What Really Scares Us
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 23, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 8: 26-37
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
Fear is a funny thing. Heights scare me, and I thought it couldn't be any worse than being scared for myself, but it is tons worse watching Coralee or Clara, climbing around clumsily up high on something, a chair, a table, the swing set. I get dizzy; my senses are at the same time heightened and so tense it would seem that they wouldn't function on command, like controlling my body, my mind, or my emotions is just at that moment impossible, total loss of control; and that makes it all worse. Another thing that gets me is fast small animals: snakes, mice, birds. Anything that seems quick, and their actions irrational. Again it's a control thing. Who knows when a mouse is going to pop out, and who knows where it will go in its panic. Again tension, heightened sense, irrational response. . . fear.
It's a crazy feeling, but one we seem to crave in some ways. There is an entire movie genre, a multimillion dollar industry that surrounds creating that feeling for people, or actually two. There are suspense thrillers and horror movies. They both seek to make us lose ourselves in a moment of vicarious fear, having all the reaction without the actual danger. It makes our hearts race, our skin crawl, our minds shutter in disbelief, we hold tight to the person watching with us, we hide our eyes, we yell warnings at the screen, we have nightmares that make us say never again, but then we always find our way back. Skydiving, bungee jumping are some other examples of this type of controlled fear scenarios people pay money to experience. What is it that makes people afraid? What do we like about fear? What do we hate about it? Why can we deal with fear in movies, in ways we can't in real life? What are the elements that instill fear? And are they always the same? Is it connected to the very idea of being human?
Coralee is an interesting case study. She loves Disney princess movies, loves Cinderella, and Ariel, and Belle, but her favorite is Aurora, also known as Sleeping Beauty. I don't know if you've watched it recently, but it gets pretty intense and pretty dark at one point. There is this scene that takes place after Aurora has pricked her finger and gone to sleep, where the evil queen Maleficent is in her black fortress, all the colors are purple, black, and eerie green, her demon henchmen are dancing around the fire in a demon satanic ritualistic type thing. It is a scary image, and we were worried that Coralee would be upset, that she would have nightmares, that we should turn it off, but she was completely unphased. She looked up and said, look daddy, are they dancing around the fire. She actually went outside later and danced around the fire too around our firepit in the back yard, she thought it was cool, like ballet class, a new dance step to learn. She had no sense that it was evil, no sense that it was creepy, no sense even that it was scary. It's made me wonder about what really scares us. Is it dark colors and dark music, and ugly horns and stuff? Are we innately adverse to stuff like that or is it learned?
This morning's Gospel reading is a story with some scary elements. Scary, because demon possession is scary. The thought that some evil being could enter into our bodies, ravage us, fill us with disease, control us, make us sick, make us act crazy. Which brings to mind another movie, The Exorcist, DeAnna finds that movie terrifying, and I thought it was somewhat boring. . . again why, what causes the difference? But back to our story. We have that kind a thing going on here. To me in a way preaching on or about a story with demon possession is scarier than the demon itself, but here goes.
A man of the city, who had demons, meets Jesus. The effect of the demons on the man it says is that he has not worn clothes for a long time, and that he makes his home not in a house, but in and around the tombs. He also had been chained several times, but would break the chains and return each time to the wilds. Now this man speaks to Jesus, not in his own voice but as the voice of the demon, and Jesus talks to the demon and sends him out of the man, he asks the demon it's name and it famously says, Legion, suggesting that there just isn't one demon in there but a whole host of them having a party in this guy.
They ask Jesus not be thrown back into the abyss. Now this is an interesting aspect, the demons don't want to go back to the abyss, suggesting that demons don't like the abyss either, fitting in with much of the fallen angels, being punished in Hell, aspect of who demons are. Or are they like Brer Rabbit in the famous Uncle Remus story, begging not to be thrown in the briar patch, secretly knowing that is exactly where they want to go. Jesus for some reason says ok, so instead of going back to the abyss they enter into the bodies of a bunch of pigs who are standing around. Then the pigs, filled with these demons, immediately run and jump off a cliff to their death like a bunch of lemmings and are drowned.
