A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 19, 2022 (Proper 7, Year C)
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Actually, we don’t have a problem — I don’t think. But the famous line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke popped into my head as I was reflecting on this passage from Luke’s gospel. In it we hear the story of the man known as the Gerasene demoniac. It’s a pretty intense story of a demon-possessed man — the ultimate hard case — whose life is transformed by his encounter with Jesus.
As the story unfolds, we become immediately aware that the whole context of Jesus’ ministry has changed. Jesus has crossed over into Gentile territory and everything just feels different. In the early healing stories we get what I like to call Jesus’ rock star phase. He wanders around towns and villages with his entourage of disciples getting mobbed by throngs of people seeking his healing touch. People go to great lengths to get a glimpse of this new teacher — they lower sick friends through roofs, they crowd around houses where he’s eating dinner, they climb trees to see him, they reach out and grab the hem of his robe. People go to extraordinary lengths for a brief encounter with Jesus.
But here, Jesus enters a desolate region alone. The crowds are gone and the people he does meet want nothing to do with him; he is an uninvited guest in unfamiliar territory. He’s gone from a fertile land with crowds of people primed to hear his message, to an unforgiving landscape full of unreceptive and skeptical people.
What does it mean that Jesus crosses over to unfamiliar territory? Well, at one level it’s a sign that Jesus’ message of healing and salvation isn’t limited to a particular group or a particular region. Sharing his message with Gentiles, those considered unclean outsiders, is a powerful statement that Jesus came into the world to save everyone, not just a select few. There truly is a wideness in God’s mercy.
The same author who wrote the gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. And so we see that this one lone Gentile disciple, the healed demoniac, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in Gentile territory. In Acts, we learn how St. Paul became an apostle to the Gentiles, carrying Jesus’ message beyond the Jewish communities who first received it. Paul plants churches everywhere, as the Jesus movement spreads throughout the known world. But the mission to the Gentiles had to start somewhere.
But I think there’s also something much more personal that is enacted when Jesus moves to unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we ourselves feel like unfamiliar or unwanted or unlovable territory. At times we feel uncared for and isolated, unlovable and unknown. Yet Jesus crosses over to meet even us in our unvarnished, incomplete, unholy states. Like the townspeople in this unfamiliar territory, we are often unwelcoming to Jesus. Not intentionally, but out of a misguided sense of self-protection. We fail to be vulnerable because we don’t feel worthy of Jesus’ love and compassion. And yet Jesus crosses over to be with us, to comfort us, to love us anyway. And that’s an amazing thing. Whatever we do or fail to do, however we feel or respond to the world, Jesus comes to us. Jesus never fails to make the journey to find us. He never fails to build a bridge to our hearts. Even when we aren’t ready to receive him, even when we feel unworthy to accept his love, he crosses over to meet us.
Now, I am going to get back to Cool Hand Luke. But first let’s focus on this demon-possessed man for a moment. This healing story is remarkable because this man is the most unlikely recipient of healing. He seems like a lost cause. The mother of all lost causes. He yells at Jesus; he rails at Jesus; he snarls at Jesus. He demands to be left alone, mired in isolation and torment. In his nakedness and chains he is stripped of all dignity, excluded from society, the ultimate pariah.
It’s hard to imagine just how isolated he was. Cut off from society, cut off from God, cut off from love. And while we may not be able to fully relate to his circumstances, I think many of us can relate to some of what he’s endured. We’ve all felt isolated at various times in our lives. Times where, whether through particular circumstances or a mental health crisis, we have felt cut off from feeling loved and accepted. Moments when we’ve felt isolated and alone. Times when we’ve felt hopeless and abandoned. If you’ve felt this way or have walked with a loved one during a particularly tough season of life, you know just how debilitating this can be.
It can feel like an emotional version of solitary confinement. You think you’re alone and you think it will never end. Even though you’re never alone and you will get through it. But there’s a reason solitary confinement is the cruelest punishment that can be doled out by a prison warden. It crushes the soul emotionally. Yet this is exactly the position of the Gerasene demoniac. He is objectively cut off from society — physically, emotionally, spiritually. He’s like Paul Newman’s character Luke Johnson when he gets sent to the box in Cool Hand Luke — it’s dark, it’s sweltering, it’s terrifying.
But with Jesus there are no lost causes. There’s no solitary confinement. And I, for one, find great hope and comfort in that. Because no matter how unlovable I feel at times, no matter how unworthy I feel at times, Jesus crosses over the self-imposed barriers I put up and offers his healing touch. And he does that for each one of us.
Among other religious symbolism in Cool Hand Luke, there’s one easy-to-miss subtlety. Luke Johnson’s prisoner number is 37. And Luke 1:37 tells us that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Not even healing the hardest of hard cases. Not even healing you and me when we feel isolated and alone. Nothing will be impossible with God. And that is an important message, perhaps the most important message; one that we can never fail to communicate.