I remember when I was discerning one of my first calls to a parish, I heard a distinct word of encouragement from God that made me confident I should accept the call. Or at least I thought I heard a distinct word from God. Moments and days later, I began to doubt myself. Maybe the words I heard in my head were my own. Maybe I imagined the whole thing or, in hoping from a word of clarity, I made up the words myself. And as soon as I began questioning what I heard, I started questioning the guidance of the words. Either I was boldly following God’s distinct word to me or I was misguidedly making decisions based on an imagined experience. Saying yes in that fog of doubt became one of the scariest experiences I have had.
That’s the funny thing about our relationship with God. Most of the time when we talk about our relationship with God, we talk about the God of love. But real, vulnerable, authentic experiences with God are scary too. Whether we are trusting God through a major life crisis, we are taking a new path we are not certain is the right one, or someone challenges our life choices, following God in everyday life is scary.
We see that reality in two of our scripture readings today. To understand why Jezebel wants to kill the prophet Elijah, we have to recall what happened in the previous chapters. In an effort to proclaim the supremacy of Yahweh, Elijah challenges the god of Jezebel’s prophets to a duel of sorts. All day long the prophets of Baal cry out to Baal to reign down fire on a sacrifice and are unable. Elijah, fully confident in the power of Yahweh, immediately calls down fire, victorious over the prophets of Baal, and then proceeds to slaughter the whole lot. But Jezebel’s answering threat on Elijah’s life sends him running. No longer full of prophetic nerve[i], he runs to the wilderness, and asks God to take away his life. Once so confident in the power of God, Elijah would rather cower in a corner and die. Even when God’s voice come to him in a word of encouragement, Elijah can only see what is in front of him; in fact, he can only see the limited view he has, not the wider, sweeping view of God’s power to save. Fear leads Elijah to paralysis.
Meanwhile the Gerasenes are equally scared. They have developed a system for dealing with the possessed man of their village. They know when to bind him and when to abandon him. They know he is dangerous, and unclean, but they have figured out how to keep the town safe. He is the identified patient of the town – the one who has the “real” problems. By identifying the demoniac as the patient, no one else has to look at their own demons – the ways in which each of them are “vulnerable to forces that seek to take [them] over, to bind [their] mouths, to take away [their] true names, and to separate [them] from God and from each other.”[ii] So, when Jesus casts out the impossible demons, and sends them to their death through their herd of swine, and the townspeople find the demoniac healed, clothed, and sitting in his right mind at the feet of Jesus, they do not celebrate or thank God for healing. Instead they stand afraid of the power of God. Now the demoniac is healed, they are afraid this Jesus will see their demons or challenge their feigned health. In response, they do not ask for an explanation, but ask Jesus to leave. Their fear leads to paralysis too.
To be fair, fear is a natural and sometimes necessary emotion. Fear helps us develop a healthy sense of preservation. Fear allows us to make necessarily cautious decisions. Fear can keep us safe. But fear can also lead to paralysis, and perhaps more importantly, to a lack of trust. And when we are talking about God, a lack of trust evolving from fear gets us into trouble. We start doubting the graciousness we know God intends for us. We start avoiding the very work that will give us joy and fulfillment. We start losing our sense of connection to God – who happily emboldens us when we allow God to do so.
We see in Elijah and the Gerasenes’ story the goodness that can happen when we work through our fear. For Elijah, despite the fact he is terrified and despondent, convinced he would be better off dead, God provides food for him the wilderness – twice! The angel of God feeds him with food so sustaining Elijah is able to make a forty-day journey. And despite the fact that Elijah is so afraid he becomes convinced he is all alone in God’s work, God not only speaks to him, but opens up a vision of God’s work that is bigger than Elijah and extends well beyond his lifetime.[iii] As Elijah slowly loosens his grip on fear, he opens himself up again to God’s guidance, protection, and confidence – even though the guidance, protection, and confidence had been present all along, hidden in the presence of gripping fear, but there nonetheless.
The same is true for the Gerasenes. Despite the fact the townspeople are fearful of Jesus’ power, Jesus brings about healing anyway. And knowing the people of Gerasene may continue to be fearful, Jesus has the former demoniac stay behind so he can testify to the salvific work of God. As scholar Debie Thomas points out, “The story ends with Jesus commissioning the healed man to stay where he is and serve as the first missionary to his townspeople — the same townspeople who feared, shunned, trapped, and shackled him for years.”[iv] Jesus does not scold, shun, or shame when he is asked to leave. Jesus keeps holding out hope in the face of fear – Jesus holds hope that the townspeople might be healed like the demoniac is healed. Jesus loves graciously and expects transformation in the face of hopeless fear.
One of the main tenants of practicing yoga is while you are practicing, you are to clear you mind of thoughts. I am pretty sure every yoga instructor knows this is an impossible goal, because the other thing one learns in yoga is how to clear your mind once your mind becomes distracted – not if your mind becomes distracted. There are all sorts of methods, but the primary instruction is to acknowledge the thought and then let the thought go. In other words, when you catch yourself on the fifth thing on your to do list, you stop yourself by acknowledging you got off track, let the failure go, and try to clear you mind again. There is no need for judgment, just acknowledgment and release.
That is our invitation today too. Fear will always be with us. No matter how strong we are in our faith life, we will sometimes be paralyzed by fear. But if we can take a cue from yoga by pausing, taking a deep breath, acknowledging our failure in the face of fear, and trying again, perhaps we will be able to release the paralysis fear causes and step boldly back into the path God establishes for us. Today’s lessons remind us there is encouragement for this work all around us. There are angels that feed us when we want to give up the fight. God speaks to us, reminding us how God is working at a much higher level, supporting us in ways we do not even realize we need. God sends healed messengers to testify to us, to remind us of the ways in which we need healing more than those we have labeled as sick. In breathing and letting go, we open our eyes in fresh ways to see God all around us acting for good. And with each breath, and with each relaxing of our grip on fear, God washes over us with grace, kindness, compassion, and love. Yes, letting go is scary. But God shows us over and over again how when we let go of our fear, God is there with abundant, wonderful, powerful love. Amen.
[i] Trevor Eppehimer, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 148.
[ii] Debie Thomas, “Legion,” June 16, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay, on June 19, 2019.
[iii] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 151.