being who you are where you are
So for some of you who are new or just checking us out today, I just finished up a 4 month sabbatical. It was this time I had to simply be and focus on rest and rejuvenation.
One of the highlights for me was getting to the point where I could kind of turn off that part of my brain that writes sermons and stuff, where I could just enjoy listening to podcasts and reading stuff without having to do anything with it. It was so good to just practice joy and let these stories in to do their thing.
But when I heard one of my teachers, Rob, unpack the story we just heard it took everything I had to not go and write a sermon. He introduced me to just so many amazing things going on in this thing. It’s one of those stories that just capture exactly why we still read these things and why I think Jesus is just so important.
So for today, Im gonna pass on to you what was passed on to me. We’ll kind of weave in and out of it, pulling over here and there, picking up some stuff along the way, and hopefully, by the end of it all, we’ll leave here having heard a really liberating truth, maybe one of the most liberating truths our tradition offers us.
There is a story in the Bible. You just heard it. You can find it in the Gospel of Mark, that’s one of the collections of stories that talk about who Jesus is and what he’s all about. And the story we heard is one that would make Stephen King jealous.
Now one of the things I love doing is learning about people’s creative process. I love to hear about how people do this mysterious thing of grabbing ideas out of thin air and turning them into books, sermons, art, music, food, whatever.
So for some reason I was reading up on Stephen King and I learned that the one part of writing he always struggles with is the opening line. He always has a hard time creating those very first few words of a story, the part of the story he thinks is the most important.
He put it this way:
“A really good first line can do so much ... it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”
And I think this story we just heard would make Stephen King jealous because this story has one of the best opening lines you’ll ever ever hear:
“Jesus said, let’s go cross the lake to the land of the Gerasenes.”
I know, right?! Does it get better than that?!
Yah, it didnt resonate with me at first either. So let’s pullover here for a bit because this is pretty huge.
Now up to this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been out doing his thing, talking about how God is bringing everyone and everything back together to create this world of love, peace, and justice.
And if you look to where he’s been doing that you’ll see that he starts off in the Synagogue, then he goes to Capernum, from there he’s down teaching by the Lake of Galilee, then back at the synagoge, then back to the Lake, and then finally he’s speaking to large crowd from Galilee.
Which tells us what?
He’s basically stuck close to home. He’s speaking to his people. He’s working with his own tribe. Jesus is doing his thing on the east side of the Lake ministering in small fishing villages to largely poor uneducated orthodox Jews.
And this is interesting for a couple reasons, but most of all its interesting because of what it tells us about the disciples, the students Jesus has called to follow him around and learn about his way. Now, while what Jesus was doing would certainly be blowing their minds, the space and place he was doing it in would still be familiar. The disciples would still know how to exist in all of these areas. While the content may be challenging, the framework and setting would still comfortable. We can imagine them thinking: “Ok. This whole Jesus thing is still super challenging but its ok … he’s speaking my language and I recognize everything around me. I see how it all fits together. Ok. I can do this.”
Are ya with me?
So the disciples are pretty content as they follow him around and then Jesus looks across the lake and says “ya know, let’s go over there.”
And him saying that, well, stop the presses and hold the phone because that was just about the most shocking thing he could have suggested.
Over there was the Decapolis.
And over there wasn’t simply across the lake, it may as have been another universe as far as the original audience would have been concerned. The Decapolis was this Greek megacity that was made up of ten different cities, one of which was Gerasaw, thus going to the land of the Gerasenes. The area goes back to Alexander the Great whose thing was trying to spread Greek culture around the known world. It was a world where the Emperor was worshiped, where you'd name AND carve images of gods and goddesses, where you’d wrestle naked, where you’d eat bacon, where thousands upon thousands of people from all over the known world would gather.
Thats where Jesus wanted to take them.
Here were these poor, illiterate, Jewish fisherman who MAYBE went to Jerusalem, if ever out of their home area, and now they’re going across the lake to the Decapolis?! To go to the Decapolis would have been like going to a different planet for the disciples. This would have been socially, religiously, culturally, and politically massive. This was a paradigm shifting trip.
Jesus was taking them out of what was known and uncomfortable and into something new and strange.
And here’s why this is so important:
The Spirit will always move us from the safe and comfortable to the new and difficult.
When it comes to the spiritual life, the kind of life we’re trying to find here through Jesus, that life that hums with reverence, that life of wholeness, purpose, and joy, it will always mean going from what is known and comfortable into what is unknown and difficult.
The Spirit's job is to take us into new places. New places within us and around us. Thats what that Divine Energy does. She expands our lives and worlds, calling us into spaces and places we never even knew existed, but once we find them, we can’t imagine living without.
The truth is, if we want that life of wholeness, it means youre gonna have to go into some scary and new places. it means you’re going to have to go across the lake.
Now for you that may mean entering into a wound or resentment you’ve been carrying around …
For others it may mean learning to let go of something …
for some it may be taking a risk …
whatever it is for you, the wisdom this bit of the story offers is is that if we really want a life thats deep and whole, we can never let our present space contain us. We need to cross the lake. We need to take the initiative, take the risk, bust down the walls, and step out into what’s next.
