View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Third Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
What Is Your Name?
A Question of Identity
Part of the Lenten Sermon Series “Questions Jesus Asked”
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“What is your name?” I wonder if that was a complicated question for the man. After all, at the time when Jesus asked him, the man was naked, living amongst the tombs, inevitably physically exhausted, while remaining mentally chaotic.
“What is your name?” Jesus asked him. Do you think the man even remembered his name anymore? It had probably been forever since anyone asked. It is something worth pondering. As Martin Copenhaver writes in Questions Jesus Asked, “Names are more than mere labels. We identify with our names. In a sense, we are our names.” Frederick Buechner once said that if his name were different, he would be different. That’s because over time our names define us. They remind us who we are.
Over these past few days, I have been wondering, what is your name right now? As we live in these strange coronavirus-dominated times, what is 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 your social media feeds?
Is your name “Strong and Ready?” Or is it “More Than a Bit Anxious?” If you are anything like me, your name has changed throughout the week, sometimes changed within the hour. Over the course of this past week, my name has been everything from Tuesday morning’s “Are We Sure This Is Going to be a Problem?” to Thursday afternoon’s “Cancel Everything and Where’s the Purell?”
I have also thought about those in this congregation who, when they learned that we felt it necessary to cancel just about everything we do in person, from our daily older adult programming to our children’s Sunday School classes, quickly discovered their names were becoming “Scared,” “Deeply Sad,” “Lonely,” “Overwhelmed.” I can picture some of their faces in my mind, and I am sure I know of only a snapshot of all those in my community who are fighting against feeling captured by the forces of fear and the dread of isolation.
“What is your name?” Jesus asked the man. “What is defining you right now?” “Legion,” he responded.
He must have said it with a tone of total exhaustion, for Legion was not his actual given name. Rather, it referred to a Roman military unit. So when he called himself Legion, he was describing all the forces that kept him captive. Legion was the name of his disease. Legion was the name of all that kept him from being who he was. Legion was the name of the powers that haunted his dreams, that kept him ill, that had broken all his relationships. By answering Jesus in that way, the man was saying, “I no longer have a name. I am only that which holds me captive.”
“My name is Legion” meant “My name is Addict. My name is Lost Job. My name is PTSD. My name is Grief. My name is Homelessness. My name is Consumer. My name is Workaholic. My name is Depression. My name is Legion.” All of those other forces, those other powers, many of which were outside of his control—they were what told him who he was. They had become his name, so much so that he had lost touch with the truth that it could ever be any different.
The townspeople felt the same way. He had been that way for so long that no one remembered what it was like before. They just knew that it was up to them to keep him safe from himself and, even more importantly, to keep themselves safe from him.
So every time they got word that he had escaped, a group of townspeople would have to go out into the wilds to find the very mentally ill, or very drug-addicted, or very demon-possessed man. Then they would either have to take him by force or try to verbally convince him to return with them. Their tactic depended on the day. Finally, when they got back to the tombs, they would bind him with chains and shackles, trying not to catch his naked skin in the locks. It was a well-thought-out, well-executed plan of action. And in those moments if someone had asked him, “What is your name?” he very well might have answered, “Someone to be controlled, the town problem.”
Controlling him had become a way of life–both for the sick man and for the townspeople of Gerasene. I am sure that everybody—the sick man included—assumed it would simply stay their way of life, and when they talked to their kids about it, the townspeople emphasized how keeping him shackled amongst the tombs kept the man safe from hurting himself or from getting into trouble. But when they talked to each other about it, standing around the tables at the church coffee hour or at a microphone at a city council meeting, they emphasized how the man’s containment kept the community safe too. You simply cannot have somebody like him roaming around town, scaring people. It could affect their way of life. It could affect local business. Most of those in the town felt it was better for everybody just to keep things the way they were.
Plus, by locking him out there in the tombs, outside of the town, you could almost forget the sick man was even there. If he is not in my backyard, then he is not my problem. Besides, some of them said to each other, it is not my fault that his service in Vietnam or Afghanistan messed him up. He is the one who keeps the needle in his arm, the bottle to his lips. He is the one who won’t stay on his meds or get a job. As responsible citizens all we can do is protect ourselves from him. Keep him out, on the literal and figurative margins. It is for his own good. What is your name? “Left out, ignored, despised,” he could have answered.
But then Jesus showed up. First of all, I am sure that those tending the swine could not figure out what that Jewish rabbi was doing there in the first place. Why had he and his disciples gotten on a boat and come into their Gentile territory? Gerasene was the opposite of Galilee in every way. The majority of the people who lived there were not Jewish. The Greek town had been conquered by Rome and belonged to the Decapolis. It was not the normal place for a Jewish rabbi and his group to just show up.
But as we heard in Luke’s telling of the story, nothing “normal” was going to happen that day. We quickly realize the demon-possessed man must have broken his chains again, because he ran over to Jesus, howling and yelling at the top of his lungs. He fell down at Jesus’ feet, and 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.” We must pause here for just a moment because we need to notice that even though at this point in Jesus’ ministry the disciples were still unsure as to just who this Jesus was, the demons were not unsure at all. They recognized divine power right off.
