“What is your name?”
Luke 8:26-36 & 1 Kings 19:1-15a
Proper 7C – 6/23/13
St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
“What is your name?”
It’s a simple question — and one you might be asking me right now, if you haven’t looked at your bulletin, because surely you’ve noticed that I am not John Hortum.
“What is your name?” It’s a simple question, one of the first we learn to answer as babies; and one of the first we ask our own babies as they acquire the gift of language, repeating the name we gave them as one of their first gifts.
What is your name? It’s one of the first phrases we learn in any language — como te llamas, Comment t’appelles-tu? It’s one of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance —though some of us might find ourselves asking more than once, and then having to ask again the next time we meet, until we’re too embarrassed to ask any more and simply fake it.
Names have power, and knowing someone’s name is a powerful sign that you value and respect them, that you think they’re important, that you appreciate them as a person and not just the guy who mows your lawn or the woman who does your hair.
“What is your name?” is the question Jesus asks of the man in today’s gospel — the man who lives among the tombs, running around naked, tearing at his chains. In Mark’s version of this story, he’s even more deranged, for Mark tells us he is “always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Luke tells us that demons SEIZE this man, over and over, so that his neighbors fear him and keep him under guard. I am sure they have names for him — “madman,” “crazy,” “a danger to society” — “demoniac.” They have forgotten his name, and, perhaps, so has he.
It’s no wonder he lives among the tombs, feeling like every day is a good day to die.
* * *
Elijah thought it was a good day to die, too. Possessed not by demons but by the spirit of the Lord, Elijah was running from those who wanted to kill him. He had just won a showdown between the 850 priests of Ba’al and the one true God, the battle we heard about two weeks ago, in which Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice of oxen. His victory – God’s victory – was dramatic, but not appreciated by King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel.
Elijah is on the run, and I guess he gets tired of running, because in today’s story, he has decided it’s a good day to die. “It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life.”
Then old Elijah lies down in the scant shade of a scrubby tree and waits for the angel of death. Soon enough, he feels an angel’s touch — but instead of comfort, he hears a command: “Get up and eat.” Then there were hot loaves, and a jar of water, and for dessert, a second command: “Get up and eat; otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
God was not finished with Elijah yet.
So the prophet, who wanted nothing more than to hide, journeyed 40 days and 40 nights till finally he found a cave. At last, a place of shelter, a place as safe as … a tomb. But God won’t leave Elijah chained to his fears, to his misery. God calls him out, calls him by name.
“What are you doing here, Elijah? Go out and stand on the mountain!” The last place, perhaps, the old prophet wants to go, especially as he watches the great wind, and the earthquake, and the fire; but the LORD was not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. The LORD knew how to get Elijah’s attention. With the sound of sheer silence, or as other translations have it, with “a still small voice.”
God sent Elijah forth with a commission, with a message to proclaim, for God was not finished with Elijah yet.
* * *
“What is your name?” Jesus asked the man – or was it the demon he asked? I love the ambiguity of Luke’s pronoun. It is not clear in the gospel to WHICH “him” Jesus poses the question. We know nothing of his tone of voice, his volume, or his posture. So it could be he’s shouting, arms outstretched, challenging the demon, because to know the name of an unearthly being is to gain some power over it. Of course, Jesus already HAS power over demons, so the question directed to them simply demonstrates his supremacy. I like this image because it shows Jesus telling the demons in no uncertain terms that they are finished abusing this man.
Or it could be, he’s bending gently toward the troubled man, looking into his eyes for the humanity Jesus knows is there, asking for that name once given by a father in pride, once crooned by a mother in love. Perhaps his question is the “still, small voice” the man can finally hear amid the cacophony of noises in his head. Asking for the man’s name would be Jesus’ way of getting the man’s attention, calling him back from the wilderness in which he wanders, restoring his memories and relieving his torment.
After all, in the words of a wise preacher named Spencer Rice, “Jesus came not as the person who was seeking to pass judgment on people, but with that remarkable capacity to see good in people who could not see good in themselves.” (repeat) I like this image, too, because it shows Jesus telling the man we know as “the Gerasene demoniac” that God is not finished with him yet.
Either way the question is asked, though, it’s the demons who answer, because the demons have SEIZED control of this sufferer. “Legion,” they cry, and it’s a word that resonates with the first hearers of Luke’s gospel, who know that a Roman legion could be as many as 6,000 soldiers. But military might doesn’t scare off Jesus. Oh, he grants the demons’ request to enter into the pigs nearby; he also knows that this is no escape. The demons WILL return to the abyss from which they came. The man WILL discover it’s a good day to live. He WILL be free.
Not so the people around him, at least not yet. When the swineherds rush off to tell what this strange preacher has done to their pigs (NOW who are they calling a madman?), people rush to the scene. They find the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. You would think they’d be relieved, you would think that they’d rejoice. But no – THEY ARE AFRAID. If this strange rabbi can cost the swineherds their livelihood, what other damage can he wreak? Will the basket-weavers or the olive growers or the cheesemakers be next? But their fear goes deeper than economic loss. They are SEIZED with fear of the unknown, fear of the kind of power they have never seen before.
So rather than welcome Jesus, rather than welcome the man as a returned brother and son, they are held captive by their fear as surely as the man had been held captive by demons.
I like to think this is not the end of the story for them, though. I like to think that God is not finished with the people of Gerasa yet. Just as Elijah received a commission, so does the healed man. No, Jesus says, he cannot hop in the boat and become a disciple. Rather, he must “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” God isn’t finished with the man, for he has work to do. Healed, he must become a healer. Set free from howling in pain, he is sent forth to proclaim. Surely some of his neighbors listened. Surely, there is a hopeful end to this story. Surely, there is even more good news in this gospel.
For, in the words of the poet David Whyte, “None of us knows the conclusion of the story on which we are embarked.” (repeat)
God was not finished with Elijah, or the man afflicted with demons, or even the Gerasene community. And God is not finished with us. God has work for us to do, good news for us to proclaim. And that work begins by knowing our own names, by caring enough to ask each other – those here, those afraid to enter these doors, and those who are just waiting to be asked – “What is your name?”
So what SEIZES you this day? What holds your heart or your mind in thrall? What still, small voice do you need to hear? What chains can Jesus break for you, what demons can he cast out? What name can he help you recover, what new name can he help you claim?
Be sure that he will do it, for this is the good news, my friends, this is the gospel: God is not finished with us yet.