There was something unclean in their midst. It wasn’t immediately obvious to an outside observer. After all, it was a lovely little community nestled there along the water. Homes and shops lined the roads and in the town centre, children played and old men gathered to trade the news and opinions. It was the sort of lake side village that many of us would want to visit or call our home. But, it was hard to put your finger on it. There was something unclean in their midst.
It wasn’t what they thought.
Hiding among the tombs, the man saw Jesus approaching from across the water, and though he was not in his right mind, even then he knew who Jesus was. He did not know his own name, because the demons that tormented him were many and relentless. But he knew who Jesus was. With fear and hope he ran to Jesus, shouting to be left alone, shouting to be relieved from this torment—he couldn’t be sure what he was asking for, only sure that Jesus was the one to ask.
And Jesus heard the man.
In an act whose symbolism we should not overlook, Jesus drove the demons from the man into a herd of swine. Both the demons and that which was unclean were driven into the watery abyss. For the first time in as long as the man could remember, he was in his right mind. He stood there and understood what Jesus had done for him. He stood there and spoke with the one who had made him whole.
News spread fast back in the village as the swineherds stopped to tell the tale in every front gate and shop door they passed. Soon all the town people headed out of town, towards the tombs, to see for themselves what had happened. Even the old men stood up from their gossip to go and learn what all the fuss was about.
What they saw stopped them in their tracks. Was that not the man who ran naked through the wilderness around the town? Was that not the man whom they had chased off many times when they found him asleep outside their shop doors or front gardens? Was that not the man who was out of his mind and possessed by demons, whom they had locked in chains and placed under guard so that he would bother them no longer?
But the man was naked no longer, now he was fully clothed. The man was tormented by demons no more, now he wore a smile of joy on his face. The man no longer ran through the streets and forests alike and no chains weighed him down, now he sat freely at the feet of a stranger, like a disciple before a religious teacher.
The man they had all thought was unclean was now whole and sound, and their hearts were disquieted within them. For there was still something unclean in their midst. And it wasn’t what they had thought it was.
In our Bible study this week, we asked the question, “Why might we resist being made whole?” and another question like it, “Why might we resist others around us being made whole?” It feels like an odd question to ask. After all, who wouldn’t want to be healed? Who wouldn’t want to see someone else who was suffering made whole again?
Yet, that is exactly what we do, isn’t it? After all, do we not have a massive problem with homelessness in our city? And yet, collectively, we are largely content with the status quo so long as the homeless largely keep to the Downtown East Side. For those who don’t stay to Hastings Street, we tolerate them so long as they have the good sense to keep to themselves and stay out of sight. We prefer to keep them among the proverbial tombs—the laneways and car parks, the overpasses and industrial parks along Marine Drive, where we don’t have to see them. Where we don’t have to think about them. Where we don’t have to remember that they exist.
And we build our city in such a way as to keep them in those tombs. We build benches that can’t be slept on. We add spikes along store fronts so that they cannot seek shelter there. Along Cambie, near the shopping district that includes the Canadian Tire, we’ve even gone so far as to install covers on the ventilation shafts coming up from the parking garages and the Canada Line with grates that resemble three dimensional mountains. They look pretty, sure. Make no mistake though, they are there to keep those sleeping rough from seeking warmth on the ventilation shafts on a cold night.
We tell ourselves it is because those who are homeless scare people. We say it is because we don’t want drugs in our communities and near our schools. We say it is because they hurt businesses and leave messes. But there is more to it than that, isn’t there? Because we as a society take it a step further and oppose efforts to help those who are homeless. We oppose efforts to offer healing and wholeness. We complain loudly about new efforts to support those who are homeless or are struggling with mental illness and addiction, especially if they will cause property taxes to increase. We fight back when the city tries to locate half-way homes and single room occupancy hotels in our communities. Those belong along Hastings, not in our backyards. Not in our neighbourhoods.
There are so many reasons for this—our fear of change, our need to be in control, our preference for what is known over what is unknown even when it is bad or harmful to ourselves and others, and even our need to convince ourselves that we are somehow different and better than those who have no housing.
But I believe there is an even deeper reason. I think that when we are confronted by those who are suffering, we see in them a reflection of our own brokenness and the ways we have added to their suffering. And it is even more so when that person finds healing, when they are made whole. After all, many people feel a tinge of discomfort when they learn that someone used to be homeless, but is no longer. It is like a mirror is held before us and we see at last that there is indeed something unclean in our midst. It is not what we thought it was, it is us.
The town people saw the man sitting before Jesus, and it filled them with fear. And it filled them even with anger. Sitting there clothed and in his right mind, the man’s existence was a testament to all the ways that they had not helped him over the years, all the shelter and care that they had denied him for so long, all the ways that they had tried to ignore him, driving him from sight and mind. His healing was a witness to the mistreatment, through actions done and not done, that they had heaped upon him. His wholeness now was a reminder of the times they had afforded him only chains rather than dignity.
For a moment, they glimpsed the truth that it was not the man who had been what was unclean in their midst, it was themselves. Because, for just a moment, they understood how God wants us to be in relationship in the world, they saw the truth of how God intends for us to live and what it means to be Godly and righteous before the Lord.
For the span of a breath, they saw. They understood. They stepped back, looking away, for they were afraid. And they implored Jesus to leave them, for they wanted to forget. And he did, but not before instructing the man to stay in the town, to proclaim all that God had done for him, and to be a living witness of the Kingdom of God, which had drawn near to them.
It is a complicated story, filled with the joy of the man who had been healed, but ending on the dissonant note of the town afraid of receiving that same healing. But we do not need to be like that little town on the lake shore, and by we, I mean all of us, this congregation, the Diocese of New Westminster, the neighbourhoods in which we live, and all of us who live in and around this great city.
Jesus walks among us, casting out the demons of our age and teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God as a community marked not by fear, shame, and abuse, but by dignity and compassion. We can meet Jesus there at the water’s edge and greet his words not with fear, but by taking our place at his feet with those whom he has already healed and made whole.
Christ is among us and offers healing to those who are suffering. He offers wholeness even to those who do not know that they are broken.
Preached by Adam Yates