Philosopher and theologian Cornell West once said, “Once we begin to love each other and love others, we have something that is hard to stop because love is not some wayward sentiment. It’s a steadfast commitment to the well-being of others.”
Have you ever thought about love that way? As a commitment to the well-being to others?
It strikes me that, in the stories that we have been discussing these past Sundays, we have heard about love as well-being again and again:
In the story of Tabitha the widow, we learned that she showed her love by making clothing for other widows struggling to get by.
In the story of Lydia, we learn that she reached across social boundaries of ethnicity, gender and class to offer hospitality to Paul and teach us that unity is about listening to those who are different than us and seeing ourselves as kin.
In the stories of resurrection, we have discovered that Jesus reaches into the places of our lives which feel dead and hopeless and raises us to dignity, equality, and well-being.
Through words and actions, Jesus teaches us that compassion, resurrection and kin-dom building are about a steadfast commitment to well-being and wholeness of all people.
Which is striking in light of today’s Scripture.
The text tells us of a person who has been abandoned by his community and put in the land of the dead to wander around the tombs. This person – and this community – is possessed by a legion of demons, demons who cloud over their own belovedness and the belovedness of others, demons who come to them in the form of apathy, fear, isolation, prejudice and hopelessness. When I read this story, I wonder:
Who in this town cares about the possessed person’s well-being?
Who has compassion for his great pain?
Where are the people to pray for him, brings him daily bread and bear witness to his struggle?
Is there anyone in the community who truly sees this man?
As I ponder these questions, I am struck by the absence of the community members in the story. Some people with whom I discussed the Scripture this week found themselves quite angry at the lack of presence of the villagers in the story, because – throughout the entire experience – they don’t do anything helpful to aid this man in his healing.
It’s as if they just look on helplessly.
And yet, I find myself empathizing with the villagers, because I imagine that it breaks their hearts to witness the suffering that this man endures. I imagine that the evil this man experiences stops them in their tracks, making them feel helpless as they wondered what they could possibly do or say. The villagers’ lack of action testifies to the truth that sometimes our grief and heartbreak can paralyze us, even though we hunger deeply for the well-being of ourselves and others. The villagers’ fear after the possessed man is healed testifies to the truth that the unknown can be terrifying and sometimes we would just rather play safe. And stick to what we know.
The villagers’ story reminds of a time in high school when I ventured out of my comfort zone by trying out for the school soccer team. I did it because I loved soccer — there was something about sprinting down the field as defense, with the wind rush through my hair as I sought to out-maneuver the player in front of me that made me come alive.
Still the choice was an intimidating one because there were players who were better than me or cooler than me, but still I showed up because I loved soccer. Try-outs were a multi-day process. The last day arrived and it was the one during which we would find out whether or not we made the team. I suddenly became afraid – terrified that I would get the soul-crushing news that I was not good enough, that I did not make it. Not wanting to hear these words, I decided not to go. I stayed home. Still, the coach called me after try-outs, noting my absence, and asking if I was still interested in joining the team. Convinced that she had called to reject me, I cut my losses and said, no, I am no longer interested.
And that was that.
Later I found out that I would have made it if I had just hung in there, but my fear had paralyzed me, causing to say no to that which I loved and gave me life.
How is it that fear can make us say no to that which we most want?
The experience taught me that, sometimes we are the villagers and fear sneaks up on us, binds us in chains and separates us that which we love. Other times, we are the person possessed by demons, whose pain casts us out into the land of the dead, obscures our gifts, and separates us from the community that we most hunger to belong to.
We are the villagers. We are the possessed person. And it is to all of us that Jesus ministers.
In the Scripture, one of the first ways that Jesus ministers is by asking the person possessed by demons: What is your name?
What is your name?
By asking this question, Jesus creates a safe space for the person – and us – to speak aloud our grief, our pain, our experience of evil and our struggle with demons. In return, this person – who could have responded with silence or a sugar-coated version of his life – simply says: legion. The person responds by tenderly and courageously speaking the truth of the evil that he has witnessed.
Perhaps this naming within the context of safe space is part of the healing process. Perhaps we too are called to bear witness to that which casts us into the land of the dead or holds us hostage in chains of fear. Perhaps we too are called to name the evil in the world that by speaking it aloud it might lose its hold over us.
What is it that we need to name aloud?
What is it that we need to grieve?
What is the evil that we need to denounce?
What strikes me about the naming process in the text is that, by saying the truth of her experience aloud, the person discovers that she is not alone, that even in the depths of her pain and suffering, even in the presence of evil, God is present – loving us and transforming our lives. In that sacred space, the person sees God face to face, and is seen, and the demons of fear and isolation are cast out, tumbling over the cliff, and – at last – the person sees her gifts, her belovedness, and rises up from the land of the dead.
She rises to dignity. She rises to equality. To justice. To compassion. To well-being. Just like the people Jesus raised from the dead, over and over again.
After the person has been made whole, she asks to stay with Jesus, because it is safe and comfortable, but Jesus tells them instead to return to the community to, tell the good news and be restored into relationship. The person is reluctant but Jesus can see that the villagers need them.
Jesus does not give up on the villagers. Instead, Jesus says to this person: Tell the good news. I know it’s scary and that you would rather be a follower, but at this moment you must be a leader. The world needs you. Go.
This story gave me such hope this week as I struggled to find words to speak after the deaths in Orlando. The story taught me that in the moments when we are without words, when grief is liking a heavy blanket making it hard to move, God has not given up on us and sends others to remind us of the Good News, that we might be carried during those moments of heartache.
For, as Jesus reminds us, we are in this together.
I was reminded of that truth as one of my friends said this week, I am struggling with my faith, and another replied, I understand why you might be feeling that way. It’s okay, if you can’t believe right now, I will believe it for you until you are ready to take it upon again.
We are in this together.
I was reminded of that truth as the pastor from Charleston, South Carolina went down to visit the survivors of the Orlando shooting. The anniversary of the Charleston shooting at Mother Emmanuel is coming up this week and the church sough to offer compassion to its kin in Orlando. They urge us all to do an act of kindness and post about it on their Facebook wall because, together, we can change the world.
We are in this together.
I was reminded of that truth as I saw people reaching out to one another this week, particularly those in the Latina/o gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community saying: Are you okay? Are you safe? Is there anything that I can do for you?
I was reminded of that truth as I read a statement this week from the American Baptist Home Mission Society: “We condemn with the strongest language possible whatever ideologies and sentiments contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence against fellow children of God.”
Because we are all in this together.
I was reminded of that truth as read the words of Coretta Scott King uttered after the death of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Though my heart is heavy with grief from having suffered an irreparable personal loss, my faith in the redemptive will of God is stronger today than ever before. This is the time for us to believe in the redemptive will of God. The Love of God even stronger than before. This is the time for us to stand for love even more. To believe even more. To hold, help, and honor the humanity and Imago Dei in all of us even the more.”
My friends, if you have Good News to share, share it, and if you don’t have words because the grief is still too tender. That is okay too. We will believe for one another. And together we will carry each other forward. Like the people of Charleston tenderly caring for the people of Orlando. Like Jesus caring for the person possessed by demons. Like that person caring for her community.
For we belong to one another. And so: We witness to each other’s pain and share our healing, until we too at last find words to speak and go into town to share the Good News. Until then, we carry each other. For if I don’t have the good news to bring, you or some else does. And we’ll keep showing up. And sharing. And witnessing. And loving. Until the whole world is healed.
For once we begin to love each other and love others, we have a power that cannot be stopped. For love is not a wayward sentiment. It’s a steadfast commitment to well-being.