Could you imagine seeing that scene live? You'd think it would be the scariest thing you've ever seen. 20 times scarier than the exorcist. You'd think it would change your life, cause you to never sleep again, creep you out, make your hair stand up on end like you'd seen a ghost, but the people don't seem to be phased. It just says, the swine herders who witnessed it all, went in the town to tell people what had happened, more out of curiosity and amazement than fear it would seem, and people from the city come running to see for themselves. It was a crazy scene and the people want to see what all of the excitement is about, but when they get there something does frighten them, but it is not Legion, the crazy pigs, or any of that horrific suicidal pork stuff, instead it says, "and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid." Now they are afraid. Now, really? Now you're afraid, not because Legion and the demon crew were speaking crazy, begging Jesus not to go back to Hell, not because they possessed a bunch of pigs, not because those pigs, jumped in the water and killed themselves, none of that whole scene produces fear, only the formerly possessed man, restored, sitting at Jesus' feet, gives them fear. It even mentions it twice that, that is the source of their fear. It says after they saw how the man was in his right mind, that all of the people then asked Jesus to leave because they were filled with great fear.
Don't you find those details strange? If you were an observer from some unknowing world, knowing nothing about our world and the way it operates, what a demon is, etc., and you read that story, you would think that being possessed by demons, sleeping in the houses of the dead was normal, pigs running into the ocean to drown themselves is normal, and that sane people not possessed by demons is the strange, the bizarre, the exceptional. What does that say about our world, and the way we want it. It seems that the people prefer the status quo to healing. Everything was right with the world when that man was crazy, having him sane, is what freaks them out. Why?
It seems that there is something about human nature that fears change. Coralee is a great example of this, demons dancing around a fire produces nothing for her, but alter her schedule in any way and she loses it completely. I'm surprised we can't hear her now, the only reason this worked this morning, with DeAnna playing was that we talked to her about it all week, trying to prepare her for the change, that DeAnna would be sitting at the piano, not next to her on the pew. Change, change of routine, dealing with normal is easy, dealing with change freaks her out.
We're all like that to some extent. We prefer to sit in our regular seats, we go through our daily routines, we do things repeatedly over and over because they give us comfort, and to break from those makes us nervous and frightened. We follow traditions because they are safe, and the unknown scares us. Shakespeare called it, "that undiscovered country, bearing those ills we have rather than flying to others we know not of" not just of death, but of action, doing something, anything, by definition is new, is intimidating and scary, his character Hamlet, fears and hesitates throughout the whole play. Jefferson captured it in the Declaration of Independence, stating, "accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." The comfort I think has more to do with control. Much like my fears I stated, about being out of control, control is what we crave, and losing it is what we fear. Our traditions, our status quo, our concepts of "normal," our being able to label the crazy guy crazy, so we can dismiss him and deal with it, that I can see the mouse, see the snake, prepare myself for their appearance, all have to do with our need to feel like we are in control, not necessarily to actually be in control, because we never really are, but to at least feel like we are. These things are our lovies, our special blankets, our insurance policies we kept them from childhood and we clutch them with everything we have.
It is this problem that we have with Jesus, it is for this very reason that these people kick him out of town. It's for this reason that Jesus was crucified. It's this reason that Jesus puts people off today. Jesus calls us out of that false safe zone, and into the new, which is as old as our world. It is actually just reality. We build around us so much false hope, that tearing it down shakes us completely. Religion is even a part of it to some extent, the comforting aspects of the safeness of church. If one aspect is out of place, shown to be lacking, proven false, does that mean it all falls, all our hope, all our safety, so we hold fast to so much, many traditions are based on this principle. Jesus seems to challenge it, he challenges the safety of our lives, he challenges the safety of our church, he challenges the safety of our safety mechanisms and says step back into reality, into the light, into life, into me.
It is for this reason that the beginning of the Gospel of John talks about preferring the darkness to the light. The darkness is known and safe, the light is different, new, unknown, an act of faith. And so again and again we choose the darkness because we know it, and Jesus comes to us shows us the light and we cower in fear from it, wishing it would go away. It is the shame of humanity and the sadness that surrounds sin. We choose to protect ourselves with things because we can touch them, rather than Jesus who deeply touches us, do you see the shift there in subject and object? Our doing versus Jesus' doing. . . Jesus screams fall to your knees and submit, for that is what they see this formerly possessed man doing, but we choose to do things on our own, no Jesus, head out of town please, we're in control here.
What would it look like to give up control to Jesus? I leave you with that question this week. I'm going to ask it of myself as well because I, too hold on and try to control aspects of my life. There is a lot of unknown in the answer to that question, but there are some things we can be sure of, it will be based in love, it will be based in the reality of our true created selves, and it will be beyond anything we can comprehend. Do you see the Holy Trinity at hand in those truths? Can we even fathom? God give us the strength. Amen.