Do me a favor. Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine something with me.
It is a dark and stormy night. The clouds obscure the moon and the stars. The lights from town are off in the distance. The rain is falling in sheets. You can barely see your hand in front of your face. And any reasonable person would be at home, in front of the fire, safe and dry, with a good book and a cup of tea.
But you had some errand in the countryside, and your car got stuck in the mud, and no reasonable person is going to stop by to help you.
So here you are, hurrying along the road, hunched over with your coat pulled up over your head, soaked through and annoyed, wishing you were home, cursing the rain and the night and the mud that sucks at your shoes.
And the lightning flashes. And you see that you are passing the cemetery.
And the rational part of your mind knows that’s fine. You mutter to yourself a little, “It’s just a cemetery. It’s a little creepy, but it’s perfectly fine. Nothing has ever really jumped out. There are no monsters under the bed. There are no monsters in the closets. There is nothing scary in the cemetery.”
And the other part of your mind… the one that was forged in the fires of the ancestral world, where there are spirits in the night; or on the plains of the Serengeti, where lions lurk behind the umbrella thorns… that part of your mind says, “It’s not a cemetery. It’s a graveyard.”
And it starts telling you the story. “Y’know there’s a man who lives in there, among the headstones and mausoleums. And he runs through the graveyard, howling and screaming and gibbering like mad, cutting himself with stones and eating the creepy crawly things. And he’s strong. People have tied him up and he just breaks the ropes; people have chained him up and he just breaks the chains. And he’s probably right behind you, hand reaching out, claws and blood.”
And you pull your coat tighter and start walking faster and start looking around.
It’s a cemetery. It’s a graveyard. It’s a cemetery. It’s a graveyard. It’s a cemetery. It’s a GRAVEYARD!
And you hear a howl in the distance and the lightning flashes and you SEE. HIS. FACE!
AND YOU RUN!!!
You can open your eyes now.
I have heard that the most common commandment in the Bible—the thing that angels keep telling people… the thing that God keeps telling people… the thing that Jesus keeps telling people—is, “Do not be afraid.”
I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve never counted. But I know that it’s good advice. Do not be afraid; most of the time, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
That’s true in a lot of ways. I’m going to focus on just one. Because it’s important.
I couldn’t find stats for the last few years, but the crime rate in the United States has been dropping steadily for about 30 years. Violent crime rates and property crime rates are much lower today than they were in the early ‘90s. And we don’t know why.
Some people say that it’s because there are more police and we’re imprisoning more people and there are more surveillance cameras around. Other people say it’s because we’re eating less lead than we used to and income has been going up and more people are immigrating to the United States (because immigrants, documented or not, are less likely to commit crimes than people who were born here).
And I know that sounds strange: crime has been going down and we don’t know why. In any given year, most Americans think that the crime rate is going up. And there are people who are in the business of telling us to be afraid… and we respond with fear.
There are people in the business of telling us to be afraid. Last month, there was a meeting at a church in Bettendorf where presenters told people, “You are all victims of illegal aliens” and “The person sitting next to you could be a member of MS-13” and “All you have to do is look at those neighborhoods in Chicago.”
There are people in the business of telling us to be afraid. I’ve seen the trailer that shows you all the places ways that your kids are hiding drugs. I’ve heard the lectures about how legalizing marijuana—even just a little bit—will destroy society.
There are people in the business of telling us to be afraid. In my very first sermon as your pastor, I told you that one of my biggest fears—the thing I think about every time I hear about something like it in the news—is that I will get a call about a mass shooting across the street from this church. And I have been told that the only way to prevent that is to get rid of the guns… or get a whole lot more of them.
There are people in the business of telling us to be afraid. And the truth is, sometimes at least, we like our fear. We cling to our fear. We find comfort in our fear.
Our fears are legion. Our fears are insidious. And, sometimes at least, we love them.
In our reading this morning, Jesus meets the man from the graveyard. And he does what Jesus does. The man is full of unclean spirits. There are so many that they call themselves Legion. And Jesus commands them to leave the man. And they do. They go into a herd of pigs and rush the pigs down the bank and into the sea.
And then three things happen.
First, the swineherds run off and tell everyone what just happened.
Hey! You know that guy in the graveyard? The one who wailed and howled and cut himself? The one who ropes couldn’t bind? The one who snapped chains in two? He’s fine now! Some guy showed up and made him better. Also, all my pigs ran into the sea. Are you hiring?
Then, the people come to the seashore. They see Jesus. They see the man who they had feared. And he is fine. He is sitting there… clothed and in his right mind. And the people who see what happened tell the story. And then all of these people—everyone but the man from the graveyard—turn to Jesus, the one who exorcised the legion, and say, “Get out!”
The people come to the seashore and they see the object of their fear—the man from the graveyard; the man who has made them all walk faster, and pull their coats tighter, and run—next to Christ. And he’s not scary anymore.
The thing that brought them together in fear is gone. It’s not even a thing anymore. It’s a person. Alone and scared and unsure of what life will be like now.
So they tell this Jesus person to go. They beg him to leave. Because he has turned their whole world upside-down.
And Jesus starts to go. He gets back on his boat.
Then, the man from the graveyard begs him, “Let me come with you.”
The man from the graveyard sees the people who have feared him—the people who left him in the graveyard among the headstones; the people who tied him up and chained him—and he turns to Jesus and begs to go with him. He does not want to stay. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen now.
And Jesus says, “No. Go home to your friends. Tell them what the Lord has done for you. Tell them about mercy.”
And the man from the graveyard thinks, “Go home? To the graveyard? No. Be with my friends? What friends? The people who tied me up and chained me up and left me to rot? No.”
But Jesus leaves. And the man does what he was told. And everyone is amazed. Because it is amazing.
There are things in this world that are scary. There are times when fear is a reasonable response. But we live in a world saturated in fear. There are people in the business of telling us to be afraid.
Our fears are legion. Our fears are insidious. And, sometimes at least, we love them. They tell us who and where and what to stay away from. They tell us when to walk faster and cross the street. They tell us who to tie up in chains. They tell us what to do to be safe. But not so safe that we’re not still afraid.
But the truth is that there is so little to fear. The graveyard is just a cemetery, with stones and trees and squirrels, even on a dark and stormy night. And the man who lives there just needs a home and a friend, even if he’s a little different.
There is so little to fear. And we can choose to see the people who we fear sitting next to Christ, cared for by Christ, cradled by Christ. We can choose to do the opposite of fear. We can love.
We can say to the ones we have been told to fear, and the one who removes all fear, “Let us come with you.”
And I know that’s a big ask. I know that’s a hard thing to do.
But do me a favor. Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine something with me.
Imagine a world where we weren’t afraid. Imagine a world where, when we heard something designed to make us afraid, we tried to understand it. Imagine a world where, when we saw someone and felt a tinge of fear, we walked up and introduced ourselves. Imagine a world where we didn’t need walls or weapons to feel safe… because we knew that there was nothing to fear.
Imagine, in short, the kingdom of God… here on earth… around us an among us. Imagine, in short, Christ before us and beside us. And imagine saying, “Let me come with you.”