I’ve been going to the Hamilton County Jail on Thursday mornings for several months now. My friend and colleague Daniel Hughes invited me to come and see what God was doing in the jail and in the specific exit program he volunteers with. This small group of men in one part of the jail are part of a program to actually rehabilitate them rather than just punish them. They have regular access to advocates and 12-step programs and folks like Daniel and myself. He and I are offering a spiritual component—Daniel preaches good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor, I lead them in mindfulness practices like meditation and singing. These men, they’re bound behind heavy doors and guards, some of whom are compassionate, many of whom are really not, they’re bound by their mistakes, bound by finances, bound by addiction or family history, bound by mental illness. There are men in that room who got speeding tickets they couldn’t pay and men who’ve assaulted people. I talked to a guy this week who at first I thought was only struggling with anger, but it turns out he was abused as a child and, the more I talked to him, the more it was obvious, his anger is both completely understandable and entirely pathological. I don’t know that he can come back from what was done to him. They’re stuck, imprisoned physically and spiritually. We hide them away, keep them bound to make the rest of us feel safe.
In a way, they are the living dead, like the man in the gospel today—ostracized from society, locked away, treading water, living among the tombstones of our society. Even when they get out sometimes the stink of the jail and their imprisonment stays on them, because it’s not just a criminal record that holds them bound. It’s all that other stuff. Way back in the day, a theologian called Pelagius was convicted of being a heretic because he said that humans weren’t born sinful, we’re born beautiful, a delight in God’s eyes—heaven forbid, I guess—and that sin is like an occupying army in our souls, that we long for freedom. These men long for freedom, both from the jail itself and it’s insufferably cold air conditioning and terrible food and distance from their kids and brothers, and from their own demons.
They are not the only ones bound up. Children of immigrants are in camps—call them what you will, they’re being tortured and they’re dying. Literally dying. Literally small children caring for each other because the adults responsible for their care can’t or won’t.
They are the living dead. Separated, marking time, staring into space, living among the tombstones of our society, waiting. Waiting.
But y’all know this. You read the newspaper or social media, you have a grasp of history, you know these aren’t the only places we are destroying each other and God’s creation like occupying armies. You know humans are horrible to each other for all kinds of reasons that, in retrospect, make no sense at all. We look at this story of the Gerasene demoniac and we think, “Shoot, y’all, he was just mentally ill, why’d they do that to him?” Or we might even believe it was demons, but still be a bit horrified by the man’s condition—naked, chained, living in a graveyard—how could it come to this?
How could it come to this?
See, it’s true that the story is showing us Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal people, to take away their suffering, to help them let go of their pain, but Jesus is also showing us something deeper. He’s like that, you know. Jesus is showing the people this man’s humanity—whether or not he literally had demons, he was a human being, the word the Greek actually uses here. The human being comes and sits with Jesus, at his feet like Mary Magdalene or the beloved disciple. This human being is all the people who are bound or imprisoned. Every man languishing in a cell in a Chechnyan camp because he’s gay, every woman trafficked for her body. Every child at the border. And remembering that Jesus is always telling us like 7 different things with every word and action--this human being from the town of Gerasa is every one of us addicted to alcohol or sex or anger, every one of us held down by depression or racism or nationalism.
And even more, this Jesus doesn’t just heal this human being from Gerasa because he’s happened to run across him on the road. Jesus took a boat across the sea, away from the Jewish area of Galilee into a Gentile-heavy area, described in Greek even as the opposite of Galilee, geographically as well as sort of sociologically. He takes a boat far away from home, heals this guy, and then takes yet another boat all the way back. It is a long and seemingly unplanned and pointless journey. David Lose says, “There is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.” And that’s it, isn’t it? God goes wherever any of us are broken and despairing, wherever any of us are imprisoned. God comes to find us. There is nowhere God is not willing to go. We may put up all kinds of barriers against our own healing, clinging to our demons because we have to be right, but God comes and finds us and loosens our fingers. We may build walls around the people we think are not in God’s image, people we think are threatening or gross, but God comes around with a sledge hammer and a picnic lunch to share with everyone.
Just a few chapters before today’s reading, Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll in the temple:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
THIS is the year of the Lord’s favor.
One of my students at the Edge House is starting her third year at UC and is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, truly blossoming. She has been throwing off the chains of her oppressive childhood and coming into her adult transwoman self—she’s more self-aware, more compassionate, and more able to ask for what she needs. The difference from two years ago is astonishing. And another student has been reading the mystic Meister Eckhart and came across the line, “nothing can interrupt God when he is having fun creating!” She looked at me with shining eyes and said, “God had fun making me.” Yes! Yes. Things are still hard, we need to respond to the atrocities we create. And also, child mortality the world over is continuing to fall significantly and teen pregnancies in America are less frequent, global income inequality is falling, the Great Barrier Reef is showing significant signs of recovery.
We do not have to be the living dead, we are the living, breathing in and out the breath of God.
We may be dying, we may be ill or resentful or addicted, but we are not dead. We may be groaning along with all creation, but new life is coming and is now here.
I want to teach you a song we’ve been singing at the Edge House, written by Andrew Petersen.
Do you feel the world is broken? We do.
Do you feel the shadows deepen? We do.
But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through? We do.
Do you wish that you could see it all made new? We do.
Is all creation groaning? It is.
Is a new creation coming? It is.
Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst? It is.
Is it good that we remind ourselves of this? It is.