There is, in this morning’s Gospel, a truly terrifying moment. Jesus and his disciples cross over to Gentile country, and the second that Jesus’ sandaled foot hits the ground, he is accosted by a mad man, naked and filthy, with matted hair and wild eyes and skin that carries the stench of death from having lain so long among the tombs. He is wiry as a wolf but his body hums with an uncontrollable strength. He has smashed his shackles and bolted past his guard and now stands with his body pointed at Jesus like an arrow drawn back deep into the bowstring – muscles coiled, mind galloping, the whole of him out of control and threatening.
But this is not the terrifying moment.
When Jesus commands the man’s unclean spirit to be gone, the wild man collapses at Jesus’ feet and screams into his face, What have you to do with me? Jesus asks the demon his name, and the answer drops into the conversation like a boulder – I am Legion. I am not one but many, not many but thousands. I am evil with so many faces you will have a hard time keeping track of me, evil that can stare you in the face while also jumping out at you from over your shoulder. I am evil of such magnitude that I can overwhelm and subsume your entire being, leaving you with no name but mine. I am Legion.
But this is not the terrifying moment.
Jesus, unafraid, continues his conversation with the demons. They seem to realize that they have met their match and beg him not to cast him into the abyss where all things evil are dissolved of their power. Send us into those pigs, they cry – unclean, sure, but better than a watery grave. Jesus complies, and the demons surge out of the man’s body into the herd. The swine go mad. They tear down the hillside, ripping through any part of the crowd that stands in their way. They tumble down to the lake in a mob, and when they reach the shoreline, they just keep running – into the water, tumbling over each other, splashing and flailing and crying out until finally they are gone and the water is still and the air is silent.
But even this is not the terrifying moment.
The terrifying moment comes next. When the limp man is lifted from the ground, carried under the shade of a tree, washed, comforted, and dressed, and when the swineherds bring crowds from the town to see what has happened, and when those crowds see the wild man sitting peacefully at the feet of his teacher, clothed and in his right mind, the people find themselves terrifically afraid. They turn to Jesus, this man who had just faced down an army of darkness and cast it into the sea, and they ask him to please, please, just go away. And so Jesus gets into the boat and leaves. He just leaves.
And that is terrifying.
It’s terrifying because Jesus lets them make the wrong decision. He knows that they are afraid, he knows that they’re acting blindly and stupidly, he knows that he has more good to offer them than they could ever desire or imagine, and yet he leaves them. He sees them reject him, and he allows himself to be rejected. He gets in his boat, and he leaves. He doesn’t stand and argue with them about why they’re being ridiculous. He doesn’t cajole them with parables or prayers. He doesn’t wow them with another miracle to prove he has their best interest at heart. He just leaves, leaves a hole where there could have been healing, a void of hopelessness that evil will be only too happy to fill up once again. He walks away, leaving them with a herd of dead pigs bloating in the lake and a swarm of fear in their hearts. They say no, and he says okay. And that’s terrifying.
It’s terrifying, and it happens in our world all the time. We reject Christ, and Christ allows himself to be rejected. We choose evil, and Christ allows us to choose it. Who knows why we do it. We choose evil because it’s familiar (better the Legion we know than the Savior we don’t). We choose it because it’s easy, or because we are so afraid of change that we’d rather die than try something new. We choose evil for any of a multitude of reasons, and Christ lets us choose it. Look around. We live in a world that is flooded with evil – evil choices, evil people, evil words, evil laws – because Christ allows us to reject him, because, if we want to, Christ will let us swim in the darkest possible waters of fear and death. And that is scary as hell.
It’s also necessary. Because Jesus will not force our choices, force our love, for love that is forced is not love. Jesus does not want our fealty out of fear. Jesus does not want to entertain us into following him or bribe us to choose him. Jesus wants more than half-hearted, wrong-hearted, or closed-hearted disciples. Jesus wants us to choose him for no less a reason than that we have realized that to truly live, we have no other choice. Jesus wants us to love him because we love him. He will always be ready to receive us – the prophet Isaiah tells us that God is always ready to be found, crying out “Here I am!” and holding out his hands for us all the day long – but he will not grab us and force us to come to him any more than we would force a flower to turn its face to the sun.
Now that may sound a little bleak, but let me tell you, there is good news here. First, it’s important to remember that Jesus is just the tiniest bit of a cheat. Because when by him all things were made, the eternal Word of God planted the seeds of love deep within our being. God made us to love. Loving one another and God feels right, feels like home, because our hearts were created with an infinite capacity to love and the eternal longing to do so. And so Jesus knows that there is no need to force our hearts; they are already his.
But there is more good news for us here. Because you’ll remember that in the Gospel, when Jesus gets into his boat and leaves the crowd, he does not leave them alone. He leaves them in the hands of the very man he had just healed; he leaves this man, washed and healed and saved, to stand before the people and continually proclaim the good news. Return to your home, Jesus tells him, and declare how much God has done for you. And that is exactly what the man does – he goes back into the city and tells everyone he sees that he has been healed, that God is here, that God is love, that God is good, that God is making all things new. Choose God, he tells the people. Turn your hearts back to him and find your home. Love the one who made you, he cries, because the one who made you made you to love him.
Jesus gives this man back to his people – just as Jesus gives us to our world. This man’s work is our work too; to proclaim – to shout out! – the good news. This is what you and I have got to do. We have been washed and healed and saved by the merits of our baptism, and each time we come into this church, each time we hold out our hands for holy bread, Jesus then sends us away saying, Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. Preach the Gospel.
We live in a world where evil is legion, where evil has so many names and faces that it is hard for us to keep track of them. Evil is hate speech, evil is prejudice and fear, evil is bigotry spoken into microphones, evil is bullets fired into bodies at a nightclub, evil is apathy in the face of stupid, senseless tragedy. Evil is legion. But this is not a terrifying moment. Because you and I stand together in the world as the body of Christ. You and I are the baptized, who bring the very light of Christ into the world. You and I and all the whole Church can face down this evil without fear, because we know that in the presence of Christ, even Legion has no power. We are baptized! We have a voice to preach the Gospel, and we must use it. For if we did, if we all preached the good news of Christ crucified in word and action, we would send the voices of evil screaming into the abyss.
This is our solemn and holy task. To quote the old speech by Bishop Frank Weston, this is our present duty. We have got our baptisms, we have got our Mass. We have got our prayer and our service and our outreach. Now go out into the world and preach the Gospel. In the face of hatred, preach love. In the face of intolerance, preach mercy. In the face of despair, preach hope. Preach peace, preach peace, preach peace. And the God of peace, who made you and saved you and marked you as his own, will be with you.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
19 June 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia