Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 23, 2019
It has been said that the antidote to fear is gratitude.
The most frightened I have ever been was back in the winter of 1985. Chris and I had just bought our first car from his parents in Rochester Hills, MI, and were driving it back to Binghamton, NY, where we were graduate students. It was early January, and we were returning to school after the Christmas holidays. There were two routes we could have taken: the southern route through Ohio and Pennsylvania, or the shorter, northern route through Ontario. We chose the northern route and set out in the morning in our brand new (to us, at least) Buick Skylark.
About halfway through our trip, we ran into a massive blizzard. Within minutes our car was enveloped in white and our visibility was reduced to near zero. For what seemed like an eternity, we sat side by side in that car, our bodies tense, our voices chokes, our ears full of the only two sounds in the car: the slap of the useless windshield wipers and the pounding of our hearts. Our only resource was the red tail lights of the 18-wheeler in front of us. We could see nothing else around us. We were scared to continue, but even more scared to stop. We were gripped by fear.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive in the country of the Gerasenes, they encounter a country of people gripped by fear. Fear drives the words and actions of everyone Jesus encounters there: the demoniac, the demons who possess him, the swine herdsmen, and all the people of the surrounding country.
- The demons fear being cast into the abyss. They are afraid of oblivion. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” they say. And they beg “him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” They need a host to live in. And they know who Jesus is and what power he has to completely destroy death and evil. And so they ask to be cast into the herd of swine.
- The demoniac—after he is healed—fears being separated from Jesus. He begs to stay with Jesus, the source of his healing.
- The herdsmen and the people of the country fear Jesus.
I get almost all of these fears:
- The demons need a living host. They have no link to life apart from some other living being.
- “For a long time [the demoniac] had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” He knows nothing but how to live among the dead. So he clings to Jesus, his only link to life.
The swine are to the demons, and Jesus is to the healed demoniac, as those red tail lights were to Chris and me in that blizzard: their only point of reference, their only resource, and their only link to survival in this whole new life that Jesus gives them. The irony of the demons, though, is that because they have no life of their own, and because their only impulse is for death and destruction, they immediately drive the swine down the bank, into the lake, and into the same abyss that they so feared. All they know how to do is destroy, and they end up destroying themselves.
But why are the herdsmen and the people of the country afraid of Jesus? Why, when they see the demoniac dressed, in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus, do they ask Jesus to leave? What are they afraid of?
I think that they too are afraid of losing their only point of reference, their only resource, and their only link to survival in this whole new life that Jesus is offering them. I think they need the demoniac. Without the demoniac—without a place and a person to contain the demons among them—they fear being overrun by death and evil themselves. As long as the demoniac is chained in the tombs, as long as he rages in the wilderness, they have some place outside of themselves where death and evil reign. As long as they can point to the demoniac and say “Here is where death lies. Here is where evil lies.” they do not have to face their own impulses for death and destruction. As long as the demoniac is raging, they can point to him and say, “He is not like us.” And when he is healed, when he is clothed and in his right mind, he becomes just like them.
Where do we contain the demons among us? Where is the place outside of ourselves where death and evil reign? Who do we point to and say “Here is where death lies. Here is where evil lies.” so that we do not have to face our own impulses for death and destruction? Who do we point to and say, “They are not like us”? I don’t even think I need to name the likely suspects. I think we’ve become so polarized into legal and illegal, conservative and progressive, gender binary and gender non-binary, pro-birth and pro-choice, addicted and clean, pro-gun and anti-gun, that we all have some “other” we can point to to contain the death and evil we fear in oursleves.
A friend of mine in recovery used to describe his early days at 12-step meetings before he had broken through his own denial as a time of cataloguing how he was different from every other person at the meeting. I can’t be an addict because I don’t tell the same lies you tell. I can’t be an addict because I don’t sneak around as you do. I can’t be an addict because I go to church on Sundays and you don’t. I can’t be an addict because . . . a million and one justifications for denial.
Death and evil can’t live here because it rattles its chains and shackles among the tombs.
Maybe this is why Jesus sends the healed demoniac back to the land of the Gerasenes. By going back and telling everyone what God has done for him, the healed man begins to understand that he has a point of reference, a resource, and link to survival right inside of him. By telling and retelling his story—much as we do at 12-step meetings—the healed man comes to realize that Jesus didn’t just drive out the demons from him, but he also tilled the soil so that the seed of the divine in him could take root and grow. The healed man waters that seed every time he tells his story: God healed me, God put me in my right mind, God removed the chains and shackles from me, God sent me back among the living.
The antidote to fear is gratitude, because gratitude cultivates resourcefulness. That seems a bit counterintuitive. It feels more natural to say that resources lead to gratitude. If we have abundant resources we feel grateful for what we have. But I would guess that almost all of us know people who have more than enough, but still don’t show gratitude for what they have. I would also guess that sometimes those people are us.
Showing gratitude relieves fear because it helps us realize how resourceful we are. Have you noticed how often Jesus sends those whom he heals away to tell others about their healing? Sending them away to tell others their stories and to show gratitude is Jesus’ way of empowering people. He never leaves people dependent on him. He sends them out to tell their stories because that is how they learn that their resourcefulness is not external to them. “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). Inside each of us are all the resources we need to live whole and whole and grateful lives. We touch those resources when we show gratitude. The demoniac touched those resources when Jesus sent him back to the people to show gratitude.
And by sending the healed demoniac back to the people of the Gerasenes, he does something for them as well: He makes it impossible for them to claim that they are not like him. By sending the man back to them, he shows the people of the Gerasenes that they are not as different from the demoniac as they think they are. The people now have to face up to the fact that they too harbor death and evil, and that they can no longer point the finger over there, among the tombs. The finger now points to themselves.
So what if everyone were healed as the demoniac was healed? What if everyone were sent to tell what God has done for us? What if everyone had the inner resourcefulness to see that we are not so different from each other and no longer need to fear one another? Maybe we could say to each other what Paul wrote to the Galatians:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith. As many of us as were baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. There is no longer legal and illegal, conservative and progressive, gender binary and gender non-binary, pro-birth and pro-choice, addicted and clean, pro-gun and anti-gun; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.
If everyone were healed then we would all be equal in not just in God’s eyes, but in each other’s eyes. When we looked at each other, we would look as through a lens of resourcefulness and abundance to see that we are all children of God.