Archive for October, 2019

Mark 6:27-29

October 29, 2019

Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.

When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.  Mark 6:27-29

We come to these verses on the heels of the death of one of the most notorious terrorists in the world. As the leader of ISIS, he was directly responsible for thousands of acts of unmentionable cruelty, depravity, and terror. He took his inhumanity to the grave by causing the deaths of three of his own children rather than facing his captors like a man.

The on-going tragedy of his death is that thousands of people will view him as a martyr, a courageous leader, who gave his life for a holy cause. They will view him more like John the Baptizer than a despot like Herod. Regardless of the millions of Muslims who condemn the radical fundamentalist fringes of Islam, there remain thousands of “true believers” out there who project all that is wrong with their lives on those who are different than themselves. Their fight, and the need for courageous, thoughtful, informed, people to resist them, will go on.

The death of John the Baptizer can seem like a small footnote in the Jesus story. It is quickly told and the narrative moves on. But the echo of his needless death hangs over the rest of the story because Jesus is also a truth-teller and an inconvenience to those in powerful positions.

The only time that Jesus got close to violence was knocking over a few vendor tables in the courtyard of the temple. He incited no one to violence. He offered no path to using violence to force his will on anyone. No one who uses violence – either physical force or lies or innuendo – to further the imposition of their beliefs on others can claim the name of a disciple of Jesus.

The raid which ended the life of the leader of ISIS was named after Kayla Mueller, a young woman from Arizona whom he had brutalized and murdered. She was there to do good. She was the martyr. She was following in the footsteps of Jesus.

George Tiller was a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, who, as part of his practice, performed abortions. He was shot twice. First, in 1993, he was shot in both arms. Second, in 2009, on a Sunday morning, in the narthex of his congregation where he was serving that day as an usher, he was shot to death. Both shootings at the hands of activists who were convinced they were doing God’s will. He was the martyr. He was following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Every week it seems I read yet another article telling me that the church is dying. Young people don’t come anymore. More and more people declare their faith as “none of the above.” If the church that is dying is the one that teaches people to hate, to do violence in the name of Jesus, to use shame and fear to propagate the faith, to ignore the shared humanity of all of God’s creation, I think such death is a good thing.

If the church that is dying is one that is afraid to speak the truth in love in confronting evil, including the corporate evils of society and its leadership, then so be it, for such a church has little in common with either John the Baptizer or Jesus.

But the church that is following in the footsteps of Jesus will not die because the grave cannot hold God’s mission of loving the whole world.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we pray for all of those whose lives have been impacted and lost, for the children and loved ones left behind, by those misguided people who use terror and violence to twist the world into their own image. We pray for the soldiers who risk their lives to bring peace. And we pray for those faithful Christians who continue to courageously, sacrificially, and patiently, hold to your gospel of inclusive, unfailing, love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Mark 6:21-26

October 28, 2019

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Mark 6:21-26

Millions of people around the world were captivated by the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.” For eight years, people watched the various machinations of the competing kingdoms of an imaginary world. Kelley and I were late to the party but eventually all the hoopla was enough to make us spend far too many hours catching up to everyone else. We watched the whole thing.

As we watched, in the back of my mind I was wondering what the tremendous attraction was to this fantasyland. Relational tension? Generational family drama? Graphic violence? Gratuitous nudity? The imaginary powers of dragons, witches and soothsayers? Whatever it was, it was captivating enough to cause millions of people to use hundreds of hours watching when they could have been doing something more productive with their time.

This horrific scene where the pathetically small puppet king Herod uses his daughter’s body to show off to the “guests” at his own self-congratulatory party reminded me of the “Game of Thrones.” The mad king. The Red Wedding. The incredible self-indulgence, the greediness, and the treachery of the very people that the common people looked to for leadership and guidance.

As large as Herod thought he was, his wife (did Herod really steal Herodias from his brother or was Herodias cagey enough to jump ship because she thought Herod could give her a better deal?) knew how to play him like a fiddle. A simple appeal to his vanity was all it took to twist him around her finger and get him to do anything she wanted. And she wanted to be rid of that irritating little man, John the Baptizer, who didn’t know enough to keep his stupid mouth SHUT. What better way to do that then to separate him from his head? Very “Game of Thrones” of her.

