January 27, 2008

"They Came To See For Themselves"
Scripture: Matthew 8:28-34
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  Several days after some particularly violent storms passed through the Tampa area, the beaches were covered with beautiful shells kicked up from the bottom by the storms. So we grabbed a plastic bag and began to scrounge the shoreline finding treasure after treasure. Many of the shells had live animals still in them, so we rescued those stranded characters by tossing them back into the ocean. When we had a bag full of shells we decided it was time to go swimming in our heated pool back at Holiday Villas. We set the bag of shells by our deck chairs and swam for quite a while. It was after we got out of the pool that we discovered a passenger in the bag that had been hiding deep in one of the shells. There, trying to make an escape, was a baby octopus on top of the bag of shells searching a way out of the bag. It was about 8 inches from the tip of one tentacle to the tip of the opposite tentacle. It was the closest I’d ever come to such a creature and I stood amazed at the complexity of its tentacles and the lump of a feature called its head. Well of course we couldn’t keep something like that a secret and called people around the pool area over to see such a sight. All the way back down to the beach we let people see what we had, then we threw him back in the ocean as well hoping he would swim far out to sea before he grew up. Some reacted with curiosity and interest, others didn’t want to have anything to do with the creature even though it was little. The reaction to the octopus was quite mixed.

  Jesus had caused a commotion when he cast the demons out into the swine and the swine had run into the sea. And of course the crowds gathered to see what had happened for themselves. Now some were probably amazed and appreciated what had happened and perhaps even understood the enormity of the event, but for the most part it seemed that a great amount of consternation was stirred up in the townspeople. They did not want anything like that to happen again. Perhaps the economics of the townspeople might be upset, or superstitious feelings could not be overcome. Whatever the reason, Jesus caused a stir among the people and some very negative reactions. They wanted him away from their town.

  But healing was what Jesus did. In many of his healings we read of the reaction of the ones healed, but also have the undertones of the ones who cannot accept Jesus’ authority over issues of healing and even over death. Jesus got mixed reviews from the crowds and from the authorities. And it was the negative reactions that finally seemed to overcome the good that Jesus was doing. The people who disapproved or feared Jesus were the ones who seemed to win in the end when Jesus was crucified. The power that Jesus had was feared in part because it changed the status quo. In the story of the demoniacs and the swine we do not hear about the reactions of the two who were finally freed from their demon possession. There is no rejoicing or praising God noted. They were very marginal people living on the outskirts of town. But we do hear about the reactions from the townspeople and their reaction had nothing to do with those who had been healed, only with their own status and economic situation. They ask him to leave.

  I wonder what happens when Jesus upsets our status quo, when following Jesus means giving up our way of living life, interrupting our set ways of doing things or asking us to go against the flow of family, friends, or co-workers, in other words, doing the unpopular thing, looking or acting differently, being generous in the face of our own economic difficulties. What happens when we are caught carrying or reading the Bible while others are reading more popular literature? What happens when we are praying while others are celebrating or partying. The truth is, Jesus gets just as mixed reaction in our times as he did when he cast those demons out. We are becoming a society where it is increasingly unpopular to be a good Christian, where one who believes and follows is considered odd. But we are also a society that is looking more and more to volunteerism, to giving to the poor, to donating to food closets and charitable organizations, but without the Christian identity attached to it. We want to be good people, but we don’t seem to want the obligations that go with following Christ or the identity of being known as Christian.

  But Jesus doesn’t fade with the popular trends of the times. Jesus still heals and makes people whole. Jesus still invites people into life giving relationship. Jesus will not be silenced by the crowds that wish he would just disappear. Jesus is active and alive and changing lives in this generation just as much as in any generation. And people are asked to respond with changes in their lives and living patterns. Will we invite Jesus in with courage and enthusiasm and then show others the treasure we have found. Or will we ask Jesus to go away because it is too difficult or unpopular or economically unfeasible to do what Jesus wants?

  If we want Jesus to go away, Jesus will still work in this world to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, if not in us then in someone who will accept him and work with him. And he will continue to work in all who accept him to bring restoration and wholeness to this world. And when all is said and done, what good will maintaining our status quo be? Those structures that maintain selfish desires and accumulation of material goods will not make it. Those who have worked to bring about the Kingdom of God will be prepared to fully appreciate living in it.

  We make choices in life. We choose how we will act, what guiding principles we will follow, what ways we will go with the flow or go against the status quo. We choose who we will follow, what voice will be the dominant, influential one in our lives and how we will follow that voice. We can beg Jesus to leave because it is too hard to follow him, or we can invite him into our lives and let his voice be the one we follow faithfully. But, no matter what we choose, Jesus will not go away. He will simply get into a boat and go elsewhere to do his work and we will be left the poorer for it. All our “easy living” will not produce the peace and joy that comes with following Jesus.