Today’s Gospel is just cinematic: the howling hulk of a man who lives in the cemetery like someone’s worst nightmare, the Legion of demons, the herd of pigs rushing to their death, the local citizenry showing up to find this guy who used to wander around the tombs half naked ranting to himself, who has been the bogey man for their whole generation, sitting calm, clothed, rational and chatting politely -- and then finally the absolutely hilarious request the locals make of Jesus, “Could you just go away? Could you leave our town?” And Jesus gets in the boat and sails off into the sunset. (It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…)
But what I want us to look at in particular is the last couple sentences of the reading. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
He wants to just hang around Jesus, but instead Jesus immediately sends him out to take an action. But notice that it’s an action that is fairly small, fairly local, and fairly easy. Not: go begin a lecture series on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not go raise enough money to found a nonprofit counseling service for other troubled outcasts. Not go become chairman of the board of the regional association of synagogues. No. What Jesus asks him is this: In the place where you already are, take this one simple action step. Say what happened to you. Do this one thing, straight out of your own life experience. Anybody can do that. And when the man set free from the legion of demons does it, when he takes a simple step of faith in the place he already is with the people he already knows, God backs him up. God works through him to spread life to others.
That’s what so many of the laypeople at Emmanuel are doing. And I am not exaggerating or being pious when I say that. God sometimes works dramatically in ways that seem like striking interventions. I’ve seen it. But very, very often God works incognito, through small actions, ordinary daily steps people take. I think he prefers that strategy for several reasons, but one of them is that it makes the formative and encouraging experience of having God work through you accessible at absolutely any time to absolutely anybody.
You don’t have to have a license, you don’t have to be theologically literate, you don’t have to be over 18. You don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the Bible. You don’t have to have a title. All you have to do is take some step, right where you are, for the sake of your faith in Jesus Christ. And I should have said: you don’t even need to think you have all that solid a faith in Jesus Christ! Just take the step. And then as you take the step for Jesus’ sake, you discover something under your feet that feels just a little more solid than you remember things feeling before.
You may not initially give that feeling a spiritual name. If you volunteer to be an Emmanuel driver for Meals on Wheels in July, or to help support kindergarteners this summer through our partner DREAAM, you may call what you feel a sense of helping the needy, say. If you decide to give being a greeter for Mass a try, you may call it building community. If you set up a recurring financial pledge via your Breeze account, you may call it the glow of generosity. If you choose one day a week to start coming to 5:15 pm Evening Prayer, you may call it the peacefulness of taking a pause. There’s nothing wrong with those names. They’re true as far as they go. But there’s more to it, because along with all of that, the Holy Spirit is also using your act of offering to strengthen your spirit. As long as you aren’t merely offering a sacrifice on the altar of guilt or duty, as long as there is the tiniest flicker of intentionality towards the living God, you have an incognito collaborator called the Holy Spirit. A quiet inner coach who delights in even your first glimmers of desire to belong more fully to God.
Actually a coach isn’t a bad metaphor. I sometimes tell people that the Christian life is a little bit like going to the gym: you can’t hang around the building, watching someone else do Downward Dog or a set of tricep dips, and expect to get stronger. Christianity is not a spectator sport. As they say in the 12 step groups, the program works if you work it. That’s why Christian communities are always touting opportunities for people to get involved: we want you to work this life so it will work for you.
See, the man who had the legion was hoping to hang around and watch Jesus some more. But Jesus says no, go to your town, and tell what God has done for you. He might have argued back, “But I’m barely getting started. Can’t the apostles do it? Can’t the vestry do it? I don’t have enough faith.” And I think Jesus would have replied, “Of course you don’t. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to do something.” Taking one small local step of furthering the life of the kingdom is how you have faith. It is the exercise by which faith grows stronger.
I don’t mean to make it sound this morning as if a ministry at Emmanuel is the only place someone from Emmanuel can or should exercise their faith. You can just as well do that in your neighborhood or in your workplace, and I hope you are! Learning how to see yourself as an ambassador for Christ in more public venues is, I think, a very important lesson for nearly every member of nearly every institutional church today. So those are great places to serve God.
But this is your spiritual home. We’re all here because, in at least some way, however we’d frame it, we think Jesus wants us to be here and wants us to serve and know him better through the life of this parish. So we’re all standing with each other, at least I hope we are, in that quest. We’re all on each other’s sides, at least I hope we are, in wanting this to be a safe and encouraging place for absolutely anybody, any age, any background, any tenure at the church, any level of prior knowledge, to try out some small step that’s going to help them grow in spiritual maturity.
And here’s how the story often goes; I’ve heard this story over and over. So you take that step, and it’s easier than you thought, and then you find yourself strong enough to do a little more, and then you’re looking forward to the next time, and then one day you find yourself looking back on the past year and realizing that you’ve changed a little, that there’s more to you somehow. And then later maybe something bad happens, something that’s really hard, and you find yourself wondering where you’d be inside if you’d never gotten involved at Emmanuel. And then after you’ve been through all that, you discover you’ve got this stuff, this empathy, this groundedness, these things to say to people who need help. Where did that come from? And then eventually, people take time to express gratitude. They tell you how much it means to them that you got involved, that they wouldn’t be where they were if it weren’t for you: You!
And through every one of their words, God is also speaking, saying: Thank you. I’m proud of you. We built this together, you and I. You thought you were just driving groceries to a family every few months, you thought you were just handing our bulletins, you thought you were just cleaning the silver and setting up the altar, you thought you were just taking 5 minutes to read a few sentences from the lectern. You weren’t. You were helping me, Father Son and Holy Spirit, change someone’s life. I’m proud of you. Thank you.
And that, friends, is an experience not to be missed.