I hope this morning invites us to consider again what kind of world we want to live in? When it comes to our political leaders, we live in a different age. Our political leaders are elected, not appointed by Rome like Herod. We live under a system of laws, not the divine right of kings. Wouldn’t we be better off to listen to those who tell the truth, painful though it might be, than to cut their heads off, figuratively or otherwise?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, reading again of the death of John reminds us of the dangers of investing power into the hands of people too small to wield it well. It reminds us of the need for laws to protect us against the powers of tyranny. We pray today for those in authority over others, that justice and the common good be their goal. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 6:14-20

October 25, 2019

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. Mark 6:14-20

The two most famous pastors when I was a kid were Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were preachers but much more than parish pastors. Both had voices that echoed through our culture. Graham had the ear of presidents from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. Both were articulate in speaking against the evil of segregation. Both regularly spoke out about governmental policy – in different tones, by different means. Dr. King spent much more time in jail.

There are very good reasons why America adopted the stance of the separation of church and state. The immigrant reality of life meant that many aspects of the “old world”, including state sponsored religion, needed to be left behind if people were to cooperate in building a new world here. Until recent years and attempted changes to governmental policy, people were never forced to pass through religious litmus tests to come to the United States.

But there have always been doors and windows in that wall of separation. Like Graham and King and so many other famous and infamous names throughout the decades, religious leaders have always spoken to issues of morality and public policy. Those there has seldom been agreement about what is said, there has always been freedom to say it.

King Herod had all the power (that Rome gave him) to do what Herod wanted to do within the territory under his control. Like the old line says, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And King Herod was certainly corrupt. His private life echoed his public life. The same man who could throw away his first wife in order to steal Herodias from his brother could be counted on to abuse his political power as well.

John the Baptizer continued a long tradition – reaching back at least to Moses before Pharaoh or Nathan and King David – of religious leaders who confronted and challenges the immorality of political leaders. And for that, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned.

We should note that Herod did not immediately order John killed. Mark says that he “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” Next week we’ll learn the limits of Herod’s interest in John.
Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you guide us always to both justice and righteousness. Help us to hear with discerning ears and see with eyes wide open when political power is abused and your people suffer. We pray today for all those who suffer because their faith, active in love, calls them to speak out against such abuses of power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 6:6b-13

October 23, 2019

Then Jesus went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. Mark 6:6b-13

It might be an old cliché but I think it is always true – the mark of a great leader is great followers. It is one thing to do things yourself. Anyone can do that. But getting others to do what you want them to do? That’s leadership. Getting others to do the right things for the right reasons? That’s great leadership.

This is such an interesting passage when we listen closely, entering the text. Look at how vulnerable Jesus was letting himself be. So far in the story, he has been the hero. He has been the ones to draw the crowds. He has done good things in the lives of people. But now Jesus takes a new risk. He empowers others. He sends them out beyond himself. And he sends them out without any visible signs of support.

The first sermon I preached as a newly minted ordained pastor was on this text. It just popped up when it was my turn to preach. I remember working on my sermon, thinking about how, even though we were just starting out in life, we packed the largest U-Haul truck we could rent to move our stuff to Houston. It was a far cry from no bread, no bag, and no money. (Although we were precariously close to no money.)

Jesus sends them out with nothing to count on except the trust that it would be OK. And then Jesus gives them permission to fail. Their mission would not be an automatic thing. Just because their cause was good and their willingness was high, there are no guarantees in ministry. But permission to fail also gave them permission to try. And try they did.

Imagine their surprise when good things happened!

We’re in October. In “church world” this means that many congregations are beginning to lean into next year. Soon they will have congregational meetings. They will elect new leaders and vote on a new budget. Of the many thousands of congregations across the United States, there will not be a single one with so many people willing to lead that they will have to dream up new things for them to do. There won’t be a single congregation with so much money that they budget in pencil to make sure they have good reasons to spend it all. That just isn’t how it is.

Instead, they will have just enough to do what it is that God calls them to do. Maybe just barely enough. But enough is enough.

