“How to make your relationship with God exciting” was the title of the seminar. I had to admit, I was intrigued. As the youth group counselor to a cabin of Junior High girls up at Forest Home Christian Conference center, I was expected to spend time with the girls, including attending a morning seminar with them.
Secretly, I was glad this was the one they had picked. Because the thing was, though I was supposed to be their counselor, some sort of Christian authority figure, I felt as though my own relationship with God, my own faith, had gone, well, had gone a bit stale. It twas not that I didn’t believe anymore. Belief wasn’t the issue. Of course I believed. But it just felt as though belief was not enough. I wanted something more than just belief, as if following Jesus were just a matter of being able to check off the belief box on a standardized form. I wanted something that mattered, something that made a difference in my life. And it seemed like so much of ‘being a good Christian’ was always presented as a list of Do’s and Don’ts. Well, actually, as a list of Don’ts. The list changed depending on the age group. For the junior highers it was often along the lines of “don’t swear, don’t smoke, don’t drink…” For the more mature it might be more like “don’t cheat in business, don’t lie when doing your taxes, don’t covet your neighbor’s property value…”
So I was actually more than a little eager to hear what the speaker would say, to hear the answer. Of course, it didn’t come until the very end. “The way to make your relationship with God exciting,” the speaker began, and the rest of us all seemed to hold our breath in unison, “the way to make your relationship with God exciting is to tell your friends.” The deflated exhale was audible and was reflected on the disappointned faces as I looked around the room.
You’re kidding me, right? That’s the secret? Tell your friends? How in the world is that supposed to make things more exciting? “Hey, Bobby, guess what? Don’t swear, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t cheat on your taxes…” It hardly seemed like good news.
I can imagine that for the people in the land of the Gerasenes in our passage this morning Jesus’ visit hardly seemed like good news. Sure, that crazy guy who used to run around the graveyard seemed to be cleaned up, but what about the pigs?! 2000 pigs was a lot of bacon to be floating in the Sea of Galilee. It was economically devastating, losing all those pigs. So much for being able to send your kids to college, or even being able to feed them dinner tonight, for that matter.
But as bad as the loss of the pigs was, and it was bad, even more disturbing was the story that the swineherds were telling everyone they could find, running all throughout the town and even out into the country. It seemed that the disturbing news had spread so fast that there wasn’t anyone in the region who hadn’t heard about the ‘confrontation’ between this Jesus and, if the swineherds could be believed, not just one demon, which was bad enough, but an entire legion of them. Now that you mention it, what was a Jew doing on this side of the sea anyway? This was not Jewish territory. This was Gentile turf. Why in the world had he bothtered to come here in the first place? Why couldn’t he just stay on his own side of the tracks?
Sure, it was no picnic living for so many years with that crazy guy running around the tombs naked. But the thing is, he pretty much kept to himself out there. Granted, sometimes when the night was very still you could hear him howling out there. And if you did happen to venture into the area you had to be careful lest he swing those chains and throw rocks at you. But at least then you could keep track of him. You could hear him coming. At least when the legion was in him, you knew where it was. Sure, it was good for the man that he seemed to be all cleaned up now, but what about the legion? Now not only had it driven all the pigs into the sea, but it was apparently on the loose as well.
Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
No wonder they were afraid. No wonder they asked Jesus to leave town, to go back over to his own side of the sea. Wouldn’t you?
I had to admit, I was pretty excited. In fact, I had flown across the country in order to be there in time to attend. This past October on a rainy night in an old stone church in New England I heard bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert speak to a packed church. Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love has topped the NY Times bestseller list for close to a year, and has developed quite a following along the way. She was invited to be a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, and was so well received that she was invited back for a second time. The book, autobiographical, begins with Gilbert crumpled on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, realizing that her life has fallen apart. From there it is a story of her search to find both herself and God along her journey from brokenness to new life, from despair to wholeness. Though the 850 people had gathered together to hear Gilbert’s presentation in a church, it was hardly your typical church service. It was on a Friday night, for starters. The church was packed to capacity, something I noticed was not true when I returned for worship the following Sunday morning. Some of the people there had even come up from New York City, a three hour drive, just to hear Gilbert speak. But what was most noticably different from most Sunday mornings was that as Elizabeth Gilbert got up to speak the energy and excitement filling that New England stone cathedral was so intense as to be almost palpable. I was amazed.
What had drawn those people to that place? It was obviously not mere information that they sought—practially all of them came to the event with Gilber’ts book in hand. They had alread read her story. It was more than information they sought. Who would brave Friday afternoon traffic all the way from New York City simply for information? What they sought was experience, they wanted to see for themselves, to hear for themselves from this woman whose life had been so completely transformed. What was so compelling about the evening was not so much the words that Gilbert spoke, though they were, as you would expect from an author, witty, insightful, and inspiring. But more than her words it was her presence that was so striking. Here was a woman whose life had been changed, and it radiated from her.
