This past Sunday, we woke up to horrible news: there had been a mass shooting at a night club in Orlando, Florida, that left 50 dead, including the gun man, and 53 seriously injured. This was the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. It seems the attacker very purposely targeted the gay community, because the night club, ‘The Pulse’, is a favorite gay hang out spot. There have been many analyses, articles, opinion pieces, blogs and tweets in response to these despicable killings, covering the ever festering question of gun control, the danger of Muslim extremists, the phenomenon of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, mental illness, and national security. But some responses that touched and challenged me the most were from the LGTBQ community.
Now we live or work or worship or all of the above in San Francisco, which is the unofficial gay capital of the U.S. We don’t have to walk far or look hard to find people of the LGTBQ community. This city is a fairly safe haven for people of any kind of sexual orientation or gender identity, and city officials support the gay culture. Of course this city celebrates exuberantly during the annual gay pride parade, which, by the way, will happen once more next week. But there are not many places in the U.S. where the LGTBQ community is accepted and supported. In many parts of the country, LGTBQ people face discrimination and even have to fear for their safety. There are many still, who choose to stay in the closet, carefully hiding their sexuality or gender identity, because they fear repercussions.
As someone said after the shootings in Orlando, the ‘Pulse’ nightclub was a sanctuary, a safe place for many, who could freely be who they are in that environment, whereas they don’t feel safe in many other places. However, the safety of this place has been violated. And there is a spreading fear among LGTBQ people about further hate crimes, and fear about the further loss of safe spaces.
Last Sunday, a gay pride festival took place in Los Angeles. The organizers were considering canceling the event in the light of the events in Orlando, fearing that an attack could happen there as well – and, lo and behold, a man with weapons and explosives in his car was stopped by police a few miles away and admitted that he was on his way to the pride festival. But then the event took place anyway – much more subdued. But people reasoned that they cannot let their actions or their entire life be determined or ruled by fear. Because that’s what terror is all about, that’s the sole purpose of terror: to make us so afraid that we don’t dare live life to the fullest.
And the same can be said about hate. Hate destroys relationships. Hate prevents relationships. Hate is a force that denies life. And often, the motivation of hate is fear – fear of the ‘other’, fear to lose one’s status or privileges, fear of seeing our morals or values threatened, fear of facing our own demons. Especially as people of faith, we can’t let fear get the better of us. Especially in the current political climate that is often based on fear mongering.
But of course fear is not a modern or post-modern phenomenon. Fear is as old as humanity itself. Because there are many dangerous things and enemies out there, and that’s scary.
It is fear that causes the prophet Elijah to flee from the vengeful queen Jezebel into the wilderness. He, according to his own words, is the last one of God’s prophets left in Israel, and he fears for his life. Talk about a disquieted soul! And so he becomes a prisoner of his own fears for several weeks, until God calls him back to work with the great words, ‘Elijah, what are you doing here?’ And so Elijah returns to the land of the living and does what God calls him to do. I’m sure he’s still afraid – but he can overcome his fear, for he knows God is with him.
Today’s gospel story of Jesus freeing the man from a legion of destructive demons, from an army of demons, interestingly enough doesn’t end in people rejoicing over the fact that Jesus has such amazing powers as to restore a poor soul to health and wholeness. No, in this story we have a very interesting twist. So Jesus commands this army of demons to go out from the man, and allows them to enter a herd of swine. The swine then throw themselves into the lake and drown. The swineherds who witnessed the whole thing run into town to report this sensational story. The townspeople then flock out to see for themselves, and it doesn’t say anywhere that they are afraid at that point, just curious. Then they see the formerly possessed man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clean and dressed and in his right mind. And then, we hear, they are afraid. And they ask Jesus to leave. Get out of here, you’re scaring us!
But why are those people afraid? Why are they seized with fear, the moment they see the healed man sitting at Jesus’ feet? Through Jesus, something is at work that is extremely powerful – and unpredictable. And whatever is unpredictable becomes scary. The power of evil the townspeople encountered in the deranged was predictable and manageable. Just chain that guy down, and let him dwell in the tombs, and he will do no harm to anyone. Also, the enemy could be clearly defined and named – he’s possessed, he’s dangerous, he must be restrained and isolated. But this great power Jesus displays is not something that could be controlled or managed.
As for the Gerasene town folks, it seems they were quite happy with how things were, with the status quo. The radical change of the possessed man now forces the community to change as well. Just think about the reintegration of this man into the community. Just think about the huge adjustment of considering this man as one of them, instead of considering him the enemy. That’s easier said than done. Just think about a time you were challenged to change your mind about someone or something you had a very strong opinion about.
Back to the Gerasene people, who knows what else would change for them, how many more hidden demons would be discovered and exorcised, how many more people would have to adjust their way of thinking and feeling, if Jesus were allowed to continue his work there. Jesus’ power is scary. The prospect of radical changes because of this power is scary. It is so much easier to live with the demons we know than to embrace the uncertain and make changes. It is so much easier to live with the demons we can point out in someone else than to deal with our own demons.
And, as scholar David Tiede points out, “As the larger narrative unfolds, the awesome plight of humans who are ‘seized with fear’ will prove to be more difficult for the reign of God than even the most horrendous possession by the forces of evil.”
In other words, Jesus overcame evil forces of sin and death – but the fear we all carry in our hearts has not been conquered yet. And we experience the consequences of fear each and every day in this world – because people distance themselves from ‘the other’, or even lash out against it or them, rather than seeking reconciliation or building relationships.
How often do we hear heavenly messengers or Jesus himself say to the people, and say to us, Do not be afraid? God is with you.
This promise sustains us through all our fears. God’s love for us is perfect, and, as we read in 1. John, ‘Perfect love casts out all fear.’ We have to trust that God’s amazing love and power will sustain us – even and especially through changes and transformations and challenges. God’s intention is to heal us and transform the world as is into the kingdom of God, where there will be no more pain and sorrow and crying and hate and fear and death. We must never lose this vision, God’s vision. We must never let the fear mongers have the last word, but proclaim the word of God, whose love casts out all fear. And we must never let our fears get in the way of God’s loving will for all.
In this sense, it is not only necessary that we keep the Orlando victims and their families in our prayers – it is necessary that we face and overcome our fears and prejudices. It is necessary that we speak up and act against a culture that promotes fear and hate – against LGTBQ people, against people of other faiths, against strangers. It is necessary for us to entrust ourselves to the love and grace of God, even when we are afraid and don’t know where the way is leading, and even though we may not know what changes might ask of us.
In all this, we can put our trust in God. After all: we are God’s people; a people of love – and a people of life. Do not be afraid.