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Genesis 32.22-32

Mark 5.1-13

Unmasked

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

It was a dark and stormy night.  The wind howled.  The sky was smudged with clouds as the lonely company of haggard sailors scudded across the foreboding waters in their frail and flimsy vessel.  Slowly, and with seeming malevolent purpose, an ominous storm began to rise before them, the waves measuring a menacing metronome against the hull of their tiny boat, which was already taking on the cold brackish water.  They were convinced this night would be their watery end.  But somehow one of their number managed to steady the craft, they rode out the worst of the storm, and regained a little of their lost hope and confidence.  Still, when they finally reached the shore under the night’s dark cloak, they were visibly shaken, emotionally spent, and glad simply to get their exhausted quivering legs on firmer ground.

It was still dark as pitch when they clambered from the vessel, their eyes narrowing to slits as they tried to make out the forms which loomed ahead in the night.  As fate would have it, they had landed near a graveyard whose tombs and catacombs tauntingly bore the mysteries of the not-so-long-ago dead.  Hesitantly, groping for every step along the way, the band of sailors huddled together as they made their way among the sepulchers.  They had heard and half-believed the stories of the unclean spirits which were said to live among these graveyards, and as they moved slowly forward, step by tentative step, each snapping twig, and every distant sound made all the tales of fear and danger they had laughed at in the daylight seem far too real, and disconcertingly near.  Suddenly from the direction of the tombs came a cry, and as if to ratify every ghost story they had ever heard and told, a maniacal figure came hurtling toward them, chains rattling behind him and an unearthly howl emanating from the core of its being.  They froze as one in their tracks, for there before them stood a man literally possessed by hundreds of evil spirits, and the spirit of evil and stench of death surrounded them to a man.  After what seemed like a breathless lifetime, they exhaled as one with the tiniest modicum of relief when one of their number stepped forward, confronted the raving wild man, and demanded to know his name.  “We are legion,” the apparition replied, with a chorus of a hundred disembodied voices blended into one discordant moan, “for we are many.”  And the leader, showing little of the fear that gripped his companions, called the evil spirits out of the tormented soul and cast them into a herd of two thousand swine, which immediately squealed like pack of porcine lemmings as they rushed headlong into the chill death of the cold, dark sea.

William Barclay has called this gospel passage “the perfect Hallowe’en story,” and if you can put yourselves in the disciples’ position, as I have tried to do this morning, you can understand why.  It was a frightening situation the disciples found themselves in, and it was a very real threat which they faced.  But the one who had the most to fear was the man possessed.  He had no control of himself; his every move was dictated by powerful and malignant spirits which made his spirit their home, and which radically changed his character from a completely normal human being into someone whose mere presence created an aura of fear and calamity.  The spirits called themselves Legion, not only because they were so many, but also because they were so powerful.  In the New Testament the word “legion” is used only twice, both times to describe an inhuman force which represents something powerful, unparalleled and extraordinarily capable of changing the very character of a human being.  These were no imaginary forces; they were certainly real to the Gerasene demoniac in Mark!  They were so real, and so forceful, that they were only compelled to leave when confronted by the presence of God in Jesus Christ, by whose power the man was able finally to become truly himself once more.  It was clear that only by the presence of God could the man overcome the personality-altering influence which legion had, and has, over human beings.

Aside from the occasional motion picture such as The Exorcist, or The Omen, we do not hear very much about demon possession today, at least not in mainline Protestant circles.  We might read in the newspaper about an exorcism every couple of years, but what seems to have been so common in New Testament times has become almost unheard-of today, and we are inclined to wonder if it ever really happened, at least in the way the Bible describes it, at all.  Some suggest that what was once considered demonic possession has now been given a more respectable name and presentable face by contemporary psychiatry.   Perhaps if Jesus were to confront the same type of situation today, instead of responding, “My name is Legion, the man might have replied, “My name is “Anxiety”, or “Neurosis,” or “Schizophrenia.”  We cannot really say what form it might take in our own day.  All we can say for certain from the New Testament account is that if it did happen in Jesus’ time, then perhaps it is still happening today.

The Rev. David H.C. Read, for many years pastor of New York’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, suggests a slightly different lesson in the story of the Gerasene demoniac, a lesson which can and does occur today, and is far from rare or unusual.  In the fifth chapter of Mark we encounter a person controlled by a legion of varying personalities which vie with one another for priority, while overwhelming and overpowering the authentic individual.  In fact a person’s true character is often obscured, or hidden completely by these other personalities, and the ironic, if not to say tragic part of it is that so many people succumb to this conflict quite willingly.  In a word, Dr. Reed refers to these various personalities which struggle to control us, against our better selves, as “masks.”

