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What’s Your Name?

Luke 8:26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. 30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him. (NIV)

    Because God is all knowing, it comes naturally to us to think of Jesus as The Answer Man.  In his book, “Jesus Is the Question”, Martin Copenhaver notes that Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 of which he only answers

3.  Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred. His questions often guided people to seek Him and deeper answers that came through a life changing experience in His presence.

“What is your name?” Jesus asked this man who was in dire straits.  In that moment he was far from remembering who he was.  It may have seemed a complicated question for him.  When Jesus asked the question the man was naked, living among the tombs, probably physically exhausted, and in a mentally chaotic state.

“What is your name?” Jesus asked him. Did he even remember his name anymore? It had been a long time since anyone had bothered to ask him.  We identify with our names. Frederick Buechner once wrote: “Buechner is my name. It is pronounced Beek-ner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me. If somebody forgets it, I feel that it’s I who am forgotten. There’s something about it that embarrasses me in just the same way that there’s something about me that embarrasses me. I can’t imagine myself with any other name like Merrill, or Hlavacek.  If my name were different, I would be different. When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not.” (Whistling in the Dark)  In a sense, over time our names define us and remind us of who we are.

These past few weeks many have been wondering what their name is, who they are, during these strange Corona Virus days.  How is this whole experience defining you right now, telling you who you are? What describes the feelings that are trying to capture you as you watch the news or scroll through the social media feeds?  Is your name “Steady and Strong?” Or is it “Just a bit Anxious?” There are times when our name may change from morning to night throughout a week.  Sometimes it changes within the hour.  Over the course of this past month we have gone from “Surely this thing can’t be that serious” to “Cancel everything and start sewing your mask!”

   When church congregations learned it was necessary to cancel just about everything we do in person together many find their names became “Scared,” “Deeply Sad,” “Lonely,” “Overwhelmed.”  And if we have these kinds of feelings, we can imagine this is only a snapshot of all those in our communities who are captured by the forces of fear and the pain of isolation.

“What is your name?” Jesus asked the man. “Who or What is defining you right now?” “Legion,” he responded.  You can almost hear his exhausted tone.  Legion was not the name his parents had given him… Legion was not the name his childhood friends called out while playing in the countryside.   Legion was a term gleaned from a unit of Roman military strength.  The man’s self-description as Legion pointed to the forces that kept him captive.

    Most of us remember the Legionnaire’s disease that sprung up a few decades ago.  It was linked to contaminate water and cooling systems in a Philadelphia hotel where an American Legion convention was being held in 1976.  Three days after the convention the first person died… High fever, chills, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea were the common symptoms.   In the days and weeks that followed, 25 out of the 130 Legionnaires who had contracted the disease succumbed to it.   Today Legionnaire’s disease mostly appears as single, isolated cases, not linked to any recognized outbreak. However, at least 20 outbreaks occur annually.  We treat it like Pneumonia with strong antibiotics.

    Legion was the name of all that kept this man from being who he was. It was the name of the powers that haunted his dreams, that which kept him ill.  It had broken all his relationships.   When he answered Jesus with, “My name is Legion” he was saying “I am only that which holds me captive.”  Another person might say, My name is Addiction – My name is homeless – My name is Depression – My name is Grief – My name is Jobless…  And sometimes the label fits that which we think pleases us when it is actually controlling us- My name is consumer – My name is Workaholic – My name is Party-Time.  Those other forces, which seemed outside his control—they told him who he was.  He had lost the hope of ever finding himself again.

     In this first century setting the townspeople would have looked at a demonic in the same way.  When a person has been limited in this way for so long no one bothers to remember what it was like before. Their role was to keep him safe from himself and ESPECIALLY to keep themselves safe from him.

     When word spread that he had escaped, a group would venture into the wilds to find rand recapture him, taking him by force if they were unable to convince him to return with them. Upon returning him to the tombs, they would bind him with chains and shackles.  This was his “Legionnaire’s” treatment plan of the day.  Under their case management he would settle back into being the “town problem” – the weirdo who howls from the graveyard and occasionally escapes.

    His containment had become a way of life–and probably everyone assumed it would simply stay that way until he died. It was just better for everyone that way… After all, a demonic wandering the streets is bad for business.  Locked up out there in the tombs, they could almost forget he even existed.

    But then Jesus comes on the scene.  The swine herdsmen probably wondered what this Jewish Rabbi was doing there in the first place. What brought him and his disciples by boat into their Gentile territory? Gerasene and Galilee were poles apart.  Not many Jewish people here.

    As Luke tells the story we see that nothing “normal” is going to happen that day.  The man has broken free of his shackles and has run over to Jesus and begins howling and yelling at the top of his lungs.  Falling at Jesus’ feet the demons pleaded their case: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”

Stop and consider for a moment that at this point in Jesus’ ministry his disciples aren’t sure as to who he is, but the demons have no doubt! They recognized his divine power immediately.

