1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42; Luke 8:26-39
On June 28, 1969 the thermometer hit a high of 96 degrees in New York City. And it was not only hotter than usual; it was also humid. If you have been in the City on one of those uncomfortable summer days, you know it is unpleasant, and almost everyone is sticky and grumpy. In the early hours of that day, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village.
That raid was pretty much like the hundreds of raids that preceded it—the police routinely came to places like the Stonewall and arrested those gathered, for violations of the prurient laws of the day. But this time, there was one big difference: the Stonewall’s patrons had had enough. “The raid ignited a violent conflict, and then protests, that lasted for days. The lesbian, gay, and transgender people who were herded out that night revolted: shoving, punching, and throwing stones, bottles, and bricks at police officers.”[i]
The campaign for LGBT rights did not begin that night—it had been underway for several decades. But that event, fifty years ago this coming Friday, was the spark that ignited a movement. It galvanized and mobilized a drive for social justice that has resulted in human rights victories across the nation and around the world.
Mark Segal, present at this pivotal moment in history, said this: “What happened that night that made it different from any other night is that we had been witnessing for months the counterculture of the 1960s coming to a head. The antiwar movement was violent and angry. We were joyous. We were so happy that night—because we were fighting back! And we had never done so before.” He goes on to say, “We all decided to break off the shackles of 2,000 years of oppression. That night the police represented that oppression of religion, family, church, every single thing in society that hated us.”[ii]
In short, what made that night different was that the patrons of the Stonewall moved beyond their fears to stand up against the evil that had held them for so long. And they found joy in action over fear.
Fear plays a big role in this morning’s gospel story of Jesus healing a man plagued by demons. Over and over again we see fear.
First and foremost, we can easily imagine that Jesus is fearful. This story brings him from the comfortable territory of Galilee (his home) into this unfamiliar and foreign world across the water that is the home of Gentiles—non-Jews. He is in a foreign land.
It is interesting to note that this is the only passage in the gospel of Luke where Jesus directly brings salvation to the Gentiles, thus fulfilling the prophetic voices that spoke at the beginning of his ministry: Simeon in the temple proclaiming Jesus would be “a light to enlighten the Gentiles,” and John the Baptist who announced that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[iii] This trip into foreign territory certainly fits into the scope of Jesus’ ministry as we know it; but nonetheless I suspect he might have been quite fearful as he confronted the unknown. What would they think of him? If they were hostile or suspicious, what could happen?
And the first person Jesus meets when he steps onto the land is this possessed man, who must also have been filled with fear. When Jesus asks his name, the man says, “Legion.” “He is oppressed by too many demons to count; he has lost himself in the cacophony of their voices and has ceased being a self, an individual, a person.”[iv] What a frightening place to be.
Ironically, we see that the demons possessing him are also fearful. Upon meeting Jesus, the voice of the demons within the man shouts, “I beg you, do not torment me.” and later the demons beg Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. They are afraid who Jesus is what Jesus might do to them. They are instantly fearful in the presence of God (even if the people present do not realize he is God), and that fear seems to paralyze them.
And there’s even more fear here. The Gerasenes are fearful of the man possessed—we are told they kept him under guard and bound with chains and shackles. They don’t understand the forces that control him and so, instead of trying to help the man, they have tried to contain him. They are fearful of his unfamiliar behavior; they aren’t sure what might happen. And of course their fears are realized; the demons cannot be bound, and they continue to wreak havoc on the man.
But the people’s fear doesn’t end when Jesus rids the man of the demons. Look back at the reading: When they see the man, “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind,” what follows? “And they were afraid.” Just as they couldn’t explain the demons that possessed the man, now they can’t explain what has happened in his healing. And reacting out of a fear of the unknown, they ask Jesus to leave.
So a story that on the surface would is about evil and healing, seems to be much more about fear. Fear is a real presence in our lives today. Now, fear certainly serves a purpose in our lives. “It makes us aware of our environment; it can teach us about our surroundings, and protect us from making the same mistake twice. Fear also highlights the things that are most important to us—the things that we seek to protect and are afraid to lose.”[v]
But fear can also paralyze us. Often we are so concerned about self-preservation, or preservation of the status quo, or about feeling pain, that we allow fear to keep us from doing anything at all. One commentator says, “if we let it, fear can keep us locked up in the prison of the comfortable and predictable, which prevents us from reaching our true potential.”[vi]
Do you see places in your life where fear is a hindrance? Maybe it’s a fear of things you don’t understand: a fear going into strange territory, either externally (like Jesus going into the Gentile world), or internally (like the man possessed). Or fear of an unknown influence on our lives (like the demons’ fear of God). Or maybe it’s fear of people or things that are different from us (like the Gerasenes).
What antidote does Jesus offer here for fear? Well first, let’s talk about what he doesn’t do. Jesus doesn’t act as a mighty warrior, showing that bravado is the answer. There is no bluster here, no extraordinary act; this is not an epic story of a he-man Jesus slaying the demons, as Hollywood might write it.
Jesus doesn’t outsmart the demons, playing some clever trick on them. It is not about a cosmic chess game.
And Jesus doesn’t employ a seven-step, no-fail strategy ala the quick fix gurus of our day. It is not about a formula or maxims to make oneself a better person.
Instead of all these, in the face of all of the fear that swirls around him in this story, Jesus’ action is quite humble. He heals the man. To combat all of that fear, Jesus simply offers love. As our Presiding Bishop keeps reminding us, it is about the way of love. And in this story, it is particularly about compassionate love—love in relationship. As followers of Christ we are called to compassion. That word literally means “to suffer with.”
Our world is in need of compassion—there is so much hurt, and anger, and suspicion, and fear. Can we swallow our fear of otherness, and of experiencing others’ pain, long enough to have compassion—to be willing to suffer with our fellow men and women in need or in pain? And can we muster the compassion to fight on their behalf against those things that would destroy us all, and to champion those things that build us all up? Can we face our fears head on, daring to connect to others, stepping outside of ourselves and our own preoccupations to identify with another? And can we do all this in the sure knowledge that the promise of love will carry us through?
There is no question that the things we have to fear are legion. But if we believe in the resurrection we have nothing to fear. We know the love of God—a love so incomprehensively big, so deep, that God the Father gave his only Son for us. And that love is more than enough. That grace will carry us; it shields us; it gives us the strength to have compassion; to practice kindness; to find harmony.
Philosopher Tom Morris says, “One of the greatest pieces of advice ever given is this: Seek to live from love, not from fear. Over the long run, a few important things are true. Love expands us. Fear contracts us. A life mainly guided by fear is a small, shrunken substitute for what it could have been.”[vii]
I would add that a life guided by looking out only for oneself is ultimately empty. We are meant to live in community; and living in community means that we must dare to open our eyes and our hearts to others, even when we know it might be painful.
I hope you in this faith community will think seriously with me about how we might overcome our fears enough to be compassionate partners in life and love with all of our neighbors. To dare to stand up for what we know is right, and to joyfully engage in bringing God’s love for the world, so that all people might overcome their fears and become all God dreams they would be. Let us endeavor together to make love—not fear—the final word.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.[viii]
[i] Salam, Maya. “50 Years Later, What We Forgot About Stonewall,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/us/stonewall-riots-gay-pride.html?searchResultPosition=9, accessed 06/22/2019.
[ii] “LGBT activists remember Stonewall riots 50 years later,” https://abcnews.go.com/US/lgbt-activists-remember-stonewall-riots-50-years-fighting/story?id=63083481, accessed 06/22/2019.
[iii] Forney, David G. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. p. 236.
[iv] Lose, David. J. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 169.
[v] From Charlene in the INFJs forum. https://www.infjs.com/threads/is-fear-the-root-of-all-evil.20967/, accessed 06/22/2019.
[vi] Robbins, Tony. “How to use fear before it uses you,” https://www.tonyrobbins.com/mind-meaning/how-to-use-fear/, accessed 06/22/2019.
[vii] Morris, Tom. http://www.tomvmorris.com/blog/2015/8/3/the-purpose-of-fear, accessed 06/22/2019.
[viii] A Prayer attributed to St. Francis. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 833.