Storms & Demons | In the Dust of Our Rabbi

Transcript of the third sermon in our Lenten series: " In the Dust of our Rabbi".
For helpful background on the complex relationship between
rabbi & their talmidim (disciples) in 1st century Palestine, please click here.

Mark 4:35 - 5:20 }  <-- click to read the Bible text!

Several weeks ago I had one of those days where everything goes wrong, all at the same time. The day started poorly: I overslept my alarm, missed the CrossFit class I was supposed to coach, and woke up in a panic. A heating pipe was blocked somewhere in our garage so my Dad’s apartment was without heat, and temperatures were in the single digits. My kids were uncharacteristically cranky. Our car was acting up when I left the house to drive my son to his art class. And on the way to meet the plumber back at home, I tried to accelerate and… nothing happened. The car didn’t respond. It was like stepping on a plum. So instead I drove to meet my husband at the mechanic, and sitting there in the parking lot I texted my girlfriend and said, “you just can’t make this stuff up.”

And I have a feeling that that’s pretty much how the disciples felt in our scripture today, from the gospel of Mark chapters 4 & 5: “you just can’t make this stuff up.”

We’re only four chapters into the book of Mark, but crowds of people are already following Jesus, so many that he has taken to teaching from a boat anchored offshore -- a floating pulpit in the Sea of Galilee -- to avoid the crush of the crowds. His fame has spread throughout the Jewish regions of Palestine (see map below): Galilee, Judea, Tyre & Sidon, and Idumea (south of Judea)… basically all of the settled areas west of the Jordan, except for Samaria. [Side note: the Jews viewed the Samaritans as their dirty backwater cousins, so you could say they didn’t talk much.] Meanwhile, controversy is brewing over Jesus’ identity — some people are spreading the rumor that he is empowered by Satan, and that’s causing a kerfuffle. He is teaching openly about the coming Kingdom of God, healing people, and has even commissioned 12 of his followers to teach & cast out demons (which, by the way, may be the fastest learning curve for talmidim ever recorded, but that’s a different sermon).

 "A large crowd followed him because they had heard what he was doing. They were from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the area surrounding Tyre &amp; Sidon."&nbsp; ~Mark 3:7-8

"A large crowd followed him because they had heard what he was doing. They were from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the area surrounding Tyre & Sidon."  ~Mark 3:7-8


So, after a long day of preaching to crowds of people on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus suggests that they head across to the other side, toward the Gerasenes. But out there in the middle of the lake, the winds pick up, the waves swell and the boat starts to swamp. Jesus is somehow able to sleep in the midst of this chaos — which I cannot understand, because I can’t even manage to sleep on a non-turbulent airplane — and finally his disciples shake him awake. These seasoned fisherman, fearing for their lives, demand an answer: “Don’t you even care that we are about to die?!?” 

And Jesus stands, and gives orders that quiet the wind and the sea, and the disciples’ fear turns from fearing the storm itself to fearing the man in the boat with them — because up until this point, they’ve seen him heal people and cast out demons, but NO RABBI EVER has had authority over the natural elements. This is a different kind of power altogether.

The night passes, and they arrive safely on the shore of the Gerasenes...



...And at this point, if I’m the disciples, all I want after a near-death-by-drowning experience in the middle of the night is a hot cup of coffee and a nice brunch. Maybe a solid nap for a couple of hours on the beach. And I’m still not sure what I think about my rabbi shouting, “Peace, be still!” right into the teeth of the nastiest squall I can remember.


But no sooner have Jesus’ sandals hit the rocks, than someone up among the rocks starts hollering and crashing down through the brush, and as the person gets closer his disciples can hear what he’s yelling: something about “Jesus, Son of the Most High God!!!” And then the man is close enough to see, and the disciples realize — to their horror — that this man is stark naked, bruised, dirty, bloody, and utterly wild-looking.

 Historically accepted site of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac: the tombs at Kursi.

Historically accepted site of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac: the tombs at Kursi.

And if I’m the disciples, I’m staring up the hillside thinking… you just cannot make this stuff up.


I wonder if they sensed imminent danger? 

I wonder if they turned to get back in the boat?

