Sunday, January 21, 2024

Sermon: "Snowed In", Mark 5:1-20 (January 21, 2024)

I had a big week: I got stuck in the snow in a parking lot this past Thursday. It’s only the second time that this has happened to me, as far as I can recall (if there were other times, I must have blocked them from my memory). The previous time was, unsurprisingly, during the snowpocalypse of 2017. At that time, I vowed to never again attempt a vehicular adventure until everything was fully plowed, but this week, I decided to give it a shot, thinking that my brand-new car with a higher suspension would keep me out of trouble. Sadly, I was very much mistaken. Not only did I get stuck in that parking lot, but I almost got stuck again on my own street, and I had to park in the driveway because my car couldn’t make it up the 5˚ slope into the garage. It’s a pretty helpless feeling, sitting in your vehicle, surrounded by ice and snow, wanting to get on with your day but unable to do much more than spin your wheels.

But I noticed something on each occasion that my car got stuck in the snow: people help. Almost instinctively, people help. In 2017, we’d just moved into our house and didn’t know any of the neighbors, yet they came out of their homes and stopped on their own way to work just to rescue me and my tiny car from winter’s tyranny. This time around, it was my hairdresser, her husband, and another client that stopped what they were doing and banded together to get me on my way. They didn’t ask if I’d been driving irresponsibly or if I’d remembered to put on my winter tires or if I’d ever driven in snow before. They just helped.

It almost seems taboo to see someone struggling in the snow and say, “I’d love to help, but I’ve got a meeting to get to.” It doesn’t matter how much it inconveniences you; it just feels wrong to leave without lending a hand. There’s some sort of social contract that kicks in when the snow starts to pile up. It’s hard to imagine coming across someone whose car has been stuck in a ditch for hours because everyone else drove past without stopping. It sounds pretty awful, huh? Now, imagine you learn that this person had originally been stuck in the middle of the road, but other drivers had come along and PUSHED THEM INTO THE DITCH to get them out of the way. THAT borders on unfathomable.

Seeing a person struggling like this, you might decide to be the one to fulfill the social contract and help them. You call a tow truck, and while the car is slowly being hauled back onto the road, you stand in the street redirecting traffic so that the tow truck has enough room to do its thing. Other drivers are understandably frustrated by the disruption to their day, but when you explain WHY the road has to be blocked off…they complain even more. “I’m gonna be late for work, thanks to you,” they gripe, “It’s none of your business, anyway. Why don’t you go rescue people in your own neighborhood? You shoulda left ‘em in the ditch!” It seems impossible that anyone could be THAT coldhearted, even in the dead of winter.

Yet, with a few *small* details changed, this is exactly the situation that Jesus encounters in today’s scripture reading (okay, maybe the details aren’t all that small, and it isn’t EXACTLY the same, but you get my point). Jesus came across a man who was suffering, HAD been suffering for a long time, and learned that not only had no one helped him, they’d tried to confine him far away from the rest of society. Of course, Jesus (being Jesus) didn’t hesitate to free the man from his suffering. But when the people learned what had happened, they were far from empathetic. Instead, they begged Jesus to leave, presumably because his “cure” had cost the community a valuable herd of livestock and they didn’t want to risk such a thing happening again, at perhaps an even greater cost.

Absurd, right? Like, the LEAST these people could do is be happy for the guy, weighing their cost against the incredible suffering that this man had finally been liberated from. Everybody knows that when someone’s stuck in the snow, you help them, even if it inconveniences you; what’s so different about this? Sure, the personal cost of helping someone caught in the grips of demon possession is higher than that of helping someone out of a snowy ditch, but then again, the impact is significantly greater, too. Jesus’ help enabled the man to reenter society AND presumably to contribute to it in some way for the first time. How on earth could the people object to that?

How, indeed?

It makes me wonder – why is the difficulty brought about by a snowstorm more worthy of our automatic compassion than so many of the other ways that people are suffering in our society? When I retell the story of the Gerasene demoniac in the context of winter driving conditions, it seems absurd, but what about this retelling:

A man is suffering from addiction, and when he’s caught in possession of illegal narcotics, he’s sent to prison so as to no longer be “a menace to society”. His family, who knows just how hard he’s fought against his addiction, campaigns for drug reform, hoping that he (and so many others like him) can finally get the help they need to overcome their drug dependence once and for all. But rather than embracing the solution proposed by the man’s family, their local politicians shut them down, saying that too many of their constituents are complaining that it would raise their taxes too much.

