In the gospel’s opening scene this morning, Jesus has gone mad. That’s what we’re told. Or, in the customary restraint of the Revised Standard and King James versions, he is “beside himself.” He’s crazy. They think he is. His family starts to wonder. His friends think he’s in cahoots with the devil. There’s whispering behind his back.
That Jesus’s friends think he is crazy comes as an unexpected, maybe pleasant, surprise for most of us. Be honest, some of you had given up hope for a faith this interesting! To Jesus’s family and friends, however, Jesus is not merely interesting. Jesus is frightening.
But presumably this is the same Jesus about whom we rightly learned to sing as kids, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” Hardly sounds fear-inspiring.
The troubled reactions of Jesus’ family and friends invite us to peel back the photoshop filters of faith with which we sometimes paint our Jesus blue eyed, blonde haired, and more or less like us. Jesus is strange. Moreover, Jesus is not just strange to our contemporary, 21st century, eyes and ears. His own family finds him difficult.
What did they see? What have we missed? Why all the worry and fear from the kinfolk this morning? What has Jesus done up to now, to make the people think he’s crazy?
It must have been good. Terrifying and good. Fire from the sky, talking animals, unicorns, and dragons. Some cross between Mad Max and The Exorcist. I bet it was wild.
So we pick up the Bible; we flip back a few pages.
Huh. Just before they call him a mad man, Jesus calls some disciples. Pretty ordinary stuff. Twelve friends to drag along for the ride. I mean, they were an odd group, sure, but “crazy”? What came before that?
Before his family calls him crazy and before he calls some friends to follow him, Jesus gathers a large crowd. Fills the church up on Sunday. So to speak. Strange, maybe, for a rural preacher from the country, still short of amazing. Hardly crazy.
At the start of the chapter, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Ah! Here we go. People hear about the hand, which explains the large crowd, and some of the ones in the large crowd, coming to Jesus for healing, have unclean spirits, we’re told.
Even weirder, the spirits know him. No one else in Mark’s gospel knows him, but these unclean spirits know him. They call him God’s Son.
Okay, that’s strange.
Still, he’s casting the spirits out and healing the people caught up by demons. That’s a good thing, right? Yet the people here are only presented as fearful, where we might expect them to be hopeful. Or, at the very least relieved. Why be afraid of the healer? The line between fear and hope, it seems, is thin.
I think it is sometimes the same way with us. Caught up by demons. Met by Jesus. Presented with the impossible possibility that we might be made whole; that, through the waters of baptism, rhythms of Word and Sacrament, and the life of the way of the cross, more is possible. I want to be hopeful, but still I am afraid. Sometimes, like Jesus’s neighbors, I am even afraid of the One who gives me hope. It is a vulnerable thing to take even small steps in the direction of hope.
My high school history teacher liked to say all the time, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not why they build ships.” I suspect that this saying needed saying because it is a scary thing to risk open waters. The same waters that hold great promise are uncertain - and the harbor, with no great promise of hope, is at least predictable. It’s the dilemma Peter faces, a few chapters on, when Jesus walks on the water and invites Peter out; it’s Peter’s fear of the waves combined with the stability and his trust of the boat. It’s only a dilemma because Jesus is on the open waters. Eventually, of course, Peter steps out into life.
It’s funny the things we’ll fear and the things we’ll choose not to fear.
Two chapters after Jesus’s friends call for his impromptu psych evaluation, Jesus is on the other side of the lake, and he comes across a man possessed by a legion of demons. The man comes out of the tombs and he’s covered with chains. Mind you, the demons didn’t cover him with chains. His neighbors did, in an effort to control him, to lock him up. “Subdue him,” is the word they use. So the man rattles his chains around in the tombs, howling at night and cutting himself on the stones. Homeless. Incarcerated in the prison of his soul, which the people around him gladly decorate with more chains.
But no one is afraid.
Then: this man meets Jesus, the demons go and drown themselves in some pigs at the bottom of a lake, the demons are gone, the man is free, finally, from the shackles on his hands and feet; he’s “in his right mind.” NOW the people get fearful - afraid - and beg Jesus to leave. That’s crazy!
Who knows, though. Maybe the pigs were a loss to the local economy. Maybe, now that the man is in his right mind again, folks will worry that there aren’t enough jobs. That he’ll come after their’s. Maybe Jesus inadvertently exposed the hidden ways in which the life of the town was built on its demons. Maybe it’s the story of Genesis, the serpent, and the apple all over again: maybe we people, humankind, aren’t as good at hiding from God as we thought. What if, more than anything else, you and I are afraid of being caught - of God’s catching us? What if we’d rather not be healed at all than to be found out to be sick, to be found in need of help and healing?
A friend of mine one time confessed that she could wrap her head around unconditional love; she just didn’t want it. “I want God to love me because I’m the best one,” she said. I’ve never met anyone since who was willing to say what my honest friend said, you know, out loud. And I’ve never met anyone since - including myself - who didn’t, for at least a little bit of each day, live out in their lives what my honest friend said.
The people weren’t afraid when they crucified Jesus, hurling insults as they hung the Son of God on a cross. They were afraid when he rose, three days later, to meet them: when God’s love for God’s people defeated their sad attempt to be refused.
It is funny what we’ll fear and what we’ll choose not to fear. If the line between fear and hope is thin, the name of the line is trust, especially the trust that we can be truthful with God. No more hiding.
I wonder: what are three of your biggest fears in the week to come? Maybe they don’t involve God at all. Even so, maybe especially so, I wonder what it would mean to believe that God’s love for you is more true of you than your very worst fears come to life. I wonder how it could feel to more fully trust that the hope and freedom of the ones for whom Jesus became strange to his own family to heal - and to forgive - is hope and freedom also for you. I wonder what it looks like to live, together, as if you can lose nothing that would mean the loss of God’s love, in Christ Jesus, for you.
*shrugs* Crazy, I know.