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March 2006

Some Press Coverage of the Equality Ride at OBU

I've already posted the link to the Newsweek story. Here are a couple more:

In Hard News Online:

Anyone who may be hesitant to believe that GLBT students attend and graduate from conservative religious institutions like Oklahoma Baptist University need only talk to Rev. Dr. Scott Jones for living proof.
"I am an OBU grad and had been an outspoken opponent of the school's policy against homosexuality while I was a student," said Jones, the openly gay pastor of the Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City. . . . [Read More]

At Hope for Peace and Justice, articles on the State Board of Education decision and my perspective of the visit to OBU:

But, then, it seems that fundamentalist forces in the state decided to strike back. In what appears to be a violation of the open access law, the State Board of Education voted to change their existing policy and eliminate protection of sexual orientation from their anti-discrimination policies. A state representative had pushed for this change, and the vote was taken with no prior announcement that this would be on the Board's agenda. The congressman said that Oklahoma schools needed to be protected from gay rights activists like the Equality Ride. The clear message that the State Board of Education sent was that it was okay to discriminate against gay students.
This comes in a week that not only saw the Equality Ride advocating for an end to religious based discrimination, but there was also an Oklahoma high school student who filed suit against his school district because they did not protect him from anti-gay harassment.
With every small step we take here in Oklahoma, our opponents rally and force us back two or three steps, proving the importance of direct action campaigns like the Equality Ride and the conversations that they generate. . . . [Read More]

The Ones Not Afraid

The Ones Not Afraid
Mark 5:21-43
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
4th Sunday in Lent
26 March 2006

The other day Paula was telling me a story. One Easter Sunday she was on duty and observed a suspicious vehicle. One of the windows was broken, so she ran the plates and, sure enough, the car was stolen. She took chase. For forty-five minutes she chased this vehicle. The thief was banging into other cars and wreaking havoc. It dragged on and on. Finally he was headed down a road that dead-ended. Paula pulled back to await the crash. And that’s what happened; he crashed the car. Then the guy took out running. Paula chased him down, jumped a fence, and tackled the guy. While looking through his wallet she noticed pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart. She said, “Do you know what day this is?” The man muttered, “yes.” Paula then yelled at him, “Did you go to church?” “No,” the man said. Then Paula bellowed, “You should have gone to church!” Though with an expletive thrown in that isn’t really appropriate for a sermon. She said all the other cops laughed. Here’s this guy who stolen a car, given the police a forty-five minute chase, wrecked and damaged various vehicles, and Paula yelled at him for not going to church on Easter Sunday.

There’s something that happens to me as a pretty common occurrence. For instance, imagine me out with Christa some Saturday night at Partners, and we are both having a cocktail. I meet some new person, and we are chatting and soon that person uses a cuss word. Then they look at me with a look of guilt or shame and say, “Oops, I shouldn’t talk like that in front of a minister.” This has now happened often enough that I have a routine response. I say something like the following. First, I’m drinking. Second, I’m in a bar. Third, it is a gay bar. Fourth, I’m gay. Pretty sure cussing isn’t a big deal. That’s entry-level sin.

It is funny how we make distinctions in our society, particularly what we judge to be sin and what we don’t. These are a couple of humourous episodes, but they are reflective of conservative upbringings that would have considered it quite serious not to be in church on Easter or to use a profanity in front of a minister. They reveal how a concept of purity that makes sharp distinctions underlies much of our thinking about morality and sin. These episodes reveal that sometimes our priorities about what is right and wrong and how we make those distinctions can get out of whack.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote about how societies set themselves up as “One” and define those that are different as “other.” We might do it in harmless ways, such as Sooners v. Cowboys. And quickly there becomes a Sooner orthodoxy and if you vary from it, then you aren’t a real fan.

