Monday, February 3, 2014

Pigs and Pigeons

It has been way too long since I've posted! Today I preached for our mid-day prayer service, an impossible gospel!  And so I would like to share my preaching here. 

Today's gospel reading was Mark 5:1-20, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, but I also talk about yesterday's gospel, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  Both readings can be found at the USCCB's website.

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The contrast between the Gospel reading from yesterday and that of today is striking.  Yesterday, the infant Jesus was brought to the temple by his parents to fulfill the sacrifice required by the Law.  There in the temple, they met Simeon and Anna, who recognized the greatness of the tiny, helpless infant.

Today, we see the adult Jesus, a strong, miracle-worker, who casts out a legion of demons from a man who had been tormented for a very long time. Instead of being received by the local community with open arms and great praise, Jesus is met with fear and asked to leave.

In both stories, the power of Jesus is recognized; in the temple by the prophet and prophetess; in the field by the unclean spirits of the man possessed.

In the first story, the many people who were gathered at the temple seem to pay no attention to the Holy Family.  Only Simeon and Anna are drawn to the humble trio.

In the second story, news of Jesus’ deed spreads quickly through the land, and the reaction is very different.

What happened here? How can the response be so different? How does healing a man who was clearly a problem in the community cause such a stir?

On the one hand, Simeon’s declaration of God’s goodness seems a little unexpected. He is extolling the grace of God embodied in a helpless infant child of a lowly family from Galilee. What can he see in this child that others cannot?

On the other hand, we have the response of the people of Gerasene, who have long tried to subdue the man who threatened their community.  The Gospel says:
People came out to see what had happened.
As they approached Jesus,
they caught sight of the man who had been possessed by Legion,
sitting there clothed and in his right mind.
And they were seized with fear.
It seems to say that they are seized by fear after seeing the man healed and sane, probably for the first time.  Surely they had been frightened of the man who was kept chained in the cemetery.  Yet, it’s Jesus who brings them fear, Jesus whom they ask to leave the area.  What is the source of their fear?

I think they are afraid of two things: first, the power that Jesus wields in freeing the man from his chains; and second, the change that this action brings about. I can understand being afraid of a power that seems stronger than the demons. However, I would hope that the direction that power took—for the good of the person and of the community—would convince them that it is not something to fear.

The second fear touches closer to home, the fear of change.  Perhaps this community was accustomed to the man in his unapproachable possession.  Perhaps it was easier for them to accept what was familiar, even if it was not good.  How often do we prefer what we know over what we don’t know, even when the status quo is deeply flawed or even evil?  How much effort, faith, and hope does it require to be comfortable with change in our homes and communities—and how much more does it require of us to enact that change ourselves?

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, states that we must be ready for the unpredictable power of God:  “The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.” (22)  He encourages us to seek the good of the people rather than “clinging to our own security.” In living their hope, Simeon and Anna were certainly ready to accept the unexpected fulfillment of God’s word. Living in fear that they will lose their security, the Gerasene community was not.

Perhaps what is most fundamentally different about Simeon and Anna is their life of prayer, preparing them to see and understand what God is accomplishing in their world.  They are filled with the Holy Spirit, who reveals God to them, and offers them encouragement in their long wait for fulfillment.  For us too, a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit in a life of prayer allows us to see the work of God clearly and with hope-filled expectation.  Pope Francis sees the need for what he calls “the deep breath of prayer” in our church and communities.  Resurrection permeates our world, with hope for constant renewal, if only we have the eyes to see it.

These two stories offer us a two-fold path.  We can choose to live in fear, as the people in the Gerasene territory, afraid of change, even change that brings peace and sanity where they were once lacking.

Or we can choose to be like Simeon and Anna, faithfully awaiting the promise of God with hope, our eyes open to see the joy and beauty that each day offers, open to see God’s presence and gift in the world that enters our vision.

Hope or fear: how we choose to live will determine what we see. In hope, we see the light of God’s salvific love; in fear we see nothing but the demons and darkness.