Return and Tell | Proper 7

Luke 8:26-39

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.

34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him. (CEB)

Return and Tell

In 2004, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church altered the membership vows by adding the word witness in two places. Since 2004, when a person is received into a United Methodist Congregation, they are asked the question: “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

And, in order to include everyone in the church who became a member prior to the addition, the congregational response includes the statement: “we renew our covenant to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness…”.

Our text describes this strange scene in which Jesus travels across the Sea of Galilee and lands on the Gentile side. This is the only account in Luke that has Jesus crossing the boundary into Gentile lands. So, it’s a significant event. In fact, it’s the longest single account of any event in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This crossing into Gentile territory foreshadows the witness of Christian people in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth, and the inclusion of the Gentile peoples in the early church (Acts 1:8; 10:1-11:18).

Strangely, people usually identify Cornelius the Centurion as the first Gentile convert to Christianity. But before we hear about Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, we hear about the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8, and this Gentile man from across the lake in Luke 8. Remember, Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles as Book 2 of his account of Jesus Christ and the early church. So, a long time before we hear about the Ethiopian Eunuch even longer before we hear about Cornelius, we have this Gentile man who begged to follow Jesus as one of his disciples.

This Gentile became the first person whom Jesus commissioned as a missionary on behalf of his own ministry. What’s more, the man’s ministry would reflect the ministry of Jesus, which was to preach and proclaim (Luke 4:18, 8:1).

There are some cool features of how Luke presents this event’s issues and resolutions. The possessed man had many demons, then the demons had gone from him. He was naked, then he was clothed. He lived homeless among the tombs, then he was told to return to his home. He fell down before Jesus and shouted at him, then he sat at Jesus’ feet and learned from him. The demon seized the man and he was beyond anyone’s ability to control, then the man was in his right mind.

All of these features show how he has been saved or healed. The same Greek word can be translated into English as saved or healed. And, in this instance, both meanings apply. This is a man who was suffering, and Jesus healed him of that suffering. He was lost and forsaken, and Jesus saved him.

This man’s encounter with Jesus begins with a question: “What have you to do with me?” It ends with another question: “May I follow you as your disciple?” The man begged to have something to do with Jesus.

The responses in the story, too, reveal a lot about the actors. The demons responded to Jesus with fear. The man, too, was afraid, and he begged Jesus not to torment him. After all, he was already being tormented. His life was misery, rejection, and loneliness.

So, Jesus responds to the man with compassion, mercy, and healing. Once the demons had left the man, he responded to Jesus with love and appreciation. He was seated at Jesus’ feet, dressed in clothes, and completely sane. The fact that he’s seated suggests that he’s listening to Jesus and learning from him as a disciple. Sitting at a teacher’s feet is the position of a student. It’s where Mary sat as she listened to Jesus teach her while her sister, Martha, was busy getting everything ready for their meal (Luke 10:39).

As the story of what happened spread throughout the region, people came to see what had happened, and they were filled with awe. The root word of awe in Greek is fear. Sometimes, that word is used to describe a holy respect—a holy response—to God. And, maybe the people felt this sense of the word to some degree. But, it’s also clear that they didn’t like whatever they felt. The people who had gathered asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome by fear.

But I don’t think that’s an unfamiliar response. Fear has a way of shackling us to the point that we prefer our demons we’ve normalized to the liberating power that’s unknown. Remember, when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and the bondage they endured there, they complained and looked longingly toward the land where they had been stuck (Exodus 14:11-12; 16:3). It’s almost a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Fear can become our identity to the point that we don’t know who we are without it.

The movie Strictly Ballroom follows the story of a talented-yet-frustrated dancer named Scott whose flamboyant dance moves are denounced as not being “strictly ballroom” by the head of the Australian dance federation. Scott’s parents were dancers, too, but his father is a dejected person. It turns out that Scott’s father used to be a great dancer with his own unique moves, just like Scott, but he was stopped from dancing those new moves—stopped from being himself—by the conspiratorial actions of the same guy who would become the head of the dance federation.

No one had been allowed to dance “new moves” in years. Everything was to be “Strictly ballroom.” It’s when Scott’s father tells him, “We lived our lives in fear!” that Scott decides to break the shackles fear held over everyone in the dance federation by dancing his new moves despite the prohibition. He and his partner, Fran, wow everyone at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship with their Paso Doble, and everyone joins them on the floor to dance with them in newfound freedom.

The shackles of fear are not always easy to escape. We can be so accustomed to our fear that escaping it feels more terrifying than finding freedom. So, the people from the area asked Jesus to leave because they preferred the fearful power they knew to the unknown power Jesus displayed. What are our fears: the fears that only we know about which linger just below the surface of our mind, heart, or soul? I have at least one that I know, because it’s always here.

