Painful, Fertile Ground

One thing that makes today’s Gospel reading even more interesting is what comes directly before it in Luke’s Gospel. Right on the tails of the “Parable of the Sower”, in which Jesus tells us about a farmer who spreads seeds out on rocky soil and fertile soil (likely symbolizing the spreading of the Gospel), right after this Jesus immediately goes in Gentile territory to evangelize and to see if he can find any “fertile ground” for the growth of his message. And immediately upon his arrival he is met by an extraordinary demoniac. Everything about this situation would have screamed “unclean” to his disciples, or any Jewish ear because he is met by an unclean Gentile who is possessed by an unclean spirit. Certainly this is not fertile ground. But rather than run, as his friends no doubt were hoping and praying he would do, Jesus, without hesitation, heals him. Jesus doesn’t flee, Jesus looks at this possessed, crazed, mad man and says, “alright, here is my fertile ground”. Here is a man who is so lost, he might just get it. He might be exactly where he needs to be.

One of my all-time favorite movies is called Crazy Heart. It came out in 2009 and it’s about Jeff Bridge’s fantastically well-named character Bad Blake, a former country music legend who loves whiskey, women and he used to love playing music, but is now reduced to playing shows in dive bars and bowling alleys. He meets Jean Craddock, a beautiful and sympathetic reporter who loves his music and quickly falls for Bad’s rusty and boozy charms. Much of the film focuses on his alcoholism and how the disaster that has become his life has become a sad norm. Like when he drunkenly drives off the road and wakes up in the hospital, it isn’t a big, explosive moment so much as a sad uncomfortable one. It doesn’t have much impact on him, apart from the literal, physical one.

But later, once he’s dating Jean and getting to know and like her 4-year-old son, Bad tries to tone down his drinking and appears to be gaining the slightest bit of control in his life, to the point where Jean trusts him to babysit for a day. In one of those scenes in which you can’t help yourself from saying, “no, no, no!” out loud as you watch, while at a mall with the boy, Bad spies a tacky bar, where he steps in for just a minute. It’s unclear how long he stays or how drunk he gets, but it doesn’t matter; he’s distracted, the boy wanders off and Bad loses him. He races around frantically looking for him, but eventually he has no other choice than to ask mall security for help. In the next scene we see Bad, Jean and thankfully the boy sitting in a waiting room. Jean is justly screaming at Bad as they contemplate the worst possible outcomes and all her fragile trust in him goes up in smoke.

Bad finally faces the brokenness of his addiction in a way he didn’t when only his own safety was at stake. He’s hit his rock bottom. One of the things I love about this movie is how honest it is. There isn’t a clean Hollywood bow of reconciliation tied on to the end of it…Jean leaves Bad, and eventually finds someone else. It’s heart wrenching and painful, but what it delivers is an emotional image of someone hitting rock bottom, and what it unfortunately, more often than not, takes for someone to seek and more importantly receive help. Bad sobers up, he rejuvenates his music career and in the final scene of the movie the two meet again. He learns that she’s engaged, and while he undoubtedly finds this difficult to hear, he smiles, tells her he loves her and her son and that he’s put his savings in an account for the boy to have when he turns eighteen. It’s not a desperate attempt to win her back, but an expression of love from someone who has finally been healed by love. He now loves someone other than himself. The whole story invites the viewer into the pain of the truth being revealed to us, that we’re a mess, that we’re in trouble, that we’re guilty, but we’re standing on painful, fertile ground.

I was standing on some of this painful fertile ground myself last week. I’ve working on renovating our kitchen, and I’ve been telling myself and more importantly my wife that I’ve got everything covered—I can take care of this entire project on my own. I don’t need any help, you can just come and look at the finished product. But last week, after shocking myself a few too many times attempting to do some electrical work, I finally broke down and asked a professional for some help. So, this great guy named Al came over to the house and things really started to progress. My pride was hurt, but I could handle it. So while Al was working on the wiring, I was off in the corner trying to frame in a new wall I was building. Al took a break as he walked by me out to his truck he just started to laugh. I said, “what are you laughing at Al?” He just smiled and said, “don’t you dare tell anyone that I built that wall!” And there was my rock bottom…Al was right, the wall was somehow bending in two opposite directions, and along with it the idea that I have of myself as a renaissance man with everything under control snapped in two. I needed help, but that’s ok. The pain of the truth aside, I do need help.