The most compelling emotion along the Sea of Galilee that day was fear. But while the neighbors were desperately begging Jesus to leave town, to go away, the man who had been possessed by the legion begged Jesus to go with him. Do you blame him? How would you like to try to fit back into society, after all that time spent roaming naked in the grave yard? It might be kind of tough to get a good job with shackle breaking and stone bruising the top skills on your resume. Can you imagine walking into town, the stares that you would get? The wispers that would happen behind your back? There he goes. Careful, don’t get too close. It’s too early to know if he’s really okay. But more than the difficult of staying around, if your life had been healed in such a dramatic way, wouldn’t you want to go with Jesus? If nothing more, just to be around him? Of course he wanted to go with Jesus.
But this is the only time in any of the gospel stories that Jesus refuses. Normally Jesus is asking people to come, follow me. But not this time. He refuses. Flat out. No conditions, no maybe. The man asked to go with Jesus and Jesus said no.
And Jesus said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
The secret, apparently, is to tell your friends.
It wasn’t until my encounter with a Blockbuster video ad campaign that I finally began to understand. If you’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of a Blockbuster video store I am sure you have heard the good news that they are proclaiming, “The End of Late Fees.” As I thought about it, something didn’t quie sit right. After weeks of this strange nagging feeling every time I saw one of their signs, I finally realized what it was that had been bothering me. They were the ones who started late fees in the first place, now they wanted me to be grateful that they were taking them away? It was like having a lifeguard throw your child into the deep end of the pool so that he could be a hero as he rescued the child from nearly drowning. The End of Late Fees was not good news. It seemed more like a manipulative ploy to gain converts.
And then it hit me. Is that how the good news, the real stuff, the stuff that we claim to be about as followers of Jesus, is that how it ends up sounding to people outside the church? Less like good news and more like a manipulative ploy to gain converts?
It’s no secret that church attendence in the United States has declined significantly in the past years. The reasons as to why this is the case are hotly debated. Meanwhile the shelves of Christian bookstores are overflowing with the latest technique or tool to help churches reverse the tide. Maybe contemporary worship is what we need. Maybe we should meet on Sunday night instead of Sunday morning. Maybe if we dressed casually instead of in coats and ties that would attrack more people. You know how alienating ties can be. Maybe if we built a new building, maybe then they would come back.
Jack Haberer, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook wrote recently in an editorial:
Long identified with the majority population, long comfortable in our cultural surroundings, we are longtime inheritors of the faith of our parents, grandparents and their progenitors; most of us don’t share the conviction of the converts or the passion of the newly persuaded. What can we do, where can we go, to break the cycle of mediocrity, of mere intellectual assent, of lukewarm believing?
If the secret really is to tell your friends, then what, exactly is it that we are we telling them? Good news! Don’t swear, don’t smoke don’t drink? Don’t lie, don’t cheat on your taxes, don’t covet your neighbor’s property value? If that’s the good news that we are proclaiming, no wonder people would rather spend a Sunday morning drinking coffee and lesirely reading the LA Times or going for a hike or a bike ride to enjoy the beauty of creation.
I have a friend who has recently volunteered on one of the presidential campaigns. Her job is to call people from a list and try to convince them to vote for her candidate. “I don’t know everything the candidate stands for,” she confided in me, “so how am I possibly supposed to convince people?” I wonder if that is not the same problem that we have in the church. I don’t know enough theology to tell someone about Jesus. I don’t really know how it all works, I’m not trained, you know. The thought of sharing what you believe can be intimidating.
But what did Jesus tell the man who had been possessed by demons? Go home and tell your friends the Four Spiritual Laws by which they may be saved? Go home and tell your friends how to live good Christian lives? Go home and tell your friends about theology?
No, Jesus told the man, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”
How much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you.
That was what made Elizabeth Gilbert’s testimony, for that is what it was, so powerful that rainy October night. She was not there to convert or cajole or convince. She was not trying to win anyone over to her beliefs. She was simply sharing her story, admitting her brokenness and telling what the Lord had done for her and what mercy he had shown her.
Author Shane Claiborne says that “most good things have been said far too often and just need to be lived.”
Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
But the man possessed by demons went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
Did you catch that? They would not listen to Jesus, but they would listen to this man. Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus returns to the region of the Decapolis, to the very same people who begged him to leave. And he is greeted enthusiastically by the people. Not only had this man’s story spread, but it had made a difference.
I actually don’t think that speaker to the junior high summer camp seminar was wrong. The secret to a vibrant life with God is in telling your friends, but moreso it is in what you have to tell them. In the case of Elizabeth Gilbert and the man possessed by demons it is literally a transformation from brokenness to new life.
Our world longs for new life, for transformation. No wonder people are left hungry when we the church offer them our latest attempts at meeting their needs by changing worship styles or appearing more casual or building facilities.
Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.
The answer, you know, is to tell your friends.