Unfortunately, individuals and societies make these distinctions all the time in ways that are not humourous. An out of whack desire to maintain moral purity leads to Sally Kern’s library bill. Or to Jim Crow. Or to Apartheid. Or to ethnic cleansing. Humans can’t seem to resist making such sharp distinctions and creating dualisms – men v. women, rich v. poor, white v. black, straight v. gay. We then use these distinctions to exclude people from our way of life.

In Jesus’ day Judaism had developed a series of sharp distinctions surrounding the religious practices of the temple. It was a very clear purity code based upon some Old Testament scriptures and a developing rabbinical literature. There were sharp distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, between those who were disabled and those who weren’t, between men and women, and between the clean and the unclean. To maintain one’s righteousness, a person had to build sharp barriers between themselves and anything that might defile them. You didn’t eat certain foods, you only did work on certain days, you could only marry someone of a specific social class, and you couldn’t come into contact with anyone or anything that was unclean.

In such a society, everything has its place and is supposed to remain there. Everyone has their duty they are fulfill and not step outside their role. Now those who transgress such barriers, in any society, become suspect and derided. When a woman gets ahead in business, you still occasionally hear someone say, “Whom did she sleep with to get ahead?”

Often those who transgress boundaries are persecuted. Sometimes they are killed. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right wing Jew because Rabin had violated what that young man took to be the purity code for maintaining Jewish righteousness. Trying to engage in peace with Palestinians transgressed boundaries. Transgressing boundaries got Anwar Sadat killed, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harvey Milk.

And it’s why Jesus was killed.

When we last left Jesus, he was asked to leave the land of the Gerasenes. So, he and the disciples cross back over the Sea of Galilee to the western side, where most of Jesus’ ministry has occurred. First Jesus encounters Jairus. Unlike most of the minor characters in the Gospel of Mark, Jairus is an authority. He is a leader of the synagogue, a prominent man. William Barclay, the Scottish scholar, writes the following about Jairus:

He was the president of the board of elders who were responsible for the good management of the Synagogue. He was responsible for the conduct of the services. . . . The Ruler of the Synagogue was one of the most important and the most respected men in the community.

Jairus clearly is a member of the “in” crowd. He is one of those set apart and protected by the barriers of the purity system. Jairus himself becomes a transgressor of boundaries; his actions in this story reveal his courage.

For example, Jesus has been taking on the religious authorities. He has broken the religious rules and has argued with Pharisees, scribes, and elders. So, it initially seems strange that a prominent member of the religious system would come to Jesus for help. But not only does Jairus come to Jesus asking for help, he falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him, repeatedly.

Here is a man who is in a desperate situation – his daughter is dying. Instead of despairing, Jairus musters his faith and comes to Jesus. Jairus musters faith despite the purity code boundaries that would separate him from Jesus. He comes to Jesus despite his dignity, despite his pride, despite disagreement, and despite any prejudices he might have. Barclay gives an insightful analysis along these lines. Jairus must overcome the prejudice that the religious leaders had against Jesus. He must overcome his own pride and dignity to come and throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Here is a prominent man begging the assistance of an iterant peasant. And from the rest of the story, it appears that Jairus’ friends and household did not support his decision to go to Jesus. Yet, despite all of this, Jairus musters his faith and goes boldly to Jesus.

Inserted into the middle of Jairus’ story is that of the bleeding woman. I always found the name given to her in the King James Bible to be funny – she is the “woman with issue.” Mark has crafted an interesting literary specimen with these stories. Sharyn Dowd of Baylor University points out that we must look at how the bleeding woman was similar to Jairus’ daughter, while at the same time she was different from Jairus himself:

Both the woman and Jairus’ daughter are female, and both are nameless in the narrative. . . . The bleeding woman has been dying as long as the child has been living – twelve years. Both are “daughters.” Although it is clear that the girl has a caring father, it would appear that the woman has no one. However, Jesus calls her “daughter;” she is not alone after all.
Both women are ritually impure when Jesus encounters them. According to Torah, vaginal bleeding rendered a woman unclean and all corpses were unclean.

Dowd continues by reaffirming that Jairus is a leader who has the right to directly speak to Jesus and seek his help.

