This text has me thinking about the labels we put on other people. Often we create labels for the purpose of distancing ourselves from others. Possessed was the label endured by the man in today’s gospel. We use many others: Homeless, addict, crazy, mentally ill, uneducated, educated, poor, rich, gay, immigrant, woman, man, young, old, conservative, liberal. Some of those labels might be true, but sometimes they are used to create distance. They are used to remove the sense of being just another human being so that we can ignore, discount, look the other way, and disengage. Each of us uses different labels for this purpose.
This past week I was in Spokane with the Mission Possible group, our annual mission opportunity at Lord of Life. The day I was there, some of us got to interact with Kathy, Devin, and Alicia – some of the staff from Transitions (the organization we worked with). They led us in conversation about assumptions and privilege. We did an exercise where we broke up into small groups and every group received a different amount of [fake] money. We also received a list of 22 privileges, or things that most of us take for granted, like having a bathroom that accommodates me wherever I go. Each privilege cost $100 so you had to figure out which privileges you would keep if you only had $1200 or $800 or $400. Another privilege on the list was being able to raise children without worrying about state intervention. And being able to rent a home or get a mortgage without fear of being questioned because of race or another factor.
Privilege is about more than just race. It is when a specific group of people have a special right or advantage just for them. The goal is not shame; we all have challenges we will never experience or privileges we will experience just because of who we are or where we come from. Other examples of privilege might be growing up in a home without a lot of tension or abuse; seeing something you really want at the store and being able to buy it; understanding unhealthy vs. healthy food and being able to eat healthy when you choose; having access to regular and adequate healthcare, especially if insurance is involved. The list could go on and on.
The connection between privilege and labels is that we tend to label those who don’t have the privileges we have. Remember that list I gave you at the beginning? Homeless, addict, crazy, mentally ill, uneducated, educated, poor, rich, gay, immigrant, woman, man, young, old, conservative, liberal. We put those labels on people because they are different, usually because we experience some privilege they do not, or we believe they have a privilege we don’t. We don’t need to be shamed about that privilege or lack of it, we just need to be aware of it so we can use our privilege, where we have it, for positive influence and help those that lack privilege in one area or another.
The ministry Mission Possible worked with last week, Transitions, is trying to do just that. They are working with people who lack privilege in areas like money and stability. They are helping people that have been labeled negatively to get back on their feet and change their labels. There is something in the power of labels and what we call each other that makes this work so important.
The man in today’s gospel experienced the transformative power of having his labels changed. There’s a poem that I used for a devotional at Mission Possible last week. It’s written from the eyes of the possessed man. It’s too long to share the whole thing with you, but I will put the link in my sermon when I post it online if you’d like to hear it. It’s written by Tim Melton.
At the outset of the poem, we meet a character who says he has heard voices from the early age of 8. Gradually they started to take over his body and soul and change him into something else. The poem names him William, and notes powerfully that when he went crazy, the neighbors started calling him “Crazy Bill” – a new name, a new label, a new way of distancing from the Will they once knew.
The neighbors all blamed Crazy Bill for all their fears and problems and they drove him to live in the tombs – where the dead are buried. Will received a new name, this one given him from the demons – Legion. The poem says that the voices told him there was no place where he belonged, no place where he was accepted or protected, except the cold tombs. He was the living dead.
His own name had disappeared, it’s as if he no longer had one. He was “stripped of all God called ‘Divine,’” now without a name or his humanity. And the nightmare raged in his body.
And then the Son came. S-O-N. Jesus. Legion cried out desperately and tried to turn and flee, but all they could do was scream out his name. And Jesus was not afraid of this man, this labeled and tormented man. He stepped into the storm and asked him for his name. Legion, they squealed, and Jesus cast them into swine who then drowned them in the sea.
With just one word, William’s story changed. In the poem, he was now called his true name – “Divine.” We might say “child of God.” The people were afraid and drove Jesus out of town. Without William to hold their blame and their shame, they would have to take it on themselves and wade through their own baggage and labels. The mirror had been turned and they would have to see themselves for who they really were, and finally see Will again for who he really was, instead of who they had labeled him. And William was freed, lost and found, and told to tell all the people of what Jesus did for him.
This poem reminded me that even someone like the possessed man in today’s gospel had a story. We don’t actually know what it was, but the poem gave us a way into imagining what it might be. There are all kinds of Bible characters that we could imagine about. But there are lots of people on this earth that we could actually know. We could work to hear their stories, learn their names, see past the labels. Remember, everyone has a story, and sometimes it’s good to remember that when you come across someone grumpy – it probably isn’t about you, but it’s because of their story. Our guiding principles say that we are an inviting community, welcoming everyone. That means we should be working to listen to people’s stories, learning each other’s names, and working to see past the labels – even the labels we give each other.
This is what Transitions is up to. They are creating a community where everyone is accepted for who they are, where even people who have hurtful labels can belong and begin again, where real names are heard and spoken. This is an example of who we are called to be as Christians.
But first we must know these things for ourselves: You are not the labels given to you. You are more than them, and your name is your own, trumped only by your one, true label: child of God. God sees you and knows your name. God knows your hurts and the baggage and labels you carry, even the ones you wrestle with yourself. You are still God’s beloved, no matter what. You are full of life and promise; there is always opportunity for healing and newness. May Jesus’ healing touch the parts of you that need it most today, and remind you that you are forever loved by God, no matter what.