This rock bottom idea can be an upsetting concept to hear, this idea that we have to lose our lives before we can find them. And this brings me to my second and final point: This Gospel passage, and the Gospel message itself, has something in it to upset everyone.

Think back to the passage itself for a moment; the disciples and no doubt the Pharisees are upset at Jesus for dealing so closely with an unclean spirit, and no doubt for being so close to an entire, very unkosher, herd of pigs. And what about those pigs, or more specifically their owners. I picture them standing there like someone who almost comically simply can’t catch a break, except this is much, much worse. They’ve just seen their entire livelihood jump off a cliff, and I’ve honestly never understood this detail with any satisfaction, other than the fact that it results in a bunch of dead pigs. I would be furious if I was one of these farmers.

These days we talk or at least hear a lot about how divided our country is and how so many people are so upset about so many things. But being upset is not new. We’re a people who seem to have a gift for being upset. We’ve always been upset. We were upset about something yesterday, we’ll be upset about something tomorrow, Moses was upset with Pharaoh, your grumpy grandfather was probably upset with everyone. And our anger and frustrations aren’t limited to this world either.

We’re often upset when God is too critical or makes too clear a distinction between right and wrong and the ways this can feel judgmental or limiting to the things we want to do or don’t want to do right now. But then at the same time we get upset when Jesus is too forgiving, when he suggests that those who work the least ought to be paid the same amount, or when he gives the thief hanging on the cross next to him a fast track ticket to paradise, or when heaven forbid Jesus suggests to us that we too should forgive those we love as well as those we hate. We get upset with the too judgmental God as well as the too forgiving God, depending on which side of the equation we fall on.

But Jesus stands before the upset bystanders of this Gospel passage and he stands before us today saying, “you may be upset with me, you may be upset at the way I operate, you may be upset at a lot of things, but you have no idea what’s going on. You don’t know yourself, you don’t know why things are or aren’t happening as you would see fit, you don’t know what’s to come—no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that you’re in control… you don’t even know who I am? In fact, the only person in the Gospel of Luke up to this point, in chapter 8, who identifies Jesus correctly as the Son of the Most High is this man possessed by a demon!

We’re upset when we think we know what is right, but what we see or experience isn’t it. But it turns out we don’t know what’s right, or even when we do, we don’t always do it or receive it. It turns out that we all have a little bit of Bad Blake in us. We aren’t the authors of our own stories, in the end we don’t get to choose who we want to be, it’s upsetting to hear I know because we’re all addicted to this notion that we can be whoever we want to be. This idea that “you be you, I’ll be me, and as long as we don’t hurt anybody we can do and be whoever we want to be.” But the truth is that the reason we’re so upset all the time is because left to our own devices and in pursuit of our own ideas of meaning and purpose and right and wrong we all get lost, things get muddled and we get upset at ourselves and the people close to us.

The Gospel upsets us in a painful but beautiful way with Jesus standing before you and me, reaching out his wounded hand and saying, “look and see who I am and who you are. You are lost, broken, confused and upset. You are full of fear, full of anger and I know it. You’re turned in on yourself looking for truth and freedom, but you’re simply not finding it. You might be lost, but you are mine.” Jesus says, “you might have no idea what’s going on in your life or in the world around you, but that’s ok, because I am God, and you are my beloved child.”

The Gospel message of unconditional and profound grace for the addict, for the prostitute, for the thief and the liar, for the lost and the lonely, this message for all of us is upsetting because it picks up the pieces of our lives and shows them to us. The law written on all of our hearts eventually shows us some sort of rock bottom, some holy mark that we have missed and fallen short of, but the Gospel then takes those broken pieces and heals, redeems and reconciles them through the love and the grace and the blood of Christ.

You may be upset, you may feel lost, but you are standing on fertile ground because you are standing beside a God who knows you, forgives you and loves you. You may feel helpless, but your help has come. And it’s come in the form of a man, of the one true God, hung on a Cross for you and for me. Amen