The bleeding woman, by contrast, has been a religious and social outsider for twelve years, experiencing neither the worship of God nor human embrace. She has no right to be brushing up against people in the crowd and no right to jeopardize Jesus’ ritual status by touching him.

The woman, unlike Jairus, is one of those excluded by the purity code. She is outside the boundaries. She is dirty, polluted, and unholy. She is labeled unclean by virtue of her disease. In Leviticus 19 there is a long and extensive purity code related to bleeding women. Some excerpts:

When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean.
If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness.
If she is cleansed of her discharge . . . the priest shall offer a sin offering and a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf before the Lord for her unclean discharge.
Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.

To be unclean was not simply a matter of health or sanitation. It was a religious and moral judgment. The unclean one could not participate in worship. And because of these strict rules, they were not welcome to wander around the town and participate in normal everyday functions. And, as you can see, a sin offering was necessary to atone for the sin of the discharge. Bleeding due to disease was something that needed a sacrifice in order to get back into right relationship with God!

Why would such a code exist? Despite its location within the Old Testament canon, Leviticus is actually compiled rather late in the history of Israel. Though there are elements of it that must have been handed down through the centuries, the book only took final form in the period after the exile.

When Judah was defeated in the year 586 Before the Common Era, the people were taken captive into Babylon. It was during this period that Judaism really took shape. As is often the case, a minority subculture must work hard to define itself as separate from the surrounding culture. This is especially true of an exiled community. Without access to the temple and other sacred places, the rules and regulations that would set the Jews apart from the Gentiles became even more important. The entire tradition of the people was re-interpreted during this period. In fact, most of the Old Testament took its final shape during and after the Exile. If you read the Book of Ezra, for example, you will see how after the Exile there was a stronger emphasis on purity and difference. This tradition of Judaism became known as the Priestly Tradition. It has important differences with other traditions within Judaism.

Toward the end of Leviticus we can see the weight that was placed upon observance of these laws:

If you follow my statues and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. . . . I will grant peace in the land. . . . I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.
But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statues, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away.

In fact, if you look in Leviticus 26 you’ll see that the warnings of punishment are more descriptive and grotesque and go on for far longer than the list of blessings.

But this tradition within Judaism does not stand alone; there are other traditions. Where the Priestly tradition tried to create orderly boundaries, others were not as concerned with that. There were elements of Judaism that welcomed the Gentiles, and these elements gave rise to the Books of Ruth and Jonah. The historians of the Deuteronomic tradition were concerned about obedience, but more about how it connected with justice and faith than how it connected with purity and boundaries.

The sharpest difference with the Priestly tradition is found in the Prophetic tradition. Keep in mind that many of the prophetic works actually pre-date a book like Leviticus, even if they come later in the volumes we possess. Though there are many passages in the prophets that would illustrate how they reflected differently upon the faith than did the Priestly tradition, maybe the most known comes from Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not
accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of
your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing

Jesus stands firmly within this prophetic tradition of Judaism. So when the woman with issue touches him, Jesus is not concerned with being defiled or made unclean. Instead, he makes her clean. He restores her and includes her. For Jesus this woman is displaying true righteousness, because she has faith.

Notice that she is afraid. But it is not the paralyzing sort of fear that we discussed last week. No, this woman is still courageous. She is breaking all sorts of rules by wondering into this crowd and touching this man. And she is even bold enough to speak to him.

And just so we understand the points here, the Jairus episode continues. The daughter has died and Jesus comes and restores her to life. Notice the words of Jesus to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”

It is belief, faith that has allowed Jairus to transgress boundaries and seek healing for his daughter. It is faith that has compelled the woman to transgress boundaries and seek healing from Jesus. And Jesus rewards both of them and acknowledges that they are examples of how to resist the power of fear and live as people of courage.

