There are only a few things that put me into a complete fear induced panic. One of those, the one thing that has the potential to make me jump on a table or push little kids to ground for a quick getaway like a crazed woman trying to get on a ride at Disney World, or even pass out stone cold right where I stand, one of those things that scare me the most are snakes. Blame it on the hundreds of times I watched Indiana Jones movies as a kid, where at least once in all three movies (we do not count the fourth because it was terrible) Dr. Jones is paralyzed by his fear of snakes. Or maybe it was because when I was attending and working at Boy Scout camps we were told from day 1: “stay away and beware of poisonous copperhead snakes because you would DIE if you were bit.” Oh great! Not only do I have to worry about snakes in general, know I ALSO have the possibility of becoming ill. Great!
Snakes have the ability to send me into a state of panic induced fear that little else can. Just ask my wife, she can tell you that if a snake is even on TV I either need to look away or perhaps even leave the room.
Fear has away of locking us down, chaining us up and preventing us from doing much of anything. Fear of the unknown, fear of what is known, and fear of what we know is coming all have the ability to reduce our focus to little more than that thing, that 1 thing we want to avoid the most. Like my fear of snakes. When I see one, whether in person or on the screen, that snake all I can think about. That snake, that disgusting-no leg-crawling on the ground-no good-worthless THING, is the only image that runs through my mind!
This morning’s scripture reading is a story of sickness, fear, and healing. These storylines are played about by three groups of people: sickness, played by the naked and homeless man living in a graveyard; fear, played by the people in the community who kept the sick man chained up and under guard; and finally healing, seen through not only the divine power of Jesus but also through His compassion and mercy. What I want us to do this morning is to explore how these three characters fit into our own lives and our own experience with sickness and fear.
To quote the great American theologian Dennis Perry, “are you ready?”
Sickness Chaining Us Up
I do not know about you but when I get sick, even with the smallest cold all I can do is think about the fact that I am sick. Setting alarms on my phone to remind me when I need to take more Dayquil or reminding Allison everytime she asks me to do something that I can’t because I am sick, I usually allow myself to come up with excuse after excuse as to why I can’t do something. Or with an injury, the same thing can apply.
When I was in college I dislocated my kneecap. I was going to show you a picture of it, a picture that one of my fraternity brothers took, but because most of you don’t want to lose your breakfast I won’t. I was playing basketball and a freak knee to knee collision sent my kneecap one way, and the rest of my leg in another. Once I arrived at the hospital and the doctor put the pieces of my leg back where they belonged the pain went from the feeling of having my leg caught in a bear trap down to a mild irritation. They immobilized my leg and told me I would need to see a specialist to rehab it.
After going home to see a specialist and beginning my regimen of physical therapy three times a week, I was making excellent progress. There, in what seemed like a double-wide trailer physical therapist and nail salon I would squat, walk, and bend without alongside hip replacement and carpal tunnel patients, and eventually I began to regain most of the muscle mass I had lost. Eventually I was able to all of the squatting, walking, and bending without any pain. These were ALL good signs, and good prognosis for a full recovery.
But at the time, if you had asked my how I was doing, you know just in passing or asking how my day was, all I could focus on was what I couldn’t do because of my knee. The only thing I couldn’t do was play basketball yet, and it wasn’t basketball season anymore at point, so it did not matter. My point is, that my injury consumed my life. At a time where I should have been focused on my school work or maybe planning a summer internship all I could focus on was my knee.
Sickness and injury have the ability to paralyze us to the point that we are no longer focused on anything else. Now I don’t want you to think I am without compassion for those who are facing illness, because that’s not what I am saying. I am speaking to those of us who are recovering from injury and illness today. Your injury or illness does not define you. You are not chained to it.
In our scripture reading from Luke’s gospel today we see that this man’s illness had consumed every part of his life. He was an outcast to the community, living naked and homeless among the dead, it was as if he was already dead he just did not realize it. When we allow injury and illness to place doubt and fear into our lives we can become can get to the point where all we know is defeat, placing ourselves in our own naked graveyard.
Fear of the unknown or even the known has the ability to place chains on us. Chains that prevent us from responding to situations like we usually would. We are no longer able to function as we once did, or we are no longer able to treat others in a way that we usually would.