If their hearts are in the right place…if they are doing the right things for the right reasons…if they find themselves taking risks, living at the edge of their capacity rather than taking the easy and safe way, they might find God doing great things among and beyond themselves.

They just might prove themselves great followers and God doesn’t ask for anything other than that.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for sending out your friends in pairs. We might not think we have enough resources. We might worry about money. We might worry about our capacity, about our skills. But, in your wisdom, you send us out together, that we might always know that we have each other, and you right there in our midst. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 6:1-6

October 22, 2019

(NOTE: My apologies for how weird the devotion distribution ended up last week. I have no idea what happened. Either WordPress or Feedburner just went nuts. I hope it is better today. And thank you again for taking a moment to reflect on the Bible with me.)

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Mark 6:1-6

Houston is pretty excited today. The Astros are back in the World Series and Game 1 is tonight. This doesn’t happen often around here and it is exciting when it does. This vast, diverse, energetic city is divided in so many ways – and comes together in so many ways when things like this happen. We feel like we part of the same team. Even my wife, who doesn’t give a hoot about sports, talks about the Astros using words like “us” and “we”.

One of my darkest memories from my high school years was playing in a varsity basketball game for the very first time on my hometown court. I was a sophomore. Skinny. Kind of dorky looking with my black rimmed rubber covered elastic strapped “sports glasses” on. When the announcer called my name to enter the game, virtually the entire student body stood up and booed. They booed at everything I did. Every time I touched the ball. All game long. We lost.

The trouble was, I was playing for the other team. Due to family circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to transfer to another school during football season. One Friday night I played against Fargo South; Monday morning I walked into the office of Fargo South High School to get my course schedule (and my 75 cents for my poor kid free lunch.) So the first time I played varsity ball in my hometown, I was playing for the visiting team.

I think about that moment every time I read about Jesus having a tough time with his hometown team. That those who ought to have known him best, knew him least. That those who rejected him wanted to make it about Jesus rather than making it about their own inability to imagine God doing something marvelous in their midst.

I think about this text often when I write things in sermons that, to me, are faithful and honest with the direction of the gospel reading, but I know are going to be extremely challenging to the faith and the worldview of some of the people I love in the congregation I serve. But that, I think, is how the Christian faith works.

Christianity is a team sport. Christianity is a conversation. Christianity is a way of being, with and among people. Sometimes healing happens. And sometimes healing is preceded by finally hurting enough that our eyes are open to new possibilities that finally lead to wholeness.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, our hearts go out to you at the idea of you being rejected by the very people who you knew best. And yet we know that we could very well have been among them. Your loving way of being in the world for people sometimes comforts us, but just as often challenges us to be more loving ourselves. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 5:35-43

October 18, 2019

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

When he had entered, Jesus said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this and told them to give her something to eat. Mark 5:35-43

Having just assured the woman who had been suffering for years that her faith had made her well, Jesus turns his attention back to Jairus and his daughter. Again, he tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” That is so much more easily said than done.

This has become a very noisy story. Imagine Jesus surrounded by a crush of people jostling for a closer look. The callousness in the words, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” The weeping and wailing outside of Jairus’ home. The laughter of those who heard Jesus say that “the child is not dead but sleeping.”

Only then is there a moment of peace. Jesus enters the child’s room and takes her by the hand. A touch. Then a word. Then the child is good as new. And then, as we’ve come to expect, Jesus tells them not to say anything to anyone about what they just witnessed. As if….

Both of these healing stories are ultimately about Jesus. What links them is the tension of fear and faith. Neither Jairus nor the bleeding woman let their fears stop them from approaching Jesus. Something made them through the fear – even the fear of rejection and disappointment. Was it their faith, their trust, their desperation? Does it matter?

We are so quick to wrongly disconnect faith and fear. We think of faith as a mental thing, a set of ideas and convictions and thoughts. We think of fear as an emotion, a feeling. Yet don’t our thoughts come wrapped up in feelings? And don’t our feelings come on the wings of thoughts? Are these really such separate things? I don’t think so.

