Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church
“I Need Control”
Not too long ago, a well-known Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, told a story to a group of pastors about an elderly lady he once visited in the hospital. This woman had just been given some horrible news—she would no longer be able to use her legs. Like a good minister he came to be present with her—he came to listen, he came to console. After about 45 minutes, his not-so-subtle body language hinted at the fact that it was time for him to go.
"Well, aren’t you going to pray for me?” she asked.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “But you haven’t mentioned anything that you’d have me pray for.”
At this she looked at him funny. “Pray that I’m able to walk again, of course.”
“Oh, okay,” he said, half-heartedly.
So the bishop said that he prayed the weakest prayer he’d ever prayed. Something like, “Lord, Sally would really like to be healed. Please give her patience with her new set of circumstances. And, if it be your will, please heal her. Amen.”
When he opened his eyes he noticed that Sally was trying to get out of her bed.
“Sally, what are you doing?” He asked. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I’m healed! I’m healed!” she yelled excitedly. She then proceeded to hop out of bed, run out of the room, and shout for joy along the halls of the hospital.
Bishop Willimon told the group of pastors that in that moment he sneaked out of the hospital to hide in his vehicle.
In the safety of his own car he looked up and said, “Lord, don’t ever do anything like that again.”
The bishop had witnessed a miracle and it terrified him. So what did he do? He ran.
Something eerily similar to this story occurs in our Gospel lesson for this morning. The text says that a group of people called the Garasenes witness a miracle of Jesus. The town trouble-maker—a man who went around naked, lived not in a house but in tombs, and who was filled with demons—was delivered from that which enslaved him. Even today we don’t tolerate public nakedness, but in the first century this was a much greater offence. A death-obsessed man who makes a tomb his home was just as creepy then as he would be today. And while I’m not sure that the locals knew that he was filled with demons before Jesus exorcised him, they definitely seem afraid of him.
When the demoniac is delivered, the demons are cast out into a nearby herd of swine that immediately drown themselves by rushing into the nearby waters. The status quo has become undone. The herdsmen who witness the event are dumbfounded. The text says they immediately go into the town and tell everyone. When the townspeople come to see what all the fuss was about, they see the naked troublemaker wearing clothes and in his right mind. They are immediately afraid…
Like the bishop, they never wanted to see anything like this happen again. They had witnessed a miracle and it terrified them. So what did they do? They told Jesus to go away. They, like Bishop Willimon, said, “Lord don’t ever do that again.”
But why were the Geresenes so afraid? Was it because they had lost a couple pigs? It doesn’t seem like that is the case because when we read the text closely we notice that the people don’t even mention the pigs. They seem unconcerned with the supposed monetary loss. (And don’t forget that to Jews of Jesus’ day pigs are unclean animals, so—at least for the Jews of the area—this was not an issue at all.)
No, I think that the main reason the Geresenes were so afraid, is the same reason that Bishop Willimon was afraid. (Which is the same reason that you and I are often so afraid.) The root of the Geresenes fear, the root of the bishop’s fear, and—most often—the root of our fear is that we are afraid of losing control. We like things the way they are because we’re afraid of the alternative—we’re afraid of the unknown. While we’d probably never say it, most of us don’t want God to come on the scene and interrupt our lives in a radical way, because we have no idea what that might mean. We have no idea what can of worms that might open up.
This fear of losing control, this fear of uncertainty, this desire to maintain the status quo is more widespread than I think you and I are willing to admit.
I’ve found that this fear of losing control often inhibits us—I know that it inhibits me. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “If only I wasn’t so afraid, I could have lived. If only I wasn’t so afraid, I could have loved.”
Many of us are so terrified of losing control, when the control that we think we have is largely illusory--it's largely an illusion. If there’s anything that the Stock Market collapse of 1929 taught our grandmothers and grandfathers, it’s that their best laid plans were not foolproof. If there’s anything that the 2008 economic meltdown taught my generation, it’s that our brilliantly diversified economic portfolios are not bullet resistant. Our security, our privilege, our positions of prominence, this status quo that we take for granted, is at risk in our volatile world.
