Putting Down the Popcorn to Find Identity

Luke 8:26-39

Summer is indeed movie blockbuster time. Action and superhero flicks with tons of explosions, CGI effects, 3D, and IMAX galore. Comedy buddy flicks to make your sides hurt; romantic films to make you cry and remember; dramas with great characters. And, there are also horror movies. Of course, for those who like to be scared, horror movies are the great escape. Sometimes, though, sometimes it can be hard to come up with a new plot—a story that hasn’t already been rehashed a thousand times. Another zombie outbreak because of a contagion that infects the population and causes hysteria? Uh, I think I’ve seen that movie enough. A sci-fi horror story about aliens that come to NYC and Washington DC to destroy and take over? Um, yeah. Been there, done that. A scorned or hurt family member who becomes a ghost and haunts anyone who comes near the house? Right. Sounds familiar.

There seems to be, however, one genre of horror flick that doesn’t go out of style. Since the movie the Exorcist there have been a lot of movies made about demon possession and the getting rid of that demon via an exorcism. There are remakes, reboots, etc., etc. Exorcisms and demon possessions even appear in comedies! In the movie This is the End which is still in theaters, one the characters [played by Jonah Hill] is possessed by a demon, strapped to a bed with chains, and his friends try to talk that demon out of him, with hilarious results. Yes, even demon possession can be funny, apparently! Most people don’t know this, but the legion of movies, TV shows, and books about exorcism and demons are loosely based on a story in the New Testament Gospels.

Meet the guy with no name: legion.

Why do many of us like horror movies or stories about demons? We like to see someone possessed supernaturally on the big screen–the standard exorcism scene with all the drama and suspense the director can muster—because it is a movie and it is fantasy. The movie eventually ends. We walk out of the dark theater, throw away our popcorn bag and soda cup, and head for the nearest exit. Back to real life. Movies are an escape. Someone possessed by a demon? It’s just a movie. It’s not real. In the same way, many people become quite obsessed with the rumor stories in different religious circles and in the Catholic church, about a priest or a religious leader who has exorcised a demon. A report comes out with few details [leaving room for imagination]. It cannot ever be proven that it actually happened. And sometimes the story comes out and then disappears just as quickly. So our imaginations start working overtime to fill in the details.

It is only natural for us to do this. We prefer for this type of thing to stay in the theaters or in our imaginations. That is why the story of the man with a legion of demons is better kept as a fantasy involving pigs and an exorcism, complete with glowing eyes, a floating body, and a deep, dark voice that echoes when he opens his mouth. Believe it or not, this is less scary to us. Because if we really look at this story on our level, ask some difficult questions, all of a sudden this becomes a documentary, a case study, a real-life experience. And that is personal.

And sadly, there will be no popcorn.

But the Gospels, in my opinion, are just as interesting as any blockbuster movie. And one thing the Gospel stories do that sets them apart is that even after the story ends, the drama keeps on going.


Because if we really read the stories, engage them, and apply them to our own lives—the story goes on in us.

There is meaning. There is understanding. There is healing.

greenmileThe Green Mile, like Luke’s Gospel, tells a healing story. It is an award-winning movie based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The story follows Death Row guards at a penitentiary in the 1930’s. The guards discover that one of the prisoners, a convicted murderer named John Coffey, has a special gift. John Coffey, played by the late actor Michael Clarke Duncan, stands 8 feet tall. His hands are huge. He is an imposing figure—even frightening. But yet, he is a compassionate healer. First, it is a beloved pet mouse of one of the inmates that he brings back to life. Then, he cures an ongoing ailment of Paul Edgecomb, one of the guards, played by Tom Hanks. But as wonderful as these acts are, each time after John Coffey heals, he starts to choke. He grabs his throat, and then, a swarm of flies rush out of his mouth. And the great-big-man crumples to the floor—exhausted.

Perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is the one we are about to see. Tom Hanks’ character Paul convinces the Warden of the penitentiary, Hal Moores, to allow John Coffey to enter his home. The Warden’s wife, Melinda, is dying of an incurable brain tumor.