“What is your name?” Jesus asked the man, surely squatting down in order to look him in the face. “What is your name?” Again, that must have been a complicated question for him, just as it might be a complicated question for you this day.
It had probably been years since anyone had actually looked at him in the face and asked him for his name. People talked about him. People talked around him. But very few people ever talked to him. And certainly no one cared about his name, for to ask someone’s name is to begin a kind of relationship with that person and no one had time for that. Well, no one but Jesus. “What is your name?” Jesus asked him. “Legion,” the man said. “I am only that which is broken in me.”
Now, unfortunately Luke did not write down whatever it was that Jesus said in response to that very sad confession. Rather, Luke just tells us what Jesus did in response to the man’s answer of “My name is Legion.” Luke tells us that as soon as the man uttered those despondent, broken words, Jesus sent all the demons into a herd of swine that then went running off a cliff.
Once those demons were gone, 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 dramatic scene, for the next thing we know is that as the pigs are running headlong off the steep bank, and those who tended the pigs are running headlong back into the town. They wanted to tell everybody and anybody what was going on out there on the margins. “You are not going to believe it,” they must have said. “You have to come and see it with your own two eyes.” So everyone went to do just that.
What did they do when they got out there and saw that man had clothes on and was in his right mind, clear as day, fully restored back to who he had always been, sitting at the feet of Jesus just like a disciple? Did they say “Yes! We are so happy for you! Let’s throw a party and kill a fatted calf. For you were lost to us and now you have been found.” No. Did they say, “Look at what you can do, Jesus. Who are you? Tell us and we will all become your disciples.” No. Did they even say to the man, “How do you feel? Do you have a headache? Do you need a glass of water?” No.
Luke tells us that all the people from the surrounding country came out there, 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, and their only reaction was fear. They were afraid. So afraid that they begged Jesus to leave.
That is quite a response, isn’t it? This man who had given himself up for dead is finally made whole, finally set free to rejoin his community, finally healed so that he could claim his proper given name again and toss the name Legion aside forever, but instead of causing great joy, his healing caused great fear. Why?
Was it the money? When Jesus sent the demons into the pigs, all the pigs rushed into the water, thereby costing their owners serious income. Was that why they were afraid? Maybe. Or was it because Jesus’ obvious power over even the forces of evil scared them because they thought he might mess with them next? That is possible. Or was it because that man’s healing challenged their entire comfortably ordered value system?
After all, it had been years since people had even really seen that tormented man as an actual person. Long before that day, they had determined that he was completely without hope, without any chance for newness, without really even a shred of humanity left. It is why no one ever asked him his name. 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.”
By not ever learning his name, other than as Legion, those who lived in the town did not have to even entertain the idea that they might need to be connected with him, that they might need to care for him beyond just locking him up. By not knowing his name, they did not even need to think about having compassion, or showing generosity, or even praying for him. Until Jesus got there, no one knew his name, and it made everything so much easier.
But from the moment Jesus arrived, he had the audacity to see that man—as captured as he was by things outside of his control, as defined as he was by whatever held him in its grip—Jesus had the audacity to see him as nothing less than as a human being created in God’s image. Jesus had the audacity 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. And Jesus’ actions openly confronted the townspeople’s decently-and-in-order lives. So they had to get him to leave. It was just too much.
And Jesus, never one to overstay his welcome or push his way into a space where he was not wanted, got back in his boat. The newly healed man was so overwhelmed by the gift he had been given that he wanted to go with Jesus. But Jesus said no. The man had some work to do there in his hometown, for not only did Jesus give the man the gift of healing on that day, but Jesus also gave him the gift of a new calling on that day, a vocation: “Go and constantly declare how much God has done for you.” And with that call, Jesus gave him, the man formerly known as Legion, a new name—the call to be a testifier to the light. A proclaimer of the good news. Disciple. Child of God. One who belonged only to Jesus. That was who he was. That was what defined him.
Friends, we are living in complicated times. We have a million different forces and powers trying to give us new names—names like “Fear” and “Distrust” and “Cynicism.” Names like “Suspicion” and “I’m Only Going to Worry about Myself” and “Survival of the Fittest.” But here is the thing: like Legion was not his name, those are not our names. They do not need to define us. Right now 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.
Names like “Disciple” and “Courage” and “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.
That freedom can inspire us to order and ship needed emergency items and canned goods to the church so we can give them to our most vulnerable neighbors as we continue to provide “to go” meals outside and offer “curbside” pickup of essential items. That freedom can inspire us to take the wisdom of social distancing seriously so we can do our part to fight this pandemic. That freedom can inspire us to pray daily for our world, our nation, our congregational leaders, and ourselves. That freedom we will find in claiming our real names will help us be the church not just for each other but for our entire community, even when we are not able to physically be together.
For our name is “Disciple.” Our name is “Love Our Neighbor.” Our name is “Fear Not”. Our name is “Beloved.” And nothing gets to ever change that.
“What is your name?” Jesus asks us. “Yours Forever,” we respond. May it be so. Amen.