Afraid of Power
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
3rd Sunday in Lent
19 March 2006
In our Gospel today, the people are afraid of Jesus. Why? Because he has demonstrated incredible power. It is his power which makes them afraid. This is a common experience, to be awed by the presence of the divine and the holy. Recall Isaiah’s fear at his vision of the Lord or Moses before the burning bush.
One of my favourite accounts of this sort of fear is in the novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. The English children Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy have traveled into the land of Narnia which is suffering under the curse of an everlasting winter. Once they enter Narnia, they discover that Mr. Tumnus, who had befriended Lucy on her previous visits, has been taken by the evil White Witch. In their moment of fear and confusion, Mr. Beaver finds them and leads them to his home. As they are talking along the way he says, “They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.”
C. S. Lewis then records the following:
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. . . . At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
Later, the children are safe and warm in the home of the Beavers. Susan asks, “Who is Aslan?”
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time. But the word has reached us that he as come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus.”
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
And if you’ve read any of these stories, you understand what Mr. Beaver is talking about. Around Aslan, you would make a mistake if you ever lost your sense of mystery, awe, and wonder. He’s not a tame lion.
Yet, Aslan should not inspire horror. The reason young Edmund is horrified by Aslan is because Edmund has fallen into sinfulness. When Edmund does finally encounter Aslan, however, what he receives is grace. It is a grace that convicts him of his wrongfulness and leads to his transformation. It is not a painless experience, but it is a healing one.
In John 3, Jesus talks about being born again and uses the imagery of light and darkness. He says,
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
The reason we experience a certain kind of fear when we encounter God is because the experience of God is transformative. It exposes our rough edges, our darkness, our sin. An experience of God calls for us to repent, to change, to be born again. It is a healing experience, but it is not necessarily a painless one.
This is an example of how the experience of fear can be positive and healthy. Our fears can reveal to us parts of ourselves that need to be transformed. So, the people are right to fear the power of Jesus, because Jesus isn’t safe. The issue, according to Mark scholar Mitzi Minor, is how we respond to that fear.
When we are afraid, we should open ourselves to that experience. We should ask ourselves questions. What are we really afraid of? Often there is some deeper, underlying issue and not just the crisis at hand. Is there something we can learn about ourselves in this moment? Is there something we need to change? Do we need to seek help? From friends or fellow congregants. Maybe even counseling.
The moment of fear is revelatory. And it provides an opportunity. We can use our fear to learn and grow. Or we can run from it, hide it, be controlled or paralyzed by it.
One of the most terrifying periods of American history is the Great Depression. I have often heard the stories of my grandparents and their siblings and friends who recount stories of great loss and poverty. Traveling across many states looking for work. Scrounging to get by. Eating beans for every meal. You’ve probably heard similar stories in your family.
By 1933 one-fourth of the American workforce was unemployed. Industrial production had dropped by fifty percent. The banking system was on the verge of complete collapse, and at least two million people were homeless. According to Wikipedia, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the newly elected president “saw the Depression as partly a matter of confidence – people had stopped spending, investing, and employing labor because they were afraid to do so. . . . He therefore set out to restore confidence through a series of dramatic gestures.”
Roosevelt was convinced that the most serious problem facing the country wasn’t the economic crisis itself, but the fear that had resulted from it. So, in his first inaugural address, he rose to speak to the people with “candor” and “decision.” He realized that this was a moment of opportunity from which the country could learn and be transformed. He said,
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
He went on to thank God that the difficulties the country faced concerned material things, but that together the people could face the situation. Yes, it was a dark time, but “Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.” The country’s problems had originated in the unscrupulous practices of its economic leaders; they had been a “generation of self-seekers.” These leaders “have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”
Roosevelt challenged the people. “Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.” The situation called for “courage and devotion.” Roosevelt intended to act boldly and called for the people’s support.
Without getting into an historical analysis of the Great Depression and the New Deal, of the successes and failures of FDR’s policies, I want us to consider the power of this one speech. It is remembered today because it is a powerful speech that still resonates with us, though we are far removed from the context in which it was spoken. Facing a very complex economic and political situation, Roosevelt boiled it down to one thing – unhealthy fear. Fear that was self-seeking. Fear that was paralyzing.
Surely the Great Depression was cause enough to be afraid. It is only healthy that one would be scared during such a time. To be afraid is itself not the issue. Again, as Mitzi Minor says, the issue is how we respond to our fear. Roosevelt’s analysis was that the people had responded in unhealthy ways to their fear. But what they must do is transform that fear into healthy action. They must pull together, take bold steps, and in the process they would be able to overcome this terrible situation.
The Gerasenes were right to fear the power of Jesus. Jesus would have exposed their darkness to light. He would have worn away at their rough edges. He would have convicted them of their sins. Jesus would have called for transformation.
Remember the powerful image that opens this Gospel. An image that we first encountered back in November when it was the cry of those suffering during the exile. A cry of lamentation and hope from the Book of Isaiah. An image that Mark then uses to explain what is happening in the life of Jesus. The heavens have ripped open and God is set loose in the world.
All the grand dreams of the prophets of Israel are coming true. The great hopes of liberation are being fulfilled. From the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark we are told that Jesus is transforming human society.
