Sometimes the Answer is “Other”

Mark 5:1-20

What scared you as a child? Was it the boogey man hiding under the bed or in the closet? Or going up into the dusty, creaky old attic? Or maybe it was the dimly lit, dank-smelling basement? At the age of 8, my family and I lived in a 100 year old house outside Catskill. It was both creepy and interesting for a boy. If there was one place I was not going though, it was the attic and the basement. Every night there were strange noises coming from the attic. And my bedroom was next to the attic door.

I can imagine in the Gerasenes, no one wanted to go to the tombs. They were scared. There is a man possessed by a legion of demons. He horrifies his neighbors by howling among tombs. The diabolical powers provoke him to appalling self-abuse, power that makes it impossible to restrain him. If you are a first century Jewish listener such things reek of religious impurity. In the Levitical tradition contact with corpses defiles. But this is more than about purity laws.

The man with the unclean spirit appears to suffer from multiple personality disorder.

He runs to Jesus and submits to him while shouting angrily at him. Asking with suspicion and disgust what Jesus has to do with him. He confuses healing with torment. He referres to himself in both the first-person singular and plural. Grab the white coat. Open up the padded room. We have our first contestant for crazy.

We could see it from another angle. The man is possessed by a legion of demons. It’s not his mind that needs healing but his spirit. Either way, Jesus receives this hideously tormented figure. Ready to heal but something unexpected happens. The unclean spirits begin to bargain with Jesus. Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man. But the legion does not want to be sent out away with nowhere to go. Instead legion offers another option to be sent into the swine herd. Jesus agrees. And upon the legion entering the swine, they run down the hill and into the sea and drown.

What one thinks are early evangelists, the swine herders go and tell the people in the city and the country all that had happened! Of course, the people have to come and see for themselves. With their own eyes see Jesus and the very man who had been possessed now sitting, clothed and in his right mind.

This seems to be a good place for the crowd to erupt in praise and celebration. Don’t we like to hear stories of healing? Reconciliation? Redemption? And especially the defeat of a legion of demons. But they don’t.

They are afraid. They beg Jesus to leave. They don’t want him there. Mark is not that detailed in explaining their reasons for begging Jesus to leave. It leaves open the door for us to wonder about their reasons. Were they afraid because of Jesus’ power to expel the legion from the man and heal him? Or were they more angry because this healing episode cost them money?

I am under the belief that they didn’t know Jesus and were afraid for their own lives. If he can command the legions to leave one man causing an entire herd of swine to run off a cliff then what might he do to us? I lean this way because of what happens at the end of this encounter.

The man wants to follow Jesus. Hallelujah. Another follower. But Jesus doesn’t agree. But it’s not NO. Instead, Jesus’ answer is the third box…OTHER. He sends him home with a task. Go home to your friends. Tell them how much the Lord has done for you. Tell them what mercy God has shown you.

There is a town that has no idea what to believe about Jesus, and they are afraid. Go straighten them out with the truth about this Jesus. He’s not here to harm you but to heal you. He’s not here to lash out but to love.

I wanted this to be my role as I went to college and thought about a career. Throughout college I wanted to be the Gerasene demoniac. Not the guy in the tombs, possessed by a legion of demons. But the one who had been healed now serving Jesus back in his home town. But God’s call was not for me to check the OTHER box (for as much as I wanted to). It was to actually follow him into a more professional kind of ministry.

For so many who are not called into this professional type of ministry, it doesn’t mean that your call and responsibility is finished. For most God wants us to be the OTHER. To be the local evangelist – the one who is a living witness of God’s love and mercy – The one sharing stories of God’s marvelous deeds, the one living with the joy of the Lord and exuding the love and grace of God. And doing it – not in far off lands or in various churches – But in our home; with our friends; neighbors; those at work. Our spouse. Our children. Our parents. Our other relatives. It’s the girls and boys entrusted in our care in recreation sports or scouting.

I think most assume that since Jesus didn’t call them into professional ministry, they are off the hook. They get to return home and go back to what they were doing. Not so fast. Sometimes the answer is OTHER. It’s being a witness right where you are.

Amen.

Dark and Deserted

Early in Jesus’ ministry we find him at Simon’s house healing the sick. Mark states that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). It appears Jesus was a hit. Regardless of the mission people can be exhausting. Even extroverts need a break every now and then.

What does Jesus do? He doesn’t sleep in. He doesn’t take the next day off. The next day Jesus gets up very early, finds a deserted place and prays. I don’t believe Mark is using this as a prescription for the time of day we are to pray. But I think we can conclude from the inclusion of this one verse that Mark was teaching us how important prayer is for each one of us. It was so important to Jesus that even after a busy evening, he got up early, found a place he could be alone and prayed.

Making prayer a part of our life can be very difficult. To include prayer requires a change in your routine. I’m reminded of what Sarah Young wrote in her best-selling devotional Jesus Calling. “Without any conscious awareness, they make their habitual responses. People who live this way find a dullness creeping into their lives. They sleepwalk through their days, following well-worn paths of routine.”

We need a new routine. One that includes prayer. Pray in the early morning. Find a quiet place and pray during the day. Slip away in the evening. Jesus prayed at different times. Find your time. Find your deserted place. Find your new routine. Find your life that begins in prayer.

Made Well to Serve

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus called his disciples, taught and cast out an unclean spirit. I’ve been arguing that the events Mark recounts in his gospel are compiled to form us as disciples of Christ. They are not a written version of a video of how events transpired. The gospel writer includes these events because they are important in both witness and formation.

