Chimayo, New Mexico is a wonderful and weird place. This little village’s claim to fame is holy dirt. Pueblo and Tewa peoples who have inhabited the area since the 12th century named the town for healing properties they found in the soil there. And, of course, the native peoples of New Mexico are potters for whomthe clay of the earth is a living being, a relative. Then in the early 1800s, a Catholic priest built a chapel at Chimayo after discovering a crucifix buried in the ground there. He believed this artifact to be associated with a Guatemalan shrine in another place where the earth was said to have the power to cure illnesses. These days, Chimayo is known as “The Lourdes of America,” attracting close to 300,000 visitors a year. A side room of the chapel contains “el pocito,” a small pit of holy dirt. Pilgrims take turns touching the dirt and many take a scoop home with them. Those seeking healing apply the dirt to their skin or mix it into their food or drink. From the walls of the chapel hang evidence of healing miracles—discarded canes, braces, and wheelchairs.
Chimayo is also known for its heirloom chile variety, the Chimayo pepper. In 2003, an effort began to replenish the 300-year-old native seed stock and revive the tradition and the industry. Chile vendors sell their blends—roasted chiles ground and smoked, plain pepper flakes, and flakes mixed with salt and herbs. The owner of the little shop Jen and I visited on our trip there a few months ago gave us each a pistachio nut, filled the shell with a chili blend, and ordered us to pop both in our mouth together. Delicious! The chile stands that line the street are covered with intriguing art. Advertising “chiles for sale” they bear icons of Jesus with the words “Chimayo holy chile.” They portray the chapel with strings of dried chiles hung all around. And they also advertise a low-rider car museum and sno cones! As I enjoyed the chiles I brought home sprinkled on a quesadilla, added to sauces or pasta dishes, I realized the connection between the chiles and the holy dirt. Eating those chiles is just a more palatable way to consume the healing soil in which they are grown.
This experience at Chimayo and today’s Gospel raise similar questions for me. What is healing? What does it mean to say that Jesus is a healer? Or that church is a healing community?
Today’s Gospel passage is not really an account of a historical event. Instead, it is a parable with social and political meaning. As Jesus and his disciples travel across the lake a dramatic storm whips up on the water. The wind and waves nearly take their lives. The message is that they are crossing into dangerous territory. They are entering a place that is fully under the control of forces that oppress people, destroy community, and diminish life. There, Jesus meets a man possessed by these demons. When Jesus asks his name, it is not the man, but the demons who answer. “We are legion.” As one commentator, biblical scholar Judith Jones puts it, “For people in the ancient Roman world . . . ‘legion’ had only one literal meaning: a unit of approximately six thousand Roman soldiers.” In fact, she adds, “the language of the whole episode evokes the experience of living under a brutal occupying power.” The demon’s seizing of the man and chains used to bind him are narrated with the same verbs and nouns used in other places to depict the empire’s arrest and imprisonment of dissenters. And when the demon confronts Jesus, Luke uses a verb that he usually uses to describe armies meeting in battle.
Jones explains that this story is set at the site of a mass trauma perpetuated by the empire perhaps a few decades before the writing of Luke’s Gospel. She writes:
According to [the historian] Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa (Jewish War, IV,ix,1). The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.
A few weeks ago, some friends visited from out of town. We hadn’t seen them for more than two years.Trying to sum up those pandemic years, I found myself telling them how the stress of that time had lodged itself in my body. Certain muscles grew tense and wouldn’t relax. They ached for no good reason. These patterns stubbornly set in. I got annoyed, then scared—was there something seriously wrong with my health? I remained as faithful as I could to practices that help me deal with stress. And yet the stress level was so constant and so high much of the time that I felt like I was simply treading water. Not getting worse, not getting better. As I recounted this experience, a thoughtful silence fell. My friends nodded with knowing nods. I feel quite a bit better now—so you need not worry about me! My point is, to different degrees and in different ways, we each experience the health or sickness of the world in our own being, in our bodies and spirits. Well-being is a communal, systemic reality.
Regarding our communal well-being, I admit I’ve been feeling quite cynical. Everywhere I look, there’s an impasse, a deadlock keeping us from addressing our most urgent problems. All the petitions and phone calls and rallies in the world don’t seem to be enough to pass legislation that Americans overwhelmingly support and that would benefit us all. We simply can’t muster the political will to have what we so desperately need: gun control, immigration reform, universal healthcare, affordable housing, paid family leave, fully funded schools. And our leaders are maddeningly preoccupied with lowering gas prices when literally all they should care about is making fossil fuels obsolete and transitioning to renewables as fast as we can. Listening to the January 6 hearings brings home the fact that our democracy is tender and fragile, on the brink of succumbing to the cancers of white supremacy, fascism and, underlying it all, fear. The other day, I expressed some of these thoughts to our ISAIAH organizer, Ben. He said, “If you, or members of your congregation, are feeling disheartened, powerless, overwhelmed, apathetic and exhausted, by our political situation, that’s not an accident. It’s intentional. People are making you feel that way on purpose. It’s how the other side wins.” His point was that a small number of wealthy, powerful people and corporations are benefitting from this impasse. And they are actively cultivating our cynicism and pitting us against each other in order to keep us from organizing and gaining the power we need to make change.
In our congregation’s all team meeting a few weeks ago, folks expressed both wonder at all we are doing as a church and anxiety about whether we’re trying to do too much. I hear the wisdom of this concern. I think we do need to carefully focus our energy and attention. It’s important for us to discern whether we can let go of some tasks. And resist the urge to start new projects. As your pastor, I see your weariness and I want you to care for yourself. My hope for all of us is that we can find the rest and renewal we need, that we can cultivate rhythms of life that are sustainable rather than exhausting. At the same time, given all that is at stake in our politics I want to challenge us to sit with what Ben said to me. It strikes me that we, like the Gerasene man and his community, are imprisoned by the demons of empire. We are in the grip of a legion of forces that seek to make us feel powerless so that they can continue to control us. I believe organizing ourselves to build power that can protect our own well-being and bring health to the community on which our life depends is not some extra project. It is absolutely essential. And it needs to be at the heart of all we do as church.
The intense reaction of the Gerasene community to Jesus’ act of healing makes much more sense when we read this text as a parable about our relationship with empire. The people in the surrounding community were clearly terrified that Jesus’ defiance would provoke the wrath of Rome. So the healed man, though free, still belonged to a people in bondage. The man wanted to leave his community so that he could stay with Jesus. Jesus, instead, called him to a healing ministry of his own. His work was to tell his story, a story of liberation, with hope that it might awaken others.
Our Gospel parable portrays the complexity of healing. The story declares clearly and boldly that healing is possible. At the end of the story, the man is sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. He is free from being controlled and manipulated, free from self-destructive behavior, free from being ruled by past trauma. The story also proclaims that healing is about the power to define ourselves, the power to know that we are beloved the power to seek wellness and choose community in a world possessed by lies and greed, violence, and fear.
And finally, the story teaches us that though healing is possible, it is not inevitable. It is slow, incremental and ever-incomplete. Like a holy chile growing in holy dirt of this holy earth, with the help of holy sunshine and rain, healing needs time and space, resources, and support. Healing is not usually linear; we must return again and again to confront our wounds and bonds, to challenge the demons that keep us from living fully and freely. Healing calls us to learn and grow continually—to gain in insight and strength, to build power. I love the way Judith Jones sums up the healing ministry of Jesus and his followers, a ministry that continues through the church today. She says, “Jesus comes to challenge and cast out every power that prevents us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image.” Amen.