I want to begin today with a little story. Some of you may have heard this before but it bears repeating. On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little life-saving station grew.
Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired life-boat crews to do this work. The life-saving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a symbolic life-boat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
This little story relays to us the unfortunate truth of life saving stations called churches. Churches tend to move to what is comfortable and forget the reason church came into being. We sometimes think that church is an organization of people who band together because of their common interest in Jesus Christ. Church is not that. Church is a divine institution, a product of God’s will. We exist as a church because of God’s desire to love us and have us share with other the knowledge and experience of God. This means we are to put in check our logical desires to be comfortable and instead, respond from the heart to God’s desire to save the lost.
Our New Testament reading today shakes Jesus’ disciples and shows the heart of God is towards the lost. We become aware of this message through the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man no one wanted.
At the point of this encounter, Jesus’ ministry with his 12 disciples, had been an amazing journey. Jesus has healed people of illnesses and disease. The crowds were following him and excited about his teachings. Jesus had named the 12 as apostles and these apostles can see they were special in Jesus’ eyes. This was wonderful and exciting to be with Jesus. We know what it is like when church is going well. Lots of people are present, with good music, and kids. It is a wonderful experience and it is comfortable and comforting.
It is at this very point of comfort that Jesus decided his apostle need to understand what following Him really means. So, Jesus told the 12 to get in a boat and head to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Leaving the crowd behind, they began to go across the sea. Not long thereafter a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus got up, shouted at the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” The disciples then were not just afraid they were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” The disciples were coming to see that being called a disciple of Jesus was not a membership in a social organization, it was a calling placed upon them by God. To follow Jesus, was to live in the will of God.
As we turn to our New Testament reading, (Mark 5:1-20) the disciples go from comfort and the storm on the sea to an encounter a man no one wanted. Mark wrote, “They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.” (The Gerasenes region is a land of people different from Jesus and his apostles who are Jews. These people were pagans. Jews did not associate with the pagans.) “2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”
We encounter the man no one wanted. Jesus’ disciples did not want this man; he was a pagan. The pagans did not want this man. He was possessed. He shouted all night long. He was physically strong, but no one could control him. His neighbors tried to chain him, but he broke the chains. The people of Gerasenes had some peace with this man because the man decided to live among the dead in the cemetery. But the man was not at peace because even there he cut himself with sharpened stones. Perhaps the man was cutting himself like many do today hoping that by cutting they will somehow find relief and healing for their emotional pain.
This is a fearful and uncomfortable scene. The scene is a long way from the adoring crowd, friendly faces, and cheers as another miracle was performed. Things were not orderly and clean. The little band of 12 disciples were out of their comfort zone. And now their leader, is out of the boat heading in the direction of this man no one wanted; heading toward a strange and uncomfortable person.
But you see there was one person who wanted this man. Jesus did. Jesus was and is the shepherd of the flock who looks for the one lost sheep. Jesus told stories that when he finds that one sheep, he is happier about that one sheep than the ninety-nine that did not wander off. Jesus approach to the man no one wanted was teaching his disciples what it meant to follow him. Following Jesus is not neat and clean. To follow Jesus is messy. Ministry is messy. This was the lesson the people in life saving station story forgot. I suspect a great many churches have forgot ministry is messy. It can be uncomfortable to deal with people no one wants.
Mark continued in verse 6, “When the man saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!’” Can you for a moment picture the faces of Jesus disciples? Here is this man they are following confronted by a man screaming at the top of his lungs that Jesus is the Son of God and that he begs Jesus not to torture him. I would guess one or more of them were checking the distance back to the boat to make an escape. This is not neat, orderly, or fun. It is downright scary.
Jesus is unmoved by the scene. Jesus knows that this man is wanted by God. Jesus knows this man is hurting, confused, and alone. Jesus saw the man needed healing, not physically, mentally, or emotionally but spiritually. So, Jesus said to the spirit within the man, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” With Jesus permission, the spirit left the man and went into some nearby pigs. The herd of pigs, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. The man no one wanted was now calm, rational, and thoughtful. The man dressed in some decent clothes and then sat down with Jesus and the disciples. When someone has a genuine encounter with Jesus, they are changed. You cannot encounter God and remain unchanged. It is impossible.
The man no one wanted was changed because he encountered Jesus. Moreover, Jesus had modeled for his disciples and for his church that they are not just God’s agent to bring the good news to those who are ready to receive it but they are to help and to heal those people no one wants.
Some months later, Jesus would tell a story of a man who prepared a great banquet. Those the man first invited to share in the banquet were healthy and vibrant people, but they refused the invitation. They were just too busy. So, the man sent his servant out with these instructions, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” The servant did as he was told and the banquet hall got messier and the lost came.
As we return to the story, we see that the local townspeople Gerasene have arrived. They were afraid of Jesus. Perhaps their fear was that Jesus’ actions will lead to more pigs drowning; that would be bad for business. Perhaps they were afraid that more possessed like the man in the cemetery would come and looking for help and healing; that would be very messy.
Regardless of the source of their fear, Jesus’ purpose and mission in the cemetery that day was complete. The lost sheep was saved. Mark wrote in verse 18, “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.” So, Jesus showed the man, his disciples, and his church what to do when someone was helped, healed, and saved. They are to become part of the divine church and you are to call them into the mission. Jesus said to this man, “Go and tell others what the Lord God has done for you. Be excited among the people you know. Share the experience and joy of your encounter with Jesus.”
Folks, there are many people who live among the tombs of homelessness, lonely despair, grief, illness, and family tragedies. People who live such lives need to meet Jesus Christ and allow that encounter to transform their lives. How does that encounter happen if not through you, me, and the Church? The answer is, “It won't happen.” Who will bring them to Christ if not you, me, and church? To be true to Christ, we need to be the people and a place where not just human beings can come but those who struggling with life can come and receive healing, compassion, and love. It is a sacrifice for sure. That is the mission of this life saving station. And the sacrifice Jesus asks of us to be uncomfortable at times and be engaged in the messiness of ministry is a sacrifice much smaller than the sacrifice Jesus made for us. Let us pray.