Following their time at the local Capernaum synagogue the gospel groupies crash at Simon and Andrew’s house only to find Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. No chicken soup for her. Instead she gets a hand. Jesus lifts her up, the fever leaves and she is better. We might think the story is over because she is made well. Isn’t that the goal when one is sick is to be healed? Here is another lesson in our formation. Christ Jesus heals us, cleanses us, saves us so that we can serve. He offers his hand so we can lend a hand. What appears to be a miracle by Jesus that benefits the mother-in-law is not meant to be individualistic or self-serving for her. She is made well so that she can make others well. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we receive God’s grace so that we may serve others bearing witness to God’s good news.

What questions does this passage raise for you? Is it about the grace you have experienced in your life? Or your particular service to serve others that they may be made whole?

Follow

“Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” – Mark 1:20 (CEB)

Before Jesus can teach us what it means to “fish for people” we have to be willing to follow. That requires us to leave behind those things we may hold dear. James and John left behind financial support, family and the security of the familiar. This is what they knew. Each and every day they worked with the same people; fished the same waters; did business with their neighbors. Now Jesus was inviting them to leave that behind and follow him.

Another challenge for the disciples and for us when we follow is not only what one gives up physically but what one gives up in regards to one’s beliefs and ideas. The disciples carried with them beliefs of faith and ideas on how to live. For as hard as it was to leave behind family and their job, it was harder for them to give up their long-held beliefs and ideas as it will be for us. In our willingness to follow Jesus we are implicitly agreeing to expose our ideas and beliefs to the Light of Jesus Christ for a thorough critical examination. Are we willing to take on the work of honest, self-reflection in light of God’s Light? This might be the hardest work of all.

Fishing

When I was twelve years old and living in rural Iowa I got into fishing. I had a fishing pole and some basic tackle. I would ride my bike to a local farmer’s pond and fish for large mouth bass. While I was not reeling in one fish after another, I did catch enough to keep me interested.

One day my mother offered to drive me to a farmer’s pond. She wanted to fish but all I had was a bamboo pole besides my fancy fishing equipment. No problem for her. At the pond she put a worm on the hook attached to the line of the bamboo pole. She found an outcropping into the pond and stood there with her pre-historic fishing gear.

It wasn’t long before my mother began catching fish. One after another she hauled them in. Meanwhile I was still trying to get a nibble. By the time we decided to leave my mother caught over a half-dozen large mouth bass and a few sun fish. I had caught nothing. I gave up fishing that day.

When Jesus called the disciples he instructs them to “Come, follow me” and then says “I’ll show you how to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 CEB). The NRSV says “I will make you fish for people.” The NIV says, “I will send you out to fish for people.”

I like the translation of the Common English Bible because we know over the next few years this is exactly what Jesus is going to do with these men and women. He will teach them the good news of God in word and deed. Approaching the gospel of Mark with this understanding, let’s learn how we can fish for people.

Seeds of Risk

In late July, Kara and I drove to Jersey City to meet Stephany and Freydell for the first time. Our minds filled with questions as we drove down 208. What are we doing? Who are these girls that left their homes and risked their own lives to seek asylum in the United States? For us the empty nest had finally arrived, and now we were considering becoming parents to a 17-year old and an 18-year old girls. Two of our children would be in college the following month. With college tuition payments there’s not much extra money, and now we’re considering taking on the additional costs of two more teenagers? Nothing about welcoming into our home two young women who spoke little English made much sense, but we continued on our way not sure where this journey would take us.

As we got closer to Jersey City, a calm feeling came over me while a thought struck me. I glanced at Kara and said how blessed we have been. Throughout our married life we’ve experienced hardships and times when we weren’t sure how we’d get by, but every time God provided. Maybe it wasn’t the way we thought but God provided nevertheless. Kara agreed. We kept driving. Little did we realize how much more blessed we’d be as Stephany and Freydell became part of our family. Seeds of risk became blessings in abundance.

In the Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30) Jesus tells the parable of the owner who gives to three servants varying amounts of talents (a talent was a great deal of money like a million dollars today). To one servant he gave five talents. To another he gave two talents. And to the third servant he gave one talent. Without hesitation the two servants took risks with their talents and double their talents. They put their talents to work and received a good return. The servant that received one talent did nothing. He buried his talent. Later, the owner returns. He praised the two servants for the return they received calling them trustworthy. The third servant who buried his talent he dealt with harshly saying “Take the talent and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this ‘play-it-safe’ who won’t go out on a limb” (21:28 The Message).

That’s been my experience with the abundance we receive from God. It’s not meant to be buried or kept for one’s own use. God has entrusted us to use God’s blessings in similar risky, generous ways. Many times that requires us to take a risk with the abundant blessings we have received; to risk our time and our abilities; risked the most. And get rid of this ‘play-it-safe’ who won’t go out on a limb” (21:28 Msg).

That’s been my experience with the abundance we receive from God. It’s not meant to be buried or kept for one’s own use. God has entrusted us to use God’s blessings in similar risky, generous ways. Many times that requires us to take a risk with the abundant blessings we have received; to risk our time and our abilities; to risk our money and our other financial resources.  Seeds of risk become blessings in abundance.

This blog is my risk. People have encouraged me to do more with my writing. They tell me that I have interesting insights and ideas that should be shared. Truth be told, I am hesitant because I don’t like to share my ideas for fear of criticism. It’s much easier to keep things to myself. But I realize that I’m not doing anyone any favors by burying my thoughts, ideas and creativity in the ground. And so let the journey begin. Seeds of risk…I hope they become blessings in abundance for others.