   And so we return again to Jesus question “What is your name?”  Surely the Messiah would lock eyes with the man and look right into his soul.  How many years had it been since anyone really looked at him and asked with interest for his name?  People spoke about him. People talked around him. And the few who spoke to him probably yelled and threatened, coerced and belittled him.  To ask his name would have been to entertain a relationship with him, and the townspeople surely avoided that!  “What is your name?” Jesus asked him. “Legion,” the man said. “I am only that which is broken in me.”

Luke doesn’t write down whatever Jesus said in response to the demonic’s confession.   But he does tell us what Jesus did!   As soon as the man’s broken but truthful words are spoken, Jesus cast the demons into a herd of swine that ran and headed over a cliff.

    The man was set completely free from all those powers that had kept him captive for as long as he could remember. He was saved, healed, made whole.  It must have been quite a scene – as the pigs are running headlong over the steep bank, those tending the pigs are running headlong back into the town!  “You are not going to believe what just happened!”  “You’ve got to come and see it with your own eyes.”  So they all followed them.

And what was their response when they saw the town crazy all cleaned up, clothed, clear minded and clear voiced, sitting at the feet of Jesus just like a disciple?   Did anyone exclaim, “Wow, we’re so happy for you!  Welcome back!”  “Let’s have a banquet”, (or at least a town pot-luck!), “For you were really, really lost but now you have been found!” No.  No one said, “Surely this man who spoke to him is the Messiah, look at what he did for him!”  No one uttered, “Who are you? Tell us and we will all become your disciples.” No one even asks the guy, “How do you feel? Are you hungry?  Can we get you a glass of water?” None of the above.

    Luke tells us that when they saw the formerly possessed man sitting safe and sane at the feet of Jesus, fully restored back to himself, no other power defining him other than wholeness, that their only reaction was FEAR. They were so afraid that they begged Jesus to leave.

   Consider that this man had given himself up for dead has been made whole.  He is finally set free to rejoin his community… to discover what his stock and trade and sane talents and interests are… What if underneath that howl there has always been a pretty good singing voice?  Perhaps he will even find a wife and start a family!  His is finally healed and could claim his proper given name again.   But instead of causing great joy, his healing caused great fear. Why?   Could it have been the money? When the herd of pigs took a nose dive the owners lost a lot of on the hoof capital.  Was that what they feared?  Was Jesus going to wipe out their livestock one by one?   Or was it Jesus’ obvious power over even the forces of evil that scared them?  Will he mess with us next? Or was it because this man’s healing challenged their entire comfortably ordered value system?

    The man they were looking at now hadn’t been real to them for years. They did not have to think of him as real… or as anything… other than a caged problem.  They had long ago determined that he was completely without hope, and that there really wasn’t a shred of humanity left.   They had stopped asking him his name long ago. As Martin Copenhaver writes, “It is hard to develop any kind of relationship, even a casual one, if you do not know each other’s name.”

   They no longer entertained the idea that they might need to connect with him at any human level.   That they might need to relate to him beyond just locking him up. By not knowing his name, they didn’t have to worry about being compassionate, or showing generosity, or even praying for him.  It made everything so much easier – until Jesus got there.

   Jesus had the audacity to see him as nothing less than as a human being created in God’s image…to see him as nothing less than as a brother, a son, a friend. Jesus had the audacity to bother to ask his name and then, then to heal him and set him free. Jesus’ actions openly confronted their decently-and-in-order lives. It was just too much – “You’ve got to leave!”

And so Jesus got back in his boat.  He was not one to force the spirit of regeneration or healing on anyone.  0verwhelmed by the gift he had been given the man wanted to go with Jesus. But Jesus commissioned him as a local evangelist, not a traveling one.  There was work to be done right there in his hometown.  Jesus not only healed him, he also gave him a new calling on that day, a vocation: “Go and constantly declare how much God has done for you.” That is now who he was. This is what now defines him.

   We live in complicated times with a many different forces and powers trying to claim our allegiance.  These names come in the form Fear, Distrust, and sometimes Cynicism. They try to brand us with Suspicion, or “I’m Only Going to Worry about Myself” and “Survival of the Fittest.” But just as Legion was not his name, those are not our names. They do not need to define us. We have this incredible opportunity to disrupt the patterns of chaos and fear that are starting to settle in and to do so by loudly claiming and embodying the names that God has given us.

What are those names? “Disciple” – “Courage” –“Faithful” – “Compassionate.” Names like “Caring” and “Friend” and “Servant.” When we claim those names that have been given to us by Jesus, then we, like that man, will also be set free, made whole to be fully who we are. And that freedom can inspire us to do things like call each other and check in or call those we know who are feeling lonely or afraid.  It moves us to live as resurrected people serving a resurrected God.   Can you and I, imitating the love and compassion of our savior, moved by the bold confidence of His healing Spirit, still ask someone their name ?

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