After Jesus freed the man from his demons, the man’s response was a desire to follow. He wanted to be a disciple of Jesus. He dedicated himself to Jesus. It’s a little surprising that Jesus denies the man’s request. After all, others have been included. Earlier in chapter 8, Luke wrote: “Soon afterward, Jesus traveled through the cities and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. The Twelve were with him, along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out)” (Luke 8:1-2 CEB).

So, why would Jesus not include this man in his group of disciples? We can only surmise because the text doesn’t give a specific reason. One possibility is that the man was a Gentile, so he wouldn’t be welcome in the places Jesus his Jewish disciples would tread. If he had followed along with Jesus, he would have lived a life of exclusion because Jews didn’t associate with Gentiles. They didn’t eat together. They didn’t hang out together. They didn’t worship together. I doubt very much that Jesus would have wanted that for this man. So, Jesus sent him to where he would be welcomed. He sent the man to his home.

Another possibility is that, due to the same Jewish value of separation, a Gentile man’s presence with Jesus would probably have kept other Jews who needed to hear Jesus’ message away from Jesus. It might well have hindered Jesus’ mission to the people of Israel. Remember, the encounter between Peter and Cornelius as recorded in Acts 11 got Peter into trouble with the other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-18).

Yet another possibility is that this Gentile man could accomplish far more in narrating God’s good news among his own people than Jesus could have. As I noted before, the mission to which Jesus tasks this man is a reflection of Jesus’ own mission, which is a quote from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 CEB).

This man was a prisoner. He was oppressed. Yet, because of the compassion and mercy of Jesus, he was liberated and experienced freedom. This man had a witness to share, a story to tell, an experience of glory to narrate, but it was a story his own people needed to hear. So, Jesus responded to the man’s request to follow him by denying the request and, instead, giving him a mission: “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a CEB).

Instead of feeling dejected by the denial of his request, the man responded by doing exactly what Jesus told him to do. It’s interesting that Jesus told the man to tell the story of what God had done for him, but Luke tells us that the man “went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39b CEB).

Like the man, we all have a story to tell. We all have a witness to share. We all have an experience of glory to narrate. We may not have been rescued from a legion of demons, but we are witnesses of God’s rescuing love that is for all people, God’s overwhelming mercy that reaches across every divide, and God’s unfathomable grace which is offered freely to all who would receive it. Are we witnessing? Are we narrating our story? Are we telling others of what God has done for us?

The 2004 General Conference was right. We are witnesses. So, “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Afraid | Proper 7

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (CEB)

Afraid

I heard a story kind of like this once. It was about a small cruise ship on one of the Great Lakes that had been hired for a fraternity reunion party. Of course, everyone knew a storm was coming because they could see the front clouds in the distance. They could feel the wind pick up and the air grow cooler as the clouds approached. The captain assured everyone that there wouldn’t be a problem, and they should all enjoy themselves. So, the fraternity brothers and their significant others danced, ate, drank, and talked. As they caught up on each other’s lives, the storm grew suddenly wilder.

Wind buffeted one side of the ship, causing it to list and rock side-to-side. Waves crashed harshly against the same side, sending spray high above the windows on the dance floor. Drinks spilled. People lost their balance. Men and women screamed. Most everyone started to panic. Then, a terrified man grabbed one of his fraternity brothers and said, “Didn’t you say you’re a pastor? Do something pastoral!”

The pastor glanced at the growing terror of those around him. He quickly dumped a bowl of caramel corn on the table, held it out and said, “We’ll now receive the offering.”

Our Gospel reading begins with, “Later that day, when evening came…” (c.f. Mark 4:35 CEB). Those words alert us to the fact that something must have happened earlier in the day. So, let’s recap what happened. Jesus taught beside the lake, but such a large crowd gathered that he got into a boat and taught while the people stood on the shore. He told several parables about seeds: seeds that are sown on a path, on rocky ground, among thorny plants, and on good soil (4:3-9); seed that grows into a harvest (4:26-29); and a small mustard seed that grows into a rather large plant (4:30-32), among other things. Later, Jesus explained the parables to his disciples and others who were nearby (4:10-20, 34).

Verse 2 and verse 33 tell us that Jesus taught with many parables that day, as much as they were able to hear. He wore the crowds out with speech, and wore himself out, too. Public speaking takes a lot out of you. I get why Jesus was tired. I take a nap every Sunday afternoon before going to Youth Group in the evening. So, it’s understandable that Jesus crashed on a pillow in the back of the boat. He taught all day, and he was tired.