I wonder if they instinctively knew that this was YET ANOTHER situation that was going to take them waaay beyond the boundaries of their comfort zones, not to mention their deeply-held purity culture?


The author gives us pertinent details that the disciples likely weren’t privy to at the time: Mark shares that this man was from a nearby town but lived on the hillsides among the tombs because his demon possession was so severe. The townspeople had tried to restrain him with chains, but nothing, and no one, could control him. I imagine that his family and friends had tried to help him, had tried to do what they could for him, and that eventually it was just easier to release him to his tortured, solitary fate rather than continue to pour their energy into the impossible task of restraining him. Perhaps they began to fear for their own safety. You don’t restrain someone — you don’t chain someone up — unless you fear them.

And so his demons consumed him, drove him to self-mutilation, and kept him prisoner among the dead. Literally.


In 1st century Palestine, tombs were not nice neat rows of headstones with people buried several feet below. Tombs were actually rough-hewn inside of caves, and dead bodies were wrapped in linens for burial and placed inside, laid out on narrow shelves in the open air. A year or so after the initial burial, loved ones would return to the tombs of their deceased relatives to collect the bones and any lingering remains, and place them inside a stone box called an ossuary. Then the stone box was placed in a different niche inside the tomb to make space on the ledge for the next body. 

1st century tomb.jpg


So when Mark tells us that this man lived among the tombs, what he is really saying is that he lived among decaying bodies. He took shelter in the same spaces as people who were slowly decomposing. When it rained, he entered dark spaces and sat amidst the stench of death.

And did I mention — this demon-possessed man was a Gentile?

The Gerasenes was a Greco-Roman region of Palestine… not Jewish. 


In other words, this man was the most unclean, the most unworthy, the most unlikely candidate for a miraculous healing from a Jewish rabbi. He was:

  1. a Gentile (unclean)
  2. demon-possessed (really unclean)
  3. living daily among the dead (really extremely unclean)

Three strikes.


So I imagine the disciples standing there, chins in the dirt, as their rabbi faces down a filthy, naked man sprinting toward him: hair and beard matted and full of sticks, arms bruised and bloodied. And I imagine their complete shock as this dirty Gentile falls at the feet of Jesus. And Jesus, rather than ordering him away — or turning and running back to the boat — or telling his talmid posse to wrestle the man to the ground — asks the demon-possessed man a question:

What is your name?


This is a strange opening question to a man who likely hadn’t heard his name spoken in years. Who knows how long it had been since someone from his hometown had come out to the tombs look for him, to call him by name? This man was so completely cut off from his community, so dehumanized, that he no longer needed a name. And so the man answers with the name of his demon: “I am Legion… because we are many.” 

It’s almost like the man is saying, “this demon is who I am.”


This is what our demons do, don’t they?

They distort our identity.

They drive us into isolation.

They disrupt our relationships and keep us from our community.

They steal our hope. They cause us pain.

They surround us with what feels like spiritual death. 

And we bloody our spirits and beat ourselves up…but still our demons remain beyond our control.

Although we may not affirm the literal existence of little red men with long forked tails and horns, I think we all know that there are still demons in the world that torment the human spirit. I think we all know what it means, how it feels, to house a demon or two.

And so I want to ask you to consider: what is your demon’s name?

Is it Depression?



Is it Selfishness, or perhaps Arrogance?



Pride? Maybe your demon’s name is Anger, or Judgement.

Maybe your demon's name is Self-Loathing.


Friends, I want us to pay careful attention to Jesus’ response to the demons named Legion, because it is the very same response he offers to us, and our demons with many names:

Jesus, true to his very nature, responds with compassion. 


Jesus is not afraid of the danger this possessed man represents. Jesus is not repulsed by the man’s disheveled, smelly appearance or his clearly altered mental state. Jesus is not even a bit fazed by the fact that, technically, this man belongs to the “wrong” ethnic group. After a brief bargaining session with the head spokesdemon, Jesus sends the Legion of demons into a nearby herd of pigs, and although this turns out pretty badly for the pigs and their owners, the demon-possessed man is completely healed. 

Before we continue, I need to point out this detail: the possessed man didn’t do anything to “deserve” healing. Not one single thing. And Jesus didn’t tell him to go get himself cleaned up first, so that they could sit down for a nice civilized little heart-to-heart on the beach. He didn’t chastise the man for being unable to get rid of his own demons, or berate him for not having enough faith to feel better on his own. 

