I have a rather odd interest; I love traipsing around old cemeteries. It isn’t quite a hobby like video games or jogging. And it doesn’t produce the same sense of euphoria as writing sometimes can. And I don’t find myself cemetery traipsing nearly as much as those other pursuits either.
But yeah, put me in a cemetery setting and odds are I’ll tend to linger some. Likely more than most.
When visiting Jamestown Virginia in high school, as part of a nearby family reunion, I remember being fascinated walking through mostly wooded areas, learning about the early settlers buried there in 1607.
When Kathi and I honeymooned in Key West Florida, home to the southernmost point in the US, you can be sure we spent some time at their cemetery. Lined with palm trees and blue skies it’s a picturesque tropical setting, nestled in the middle of a residential area, practically begging to be explored.
While at a work conference in Savannah Georgia fifteen years ago Kathi and I tacked on some trip time to explore this serene, historic city. We went to two Savannah cemeteries if memory serves, maybe more. Each were lined with Southern Live Oak trees, complete with drooping, curvaceous branches, often draped in Spanish moss that sometimes reaches the ground. It’s gorgeous.
And I almost got to the Vienna Central Cemetery while on business trip in Europe. One weekend a couple of coworkers and I took a train, from Budapest, to visit Vienna. But I couldn’t quite convince them one of the largest cemeteries in the world, with over 300,000 graves and 3 million internments, was worth the time. I mean come on, Ludwig Von Beethoven is buried there! Perhaps one day.
Besides the history and picturesque settings and celebrity status cemeteries often contain there are, of course, the gravestones.
Gravestones represent a marker of a person’s life, a summary of what makes them, well them. Many stones contain religious symbols. A cross for Christians, a star of David for Jews, alongside other religious symbols too countless to name. Each providing clues to what faith the person claimed while with us here on earth.
Other stones immortalize hobbies, vocations, and interests.
Last week I had the chance to preside over a graveside funeral service for Bernard Ortgies at the Ames Municipal Cemetery. Bernard was a member of Bethesda a while ago before moving to Florida in retirement. And I couldn’t help but appreciate the gravestone for he and wife Sharon. Under Bernard’s name is a square and compass, under Sharon’s a book, and between them is Cy the Cyclone. He was an engineer, she a teacher; they both were big ISU sports fans.
And while there I couldn’t help but notice a gravestone with the last name of one of our current members, Kepley. The marker is for Danny Kepley’s parents; mom was buried there in 2016, one day dad will be joined alongside her once again. The Kepley gravestone gets my attention every time – there’s this great image of a tow truck on it. The Kepley’s owned a tow truck company in the area – what a neat way to celebrate that identity. It’s about as cool a marker as there is.
Some markers contain a few final words from the person; some funny, others reflective. The Key West cemetery has both, next to each other.
The marker for Pearl Roberts, a local hypochondriac who died at age 50, reads like this: “I told you I was sick.”
And right above that is the headstone for Gloria Russell. It simply says, “I’m just resting my eyes.” Downright poetic.
But for all the beauty and nature and history and symbolism and humor and poetry and earthly finality that cemeteries contain, there is one thing they don’t typically house.
At least when visiting hours are over.
Cemeteries aren’t meant to be a permanent address for the living.
And when the living find themselves taking up residence among the dead, and that happens sometimes, you know something is not quite right.
All of which leads us to today’s gospel.
Luke 8 contains one of the more memorable biblical characters there is. A man who –
lived in tombs,
among the dead,
and likes to shout,
at people he’s just met.
Jesus, entering a new country, one with different religious beliefs, stepping from boat onto land, has this as his first impression.
Now I don’t get out of the US too much. Tho when passing state borders it’s always nice to see a “Welcome to Minnesota” sign or somesuch, and take a few minute break at the first rest stop.
Instead, the welcome sign Jesus got this day, when entering a new land, was a naked homeless shouting dude.
Naked guy approaches,
Naked guy starts shouting.
I don’t know about you, but if I stepped off a plane bound for a new destination and this were my first experience? I might just turn around.
But Jesus, of course, doesn’t do that.
He doesn’t turn away from the man;
He doesn’t return shouting with shouting;
Instead he engages.
The naked man falls down and shouts – at the top of his voice no less – “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
Jesus then asks the man’s name.
The man responds, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him.
When unclean spirits of this world get a tight hold on us, or on loved ones, sometimes we can’t separate the person –
From the addiction;
From the disease;
From the stigma.
And we really should.
Christ is all about separating us from our demons.
And Christ wants us to help separate others from their demons. All in His name.
These demons then begged Christ to enter into a herd of pigs. A request Jesus granted. The piggy swine, apparently going peacefully about their piggy business beforehand, now go berserk, dash madly over a cliff, and drown.
It’s an absurd scene. I mean who’s ever heard of a swine stampede?
Theologian Patrick Willson concludes this:
“If pigs were runners, our bacon would look different.”
Noodle on that one.
Healing and Home
Separated from his demons, the man, now in his right mind, puts on some clothes. He then begs to go with Jesus and the disciples as they get back on the boat, to head home.
But Jesus had other plans. “Return to your home,” Christ responds. “And declare how much God has done for you.”
This, for a man whose demons had driven him away from others.
This, for a man who’d been living, in isolation, among the dead.
The man then went to his city.
The man then proclaimed all this.
The scene then ends.
Admittedly scriptural talk of demon possession always strikes me as a bit wonky. At least when looking at it through the lens of our modern era.
Exorcisms these days are more likely to be paired with faith traditions that do things like snake handling and walking on hot coals. Which is not something you’ll see in too many Lutheran settings. Certainly not here
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