It takes courage to break down barriers and turn a process of exclusion into one of inclusion. This week as I worked on this sermon I read enough material to begin writing a thesis. There is much more to be said about the Purity Code, its origins, it application, and the criticism of it by Jesus and the prophets. A lot of that reading entered into my thoughts tonight. But what also entered into my thinking were the events of the week and the many conversations that I’ve had surrounding the visit of the Equality Ride to Oklahoma City and Shawnee.

There is a religious sensibility that seeks purity, that sets up boundaries, that excludes, and that ultimately can end in violence. I believe that it is a religious sensibility filled with fear.

Then there is a religious sensibility that seeks justice. That acknowledges the role and power of sin, but that ultimately works to find healing and inclusion.

Though the first sensibility has basis in scripture, I believe it is outweighed by the second sensibility. And this is where I take my stand.

My God hears the laments of a people in slavery and liberates them. My God is reflected in the words of the prophets who denounce injustice and call for shalom. My God pours out the Spirit upon all flesh. To my God there isn’t Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. My God is revealed in Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who died because he transgressed boundaries to bring healing and wholeness.

The “ones not afraid” are those who have this sort of faith.

Equality Ride at OBU: Day Two

I didn't post yesterday because I was physically and spiritually drained. But today is gorgeous, and my energy is renewed.

I wasn't drained because anything bad had happened. No, drained because I had made contact with one of those deep sacred places inside. I'll explain that later.

Friday I didn't arrive in the morning, so I can't give insight into what actions the Equality Riders may have taken. I do know that there was a lot of debate within the group. Some thought that they should push harder and take more direct action. My view was the direct action's purpose is to open an opportunity for dialogue. That had happened, so let's see where that gets us and reserve the option for more action later. Plus, the rally would be our chance to tell our story and give our spin to the news (OBU was able to successfully manage the news reports to put them in a good light, which I knew was happening, but I took what I could get). Unfortunately the hordes of press that had been there on Thursday weren't at the rally on Friday. They missed hearing our stories.

A small crowd gathered at Lion's Club Park around 1 p.m. There were a handful of OBU students. A couple of administrators. Some local ministers: baptist, Episcopalian, Unitarian, etc. Members of the OKC gay community. And only a couple of alums (I wish there had been more).

The first person to speak was a young woman named Ryan who was kicked out of OBU at the end of her freshman year (2002) because friends had twice reported that she was kissing a girl. Though this part of Ryan's story was horrible enough, what came next was worse. Her rejection and punishment by OBU sent this once committed missionary major into a spiral of drug abuse and a host of accompanying problems.

While Ryan was speaking, I lost it and began to cry uncontrollably. What came to mind was the fact that I had warned the OBU administration more than a decade ago that their treatment of gay students was going to lead to damaged lives with horrible consequences. In a letter to Bob Agee I had even said that if someone was hurt by his actions, then their blood would be required at his hands.

I don't cry all the time, but once I get going, it is difficult to stop. Harry Wooten talks about people who cry at the opening of grocery stores. I'm not that bad, but I can really cry when I get started. Especially when a deep, sacred places is opened up. Even moreso when it is a place of pain and fear.

I was up next to speak. Through my tears I shared by feeling, my story of arguing this issue with the administration, my lack of courage to be out as a student. I was thankful that this conversation had gotten started and that Thursday had been beautiful. I was thankful for the faculty and staff who had been silent allies. We need silent allies in repressive situations. But I wish that more of those allies would have the courage to speak out, otherwise we'll have more stories like Ryan's. I intended this last part as a challenge, and hope it was heard as such.

Then we sang and a group of local Shawnee folk were introduced, all of whom had volunteered to serve as resources for gay kids that needed help.

As the rally broke up, we all mingled around. There were current students who are gay who spoke to me. I was moved by these conversations. I thanked the Riders for creating this space for us. I was hugged a lot.

As Marty O'Gwynn was leaving we spoke openly. He thanked me for sharing my story and hoped that with what had happened the last two days, there wouldn't be any more stories like that.

In two weeks I plan to follow up with the administrators and faculty members who said they wanted to talk further. I'm soliciting comments or stories from other alums who may want the administration to hear what their perspective was.

