The way the story is told

Look at the man whose community has judged as possessing a legion of demons. He has been pigeon-holed. Ostracized. Bullied. Looked down upon. Pitied. The man whom they looked upon, and said to themselves, ‘Thank God it’s not so bad with me.’ This is the kind of person who, it has been argued, we need. If only to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Schadenfreude is the term we use to depict and distinguish those ‘less fortunate’ than us to justify our complaints and our more privileged status. So, we need ‘them’. And we need ‘us’. We need the distinction. To envision the opposite, to imagine some kind of union, to unearth the unholy distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’—well, that may be far too threatening to our fragile egos.

The way the story is told is not to focus on the man’s illness. Though, that’s what we like to talk about: the frothing at the mouth, the rattling of the chains which bound him, the pigs rushing dramatically to their watery deaths. The way the story is told, however, is not to fixate on whatever ails him, his sin, his problem. We say this is a healing story. But who else besides the man is invited to be healed?

Important though it is not to overlook the man’s problem, the way this story is told leads us to the climax of the telling—the last few sentences that describe the reaction of the man’s community, there across the Lake in Gentile territory.

When, at first, he is healed, and is shown to the people, how do they respond? You would think they would rejoice. You would think they would praise God. You would think they would marvel at the goodness, the promise, the hope, the delight of God in bringing transformation and healing to this man who once was lost in sickness and despair but now is saved. In Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. This man we look upon, alongside the Gerasene community, is now restored, healed and given a new beginning in life. A second chance.

You would think those who witness this would rejoice in the promise and anticipation that this healing and transformation be offered to each of them also. Amen?!

The way the story is told, however, emphasizes the point not once at the end of the story, but twice: They were afraid, seized with a great fear.[1]They didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They had become too comfortable in their opinions, their prejudices, their categories, their pigeon-holing this man. And they didn’t like what Jesus was doing to upturn and completely reverse their world-view. They even had the gall to tell Jesus to leave. No more of this. Do you blame the healed man for wanting to get out of there, too, with Jesus?

This story shines an uncomfortable light not on the Gerasene Demoniac. The title of this story should rather be the community’s demoniac. The community’s sin. Their prejudice. And their incapacity to repent—to change their minds about the people they have normally pigeon-holed into convenient places of malice and schadenfreude, them and us.

The Gospel story opens with Jesus taking his disciples to the ‘opposite side’ of Galilee. To be faithful to Jesus, to follow Jesus, they have to leave their zones of comfort and familiarity to go to the Gerasene territory across the lake.  Every city, every community, every country, every culture, every church, has an ‘opposite side.’ And it’s to that ‘opposite side’ that we—Lutheran Christians in Canada today—are called to go.

The way the story is told, is that Jesus’ presence and power disrupts the social order of the way things are. Because, for one thing, to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds are understandably afraid.

From this standpoint, the way the story is told, the coming of the gospel of Jesus brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt even economic and social arrangements. In other words, the good news will not seem good to everyone at first. Maybe, to us.

Especially to those who are comfortable, privileged and set in our ways. Indeed, for the community in Gerasene and for us, we might prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We might take a false sense of security from the dysfunction, the prejudice, the self-righteousness we have learned to tolerate in ourselves, cope and live with, ignore and sluff off. And we might therefore fear what change—even change for health—may bring.

We fear freedom from what binds us:

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, that we don’t deserve the immeasurable love which God has for us.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves and each other that the poor, the newcomer to Canada, the Indigenous people of this land, our home on native land—deserve their plight as if we don’t have any responsibility to care for them. To tell ourselves we need not seek understanding from another’s point of view.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—maintaining beliefs, even religious ones, that serve only to belittle others from a different social, religious background than ours, others whose gender orientation is not ours, others who are impoverished financially. Maybe Paul’s words must ring true again today to our hearts that are divided and distressed over these issues: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

What is the ‘opposite side’ of the lake, for you? Is it a troubled personal relationship? Is it a long-held assumption or belief? Is it something you’ve wondered about doing but had up until now been too afraid to try? Perhaps in this season after Pentecost, the Spirit of God is calling us to consider going there.

To discover anew that whether we succeed or fail, whether we accomplish our goals or not, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s forever.[3]Healing and salvation will come to us, regardless of our pedigree. For, again in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[4]The gospel doesn’t begin with us. It’s always about what God is doing in us.

As Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not what you do that makes you holy, it’s what you allow to be done to you that makes you holy.” (in today’s ‘daily meditation’, http://www.cac.org)

Grace does that. One doesn’t first become Christian, then go to church; One goes to church to become a Christian—and it will take a life time, and beyond. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. As fourteenth-century Saint Catherine of Siena once said: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, for Jesus is the way.”

Jesus invites us to join him on his journey to the opposite side. To grow and change. To reach further, deeper, into health and wholeness. To open ourselves to the unity we share with all people in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

The gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch

I walk quickly. In the first hour of walking I can manage 6 kilometres. Pretty impressive, eh? Well, I was zipping through the treed park near our house the other day when I heard birds rustling and chirping in the branches above me. 

I stopped when I noticed a small bird scampering down the trunk of the tree head-first. This tiny bird caught my attention. It had a disproportionately long beak, a black cap and a white breast. I memorized the details of what I saw, and scurried home to consult my three, different bird books.

It was a White-breasted Nuthatch. I was so thrilled to have made that identification. I love birds, and I enjoy the challenge. Most of the time.

I’m by no means an experienced, knowledgeable birder. Because most often I forget the names of the birds I identify or mis-identify. Because I don’t carry around with me my bird books and note pads wherever I go, I have to hone my skills of observation and memory. There are times even when my bird books don’t display sketches or photos of what I think I saw. That’s really frustrating!

When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after being flogged for disrupting the peace, their future was uncertain at best, an absolute failure at worse (Acts 16:16-34). They were done, or so it seemed. The prospects of continuing their missionary journeys looked bleak no matter how you looked at it. What could they do?

I bet no one expected that earthquake to come when it did. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly. The severity and life-changing magnitude of an earthquake, for example, cannot be predicted. It’s only after-the-fact when assessments and conclusions of what happened can be made. 

No one could see it coming the way it did: The fires in northern Alberta around Fort McMurray, despite the dry hot Spring, could not be predicted. Who could forsee precisely how it’s actually played out, and continues to play out? It just happens. And people have to react to the moment, when it does.

Despite the life-changing magnitude of events unfolding around Paul, he still seems to find stride in his faith, and yes, even joy. He shows resilience in faith. Despite all the losses, earthquakes, imprisonments, floggings, shipwrecks, rejections, threats on his life, thorn in his side — he still demonstrates an incredible passion for, dedication to, and joy in his life in Christ.

They are in the Roman colonial city of Philippi when Paul and Silas are arrested. Paul’s famous letter to the Philippians was written, later, when Paul sat in a Roman prison cell. And it is in this letter where we find some of the most joyous and aspirational words from Paul’s hand: 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:4-7)

Paul is instructing his good friends in Philippi, and followers of Christ in all times and places, to rejoice — not when everything is perfect, not when your problems have been resolved, not when certain conditions have been met, not when we are prepared for rejoicing, not even when the stars are aligned.

But, to rejoice, precisely when things are chaotic and messy. Rejoice, precisely when things are not going well, nor planned, nor pre-conceived, nor forseen. How is this even possible?

When installing our new dishwasher recently, I screwed clamps into the cabinetry on both sides. Tightly.

When I ran a cycle for the first time, water started streaming out the side of the door. It’s as if the door wasn’t even sealed! I discovered later that because I had fastened the clamps too tightly, the whole unit twisted and warped the door in an unnatural way and therefore could not seal properly and do its job. 

As soon as I loosened the screws a bit so that the dishwasher could rest naturally, evenly and squarely on the floor, everything worked fine.

Indeed, to be faithful is to know how to celebrate, even in difficult, unpredictable times. Trying too hard without a break can actually damage our commitment in faith. 

When things don’t go well, is it that we are trying too hard? Or believe the solution is simply to work harder? And then do we get all tense, anxious, impatient and frustrated when nothing in our power seems to work or when things don’t always go the way we planned? And we don’t ask for help. Or recognize or confess openly our limitations. Who do we think we are?

Especially during the long journey of a dark night of the soul, it is vital for our health to pause from time to time, loosen the screws, and lighten up a bit. Doing so will improve our endurance, open our hearts, deepen our trust in the good Lord who comes to us, who is alive and lives in us.

It is the freedom of God who comes to us, quite unexpectedly. Like the gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch. All I needed to do, was to stop my rushed march through the woods. Stop my over-thinking, incessant mental machinations. 

Just stop, and look up.