sorrow and beg for the elders to reconsider. They reconsider.

They bring the man into their presence. He is bound by rope and surrounded by six stout villagers. The elders new sentence, “We will take you back to the cemetery and leave you there. We will not put chains on you again. That clearly isn’t working.

But if you come back to this town, you will be put to death on the spot, and your parents will be exiled for life, their home destroyed and their possessions incinerated.”

The man looks at his parents, pain evident on their faces, and agrees to the sentence.

Well, several years have passed and the man has not returned to town. He lives in the cemetery where he sleeps in the cave, He spends his days pacing back-and-forth, yelling and swearing at the top of his lungs, crashing into stones, cutting and bruising himself. Between his self mutilation and the scars of earlier punishments, he now resembles a monster of some kind. At night he howls into the darkness. His shrieks and howls are heard throughout the village and in other villages as well. The rock wall behind the cemetery creates the perfect echoing board. The man and his howl have become somewhat of a legend around the northern shore of the sea. The devil in the cemetery is what they call him.

Now, I wouldn’t pretend that in your moments of loneliness, when you sense that you are somehow isolated from people and God,
when you look in the mirror and come face to face with your failures, when you’ve messed up, that you are in anyway like this man in the cemetery.

But then again, maybe the aching in your heart, and in his heart, and in Quasimodo’s heart, have the same root-
A sense of abandonment, being left behind and left out.

Jesus and his disciples, after a prolonged preaching and healing tour in Gallilee, cross the to the Eastern shore. The landscape along the shoreline is pretty simple, relatively flat land for a couple hundred yards and then a rock face that leads up to what is now the Golan Heights. In the bottoms close to the lake numerous towns and villages are located. Atop the rock face, is open ground, were farmers raise crops and livestock.

Jesus arrives on the shore and begins to walk toward town.

He hears howling. He stops,and listens. My sense is that Jesus has heard the legend, and this is one reason he wanted to come to this place.

The disciples hear the howling, as well, they look at each other with some panic and try to move Jesus quickly along the path toward the town. But as they are walking, the boy now a man, who lives in the cemetery comes running through the tombstones toward Jesus. As he comes to Jesus (the disciples have scattered a bit) he bows down before him. He shouts, perhaps because all he ever does is shout and yell. He proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah and begs him to leave him be.” The insight the man has concerning Jesus’ identity is profound, and his response to Jesus makes perfect sense.

For most of his life, people’s response to him has been fear and fear so often produces a violent response and so this man, for so long a giver and receiver of the violence anticipated the same from Jesus. Or as the story indicates, the demons don’t want to leave the man and beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Jesus looks deep into the man and he says, for all to hear, “Come out you unclean spirit.”

This is a two-part sermon, next week we will talk about pigs aflying and demons leaving, in this sermon, it seems important to understand that you can never be too outcast or too isolated or too broken to receive God‘s mercy.

When society rejects you because of who you are,

when your friends turn on you because you choose to be you,

when your classmates bully you,

when your neighbors ignore you,

when you are down and out with no hope of something better,

Know this!

God loves you and accepts you through Jesus Christ.
That love is real and it is unconditional.
That love is never held back.
That love always embraces.
That love is encouraging and empowering.
That loves fills the voids and mends the brokenness.
That love guides and directs us into new hope and new life.