When was the last time you were seized with great fear?
Years ago our blended family went on the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios in Orlando.
We were seated side-by-side and when the lights went out the seats began to shudder and tilt. As we began to pick up speed we could feel the wind in our faces, and quickly we were descending into what appeared to be a dark pit. Prehistoric creatures appeared menacingly on the edge of the precipice, and to my horror I realized we were falling into the gaping mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Behind me I could hear Katie shouting, “I don’t want to be eaten by a dinosaur” and I couldn’t have agreed more. At the last minute we diverted from the monster’s jaws but we continued our horrifying ride through the vestiges of time. When we finally stopped, the chairs stopped swaying, the wind stopped blowing, and the lights came on.
Rarely have I been so scared. As we got up to leave I angrily reminded everyone how much I hate roller coasters.
Martha smiled and said, “This wasn’t a roller coaster.”
Son Will added, “The seats were just vibrating, not moving forward. Didn’t you notice the Exit sign beside you never moved?”
Well, I did not notice, and neither did Katie. Both of us were completely convinced by the mediated illusion of flight. It was a psychological deception in our heads, and we were seized with great fear.
Fear can be incapacitating, and not just the artificial thrills of amusement parks.
We all face it: the fear of a looming big decision, the fear of financial ruin, the fear of a serious illness, fear for the safety of our children and loved ones, even – for many – the fear of making a speech. Fear is a basic human response that has been evolving in our collective psyches since our ancestors lived in caves. Fear is a survival mechanism, a universal impulse that keeps us safe from danger. Fear is a human trait that we should respect, and we should never taunt or yell “cowardly custard” at anyone who is afraid.
But one has to ask: why on earth were the Garasenes so afraid of Jesus?
If we fail to understand their fear, I think it is because after years of Sunday school, confirmation classes, and church conventions, we have developed a fairly domesticated image of Jesus: Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the Jesus who loves the little children and walks around with fluffy lambs on his shoulders.
But the Garasenes had no idea who Jesus was. They were, however, very aware of malevolent evil residing in the demoniac who sometimes burst out of his restraints and became a naked terrorist in their midst. The wretch was under the control of a legion of demons whose malicious power was beyond human understanding or human control. They hesitated to kill him, not only because of the dictate of the fifth commandment, but because they feared the angry retaliation of the demons if their host was destroyed. Fearful and helpless, they bound the man in chains and shackles and gave him wide berth.
Then, unexpectedly, an unfamiliar but ordinary-looking man appeared in the village. Without so much as raising a finger, Jesus sent the powerful demons out of the man into a herd of pigs, which rushed down a steep bank into the lake and drowned.
Then the people saw the former demoniac, dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus.
The people didn’t know Jesus, but they knew very well the incalculable evil that had held this poor man in in bondage for so many years. To cast out evil of this magnitude would require a power far greater than the people could imagine. They saw Jesus as an unknown figure with a power so boundless that they “were seized with great fear” what he might do with it next. And it took all the courage they could muster to ask him to leave.
The former demoniac, of course, realized that it was the power of God’s love that had freed him. For this man, what happened because Jesus passed his way was very good news: God’s power of love is greater than evil and hate. And evil and hate will never overcome it.
The former demoniac’s first impulse was to join Jesus as one of his disciples, but Jesus told him to go home and “declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39)
At that point the former demoniac disappears from the story and we are left to wonder what happened to him. Few mortals experienced God’s love the way he did. Did he ever doubt again? Was he ever afraid of anything for the rest of his life? He was, after all, human. And fear is a fundamental part of the human genome.
But I am sure that if did feel fear, he also remembered the infinite power of love that had passed through him one day when he was in bondage to evil, the love that swept the hideous demons away. Luke tells us the man “went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39). We don’t know exactly what the man told people, but certainly his testimony was this: God’s love restored me and, no matter what happens next, I know God’s love will always be with me. And I will never succumb to my fear again.
That’s a great message and, if we can steel ourselves to accept advice from a man whose body was once home to a legion of demons, these are words to live by.
All of us know what it is to be afraid.
Remember in the days immediately following nine-eleven, we stopped what we were doing watched fearfully every time an airplane passed overhead en route to Westchester airport?
That was a very fearful time for all of us, and it opened our mediated imaginations to terrible fears. Remember the rumor that “thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey” when the towers went down? It was not true, and a week after the terror attacks President George W. Bush condemned the rise of Islamophobia among certain groups:
“When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world,” the President said. “Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race—out of every race …Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow (Muslim) citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”That was a good use of the Bully Pulpit, and I sometimes wish we could hear those truths more often from our leaders in the corridors of power.
Because if the lesson of the demoniac has anything to say to us in the fearsome times in which we live, I think it is this:
God’s love is sufficient to overcome anything we fear.
The reason the Garasenes feared Jesus is that they did not know him. He was someone other than the people they knew and trusted, and they didn’t take the time to get to know him. They didn’t understand that what he did for the demoniac was not a display of naked power but an act of infinite love.
As a Christian who, as Luther put it, is simultaneously a sinner and saint, I am aware that my fear may make me indifferent to God’s love. It is my fear that forces my silence when a paranoid fear of the “other” compels the building of walls to prevent immigrants from crossing our national border, or detaining thousands of asylum seekers in detention camps, often separating parents from their children, because we are afraid to let people who are not like us mingle safely among us.
The acting director of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency announced last week that ICE agents would be conducting raids today in 12 U.S. cities, targeting more than 2,000 undocumented residents.
Understandably, there was a vigorous condemnation of the planned raids by church and civic leaders, many of whom protested the plan as inhuman fear tactics.
The acting ICE director, Mark Morgan, said, “This is not about fear. No one is instilling fear in anyone. This is about the rule of law and maintaining the integrity of the system.”
But of course it was about fear.
Throughout our land today, thousands of people would have been afraid to leave their homes, to get into their cars, to go to work, to go to the store, to go to church. To those who lack empathy, the targeted people are the “others” who don’t fit in with the rest of us. But for those of us who have experienced God’s infinite love, they are our neighbors who Jesus told us to love unconditionally.
The sudden gush of air you may have felt at 3 p.m. yesterday was the collective sigh of relief when the White House announced today’s raids would be postponed for two weeks. (It was also the sudden in-taking of breath in preachers’ offices around the country when Sunday sermons had to be edited at the last minute.)
But the ICE raids are still on the docket, and in our great land there are still those who fear the Other.
The Garasenes feared and rejected the love they could not understand.
Let us help one another overcome our fears with love. Let us pray for those whose fear leads them to conduct fearful acts against their neighbors. And let us pray for those neighbors who today are living in fear of powers and principalities that have forgotten the commandment of neighborly love.
Dear God, overcome our fears with love, and give us the courage to proclaim throughout our land how much Jesus has done for us.