What is striking about that scene and the Green Mile is that John Coffey heals various people in the way they need to be healed. Each case is different. But also, what grabs my attention is how each healing includes an ugliness that must leave [in the form of a swarm of flies]. Each affliction of each person was keeping them from being their full selves. The demons in them were limitations—physical, mental, or spiritual. The setting for the Green Mile is important to note also, for these men were on their way to the electric chair. According to society, they were finished. They had no names, but were merely numbers. They were locked away and kept far off from the rest of the world.

So was the man Jesus met in Luke’s story. The setting is a locale known as Gerasenes. It was a Gentile region. In Luke’s Gospel, this is really the only time that Jesus visits a gentile region. The man he encountered is called a man of the city, just like the woman of the city Jesus encountered earlier in Simon’s house. This man was an outcast, an untouchable; he was locked up, but the bars were in his head; his anguish kept him far off from the rest of the world. The man was nameless, faceless, forgotten, pushed to the side. He had been dehumanized. The people of his town even tried to tie him up and put him in shackles.

What chance did he have for healing?

But the moment he encountered Jesus, something happened. He tried to resist, but it was a moot point. Jesus had already asked the demons to leave him alone. And yes—an important detail we must notice—Luke says that Jesus called the demons out of the human being. He was no longer faceless, dehumanized, left for dead.

He had his humanity again.

Even so, the man is identified as Legion. In the original Greek language, the man literally said We are legion. He still couldn’t even speak for himself to say his own name. All he knew was limitation–the shackles that bound him. His demons were still negotiating with Jesus. They weren’t ready to leave this man alone. So they asked Jesus to be cast out into the pigs rather than into the abyss. Jesus agreed. Then, a transformation. The man with no name, no home, no clothes, unclean and afflicted—was clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Now at this point in the story, you might assume that the people of the town were celebrating, jumping up and down, and saying “Wow! That is awesome!”

But Luke tells us more than once that instead, they were afraid.

Why? Well, think about it. The man was unclean. He hung out in the tombs with dead things. No one should talk with him and certainly, they should never touch him. Secondly, whatever afflicted him was cast out into pigs. Pigs were also unclean. It was a head-scratcher. How could this Jesus deal with such unclean things? How could what was so impure become so clean? The experience blew their minds. It didn’t fit into their religious categories and rules. And the fantasy world had become reality. A real healing.

Have you finished your popcorn yet?

It is a truly fantastic story, but like I said before, it shouldn’t remain in our fantasy worlds. This story speaks to our real lives and our experiences. We have real afflictions in this life. Some of us have mental anguish that is so real and awful that it controls thoughts and seems to bind us completely. Things like anxiety and depression are real things, not fantasy. Some of us suffer from spiritual afflictions that are the result of religious baggage we’ve carried with us from childhood. Someone used religion to make us feel guilty, or to physically or mentally abuse us. We too can feel nameless, faceless, without a home and shut off from the community. What is our name? Instead of our given names, we often identify ourselves with our afflictions.

I am depression.

I am alcoholism and drug addiction.

I am anxiety.

I am bulimia.

I am mood disorder.

I am OCD.

I am materialism.

I am racism.

I am homophobia.

I am legion.

But in fact, Jesus tells us that these afflictions are not our names, nor our identities. We are called children of God, human beings with the capacity to participate in the good work of the Spirit of God, in spite of our afflictions. We are actually invited to encounter the healing Christ for real.

This is not fantasy.

We are truly invited to be healed.

But it won’t be pretty or a nice, a well-edited two hour movie. We won’t be able to just experience it and go home. The healing can happen for everyone, but when it does, the affliction will have to leave somehow. We will have to look in the mirror and recognize it. Once we do that, we will have to shed the old clothes of affliction to make room for new clothes of mercy and acceptance. We will have the opportunity to find a community that calls us by name. And we will be open to learning and sharing out of gratefulness.

Friends, we all have afflictions. But they do not define us.

Jesus will meet us where are we are—no matter how ugly the place might seem. And we will be loved, and forgiven, and healed, and then called out into the world to pay it forward.

After all, there are a lot of other afflicted people out there who could use our mercy and healing, don’t you think? Amen.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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