And yet, I think that’s how we expect Jesus to behave towards us, and the demons we carry within. I think we’ve bought the the lie that we need to clean ourselves up first, make ourselves “presentable” before God will want anything to do with us. We’ve swallowed the hype that we can heal ourselves, that we should heal ourselves, before we approach Jesus.

Nothing could be further from the truth.


Let’s not miss it: this Jesus that we follow, this God-rabbi, sails through one storm and right into another: right into the turbulent life of the most unclean human his disciples have ever seen. Jesus walks toward the smell of death and discomfort and danger — and he brings peace and freedom. He restores the possessed man to himself, and to wholeness, and to community. 

Oh, this rabbi is powerful, friends. Powerful beyond all understanding. And — as his disciples are quickly discovering — he is no respecter of the artificial boundaries we build around who deserves his love and healing, and who doesn’t.


I see myself in two places in this story. First, I see myself in the disciples… because all too often I want to decide who is worthy of the presence and healing of Jesus, and who isn’t. I want to pretend that the people with whom I disagree — theologically, politically, socially, or otherwise — couldn’t possibly experience the presence of God in the same way I do. I want to believe that God’s healing power is reserved just for the progressive, inclusive churches that I approve of, and NOT the churches who preach that certain groups or types of people are second-class citizens. But that’s precisely what’s so offensive about Jesus: he throws grace and healing around willy-nilly, with absolutely zero regard for any of our opinions.

And the second place I see myself is in the demon-possessed man, whose name we actually never learn. … because in our enlightened, scientifically-driven, evidence-based world, it’s really hard for me to believe that God has actual power over the demons we host.


These days we have medications for anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. We understand brain chemistry in new ways. We have therapists and counselors and psychiatrists. And as a result, we desperately want to believe that we have control over our inner lives, that we can cast out our own demons.

Now, please don’t hear me say that mental illness is actually demon possession. That is definitely NOT my message. I’m also NOT suggesting that if we just pray hard enough, all of our inner struggles will be instantly resolved. Neither am I saying that there is anything wrong with the medical treatment of mental illness. I have been helped tremendously by gifted therapists, and I have struggled with depression to the point of taking anti-depressant medication for a period of time. Those tools have been extremely helpful for me, and I am exceedingly grateful that these treatment options exist.


What I AM suggesting this morning is this... I wonder if perhaps we’ve conveniently forgotten that our rabbi Jesus actually has legitimate, for-really-reals spiritual power: power that we cannot control, quantify, or contain? Because that sounds like medieval hocus-pocus, right? That sounds like we’re buying into a fluffy feel-good fairy tale. We’re far too enlightened for that. Who even believes that kind of crazy-talk anymore?!


But maybe I do? 


Maybe I need to believe that there’s another source of healing in the world that we’ve forgotten to explore? Because when I look at myself, I still see anxiety, fear, depression, bitterness, selfishness, pride, arrogance, and hopelessness… I still see inner struggle and fractured relationships and my heart in chains. And when I look around at the lives of those I love, and the lives of my neighbors, I see brilliant children of God who walk through life in a fog of despair, and high-achieving professionals who are tormented by the fear of not being good enough, and deeply wounded young people who take automatic rifles to school and shoot their classmates. And I wonder if perhaps it’s time to go fall at the feet of Jesus, name my demons, and ask for deep healing... Because nothing else seems to be healing us fully. And dear ones, I am so ready for wholeness.

I can’t know for sure whether the healing we so desperately seek will come in an instant, or over a period of time. I cannot predict how Jesus might come and heal the broken places in our spirits. But I do know that our scripture today calls us to straight to the feet of Jesus, where we are free to name our demons and trust that our powerful, compassionate, healing rabbi will see straight through our dirty, crusty exteriors into our beloved hearts, and cast out the things that torment us.  Indeed, friends, the gospel offers us this very hope: wholeness flows from our rabbi Jesus, who stands ready to heal and restore us all, without exception.

And as that healing flows through us, I am convinced that that Jesus will look us in the face and say the very same words he said to the Gerasene demoniac: “Go and tell your people what God has done for you. Go and tell about the mercy you’ve received.” 