When Jesus tells Jairus not to fear but only believe, he isn’t telling Jairus to deny his fears. Instead, Jesus is acknowledging the inevitability of his fear without surrendering to the idea that his fears will inevitably overwhelm or define him. He is inviting him to surrender to faith, to trust that Jesus has the power to write the end of this story.

We do well to let such trust inform our fears, even as we surrender our fears to our trust.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, not all stories have happy endings but you have given us a lot in the stories of this woman and this little girl and her family. There is so much that we fear in our world today, give us the trust that you hold the whole world in your hands. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 5:25-34

October 16, 2019

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Mark 5:25-34

The technical term is “inclusio”. This refers to a literary device where a story is wrapped, or framed, within a story. Mark likes to do this and what it does to us as readers is highlight both sides of the story, either to heighten the importance of its theme or to emphasize the content of the inclusio.

The first part of the inclusion was yesterday’s introduction of Jairus and his hurting daughter. Then, the middle part, on his way to Jairus’ home, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who had been suffering for twelve years. For twelve long years (maybe the age of Jairus’ daughter?) this woman had been suffering not only from her physical ailment but also from the social pain of being rendered unclean. The Old Testament is embarrassingly (brutally?) specific about how to handle women when they bleed (Leviticus 15:19-33).

Unlike Jairus, a respected elder within his village, who personally confronts Jesus to beg for help, this ritually unclean woman sneaks up on him. Even though no one else has been able to help her, she desperately reaches out to touch Jesus. She believes that Jesus can help, and her faith is met with her healing.

The interesting wrinkle in this story is that Jesus doesn’t realize what just happened. He knew something happened but not what happened. Only when the woman falls before him to confess the miracle she just experienced does Jesus get it. I really don’t know what to make of that, but it is surprising.

Upon hearing her story, Jesus addresses her as “daughter.” She is not a nameless person to him. “Daughter” is both a term of respect and endearment. She is no longer unclean. Perhaps she has never been unclean to Jesus regardless of what the Levitical holiness code might have said about her condition. He sends her off in peace.

These stories are not only about a sick little girl and a suffering woman, they are about the power of Jesus to heal the broken and restore the outcast. They aren’t just healing stories. They are love stories.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, sometimes we don’t realize the power of social conventions to damage the lives of people. We don’t realize how they can make sick people suffer even more. Thank you for the healing at every level that this woman experienced in your presence. Help us to receive, and to be agents of, such healing in our lives today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 5:21-24

October 15, 2019

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Mark 5:21-24

Even though we live in the age of the Internet and social media, my guess is that word of mouth remains the most powerful form of advertising for every business that can’t afford television ads. When Jesus was alive, word of mouth was the only form of advertising. Word got out.

Do you remember playing the old game where you sit in a circle, the first person says something in the ear of the next person, you pass it around the circle, and the last person says it aloud? The story always changes. Sometimes the story becomes unrecognizable. That is the drawback of word of mouth advertising. Once it begins there is no controlling the word that gets out.

The word got out about Jesus. Today he is back in Galilee and again he draws a large crowd of people. Notice that the person who draws Jesus’ attention this time in a leader of the synagogue. A trusted community leader. Quite likely aware of the growing opposition against Jesus. But he had no time for that, his daughter was ill. He gave Jesus a shot.

We ought always notice how Jesus always notices those both in the center, and at the edges, of a crowd. He doesn’t see a crowd, he sees people. And when they are hurting, he helps them. It isn’t complicated. Whether a prominent Jewish community leader or a demon-possessed Gentile, Jesus is there for them.

I know the helpless and terrified feeling that comes with a sick daughter. I’ve been there. Anyone with a daughter has been there. But there is sick and then there is really really sick. Jairus’ daughter is really really sick. Any parent would do anything they possibly could for such a sick daughter, even risking humiliating himself in front of the rest of the town to get help from Jesus. Long shot though it might be.

We all remember the old line, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I don’t think there are many in emergency or ICU waiting rooms either. And I take great comfort to remember the ways that Jesus showed up for people who were hurting. There was no “What have you done for me lately?” involved. That isn’t how Jesus was.