The mistake we cant risk making is worshiping that Jesus for doing the journey instead of doing it ourselves.
That’s huge, isn’t it? That’s big stuff! And ALL OF THAT from an opening line.
So Jesus and his disciples get in the boat, they cross the lake, they arrive in this new and foreign land, and as soon as they pull up on shore, we have this whole little bit about how this “man with an unclean spirit” comes up to Jesus, this man who “lived among the graves,” who nobody could seem to help, and who would hurt himself with stones. This man comes up to Jesus, bows before him, and yells “what business do you have to do with me?!” And then before Jesus can cast the unclean spirit out, the man’s all “Don’t torture me,” and Jesus is all “whats your name?,” and the man answers “Legion.”
Now we pull over again because I mean, it’s weird, right?
What do we do with this?!
Well, again, here’s what I learned that totally opened this up in a new way.
So while Gerasaw isn’t exactly a place we’d know of today, the original audience, regardless of where they would be from, would have known the name. And not just because it’s this foreign strange land across the lake, but because of something that happened there in the first century.
In the early first century, as the Roman Empire cemented it’s grasp on the world, in order to demonstrate it’s might and power, in ordet to show what would happen if any defied or resisted, the Empire decided to make an example out of Gerasaw.
The Empire sent about legions of soldiers into Gerasaw - that’s thousands of soldiers - and they completely and totally destroyed and decimated the city. They killed all the men. They raped and enslaved the women. They killed the kids. They salted the earth and they burnt everything to the ground.
Gersaw was a place that was known as a place that knew death and despair.
Imagine the aftermath of all of that.
imagine the trauma it would cause.
Imagine what that would would do to the people emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially.
And knowing what we know now about trauma, it would live in those people for generations, haunting them, shaping them, all of them living by this narrative that had been given to them, this story that said:
“this is how the world works. its a world of violence and despair. there’s no hope for anything different.”
And we can imagine what that would do them. With the ending to their story already written, why bother to change? Why bother to hope? Why bother to fight it?
And maybe some of us here get that.
Maybe we know that kind of trauma. Maybe some of us have had the ending to our stories already given to us. Maybe we too feel like we’re being occupied by something and feel hopeless and powerless, feeling maybe this is who I am, maybe this is the life I get.
So when this man with the unclean spirit comes up to Jesus and says his name is legion, maybe this is what he’s dealing with. Legion is after all the name for the Empire’s army. Maybe he is occupied by that trauma. Maybe he’s just living out the story he’s been given. No wonder he lives in the tombs! He’s already been declared dead.
But I don't think Mark’s just making that point by having Jesus ask him his name. Mark’s going after something much deeper than that. I think Mark is reminding us of a really important truth we so often forget:
we cant be liberated from something we can’t name.
If we don’t know what it is that occupies us, if we can’t name that unclean spirit, if we can’t speak to it, we can’t be saved from it.
The writer and theologian Fred Buechner says that naming bring confrontation. To name something is to have power over it. To name something is to flip the dynamic.
This is what we see going down in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. He was control over the Princess until she knows his name.
This is why therapy is so important because it helps us name what’s inside of us. “Oh its not anger Im struggling with, its sadness! Ok. That helps. I now know what Im dealing with.” “Oh, I really do hate that person. Wow, ok. I know where I need to go now.” “Oh, that’s the false narrative I have. Ok. I didn’t know that.”
For us to be freed from the things that hold us captive and for us to deal with the pain we’re suffering, we first have to do the brave work of naming it because it’s then, and only then, that can we hope to be free.
So this man with the unclean spirit says his name and he’s all “but please Jesus, don’t torture me! Put me into the pigs!”
Again, kind of weird. But again, there’s something really beautiful and huge underneath it all.
Lets recap for a sec:
Whose occupying the man? Whose basically speaking on behalf of him?
The Roman Empire.
The biggest and most powerful force in the world.
Thats what’s taken a hold of this man.
Thats whose told the man his life is basically over.
So what’s going on here?
The Roman Empire is asking Jesus not to torture it.
The most powerful thing in the world is bowing down before God.
I know, right? Woah.
This is really one of the big truths this whole story is telling:
that the things that have given us those endings to our stories, the things that occupy us and hold us captive, the things that feel so overwhelming, powerful, and strong, they are not bigger than God.
And that’s huge news because it tells us something else:
We dont need to live those things dont have the final word. We dont need to live like that. There’s another ending to our stories.
And we see this truth basically acted out in the bit about the pigs drowning in the lake. It’s actually a really brilliant thing Mark is doing here. Mark is doing a call-back to another story about God liberating people by drowning an Empire: the Exodus. By doing a call-back to that story, Mark’s reminding us all of a truth hard-wired into the Jewish tradition:
God gives us a new story to tell by freeing us from the things that hold us captive.
So all of this goes down and understandably everyone freaks out. The story teller even says that when word spread about what happened the entire city and countryshowed up.
And again, this is where things get interesting.
You’d think that everyone would be thrilled with what happened. You’d think that they’d want to know that the trauma they experienced doesn't need to define them. You’d think that they’d want to know they dont need to live in despair. You’d think they’d be “Don't worry about the pigs guys, this news is worth it!”
