Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Years ago, I spent a week with 18 high school youth on mission trip to Juarez, Mexico. We helped build a community center and lead vacation bible school for a small church. Every day one youth sent a reflection back home by email. Often, they wrote about the poverty they observed. One wrote, ‘It is remarkable how little we actually need. I feel almost liberated. Back home, we fiercely guard our possessions. But I wonder, is it we who possess all our stuff, or does all our stuff possess us?’
We waived goodbye as we drove away in a beat-up old school bus that broke down before we reached El Paso. We walked the last two miles or so. We carried our backpacks and suitcases to the bridge and across the border. We were relieved to be home. Yet, our crossing taught us about some of the human costs inherent in our way of life. Following Jesus in mission can quickly lead us to question what we think we already know.
The prophet Elijah is another example. It seems like he had everything figured out. In the chapters preceding our first reading (1 Kings 17-18), Elijah is a prophet “in charge.” Everything goes his way. He confronts kings and followers of Baal, performs miracles, raises the dead, and calls down lightning from heaven. But now, in 1 Kings 19, everything is changed. Elijah is intimidated, filled with complaints, and plagued with self-doubt. Like so many servants of God before and after him, Elijah is deeply discouraged when things don’t go his way. To be fair, serving God put his life in danger. Now he wants out of the whole prophet-of-God business.
On Mt. Sinai, a despondent Elijah encounters a persistent God who refuses to let him off the hook regardless of the difficulty of his mission. On the very same mountain God handed Moses the Ten Commandments, God confronts Elijah—not with a mighty wind, not with an earthquake, nor with fire, but in the sound of sheer silence—as if to say God will not be confined to one way of speaking. Don’t expect divine power always to show up “obvious” ways. Contrary to what Elijah thought, he was not alone, but one among a whole community, a holy remnant, numbering at least seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18) faithful people.
Doing God’s work, speaking God’s words, transforms hearts and minds—beginning with our own. It happens again when Jesus orders the disciples into a boat and said, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ (Luke 8:22).
To them it must have seemed like a bad idea from the start. This wasn’t a little trip from one side of a lake to the other. It was a journey into a foreign land, the unknown, the defiled, the less than human. To make matters worse, they nearly drowned on their way. Now, from the moment they step onto dry land, they’re confronted by the so-called Gerasene demoniac, a naked, filthy, and demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs! The experience must have confirmed all their stereotypes about unclean Gentiles.
It turns out the people of Gerasene would also have preferred that Jesus stayed away too. Sure, they’d admit, life with a demoniacwas a little crazy at times, but they had learned to cope. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked most of the time. At some point, they figured out how to keep him chained, post a guard, and isolate him from other people. Problem solved. It worked for everyone –everyone of course except the so-called demoniac.
Trailing broken chains behind him, he wandered the wilds, tearing at his skin until it bled, trading one kind of pain for another. If he had a name, no one knew it. If he had a history, no one remembers it. If he has a soul worth saving inside his living corpse, no one sees it. No one looks. Until Jesus does. (Debie Thomas, “Legion,” Journey with Jesus, 6/16/19)
Our gospel confronts us with the confounding reluctance and resistance in ourselves that rebels against God’s grace to heal us and to reshape our communities. Like Elijah, and all of us on that mission trip years ago, serving God in Christ opens hearts, minds, and hands even where we did not realize we had closed them.
For all their supposed differences, the Jewish-born disciples and the foreign-born Gerasenes shared something in common: they were more than willing to leave well enough alone rather than make the sacrifices or take the risks required to truly make things better.
The Gerasene demoniac fell down before Jesus 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” (Luke 8:28). It must have been terrifying and overwhelming. Yet Jesus shows us exactly where to begin in such situations. He began by asking him a simple, direct question. “What is your name?” Jesus starts to recall the broken man to himself. To his humanity, to his beginnings. To his unique and precious identity as a beloved child of God.
The problems that afflict, torment, and distort our minds may be legion, multi-faceted, and myriad. The sources of our brokenness may be braided together. And yet the way of hope and salvation lays open for us in Jesus. The crazy man speaks for us all and shows us how our own healing may begin. When the demoniac sees Jesus, he falls down before him without hesitation or apology.
Our gospel ends with Jesus commissioning the healed man to stay where he is and serve as the first missionary to his townspeople— the same townspeople who feared, shunned, trapped, and shackled him for years. Isn’t that just so like Jesus? “To choose the very people we consider the most unholy, the most unredeemable, the most repulsive and unworthy— and commission them to teach us the Gospel? THAT is God all over.” (Debie Thomas)
When we follow Jesus in mission, when we prayerfully apply ourselves to be his hands, his feet, his word, we may be surprised to discover, how this strange gospel story becomes our story. Here, we find a story about our truest names. Here is the story we share with the faithful of every time and place about our resistance and resurrection. Here is a story about the Jesus who found us naked among the tombs, clothed us with dignity, scattered the demons to save our soul, and turned us into storytellers who help heal the world. Here, then, is our story wrapped within God’s story. “Here is the One who makes us one. The One who breaks the darkness, turning blindness into sight” (ELW #843). Here is the One who opens our fisted minds and will teach us how to live.