That isn’t how God is.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for such open access to your presence. You are as close to us as our next breath. The simplest prayer draws you into our consciousness. Your grace, your mercy, your love, greets every prayer. We pray today for those worried about their children. Bring comfort and hope to those who are hurting. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 5:14-20

October 14, 2019

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.

As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’

And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. Mark 5:14-20

More surprises surface as we come to the end of the story of the Gerasene demoniac. The last scene featured thousands of pigs running off the cliff to drown in the sea. It is hard to top that. It is funny to imagine all of those pigs running one way while their swineherds run the opposite way back to town to tell on Jesus. After all, they were supposed to protect those pigs.

And, of course, what are the people in the village going to do? They listen to the breathless swineherds’ story and they just have to see it for themselves. Like rubber-neckers at a freeway crash. But instead of a flotilla of dead pigs they see the town crazy sitting quietly by a Galilean. They didn’t know what to make of that…but now they were afraid of the guy because he was quiet rather than fearing his next outburst.

They don’t understand what is going on so they react by wanting the whole scene to end. They would rather Jesus just leave, and leave them alone, instead of finding out what happened. Sometimes we really do think ignorance is bliss. We would rather just not know. We prefer the peace of denial rather than the possibility of the truth upsetting our lives.

It is interesting again to remember that, when Jesus asked the demon its name, the demon replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The word pops up again here as the townspeople recognize the man sitting with Jesus. Everyone then would have known that a “legion” was a unit of the Roman army consisting of about 5000 soldiers. Given that all of this happened in Roman occupied territory – and that the Decapolis was a group of ten Roman villages on the frontier of that Roman occupied territory – soldiers would have been a part of daily life.

Is there are link here? Is this whole story just a subtle dig? That Jesus, armed with nothing but his voice and the truth, could defeat the thousands of Roman soldiers (the pigs rushing to the sea) who made life so miserable for those they dominated? Here we do well once again to remember the opening verses of Mark. Who IS the Son of God and what good news does he bring? Is it Jesus or the Emperor?

What a story that demoniac had to tell!

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, the message of your love, and the power of your presence, has turned countless lives from despair to joy, from sickness to health, from grief to gratitude. You have given us all many stories to tell. Give us the courage to tell them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 5:6-13

October 11, 2019

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.

Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. Mark 5:6-13

Even from a distance, both men recognized what they saw. The tormented man amazingly saw Jesus for who he was, the Son of God, but he was afraid that Jesus would make things worse, “do not torment me.” And Jesus, clearly seeing the man’s distress, offered both diagnosis and treatment in a single sentence, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

There are two more surprises.

The first is Jesus speaking, not so much with the newly healed man but with the unclean spirits that have controlled him. The spirits – which are many – the guy obviously has a lot of problems – beg Jesus for mercy. How weird is that?

And then Jesus obeys the unclean spirits – very strange – and sends them into a huge herd of pigs. Who then rush into the lake and drown.

Certainly, this is a story of a miraculous healing. It is a story of the compassion that Jesus shows to those who suffer. But then there are all these little details that would be so easy for us to miss. The evil spirits recognize Jesus when the religious leaders don’t. This all happens across the sea, in foreign, Gentile, territory. Only Gentiles would have anything to do with pigs. And a herd of 2000 pigs approaches farming on an industrial scale. Almost lost in all of this is a dazed man who has been returned to his right mind. What do we do with all of this?

Some – certainly not all – mental illness and mental stress is a maladaptive response to trauma and shame. It begins as a barrier of protection against pain. Then it takes on a life of its own. Like the old line about alcoholism: First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man. The man first sees Jesus as a threat, not unlike a person suffering from bipolar mental illness in a manic state, or an addict in their disease, might resist treatment.

But none of that stops Jesus. He comes with love, responds with compassion, and gives a suffering man new life. Because that is what Jesus does.

Then there are those pigs. The story doesn’t end well for them, not to mention their owners. There is a cost involved in the cure of the man in the tombs. We will see how the locals react to that next week.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, it is strange how resistant we can be to those things in life designed to help us. We like sugar more than vegetables. We resist doing what is helpful because of our fear that it will be worse than what we have come to know as normal. We need you to move us toward healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.