Jesus performs great signs and wonders. These signs and wonders are themselves manifestations of the reign of God. The miracles, healings, and exorcisms all work to include those who have been excluded. The diseased, the mentally ill, and the disabled have been cast out by this society and exist on its fringes. They are isolated from genuine community. They are denied access to the sacred rituals. Jesus works to include them. And the signs and wonders are meant to draw attention to the more basic fact that in God’s new reign all are included in a communion of mutuality and love.
This powerful work of Jesus faces opposition. It must do battle with the forces of evil that want to continue oppression. There are many clues in this Gospel text that more is going on in this episode than what we might notice at first.
The land of the Gerasenes is part of the Decapolis, an area on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee where there was a heavy population of Gentiles. The name of the demon is Legion, surely a reference to the occupation of the land by the military forces of the Roman Empire. Sharyn Dowd of Baylor University pointed out something I had always missed. Even the pigs represent an economic system built around the occupation. It’s not the Jews who want ham sandwiches and bacon with their eggs.
The demons in this gospel also represent a creation that is awry. Jesus is restoring creation. So, when Jesus heals the demoniac he is saving an individual, signaling transformation within an oppressive human society, and setting right an imbalance in the cosmos.
Jesus is on the advance. In the opening chapters of Mark we get a series of episodes where Jesus astounds the people with his teaching and his signs and wonders. His fame spreads. Then he begins to encounter opposition. First there are a series of episodes where the scribes and Pharisees come to question him about various aspects of his teaching. Their fear of Jesus grows just as the crowds around Jesus get larger. By chapter three we are told that people are coming from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.” The crowds become so large that Jesus picks a group of assistants that he begins to teach and train to do what he is doing.
The opposition then comes home. In Mark 3 we read:
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He’s gone out of his mind.” . . . Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
As the Jesus movement grows, so does the opposition. But Jesus continues to advance. He decides to travel to the other side of the Galilee, to come into the Gentile region. His power is revealed on the journey – even a storm on the sea cannot stop him. God’s power is set loose in the world and no opposition will hold it back!
Jesus’ advance is a form of invasion. He is confronting the powers of exclusion and oppression. He is taking it to the oppressors. But he doesn’t come with armies. Jesus isn’t commanding a legion. There are twelve guys with him. And he doesn’t come in force of violence. No, he comes with the power of God. He comes to save and to heal.
But the Gerasenes didn’t want to encounter this radical power of Jesus. They didn’t want to change. They didn’t want to be exposed and convicted. And so they told Jesus to leave.
And in the process they lost an opportunity to experience God. They lost the opportunity to experience forgiveness, grace, and healing. They could have learned what it means to be truly human. They could have learned how to have authentic community with one another. But they were too afraid.
I’ve been reading about the Equality Ride as they make their way across the country and will arrive here this week. Jacob Reitan, the very young man who organized this ride, inspires me. I can’t wait to meet him. He’s already been arrested on the orders of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, so he must be a great guy.
Jacob was inspired by the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly the story of John Lewis who is a now a prominent Congressman. While in college, he was pondering what action he should take, when he experienced a moment of insight. Jacob writes the following:
Ultimately, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that my idea for a youth-driven stand for GLBT justice took form. The concept came to me in the most unlikely of places. I was in a bar in Boystown, the gay neighborhood of Chicago, and approached an attractive young man whom I discovered was a Wheaton College student. Wheaton is a conservative Christian college just west of Chicago. So I asked, “What is it like to be gay and a student at Wheaton?”
He looked at me and responded, “Well, no one knows I am gay. If I came out at Wheaton, I could get kicked out of school.”
“That’s a horrible policy,” I said. “We should do something about this.”
“Actually, I think it’s a good policy,” he said. “I think it’s a sin to be gay.”
I was shocked. Here I am talking to a gay man in a gay bar in Chicago. He was raised by fundamentalist parents in a fundamentalist community and now goes to a fundamentalist school. He has learned his whole life that being gay is sick and sinful, yet invariably on a Friday night he finds himself in a bar looking to be affirmed and loved. When he hears my affirming message, he is unable to internalize it because of a lifelong message of condemnation.
I grew angry. . . the GLBT rights movement . . . hadn’t gone into his family, into his community, and into his school to send him the message that God loves him without reservation just as he is. After that night I knew the goal for young adults seeking justice for GLBT people. We needed to help this young man know the truth about himself and about God.
The result was the Equality Ride. Inspired by examples of Christian courage during the Civil Rights Movement and inspired by the paralyzing fear of this young man from Wheaton.
The way to authentic human existence, the way to create God’s reign, is to grab hold of the power of Jesus.
Our experience of God should fill us with mystery, awe, and wonder. The radical power of Jesus may even make us afraid, because Jesus isn’t safe. But we must view such experiences as opportunities. Opportunities for transformation and healing. Opportunities to enter more fully into the reign of God.
I have these moments when I’m overwhelmed by joy. They come pretty often these days. Sometimes it’s while watching a drag show. Sometimes it’s on the dance floor at the Copa. It was last night at Linda and Judy’s anniversary party. It’s often during this service, usually at communion.
I’m overwhelmed by a sense of elation, excitement, confidence, hope, and freedom. It is a joy born of transformation. A transformation that was not painless, but was healing. An opportunity to release fear and experience the power of God.
So, what do I do in those moments? I thank God.