Charge Conference Sermon, Fall 2017

A Cemetery is Not a Nice Place to Live

Mark 5:1-20  They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.  (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.  (6)  When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.  (7)  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!"  (8)  For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you impure spirit!"  (9)  Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" "My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many."  (10)  And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.  (11)  A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside.  (12)  The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them."  (13)  He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.  (14)  Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.  (15)  When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.  (16)  Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well.  (17)  Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.  

(18)  As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. (19)  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.  

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a cemetery?  Dark, gloomy, hopeless – a bunch of stones marking times gone by.  Our first parsonage was located right next to an old cemetery. Most of the graves were sunk in, the grave markers were broken or fallen over.  Many were washed smooth by the winter’s rain.  Several Civil War veterans were buried there.  There was a huge oak tree that stood sentinel over it.  It was interesting by day but at night when the moon shown on those tombstones, it was scary!  Our youngest son at the time went to watch the movie, ‘Pet Cemetery’ one night and when he got home stayed in his car for over an hour afraid to get out!

The man in today’s Scripture lives in a cemetery.  He was a crazy man, demon possessed.  They tried to tie him to the tomb stones to keep him from hurting himself and others.  But he is very strong and keeps breaking the chains.  Day and night, he howled and cried, bruising himself.  Creepy.  No one in their right mind would want to live in a cemetery.

Let’s try this for a moment – let’s take a 2000 year, a 2000-foot view of this story.  Maybe that’s me chained to that tombstone.  Maybe that’s you roaming that cemetery wailing about times gone by.  Maybe I’m the crazy one for even mentioning this, but maybe that man represents your church, wailing over a history that can’t be restored and a future it can’t begin to understand.

Let’s be honest, many of you have shared your concerns with me about your churches.  Over the last 30 some years in which I have been in ministry, West Ohio has lost on average 5000 members a year.  That’s over a 160,000-people lost! 

We have closed a few churches in our District, but more and more are shrinking, dwindling, dying. And not just us, but the Lutherans, Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, even the Baptists!  Almost every town has a growing graveyard of churches.  So many wander around without hope.  And it seems there are more and more who are content with their hopeless demise because they just don’t know what to do. 

Here is where the story gets good.  Jesus enters the scene.  He has the disciples sail the boat to the other side of the Sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.  As Jesus enters the cemetery the demons recognize Him.  Remember the demons are strong; they break the man’s chains and the irons on his feet. But when they see Jesus the man fell to his knees and begs for mercy.  “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  In God’s name don’t torture me.” Jesus asked his name.  “Legion,” he replied.  (a Legion is a formation of soldiers of up to 6000 men!) That’s a lot of men and that’s a lot of demons! 

A large heard of pigs were grazing nearby, - remember that pigs were unclean animals to the Hebrews and not to be eaten or touched.  So, this is Gentile territory.  Jesus has left his own people to be in ministry to others.  The demons begged Jesus to send them into the pigs.  He gave permission to the legion and 2000 of them rushed into the sea and drowned.

Hold on, this is not the end of the story!  This is not just a demon possession / exorcism story.  This is not just a healing event.  I am convinced Jesus did this many more times than is written about.  I am convinced this is your story and mine.  This story is in many ways about our churches.   Where we have been dying as communities, consequently living in cemeteries… and celebrating days gone-by.  And where we have been living in hopelessness about the future.

So, what do we do? 

1. Embrace reality.  The man admitted who he was, that he was possessed by a legion of demons.  That he was afraid of Jesus.  That he was afraid of being cast out of his comfort zone.  That changing his location or life would be hard.  That he was afraid of judgement from God.

We must embrace the idea we live in a post Christian age.  Where many of us started in ministry or joined the church in a Christian age and ministry was much easier, those days are no more.  I remember my first year as a youth pastor; 80% of all the families in the church had their kids in my youth group.  I only had to do the lesson and boil hot dogs.  It is so much harder to pastor and grow a church today.  Many of our communities are disappointed in the church, many believe the church can’t relate to the current age.  Many surveys show our communities are up to 90% unchurched. 

Our denomination’s Call to Action Report surveyed over 32,000 churches in North America.  In 2010 only15% were considered vital.  By the way, the definition of Vital is:  lively and animated character: power of enduring: the peculiarity the capacity to live and develop, distinguishing the living from the dead…

The drivers of vitality are:                                                                                                                                    

Effective Pastoring.  I think that means good, solid, Biblical preaching that is delivered with passion and compassion. And the foresight to build lasting relationships in the church and community. 

Excellent worship that includes both Traditional and Contemporary done with the community in mind. And done with passion.  Jesus is our audience of One.  It is all about Him.  We must choose to make Him our priority, not the preference of a bunch of others who want their way.

