He was the person no one wanted to know. We don’t know his name. Let’s call him Amoz – it means bearer of burdens. Amoz was always a nuisance, unpredictable erratic behaviour. He couldn’t work, couldn’t look after himself. Some said he was mad, though other people said he was demon-possessed. He didn’t have a formal diagnosis – there were no doctors or facilities for diagnosis or treatment. He kept stripping off – it was embarrassing, especially for the girls and the children. It was as if his nakedness exposed the nakedness and fragility of their own lives. His noisy shouts exposed the clamour of their souls. If anything was wrong, it was always his fault, whether this was true or not – the things that got broken or went missing or a disturbance in the night. It was useful to have someone to blame. It was as if he represented all that was wrong in their lives.
Once his mother died, they didn’t know what to do with him. So they tied him up with ropes, but he got free, and ran around. After that they chained him up with secure padlocks and put him out of the village, into the graveyard, the place of the dead. It wasn’t as if they were being cruel or anything – they took him food and water every day. Well, most days. When they remembered. And they were able to get on with their own lives. Their problem had been put to one side. It was the only way they could cope.
For Amoz, it was a living death. No shelter. No freedom. No friends. No respect.
And then the healer arrived, Jesus. He came the day after that great storm in the night, travelling from the Jewish side of the lake to the Gentile side. He came up from the boat on the lake just by the graveyard, and the first thing he saw was Amoz. He must have been a sorry sight after being out in the rain and wind all night, howling with grief and rage and sheer misery. Most people kept well clear of Amoz, but Jesus went straight up to him and talked to him. He got alongside him. He was with him. He could see to the heart of the problem, the burden Amoz carried. How do you describe what Jesus did that day? The way Luke tells the story, Jesus cast out the demons that were controlling Amoz and sent them into a herd of pigs who then fell into the lake. Whatever happened, Jesus healed him. He didn’t stand at a distance and wave his hand. He came up close. He engaged with Amoz. Amoz was restored to his right mind. He would listen without shouting out. He remained respectably within his clothes. He could have a life! And that was more scary for the villagers than having Amoz chained in the graveyard. When Amoz no longer carried the burden of all their demons, they were afraid. Jesus had challenged their way of dealing with the problem of Amoz and he disturbed them. So they asked him to go away.
So who are we in the story?
There are times when we are Amoz. Amoz represents all of us when we are out of our minds, when we are under such pressure from life that we do not know how we are going to cope – it could be illness, physical or mental, it could be loss or bereavement, it could be losing a job or having your benefits sanctioned. And when we are out of our minds, Jesus is with us. Jesus is always with us. He loves us and comes into the mess of our lives and takes away the fear and the hurt.
There are times when we are the villagers, excluding from their pristine lives the people who are awkward and difficult. We can be like that, when we do not get alongside the people who are struggling, when we don’t welcome them into church or into the community.
And we are called to be like Jesus, who isn’t afraid of people with mental illness, or people who are different in any way. We are called to come alongside the people that society shuns and be a friend to them. When we pay attention, when we listen, when we care – that is the start of healing. And sometimes, when we do that, when we make ourselves vulnerable enough to show real care and compassion, we find that we are blessed in return.
The MP Jo Cox was murdered on Thursday. Everyone spoke of her concern for the downtrodden, someone who engaged with people who were struggling and fought for them. You don’t do that at a distance. Jo Cox got alongside the people she cared about. We have still to understand why Thomas Mair shot and stabbed her, but his violence seems to have come out of hate.
On Thursday, we will be voting in the EU Referendum. It is important that people vote, and it is important that people think carefully about how they are going to vote, because the way you vote is saying something about what kind of a world you want, what kind of society you want. Ask yourselves what kind of world Jesus would be wanting.
Amoz didn’t want to go back to his old life. And he didn’t regress to the devils that had haunted him. He wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus said ‘No’ and sent him to proclaim what God had done for him. So Amoz goes off and tells everyone what Jesus had done for him. Amoz encountered God in Jesus. He met Jesus. He found God.
When we encounter Jesus who comes close to us, who listen to us and takes us seriously, then we meet God for ourselves. And our lives change. Then Jesus sends us to proclaim what God has done, what Jesus has done. That’s what we do, as his church.