Or what about this one:

A woman is suffering from homelessness, but whenever she finds a relatively comfortable place in a park to spend the night, she finds herself unceremoniously chased off by the police – it’s illegal for her to stay somewhere so public. A few local faith communities have banded together to try and provide inexpensive housing for people like her, but their neighbors have blocked all of their efforts, citing concerns that “those people” will lower the value of their property and make their neighborhood less safe.

Or this one:

A family travels a great distance, under treacherous conditions, to escape a fascist regime, or a war, or extreme poverty that was threatening their lives in their home country. They know it’s illegal, but they don’t feel like they have a choice. As soon as they arrive in the new country, they’re sent off to a detention facility, or they’re bussed to a different state, or worst of all – shipped back to the country that seems determined to kill them in one way or another. Some citizens of the new country want to let them stay temporarily, just until they can figure out the next steps. They’re willing to pay more taxes in order to make sure families like this have their basic needs met in the meantime – a warm bed, clean water to drink, a roof over their heads. But others insist that they’ll drain the country’s resources, stealing jobs and social services meant for the country’s citizens.

We might call these sorts of stories Legion because they, too, are many. The public reactions here somehow don’t seem quite as unimaginable as the people’s response in the Bible story, do they? Yet, at their core, each of these stories parallels the uncomfortable scenario in today’s scripture: a person suffers, someone tries to ease their suffering, and the crowd is only concerned with the way the solution impacts them personally. When we’re detached from the narrative, this sort of response seems heartless, inhumane, cruel…and yet, when the story is relocated directly into our immediate context, it seems, if not exactly reasonable, at least pragmatic.

As a society, our typical response to great suffering seems to be one of two things, almost without exception: we either try to hide it away so that we don’t have to think about it (forcing it to become someone else’s problem), or we flat out say, “That’s not my problem; you figure it out on your own.” We reason that this will minimize disruption to the system and maximize our personal freedom.

The thing is, these solutions that have become the status quo DON’T ACTUALLY WORK. The fact is that people CAN’T pull themselves up by their bootstraps alone, and that shoving a problem out of sight doesn’t make it go away. When the people tried to restrain the Gerasene demoniac with chains and banish him to the tombs, he broke out every time, leaving them – and him – exactly where they started. When we send people to jail for addiction, or chase people without homes out of our public spaces, or send immigrants back to their home country, it’s just kicking the can down the road in the least compassionate way possible: the addict will relapse, the person without a home will be forced to settle in a different public space, the immigrants will keep showing up at our borders.

But the Good News is this: although there will always be a cost to helping others (sometimes a GREAT cost), there is also always a solution that WILL work. If we can believe that God is able to overcome even death to save us, then surely, we can believe this. And we don’t even need to rely on faith alone for proof. The proof for the Gerasenes was the healed man standing in their midst. As for us, we have case studies and scientific research and success stories from other nations to reassure us that whatever price we pay for a compassionate solution, it will not be in vain. We just have to stop equivocating and give it a try. After all, it’s painfully ironic for Christians to complain about the cost of caring for one another to a God who gave up literally everything for us.

If you’re still struggling with this new perspective, try thinking about it this way: living in the world today is like living in the middle of a never-ending snowstorm. You might have four-wheel drive and a plowed street (you might have even plowed it yourself), but there are A LOT of people in our society who are snowed in, trapped in a situation that they’re unable to escape from, no matter how long and hard they’ve tried. You COULD just keep driving past…but that wouldn’t be right, would it? You can’t just leave them spinning their wheels, no matter what got them there in the first place.

Even if we have to get out of our own cars to do it, we have to help. Even if it’ll make us late for work, we have to help. Even if our socks get wet, even if we throw out our back, even if it costs us our time, our money, our comfort, or even our pride – if we claim to be Christians, we HAVE to help. Because it’s just the right thing to do. At least, it’s what Jesus would do: the Bible tells us so. Amen.

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