The strange irony is that this was the first time in baptist life that I've gotten to stand up as out and proud and openly speak my story. Not at a CBF meeting, or youth camp, or any of my previous churches.

Equality Ride at OBU: Day One

Wednesday night had been fantastic, as the Riders rolled into town to a rousing welcome at Church of the Open Arms. I was moved by their stories of religious abuse, and was excited about a dream coming true. OBU was giving attention to homosexuality and dialoguing about it.

This morning I awoke to snow. Beautiful snow. The drive out to Shawnee was great. The campus was lovely. I got there an hour early to get coffee, look around a bit, and pray.

Not long after I arrived, I ran into Marty O'Gwynn, who was handling everything with the Riders, and Bobby Canty, who is now the Dean of Students. I'd seen Marty on Wednesday night. I had a good conversation with each of them. They told me that the group was going to allowed in the GC bottom floor all day to interact with students. He was hoping that was acceptable to the Riders. I was amazed. I had dressed in long underwear and layers of clothes, expecting to be outside. I couldn't believe this was happening; never would have happened ten years ago.

The fabulous Equality Ride bus pulled up at 10 a.m. I was waiting for them in our class of '96 Gazebo. Marty asked me to show the Riders the way in.

And until 4 p.m. this afternoon the GC was full of openly GLBT young people and straight allies who were engaging in conversation with OBU students, staff, faculty, administration, and the press. There were two requirements that I think were too much. OBU allowed in LOTS of press, but didn't allow Soulforce to film or take pictures. And they wouldn't let them hand out pamphlets. They could talk for hours with students, but couldn't pass anything out. Had they allowed that, I think the Riders would have had hardly anything to grumble about.

All the people who I knew who came by were warm and pleasant. I got lots of hugs and handshakes. I had a great day.

There were no incidents. There were lots of great conversations. Many students took business cards, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers. It was most interesting to watch the kids that I felt were gay. Some of them hovered around the edges, listening in. There are even a few openly gay students who were working with the Riders.

As I left, Bobby Canty asked me to come back and talk with him about what it was like when I was a student. He asked thoughtful, interested questions. He seemed genuine in wanting to know what it was like for gay students at OBU. I plan to follow upon this soon and hope to take other students stories with me. Marty O'Gwynn thanked me for being there and helping to dialogue between the school and the Riders at a couple of points.

In my wildest dreams as a student, this never would have happened. I really did want to cry at the end of the day.

[Tomorrow there will be a rally with speeches at 1 p.m. at Lion's Club Park.]


The Equality Riders rode into town today on their magnificently painted bus to a grand welcome of cheers and hugs at Church of the Open Arms. Dinner was followed by a presentation that was attended by many members of the GLBT community, including prominent leaders. Earlier in the evening OBU officials discussed tomorrow's direct action with some of the group's leaders. I chatted with the OBU folk I knew, who warmly greeted me when they entered. This is a good sign.

I'm energized! It was powerful to hear these young people's stories. They tell stories of religious abuse that they've received growing up. A number of them attempted suicide. There stories are incredible. I wish more anti-gay people would take the time to actually listen.

Why am I so energized? As a student I was an outspoken and public critic of the school's policy on homosexuality. And we got little attention and no dialogue. I am SO excited that finally it is getting attention and discussion. It's too bad that outsiders generated all this activity.

So I'm ready to return and take a stand where I long ago decided to take a stand. I cant' wait!

And to all my gay alumni friends who live elsewhere and can't be there this week. You'll be with me; deep in my heart.

More on the Equality Ride

Haven Herrin explains why she was arrested at Regent University.

I chose to walk onto campus to tell students at Regent University that the God of their faith does indeed claim them, even if their church does not. Such love should not be met with such denial. . . . [Read More]

Students at Lee University remove anti-gay graffiti painted on the bus. Read More.

Afraid of Power

Afraid of Power
Mark 4:5:1-20
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.