Throughout high school and college I worked as a lifeguard. It was a great job where most of the time we were paid to lather up in sunscreen and work on our tans. One summer I worked at a Cub Scout camp in Haymarket, some of you might have been there with your sons. On the first or second day of camp we would do something called a swim test. Scouts and leaders were all required to jump into the pool and swim 1 of 3 tests to determine what aquatic activities they could participate in based on their swimming ability. The last thing we wanted was for a leader who had not seen a gym or body of water in 20 years to be in the deep end relying on his 4th and 5th grade scouts to pull him in.
The scouts, specifically the 4th graders, would respond in 1 of 3 ways to these tests. There were the kids who were obviously destined to be olympic swimmers who jumped in a finished without problem. There were those, and these were my favorite, who had no idea how to swim but didn’t let that stop them. They would jump into the deep end, sink to the bottom, and look up at you with a “now what do I do expression.” Then there were the scouts who didn’t know how to swim, told you the didn’t know how to swim, and as a result had no desire to be near the water let alone get into it.
I always felt bad for these kids. The August humidity in Virginia is murderous so being in the pool would be like jumping into an oasis via water slide. But these kids also had gotten to the point that their fears chained them to the sidelines. And remember, these are just kids. These were kids would would crawl through a dark mud hole or chase after a snake without a second thought. And more often than not, the adult leaders would exasperate the problem by either a) by telling the kid he probably wouldn’t like the pool anyway, b) ignoring the kid, or my favorite c) belittling the kid there on the pool deck.
The fear induced by others is something that can seem like an insurmountable mountain. But what happens when the fear of the unknown begins to spread like a disease through a group of people?
We see that in verse 29, “he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles”. The possessed man was shown no compassion by the people of the community. They refused to aid the man in a way, shape, or form. He was chained up and when he wasn’t he was running through the wild. His sickness had taken him to a point where we was unable to care for himself and rather than showing mercy and compassion, the people of his community acted out of fear for the unknown.
Imagine, banished from your community because they community is afraid of you, not because you have done anything wrong but because you are sick. It is not a surprise then that the man’s illness was able to take over his body and consume him.
We have seen this on the news throughout the last couple of decades in Africa. People who contract HIV are often shunned from their communities, which lead to them not being able to receive the medical and spiritual care they need.
We allow the fear of another’s illness to consume us when all we can talk about with them is their illness. They know they are sick, they are living it out everyday, and for one reason or another it is all we can talk to them about. We know they are a husband or wife, son or daughter, an engineer or doctor, Caps or Nats fan, but all we can see in them is their illness and that is all we can focus on.
Jesus’ compassion and mercy in this story are out front and centered; much like the rest of His ministry. Jesus has no problem walking right up to those who had been cast aside by their community or even their loved ones. He did not let fear keep him from those who needed healing and he did not let their illness define who they were as children of God.
We see this morning that Jesus has entered into an area outside of Galilee. The same story appears in Mark’s gospel and he refers to this as Jesus crossing to the otherside. The other side was Gentile territory where most Jews would not be caught dead going to, let alone interacting with those people. Whenever we read that Jesus is going to the “other side” in the Gospels we should be aware that something is about to happen, something that for a Jewish reader or a Jew during this time would be outside the norm, something big.
Jesus’ treatment of this sick man is an example for all of us. He not only heals the man but he tells him to go home. He tells the man that he is no longer sick, no longer will he live as an outcast, and no longer will his illness define who he is. The man is to return to his previously life. This man becomes one of the first evangelists, going and proclaiming all that Jesus had done for him.
When we do not allow our illness to define who we are as children of God, we magnifying God’s power and diminishing to power sickness might have on us. We are able then to live our lives as the blessed, loved, and cherished children of the Most High.
When we approach our fears, instead of considering the circumstances that have placed that fear into us (our fear of snakes or water) consider that the same divine breath that raised Jesus from the dead is the same divine breath that breathed life into you. Do not let fear keep you from jumping into that pool of water that you have been avoiding or won’t go near (disclaimer: seriously if you can’t swim don’t jump into the deep end, start with some swimming lessons).
When we act out of mercy, love, and compassion we are saying that fear, illness, defeat, and doubt have no place in this world. If we act with mercy, love, and compassion we are fulfilling our call as disciples of Christ to live a life that Christ has modeled for us. Christ searched out for those who were isolated or kept on the fringes, even to the point that he descends into Hell to recover those who had been lost. Let us do likewise. Let us live without the fear that comes with the unknown, caring for those in need without chaining them or isolating them because of their condition, and let us love with compassionate mercy that outshines the darkest of days.