They freak out. They see the man who had the unclean spirit just sitting there drinking a coffee calmly and they force Jesus to leave. They force the guy to leave! I mean, don’t they want what he’s offering?! Don’t they want that liberation for themselves too?!
But that’s the thing isn’t it?
Liberation is scary. It’s disruptive.
There comes a point where oppression, injustice, occupation, and despair become so normal, that the very idea of freedom is alarming.
There comes a point where when we see people moving beyond what we know and are familiar with, we become afraid.
There comes a point when our dominant narratives are challenged and rewritten, that we freak out and resist.
Anyone know this fear?
Yah, we feel it all the time.
We feel it when we see our kids figuring things out we wish we figured out. We feel it when we see our friends discover new ideas that changes them. We feel it when old ways of doing things are left behind for new ways of doing things.
And we, just like the people in this story, we protest and we resist. It would just kick up too much dust. It’d just be too uncomfortable. The risk is just too much. It would just turn everything upside down.
Yah, going across that lake isn’t easy.
Trusting that another story is possible is perhaps the hardest thing we'll ever have to do.
So Jesus and his disciples get back in the boat, they’re about to head back, when the man who had the unclean spirit comes up and tries to join them.
He’s just been given this brand new story and he wants to go with. He wants to learn more. He wants to go with the others who’ve experienced the same thing as he did.
And again, it gets weird.
Youd think Jesus would be all “Of course! Jump in. There’s always room for more! Come and follow me!”
Cause that’s how it works, isn’t it? This whole thing is about following Jesus. You experience the grace God gives us, you let it transform your life, and then you join all the other people in this thing called church. Thats where this whole life we’re after is found. I mean that’s how this faith and spirituality thing goes, isn’t it?
But yet, here’s Jesus saying “No” to all that. Here’s Jesus saying, “You can’t come and follow me.”
Instead what’s he saying?
“I want you to say here and tell your story.”
And again, in the weirdness, is a really beautiful truth:
The only thing God wants from us is to live like we're free and tell our story.
Which is to really say:
When it comes to living this life we’re after, this life freed to live by a new story, this life that hums with reverence, all we need to do is be who we are where we are.
Just sit with that for a sec …
All that’s needed from us, is for us to be who we are where we are.
We dont need to have all the answers. We dont need to have all the language. We dont need to have it all together. We dont need all the traditions and trappings.
All we need to do is be ourselves. When it comes to a life of faith and spirituality, all thats needed is for us to live out the new story God has given us.
It really is that simple. All it takes is the courage to be ourselves.
And that goes for us as a church too.
One of the first words used to describe the church was the Hebrew word ‘Edah.’ It meant "witnesses."It referred to those who gathered together to witness to the bigger story thats out there - this story of that Spirit that makes all things new, that Spirit that's leading everyone and everything towards wholeness, this Spirit that frees us by showing us new ways of being human and alive in the world.
When it comes to being the church, it’s really a lot simpler than we make it out to be. When it comes to being church, all the stuff we do together - the songs, the traditions, the buildings, the dinners, the budgets, the prayers - it’s all simply a decoration on top of how we live and tell our stories we tell because it’s that, it’s us living by a new story, it’s us simply being who we are, that will change the world around us.
And if we have doubts about that, well all we need to do is look to the end of the story we’re in today.
It has kind of a sneaky ending because there’s a coda to this story. It actually ends a few chapters later in Mark chapter 7.
We’re told that after Jesus goes back across the lake and keeps doing his thing but then one day, maybe a year or so later, he looks to the disciples and says again, “let’s go across the lake” and he returns to the land of the Gerasenes.
And again we can imagine the disciples freaking out, but not because it was somewhere new and uncomfortable, their worlds had already been expanded to included this new place. This time they are freaking out because the last time they went there they were run out. What if they got killed this time?!
So Jesus pulls up on shore and what happens?
We’re told that the whole city and country is waiting for him. But this time, instead of running him out, they bring him everyone whose needing to be healed. Instead of running him out, they invite him in. Instead of asking him to leave, they are all asking him to give them a new story to tell.
And again, we need to ask why? Why this change?
Well the only explantation can be that there was once a man who had an unclean spirit, who was given by the Empire an ending to his story, and he lived in amongst the tombs in death and despair, but then one day, this guy named Jesus showed up and told him he didnt need to live like that anymore, that there was in fact a different story he could tell, and he set him free. So this man went and lived like he was free, living out and telling his story everywhere he went, and slowly, ever. so. slowly. people began to question their own narratives, wondering if they too could live by a different story, wondering if God could set them free, wondering if they could have hope for something different. So when this Jesus guy showed up again, they were ready to cross the lake and risk liberation. And why? All because that dude lived out his story.
The big beautiful and liberating truth this whole story offers us is all you need to be is you.
All you need to be is you because your story matters.
The truth is that God uses average ordinary every day humans like us to change the world simply by telling our stories.
You have the power the change the world. All you have to do is be who you are where you are and go and tell your story.
That’s it. That’s all you need to do.
All you need to be is you.
All you need to do is live out your story.
The world needs it.