Two weeks ago I was in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina at an Episcopal Conference Center called Kanuga. It’s a beautiful location where cell phones don’t get a signal and housing includes staying in little cabins scattered in the woods. One morning I woke up and stumbled into the bathroom to discover a humongous long-legged creature in the sink. There was no way I was going to wash up there. I quickly turned on the faucet full blast, walked backward, and closed the door. And waited. And waited.
What are you afraid of? I’m afraid of spiders. I’m afraid of large insects of which I cannot identify. And the creature that I could not identify, paralyzed me. But I had to overcome it if I was to hop into the shower before breakfast and be prepared for my presentation that morning. I had to face what lurked in the sink on the other side of the door. When I opened to door and looked into the sink, I saw that I had washed it down the drain – partly – because its legs were still squirming to get out. I jammed the stopper down, quickly hopped in the shower, grabbed a towel, then ran back to my room across the hall.
That’s a pretty minor fear compared to all that can possess our psyche and cripple us in the world today. Look at the headlines of our newspapers, we turn on CNN and see the constant stream of late-breaking news across the bottom of the screen, we hear that that the food we are eating is contaminated due to genetic growing practices. Fear can lead to madness. Madness in the sense that we can be so occupied with a world out of control that we are afraid to let our children play in the yard, afraid to get on an airplane, afraid to acknowledge the homeless person with his hand outstretched outside Grand Central Station.
Fear is an emotion induced by a perceived threat, which causes entities to quickly pull far away from it and usually hide. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger. In short, fear is the ability to recognize danger leading to an urge to confront it or flee from it, also known as the fight-or-flight response.
Fear can lead to isolation and alienation. Fear can keep us from being in contact with the stranger among us because it is unknown. And fear can separate us from God.
Reading between the lines, today’s Gospel begins with fear and ends with fear. If we had heard the five verses from Luke that precedes today’s reading, we would have heard the story of Jesus calming the sea. Jesus and his apostles were in a boat crossing to the other side of the lake. While Jesus slept, a windstorm swept down the lake, filling the boat with water, and frightening all onboard, fearing they were about to perish. With a word or two, Jesus rebuked the wind and raging waves, and there was calm. His followers were afraid and amazed.
That brings us to today’s scene. They are crossing this sea (now that things have calmed down) to the land of the Gerasenes. Now the land of the Gerasenes is the land of the Gentiles, and no self-respecting Jewish rabbi would be taking his band of followers there. Not only is Jesus crossing a wide swath of water, he is crossing boundaries.
When he gets there, he’s confronted immediately with a man who is possessed. He’s more than possessed – he’s occupied. By calling himself “Legion,” he is acknowledging that he isn’t possessed with just one evil spirit but by dozens, hundreds, and thousands of them. Luke knew his readers would know that a “legion” was a Roman army of 6,000 soldiers. So this man definitely has some issues. He is a tragic figure that we can picture in our minds – he’s alone, he’s wandering around the tombs (think horror movies), and is clearly frightening anyone who might come near. And Jesus heals him.
This story is also found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. But they don’t focus on the healing – they focused on the fear. They fear Jesus! While they had demonized this possessed man and marginalized him, they feared Jesus because they did not understand why he would bother with this derelict man who was worth nothing to them. It was much easier for them to demonize the man who was possessed than it was to accept him as being made whole. Perhaps they recognized that this man was more like themselves than they realized. Perhaps they recognized the evil that had been within him as parts of themselves.
All of us have demons within us. While they might not be outward anti-social behaviors, we could easily say that our name is “Legion” because of the mixture of genetics, geography, family of origin, and personal choices that comprises us as individuals. Our demons are possessiveness, hoarding toys, extreme individualism, self-centerdness, racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, and elitism. And when we allow ourselves to be possessed by things that separate us from God, we allow fear to overcome our outlook toward others. Joseph Cambell, the author of The Power of Myth, has said, “Our demons are our own limitations, which shut us off from the realization of the omnipresence of the spirit.”
Robert Hendrickson will soon have a book published called Yearning: Authenticity, Young Adults and the Church. It is about the ministry of St. Hilda’s House in New Haven, part of the Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps. Every year a dozen or so college age students live with one another in community to serve. He writes:
Urban ministry is often a ministry of facing fear. Fear of the different and what seems potentially dangerous drive our culture’s response to challenging neighborhoods. We look for ways to isolate ourselves behind walls, to build a police/incarceration complex that will protect us, or to create a safety net rather than to challenge deeper systems of injustice.
The wonderful thing about fear is that it can become the fuel of love. When we conquer our fears, when God gives us the strength to go forward when we cannot do it alone, we know that we are not alone. We come to realize that grace abounds. Fear is a luxury that we cannot afford. There is too much need around us for us to spend extensive time nurturing it. Fear is a sign of a deeper ego-driven desire for self-preservation versus self-offering on behalf of the people of God. Fear is one of the many things we need to be able to offer up to God so that he can transform it and us.
Fear cannot drive the Christian response to the other. We cannot be content to say “there but by the grace of God go I. Every time we act with love, it involves risk, vulnerability. Sometimes we risk our lives. More often we risk what we think is our dignity, our authority, our pride, our sense of how things should be. Being drawn into relationship is always something that is a bit frightening, often disorienting, fraught with a heady mix of terror and joy.
Our reading from Galatians today names the deep divisions of Paul’s society – between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – and names the truth, that in Christ these divisions are to be overcome. At every baptism, and when confirmation was held hear just a month ago, we made many promises, among them to resist Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness in whatever ways they present themselves to us and in us. By our baptism we have renounced evil and promised to turn away from sin. We have been clothed in Christ so that we are not to be imprisoned by the sins that might possess us.
Suzanne Guthrie, a priest from Brewster, New York writes at The Edge of Enclosure, “Just as Jesus went to the Gerasene, his followers today are called to step out of the boat on the “opposite” side. The mission of Jesus’ followers is to take the healing and liberating love of God to broken and desolate regions, to those whose lives are bound by demonic forces they cannot control.”
While I left that creature to swim down the drain of my cabin sink that morning in Kanuga, I spent some time with Shane Claiborne, a young man who works with the homeless in Philadelphia with a new monastic community called “The Simple Way.” One of the many profound statements he said continues to resonant with me, quoting Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. Marianne Williamson, Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”
In Christ we are empowered to name the truth – whether it is called “Legion” or “fear,” and confront the demons that get in our way of being one with Christ. As we follow Jesus, as we participate in his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world, we will find that we are all saved – not just those who are poor and outcast.
Do not be afraid.
Sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CT on June 23, 2013.