Effective lay leaders who are engaged in ministry in their church and community. They are out there – at work, on the ballfield, in the marketplace setting the example of Jesus with words and actions. They lead with their gifts and passion and others notice.  They believe in Jesus, they believe in the future.  They are in it for their children and grandchildren and those around them.

By the way, by 2012 the number of vital churches had doubled!  But you can’t just stop there and think you have arrived, you must keep going.

2.  Be Brave.  Face the reality of your cemetery. You won’t like it but face it.   If it is your church or if it is your loved one. 

You might remember Reagan Tokes who was the Ohio State student murdered last February. I had known the family for years and did her funeral.  Her parents are bravely taking on the penal system, working with state Senators and Legislators on both sides of the aisle to enact new laws for more reliable early parole decisions and monitoring systems for parolees.  They will not stop until the laws change.  They are also forming scholarships in the Maumee area for youth to go to College.  They are bravely confronting their pain and loss and doing something about a big problem.  This is how they live in the midst of their loss and pain.  While they visit their daughter’s gravesite occasionally, they refuse to let the cemetery hem them in or hold them back.

As preachers, we need to preach courageously. Using the Scripture, we need to preach on immigration, sexuality, racism, addiction, hatred, prejudice, justice, money, transformation, death and resurrection –and on family, love, and forgiveness.  If we don’t we lead our people right to the graveyard. 

One of the things I hear from people wanting most is a pastor who preaches the Gospel with authority, conviction and compassion.  And then, is outgoing enough to develop deep relationships with leaders and good relationships with others in the church and community.  So, don’t be just a talking head, but be someone your people can rely on, trust, and seek out.  And be a person looking for those in need in your community who need you and Jesus.  Pray for them and seek them out.  Is this not what Jesus did?  You know that takes courage, especially for those of us who are shy or introverted, but it is so important.

But here is the truth from the Call to Action Report: business as usual is unsustainable. Dramatically different and new behaviors, not incremental changes, are required.  We have not yet seen the degree of shared sense of urgency or commitment to systemic adaptations with the redirection of leadership expectations and sufficient resources that our situation requires.

What does this mean?  160,000 people later and we still don’t get it! 

It takes courage to move forward.  To not look back at the cemetery but to push into God’s future with the Faith God is leading and will not, will not let us down.

3. Be a Witness The end of this story is bitter sweet.  The people learn about the loss of their pigs, and get mad at Jesus.  They also saw the man who was delivered, sitting there in his right mind and they were afraid.  So, they ask Jesus to leave them.  Imagine!  They would rather have their pig income and their friend the way he was, than have Jesus. Wow!

But watch what happens – the healed man, the ex-Legion dude, wants to go with Jesus.  Can you see him trying to get into Jesus’s boat?  But Jesus stops him. Jesus says, "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."

Isn’t that how good news spreads?  When we have gone home and told the story of how good Jesus has been to us?  That He healed us, that He saved my marriage, that He helped my child, my job; that He stopped the fire from spreading, or the war from spreading, or the hatred from spreading. That he had mercy on me!

There are so many people in your communities who need to hear the story of the hope you have received from Jesus.  Peter said, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).  Isn’t that a great verse?  Isn’t that a great thing to do?

Then the man goes further – out to the Decapolis or the Ten Towns around there.  He gets braver, he gets his story down, he begins to share with everyone he meets what it was like to live in a cemetery, to have those demons holding him back, to have no hope.  Then – Jesus came and set me free!  Demons fled, pigs died, I lived!  I am a new person!  And you can be too!  All it takes is Jesus.  And all the people were amazed.  

I wonder what would happen if we did the same.  I wonder what would happen if every one of us would share how good Jesus has been to us with someone who needs Him.  You could tell about your answered prayer, about how your grandchild has had a great turnaround in school; the near miss car accident, the job promotion, the healing of your loved one – how your heart was strangely warmed in worship.  If everyone did that once before Christmas Eve, our sanctuaries would be overflowing.

I wonder what would happen if every church here started one new ministry, that reached into the community; and after school ministry, community meal, movie night, seniors ministry, adopt a school… whatever your community needs.  And if you need to stop doing to or three old ministries, that you think you still need to do but are bearing no fruit, stop it!  Do something new that Jesus is calling you to do and you believe will bear fruit. 

My prayer is your church will be amazed with what Jesus can do in you again.  My faith is that it can and will happen if you are willing.  And I believe you will be praising Jesus for what Jesus can do again in your church. And those in your community will be all be amazed. 

Because a cemetery is not a nice place to live!