I think it is true that, in some way or another, nearly every one of us wears a mask; we shade different personalities in different situations.  Part of this is natural, because it speaks to the different roles you and I play in life:  we are a father, a mother, a husband or wife; we show a different face at work from the one we wear at home; we show one face when we’re relaxing with good friends, and another when we’re in a room full of strangers.  It isn’t that we’re different people, only that some folks show different sides of ourselves depending on circumstances.  It’s only natural.  But some of the masks people wear aren’t very pretty at all.  In public, for example, people can be genial and friendly, but in in their more private moments they are cutting and critical.  Others might be accepting and open-minded on the outside, but judgmental and narrow-minded on the inside.  And, yes some are pious and reverent in church, but before they even get home they’re snickering about the person in the next pew and smirking about the preacher’s incredible naivete.  These varying expressions of personalities, or masks, are not demonic possession per se, but they can and do sometimes gradually take over our own personality until we begin to act like the person we really are not.

And sometimes we get comfortable behind our masks.  That person who is always laughing and joking, or the one who is habitually stoic and tight-lipped, may be building a wall around himself or herself so as not to risk the real self’s being exposed.  Have you ever How many times have you laughed at a joke you really didn’t think was funny, or accepted a suspect suggestion, so as not to be the only one who didn’t?  It is not unusual at all for some folks who, trying to get along with everyone wind up hiding their feelings, their true selves.  And we do this because it makes us feel safe.  Not only are we protecting our selves from the opinions or judgement of others, but sometimes we are attempting to hide ourselves from ourselves.  We do not always want to face up to who we are because of the faults and failings we’re afraid we might discover.  So we hide behind our masks, and don’t let anybody see  in us who and what we are really like.

And yes, it’s not unusual for people to wear masks in the presence of God.  When you think about it, it’s kind of silly to think we can fool God, and it’s much truer to say that if we think we are fooling God, we are really only fooling ourselves.  When the Gerasene demoniac was forced to face Jesus he said, “What have you to do with me¼ do not torment me!”  In other words, he was saying, “Go away; don’t bother me!  Don’t disturb all my different personalities!  Let me live with all of them intact!”  Our personalities too, can tormented when they are confronted by God.  This is the mask that can fix itself to our very souls because it doesn’t want us to see ourselves as we truly are.  Some people don’t know how they could even get along without their collection of protective masks.

Yet when we do let down our guard and recognize there are ways that God knows us better than we know ourselves, when we are bold enough to see ourselves for who we really are and reveal those selves to God, we are not simply exchanging one mask for another.  Rather, in that moment God strips all our disguises off, removing every barrier we have built between ourselves and the Almighty.  And then, when our very souls are laid bare, we are transformed.  In some ways we remain the same person we were before, but at the same time we become more fully ourselves, more truly the person we were meant to be.  In that unusual story of Jacob wrestling with a supernatural being in Genesis 32, Jacob too becomes transformed.  His name is changed from Jacob to Israel, the one who has struggled and striven with God.  He is still the same brother who extorted his brother’s birthright; he is still the same son who stole his father’s blessing, but when he was confronted by the presence of the Almighty, the old man became stripped away, and became the new man after whom God’s entire nation is named.  Jacob was transformed to Israel, and in that moment, he became most fully himself.

Nor did the Gerasene demoniac gain yet another personality in the presence of God.  Rather, all the personalities which had attempted to claim him were stripped away, and he became himself once again, fully and completely.  And so you and I stand before our God. Off comes the mask we show to our neighbors.  Off comes the mask we show to our close friends.  Off comes the mask we wear around the house.  Off comes the mask we wear to church.  Off comes every personality we have adopted to make ourselves someone other than who we really are.  In the presence of God, we become who we are most genuinely meant to be.  “Here I stand,” said Martin Luther; “I can do no other.” 

There are going to be a lot of masks walking the streets tonight, children and adults disguised as someone they really are not.  And that’s all right, because none of them really believes he or she is really a fairy princess, or a ghost, or the Cat in the Hat, or Darth Vader.  Because if anyone really did believe they were one of those characters, day in and day out, we would say something was wrong with them.  (Although I do have a grandson who has been wearing his Obi-Wan Kenobi cloak and carrying his lightsaber since September, but he is only five years old.)  Just the same, let’s remember that the masks we wear from circumstance to circumstance are not necessarily ourselves, but rather someone we think we need or ought to be.  But God has given us the courage and the spirit to look at ourselves for who we really are, that we may be transformed by God’s mercy, God’s graciousness and God’s overpowering and steadfast love.  This is when we will be most fully, most honestly, and most authentically, ourselves.

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