And we will have truly good news to share.

May it be so. Amen.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Offered at an ecumenical Ash Wednesday worship gathering,
hosted by the United Protestant Presbyterian Church in Palmer.

Many thanks to the Revs. Tim & Leisa Carrick for the privilege of sharing their space.

From Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 }

Return, the prophet Joel says.

Return to the Lord. 

Get out of your own way, the ancient prophet tells his own people, in his own time: the way you’re traveling only leads away from God’s heart, away from wholeness, away from holiness. Return, because God’s judgment is coming; return, because it’s not too late to draw near to the Holy One.

Does it feel to late to you?

Does it feel too late now, in this age, as the raging armies of violence and division overtake us, spreading fear and despair and hatred…?

Now, in our own time, as we watch the thick darkness spreading, unfurling across our land, as some among us wonder if perhaps this is the Lord’s judgment… do you hear it?

Hear again the voice of the prophet, my friends: return.

Return to the Lord.

Oh, how hard it is, in a culture that has a fix for everything, in a culture that preaches self-help and self-promotion, in a culture that offers a five-step solution for every ill, and yet cannot heal itself…

…how hard it is to return to the Lord, and admit that we are dust.

It strikes at the heart of our American way, this Ash Wednesday practice. To come together and admit that we are not God. That we can only pretend, rather badly, that we are in control. That our best efforts to fix our own human messes have only resulted in more pain and suffering and misunderstanding. That we are merely transients, impermanent visitors, on this tiny blue orb, spinning through space.

Indeed, friends: to remember that we are dust is a distinctly counter-cultural practice.

How we like to pretend that we are not made of dust, but glossy, sculpted plastic: that we have it all put together, that we have this adulting thing figured out, that we are practically perfect. How skilled we become at make-believing that our sin doesn’t actually cause painful ruptures in the fabric of God’s beautiful world, how desperately we try to convince ourselves that all of the evil and ugliness is really because of Someone Else, who probably has Much Bigger Issues Than I Do; how we try to ignore the mounting evidence that we are complicit in the suffering of God’s children, God’s creation.

Perhaps, if we remembered more often that we are dust, we might have the humility to stop the charade, and return to the Lord… to remember that God is God, and we are not, and to confess that we have lost our way.

Return, says the Lord, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

It’s for me hard not to mourn these days, as the news piles up from around our nation and across the globe: we are made of dust and yet we cannot help but abuse and exploit each other, in the name of progress, in the name of profit.

Return, says the Lord, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

And how can I not be moved to weep, when the tears of Rohingya refugees and the tears of those trapped in sexual slavery and the tears of the parents whose children died today in a school shooting are all crying out together for justice, for release?

Return, says the Lord, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

How can I not be moved to fast, when women in Venezuela cannot feed their babies, and voluntarily leave them at orphanages so that at least they will not starve? How can I not be mindful of the mouthfuls I take each day, when so many mouths are empty?

See, when I remember that I am only dust, my heart of stone crumbles, and I see more clearly. 

I see more clearly that it is precisely our shared frailty that connects us, all of humanity together, in a sort of earthy solidarity: we ALL are dust. Seven billion of us and counting, inhabiting this planet we call Earth, and none of us is more or less important, more or less valuable, more or less worthy, more or less sinful. From dust we came, and to dust we return.

This is the great equalizer, the great truth of Ash Wednesday:

You are made of dirt, beloved earth-child. All of you. Every single one of you. You were individually fashioned with Divine intention: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. You bear on your deepest self the fingerprints of the Almighty, and even now, the ridges and valleys of those fingerprints call out with the voice of the prophet Joel:

Return to the Lord.

Return to the One who made you, little earth-child, and confess your sins to the Lord who knows that you are dust. 

Tonight, may these ashes on our foreheads be for us a reminder that the Creator-of-the-Beautiful chose to sculpt humankind out of dust, out of beloved bits of earth and stars: and that the very breath of God connects us to each other. May we remember that God is not surprised by our humanity: that only we are ever taken by surprise by our own mortality and brokenness. And as we confess our sins together, may we remember that God, the Holy One, always welcomes our return.

Remember that you are dust, dear ones.