And, don’t get me wrong, it’s only good and right that to a certain extent that we exercise control. This is simple human nature. Since the beginning of time we have sought order out of chaos, and that is a good thing. But when this inclination to control our environment runs amok and causes us to run from God, when it causes us to, like Bishop Willimon and the Geresenes, say, “Lord, don’t ever do anything like that again,” we’ve turned a good impulse into a bad one. Our desire for control, for power, has effectively left no room for the rescuer…
In this Gospel story, Jesus offers nothing less than salvation itself. New Testament scholar Tom Wright writes that in verse 36 the word "healed" that is applied to the no-longer demon-possessed man is better translated “saved.” The demon possessed man is not simply exorcised, but holistically rescued. To be sure, there was a healing, but even more than that there was deliverance—a deliverance from the power of Death itself. And the interesting thing is that it wasn’t even sought. The demon-possessed man is not even in his right mind. Before Jesus saved him, he was completely enslaved to what the Bible calls “the powers and principalities of this world”—the powers of Sin and Death.
So the onlookers are terrified. A weirdo has been healed; pigs do what they ordinarily wouldn’t. The status quo has been disrupted. God has broken in on the scene. They see this act of salvation—this transfer from the realm of Sin and Death to the realm of life and light—and it terrifies them (as I think it would terrify us). The Geresenes see the town trouble-maker--the creep--wearing clothes and in his right mind and it’s too much for them. You see, the people had the demon-possessed man under their control, sure he might evade their watch on occasion, and he might break out of his shackles from time to time, and he might howl throughout the night, but they had grown used to these—mostly—minor occurrences.
Jesus, on the other hand, was the variable. Jesus was the loose cannon. If he truly possessed such power, then maybe their own power would be taken away. If he really had such authority, who’s to say what else he might do?
So why should we be any different than the Garasenes? Why should we be any different than Bishop Willimon? Why should submit to the authority of Christ instead of running away?
I’m going to give you two reasons.
First, we don’t have as much control as we think we do.
My grandmother, a wonderful, brilliant woman, is smarter than I’ll ever be. She’s a dietician, a voracious reader, a New York Times cross-word puzzle aficionado. She has eaten next-to-perfectly her entire life. I can recall numerous occasions when she would see me eating something that all of us in this room probably eat regularly, and she would say, “I can’t believe you’d ever eat anything as unhealthy as that.” And I wasn’t even like I was drinking a Mountain Dew or eating an artery clogging cheeseburger.
She also read the New York Times every day along with countless other books to stay well-rounded and sharp. In addition to reading profusely, her cross-word puzzle skills were second to none. She might pretend that she didn’t know the answers in the beginning, but after about 25 minutes each row was filled. So when came to brain muscles, she was no slouch. On the contrary, she was a power lifter.
But all of this eating well and brain exercise did not protect her from getting Alzheimer's. She had hoped they might, and she was a poster child for employing preventative measures, but, in the end, she could not evade this terrible disease. The tragedy is, that despite her best efforts, she did not have the control that she thought she had.
And for those of you who are so unfortunately acquainted with deep grief and sorrow, you know that death and tragedy are no respecter of persons or preventative measures. You know that we don’t have as much control as we think we do.
And this leads me to the second reason that we should submit to the authority of Christ—a positive reason that we simply surrender and receive. Jesus Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, has the power that we think we have but don’t. He has the control that we so desperately seek. Not only that, but God makes it clear that he is for us, not against us. Scripture promises that he will never leave us or forsake us. And to echo both, our Collect of the Day declares, “He never fails to help and govern those whom he has set upon the sure foundation of his loving-kindness.”
In the words of the most quoted Anglican of all time, C.S. Lewis, “Safe?... Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
You and I are invited to surrender to a king who is not a tyrant like most others, but one who would pour out his life to rescue us, like the demon-possessed man, from Death itself. May you be blessed with faith, hope, and trust in him, so that when God interrupts your best laid plans, you may not run away, like the bishop and the Geresenes, but instead run toward him and receive his salvation.
Collect of the Day:
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.