Jan. 19, 2020 -- Telling a Bold Story

"Telling a Bold Story" Rev. Linda Kuhn, Worship Leader

First Presbyterian Church, Pardeeville, WI 1-19-2020 Pardeeville

Scripture reading: Mark 5: 1-20; Ephesians 3: 14-21

 

The tabloid headlines could have read: "Local Crazy Man now in Right Mind", or "Suicidal Pigs Throw Themselves Off Cliff", or "Volunteers Needed for Major Environmental Clean-up". There is much in the Bible story this morning that rings of sensationalism. It's very dramatic. It's the incredible story of a very disturbed man who is healed by Jesus. In ancient days, all types of physical and mental illness were seen as caused by evil spirits. The man lived in the local cemetery, likely cave graves, ran around naked, howling day and night, mutilating himself with stones. He was out of his mind. He was considered violent. The local townspeople had tried to subdue him. They had caught him a number of times and chained him up - whether for his protection, their protection, or a sad comment of how we as human treat those with mental illness. But he seemed to have superhuman strength and each time broke free to rant and rave.

 

Jesus comes to town. He and the spirit tormenting this man have a showdown. The spirit names itself legion, meaning "many," and in the process of healing, Jesus sends this spirit into a nearby herd of pigs and 2,000 of them throw themselves off a cliff and into the sea. The man is freed of his torment, appears sane, civilized. And most of all grateful to Jesus.

 

It is indeed a story with sensationalized elements. Jesus didn't usually stray into Gentile territory, but he did in this story. He heals a Gentile; a Gentile is a recipient of God's power; a Gentile is a missionary. The clue about the Gentile connection is that they were raising pigs, something unthinkable in Jewish country with prohibitions against eating pork. Bible stories are often constructed with many layers of meaning and symbolism. This story has some not so subtle political undertones and commentary, with a reference likely to the powerful Roman Legion that occupied and terrorized the territory. They were demonic - if you will - and likely all the folk secretly wished that the soldiers could just be herded off a cliff and disappear from their lives.

 

But I'd like us to pay more attention this morning to where the story ends up. The townspeople find this man clothed and in his right mind after his encounter with Jesus. They are astounded – even afraid – of the power that has wrought such changes in this man. But rather than applauding and embracing Jesus, healer and miracle-worker, asking him to stick around town for a while, the townsfolk politely, but nervously, ask Jesus to leave town, the sooner the better.

 

And this man wants to leave with Jesus, too. He runs up to Jesus as he is getting into the boat, getting ready to leave, begging him, pleading with him, to be allowed to come along. Healed, released from a world of torment, he is profoundly grateful. He wants to follow Jesus.

 

  1. you would have thought Jesus would have been delighted to have this man along with him, someone so convicted and enthusiastic. So many times Jesus called to folks who would not follow, who didn't want to give up something, who didn't want to be bothered, folks who had too many other excuses. Here was a man willing, devoted, passionately wanting to follow him and be of service.

 

But instead, Jesus says to the man, "Go home to your own people and tell them what the Lord has done for you and how God has shown you mercy.” You know, that was probably the hardest job Jesus could have given him. In many ways, it would have been much easier on this man had he been allowed to leave the neighborhood where folks had known him for years, where he had been branded as the local crazy man. He had embarrassed and humiliated himself in front of them. They knew him and his crazy past. They would be wary of him. It would take a lot of time and effort to get them to see he was a changed man. It could be frustrating. These were the people to whom this man now needed to find a way to proclaim God's mercy and grace and power and what a difference it had made in his life. But he did and so the scripture story ends: "everyone was amazed."

 

Today is your annual meeting, a day to review the past year to see where you're at and to look toward the future. You have choices about how you do that review, what lenses you use to see and evaluate and plan ahead, what criteria you use. We use to statistics - how many members, average worship attendance, Sunday school attendance, budget, endowment funds, programs, etc. Our Presbytery and General Assembly want this information for a snapshot picture. In one sense, it is important to have a clear look at reality and trends and where your resources are and are not any more, but these statistical analyses are only a part of the picture, aren't they? How do you evaluate faithfulness? what about discipleship and growing in faith? ministry? mission? How are you - like this man in the story - sharing in words and deeds the story of the love and grace of God and its power to transform lives?

 

Dave and I often quote a church consultant by the name of Gil Rendle who we think has a lot of wisdom about how to lead and equip and empower our congregations to face these days of cultural change-- about the need to remain focused on mission rather than give into the temptation and seduction to focus on institutional survival. He comments that too many of our churches these days tell stories that are weak and depleted and tired and whiny. Stories that are too safe. We need instead, he says, to reach within, to tell bolder stories in words and deeds of God's power at work among us that can give us the ability to risk, to change, to adapt, to experiment, to act with courage. When Dave and I get asked to work as consultants with congregations that are feeling depleted and exhausted and wonder about their future, we tell them we come with no crystal ball or quick fixes. Instead, we ask them this question in so many words; Identify the experiences when you have known God's power within and among you in ways you did not imagine except in retrospect? We give them time to think about it. If they can't come up with anything, then maybe it is time to help them shift to hospice mode for the congregation. But if they can, they will begin to tell those stories and experiences and their eyes will light up and there's energy in the room that's almost palpable. And we say to them -- these are the experiences and situations you need to nurture and expand, this is where you need to be spending your time and energy and limited resources, not on those pancake breakfasts and strawberry festivals and pastie fundraisers that were such a big deal in the past but are now wearing you out.

 

One of the biggest challenges we face in the church these days is a shifting of a paradigm from the so-called Golden Age of Christendom where mission and witness happened over there and overseas, to realizing we are instead situated as mission outposts on the edge of a frontier, a frontier that begins at our doorstep, as soon as we leave the church. We live in a different time, in a different culture, no more the Golden Age, but rather in an increasingly secularized world that knows less and less about God and what it is we believe as Christians. We live in a world less and less aware of the power of the grace of God working in people to transform lives. And frankly, we have become less and less skilled or practiced at telling that story. It gets complicated for those of us in mainline churches because we flounder with ways to witness and share our faith in ways that feel authentic. I don't know about you, but there are so many times when someone forswears church or God because of a bad experience or bad theology they've been taught, or bad behavior they've seen perpetrated in the name of Jesus, and I'm ready to pipe in, "O, I'm not one of those Christians."

 

Our style is probably not to hand out tracts door to door nor stand at the street corner preaching nor buttonholing our neighbors to ask “Are you saved?” It’s probably not shouting from the pews or dancing in the aisles. But we can’t use our need to find our own authentic ways to share our faith as an excuse not to do it at all. We need to find ways to show how the power of God’s grace has changed our lives, maybe first by sharing it among ourselves and then with others.

 

I am convinced that God has not given up on the church in these days. But I do think God is preparing us for a new day by preparing us for transformation. In general, our churches are leaner with people and money and resources. Perhaps God is paring us down to let go of what holds us back, the institutional trappings, and getting us down to fightin' weight so to speak like in a boxing ring, where we're lighter on our feet, more adaptable, more focused, more flexible, more able to be responsive to the situations at hand. It can involve letting go of the signs of what we thought was important to make a church a church - be it a Sunday school or choir or full-time pastor or big budget or full pews or even a building. God might instead be reducing us to the essentials, helping us figure out what do we rely on? What do we believe? What do we stand for? What is the mission and ministry to which we are being called? Where is the power of God at work among us? What is the good news we have to share? How have we been touched by the power of God? Do we treat each other with love? Do we share that love? If a visitor sits down with us, will they know this is a place where God is alive? Not everyone wants simplistic or trite or formulated ways to come to God; they want to know if they can know God by knowing you.

 

So in your annual meeting this morning I would encourage you discover those bold stories that affect your choices, your priorities, your attitude. How have you been touched by the power of God and how are you sharing it? - not so much to toot your own horn but to give glory to God? Pay attention to these places, these programs, these experiences, and celebrate these, build on these, keep putting your energy there, share these with your neighborhood. Like the crazy man of Gerasene, find ways to share the good news of what is happening to and through and by you in response to God's mercy. These are the stories of power and growth and transformation. These are the stories of faithfulness. Be amazed. Be amazing, for and in the name of Christ. Amen.

 

 

 
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