5 Pentecost, Year C
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
There are certain parts of the Gospel that can immediately touch our hearts and nourish our souls:
like the great stories of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter
or those great parables like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal son
or those great, classic, comforting lines:
-For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...
-Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest...
-Peace I give to you; my own peace I leave with you...
And then on the other end of the spectrum are those other parts of the Gospel, you know, those passages which, at best, make us scratch our heads, if not push us away.
Today's Gospel is more likely to fall into this second camp than the first. Weird names of places we don't know. A naked guy who lives among the tombs. Talk of demon possession that seems so old-fashioned to our modern minds. And those poor pigs – those poor, poor pigs - caught in the cross-fire and the poor pig farmers who have their livelihood destroyed. One parishioner told me this week that this is one of two passages that she simply can't wrap her mind aroud.
But, if we can let go, for a moment, of those parts of the story that we might find strange - perhaps the talk of demons - or the parts we might find disturbing - like the death of innocent pigs - then we find in our Gospel reading today a pretty straightforward story about the transformational power of Jesus Christ.
A man has been tormented for a long time. We don’t need to come to any agreement if there are literally demons, or if this was a way of explaining something that we would today call mental illness, the point here is that he is tormented. And when he has his episodes, it affects other people. Clearly, people of the town are afraid of how he acts because they have ineffectually attempted to chain him up in order to constrain him from time to time. And along comes Jesus who releases the man from his torment, and releases the townspeople from their torment, the effects that were inflicted upon them. Jesus makes changes that should bring safety and security to all of them, something no one else had been able to accomplish over the years.
There are two responses to Jesus' actions in the Gospel story today. The first is the response of the man himself: he has been released from bondage, released from torment, released from pain. He is free; Jesus has made him free. His response is gratitude. And he wants to stay with Jesus, he wants to stay near the one who freed him. He begs Jesus that it may be so. But Jesus refuses. He can't stay near Jesus; the man has to stay where he is to share the Good News of the transformational power of God's love found in Jesus Christ. Right there in that place. His calling is not to travel like Jesus and the disciples, but to stay put. His witness to God's transforming love is most powerful in the context of those who knew how he had been before. And because of his gratitude, he listens, and does what Jesus asks.
The second response is the response of the villagers. They, too, have witnessed the transformational power of Jesus Christ. They, too, have been set free from the bondage that this man's torment had inflicted upon them. And, yet, their response is not one of gratitude, but fear and resentment. Fear of this man's power. Resentment that in the process of rooting out the evil that tormented them, he had uprooted much more, by taking away their livelihood. Certainly, they have some right to be frustrated that in the process of making part of their life more secure, he seems to have made another part less secure. But they also have an opportunity before them. This man has the power to cast out the demons that have haunted them; and yet, rather than explore if that power has something more to offer them, they reject him for having rocked the boat. They reject him for having screwed up their status quo, which even though it had its problems, which they knew about and dealt with, they had a system that worked for them. And here was this guy changing things, messing all that up. He presented a challenge to them, he offered them transformation, and they rejected it.
Change is not easy; transformation is even harder. Even when good things come with change, even when change is what we want, it is not easy for we lose old ways of doing things, old comfortable ways of living, of being. There is a death of the way things were with any change. These farmers have the opportunity to be transformed by a power greater than anything they had ever seen, and yet, they reject it, wishing they could go back to the way things were. Even when going back isn't an option, they refuse to go forward. They reject the transformational power of Jesus.
Our lives are found in the story of Scripture. By our baptism, this story is our story. The question before us today is where are we to be found in this story? What is our response when we encounter the transformational power of Jesus? Are we like the man in our Gospel today who as filled with gratitude? Are we willing to be transformed and give everything up and follow Jesus? Are we willing to do what Jesus asks of us? Are we willing to share the Good News of God's love right where we are, wherever we find ourselves? Or are we like the townspeople, refusing to accept the transformation because it might disrupt our lives? Are we afraid Jesus might overturn life as we knew it, requiring us to make a few changes?
Most likely, we find a bit of ourselves in both of these responses. We want the transformation of Jesus. We probably wouldn't be here this morning if we didn't, but when offered, we might just be a little hesitant, a little afraid of what the full implications are of the change that will come with it. "Thy will be done," we pray every Sunday when we gather together, but do you ever add a little caveat in your mind? Thy will be done... mostly. Thy will be done... as long as it is what I have in mind. Thy will be done... but please don't make it too hard, please don't disrupt my life and comfort too much. I know I have.
And yet, if we a willing to let go of our fears, if we are willing to take the risks associated with change, if we are willing to step out into the adventure of faith, if we willing to give fully of ourselves, if we are willing to let Jesus transform our lives, truly transform how we live, how we are in this world, how we act, transform the decisions we make, the dreams that we have, then we will find joy that we never thought imaginable. We will find that peace that Jesus gives us, the peace that Jesus has left us, that peace that surpasses understanding. We will find the true rest in Christ for those who labor and are heavy-laden. We will find the love of God, the love of God found in the giving of his only begotten son, the love of God, which is great than anything we can ask for or imagine. Amen.