Then, the storm came. But not just a storm. A great gale of wind (λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου). In our idiomatic English, we might say it was a massive storm of wind. It whipped up waves that crashed against the boat and swamped it. Usually, when we read this story, we imagine panicked disciples who wake Jesus so he can perform a miracle and save them. But, honestly, there’s little in the story to suggest that. The only suggestion that the disciples were afraid is when Jesus asked them why they were frightened, and that word isn’t fear, the word means timid, cowardly, or lack confidence.

Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. They knew the waters, knew how to handle their boats, and had probably survived more rough storms than they could count. There is no reason to assume the disciples were panicked, but they were obviously concerned and probably working hard to save their skin.

When they woke Jesus up, I don’t think they were expecting a miracle. I think they wanted an extra pair of hands to help bail the boat. Their comment to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” (Mark 4:38b CEB) seems more akin to Hey, Professor, don’t you care that we’re getting swamped here? Get up and help bail the boat, you lazy git! Nothing in the story indicates the disciples expected Jesus to do what he did, that he could rescue them with a few commanding words to the wind and sea.

He rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea saying, “Silence! Be still!” and the wind stopped so that there was a great calm (γαλήνη μεγάλη). Then, Jesus asked the disciples a question that is challenging, confusing, and haunting, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB). It begs the questions: What is faith? What kind of faith is Jesus talking about? We can look back in the earlier parts of Mark 4 and see that Jesus was teaching on the matter of faith all day. That’s why he was exhausted and fell asleep.

At this point in their lives, the disciples seem to have had the kind of faith that was like the seed that was sown on rocky ground. “When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away” (Mk. 4:16-17 CEB). The faith of the disciples withered in a storm. And I have to admit that my own faith has done the same at times; not with a literal storm, but with the figurative storms of life’s trials and difficulties.

The disciples’ lack of faith is revealed fully in the next line. Some Bible translations tend to tone this down by rendering the Greek into English as, “Overcome with awe” like the CEB or “they were filled with great awe” like the NRSV. But they disciples feared with great fear (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν). They were terrified at what Jesus had done. They were more afraid of the fact that Jesus had calmed the storm than they were of the storm itself.

How do we respond when fearful things threaten to overcome us?

There are fearful things out there. There’s a difference between saying There is nothing to be afraid of and Don’t be afraid. In the Scriptures, when something fearful happens, the admonition is always, Don’t be afraid (c.f. Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 35:17, 46:3; Exodus 14:3; Deuteronomy 1:29; Ruth 3:11; 1 Kings 17:13; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10; Acts 27:24; Revelation 1:17, among others). Though fearful things surround us and press against us every day, having faith is trusting that, despite the fearful things of this world, God reigns and will not leave us alone. Fearful things do not have the final say over us no matter what happens.

Another storm story comes from the journals of the founder of the Methodist Movement. On Sunday, December 23, 1735, John Wesley was aboard a ship heading for the Georgia Colony, and the ship experienced a storm. He wrote in his journal, “At night I was awaked by the tossing of the ship and roaring of the wind, and plainly showed I was unfit, for I was unwilling to die” (Baker Vol. I, 19). He admitted that he was afraid, that his faith failed, that he didn’t trust that God was with him even if death should come for him. And he felt that failure of his faith keenly.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley described another storm, saying, “At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before… The winds roared round about us, and (what I never heard before) whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of any thing, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces” (Baker Vol I, 21).

At seven o’clock, after the storm had passed, Wesley went to speak with the Germans aboard who had been worshipping during the storm. He wrote, “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” (Baker Vol. I, 22).

Those German Moravians had a profound impact on John Wesley’s faith. They sang songs of worship through a storm so violent that they were sure their ship was already going down. The Moravians had faith that, whether they lived or died, God was with them, and God would have the final say. They had faith that even death is not an end.

In essence, the Moravians acted with the faith of Psalm 107: “The waves went as high as the sky; they crashed down to the depths. The sailors’ courage melted at this terrible situation. They staggered and stumbled around like they were drunk. None of their skill was of any help. So they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. So they rejoiced because the waves had calmed down; then God led them to the harbor they were hoping for” (Ps. 107:26-30 CEB). Faith moves like this: when great storms give way to great calm, the response is supposed to be rejoicing and praise.

For the disciples, it didn’t go that way. When the great storm gave way to great calm, their response was great fear. In calming the storm, Jesus showed the disciples that he is, quite unexpectedly, king over all creation. Our faith holds fast to that truth no matter what fearful things come our way. Faith is knowing that, no matter the storms that come against us, God is greater than the storms. Faith tells us that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay