Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sermon for Feb. 22, 2009 -- Transfiguration Day

A Crisis of Fear

Mark 9:2-9

Some of you may have heard the name Clarence Jordan. He was a prophet for racial integration in the South. In 1942, after receiving his doctorate in Greek from Southern Baptist Seminary, he returned to his native Georgia and established a place called Koinonia farm. It was an experiment in Christian interracial community living, a concept that was not widely accepted in the 40’s by the general public. Koinonia Farm eventually became the inspiration for Habitat for Humanity. However, at the time, Jordon was often persecuted for his vision of what the church should be. It’s told that at one time, when Jordon was being harassed, he asked his lawyer brother for legal help. His brother had political aspirations. He realized that helping such a radical cause would jeopardize his future career. And so, he refused to help. Clarence challenged his brother to go back to the rural church where they had both walked down the aisle to accept Christ and explain something to the folks there. Clarence said, “Tell them what you really meant to say was that you admire Jesus, not that you want to follow him.”

Jordan’s comment raises a question that I constantly ask myself. Do I admirefollow him? We Christian are good at saying the right words and performing the bare minimum requirements that we think will secure our place in God’s favor. But do we really follow Jesus? Do we back up our words with actions that demonstrate we are followers of the God of suffering love? This morning we will look to Mark’s account of the transfiguration as we think about these questions. Jesus or do I want to

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white, far whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them. Then Elijah and Moses appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, “Rabbi, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, when they looked around, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus with them. As they went back down the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark’s gospel gives the reader some honest details that the other gospel writers leave out. Mark depicts the disciples as colossal failures. As you read Mark’s gospel, you will notice that at every key moment in Jesus’ life, the disciples fail to understand the significance of his actions. Mark has a great way of describing this. He says that the disciples were afraid. When Jesus heals a demon-possessed Gentile, the disciples were afraid. When Jesus walks on water, the Greek indicates that the disciples were shaken to their souls with fear. At the empty tomb, the women tremble with astonishment. Most New Testament scholars agree that Mark intended his gospel to end with the words “they were afraid.” With this in mind, we come to Mark’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Did you notice how Mark described the disciple’s reactions when Jesus starts glowing and talking to dead prophets? The Greek indicates that they are frightened out of their wits. For Mark, fear is an indication to us, the readers, that something has gone wrong. The disciples consistently fail to see who Jesus is, what he has come to do, and what he asks them to do. They are so terrified that they become ineffective disciples. It is truly a crisis of fear.

Have you ever felt like a failed disciple? Have you ever felt ineffective because you were afraid of what Jesus may ask you to do? I’ve heard people express their fears in many ways:
“What happens if I get serious about following Jesus? Will I lose control of my life? Will God ask me to do things that I don’t want to do?” Let’s explore some ways in which today’s text can teach us how to overcome our fears and become the disciples we are called to be.

This account begins with the words, “After six days.” Less than one week before this event, Jesus asked the disciples to tell him the local gossip. Word on the street said that Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist, or Elijah returned to earth, or both. Remember Elijah – we heard about him in our first reading from 2 Kings? Jesus then asks another question: “If that’s what people are saying, what do you think? Who do you say I am?” Peter courageously answers, “You are the Christ.” Now, less than one week later, Peter is so scared at the sight of Jesus, he addresses Jesus not as Christ but as Rabbi, the word for teacher. Peter’s use of the word Rabbi or teacher here seems strange. It’s as if Peter is still thinks of Jesus as a teacher of the law, not as the Messiah.

The mount of transfiguration is a place where the heavens burst open and confront humankind with the glory of God. The realm of God breaks into human affairs and astounds us with the reality of who Jesus is. Jesus is more than a great prophet or teacher. He is God’s beloved Son who boldly stands beside trembling disciples in the presence of God.

I think that if we want to overcome fear and be better disciples, then we need to see Jesus for who he really is. Who is Jesus for you today? A prophet? A teacher? A great historical figure or a superhuman being? Or, is Jesus the glorified Son of God and Savior? When we can see Jesus for who is really is, we are changed. (1 John 3:2-3). Our journey of discipleship begins on the mountaintop where we come face-to-face with the terrifying yet glorious presence of God. We climb the mountain and see Jesus for who he really is. We allow ourselves to be transformed by his compassionate love.

I wish I could end this sermon on the mountaintop, but it would be deceptive to tell you that we could stay there, nervously basking in the glory of God. Some say that Peter’s biggest mistake is that he wants to make this mountaintop experience permanent. He offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to commemorate the event. But, seeing the glory of God is only part of the experience. Jesus and the three disciples can’t stay on the mountaintop. They must come down and deal with the reality that awaits them. It’s no mistake that Mark sandwiches the story of the transfiguration between two predictions of Jesus’ upcoming agony and death. From this point on, Jesus will preach a message of suffering, the cross, and death. It’s a future that he and anyone who wishes to follow him must endure. The glorious vision may be what the disciples want to see, but it’s the message of suffering that all must hear. Even in his terror, Peter seems willing to be impressed by a transformed Jesus, but he seems unwilling to accept the word of suffering that Jesus preaches. The realm of God is not the result of seeing Jesus’ glowing garments. It is the result descending the mountain and practicing Jesus’ central definition of discipleship. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (8:34).

I don’t know about you, but this is the point where I start to get afraid. What happens when we follow Jesus down the mountain and put these words into practice? We know what happens to the disciples. By the end of Mark’s Gospel, those who claim to follow Jesus will not be able to follow him to the cross. They will take to their heels and run away in fear. To be better disciples, we need to put dreams of glory aside and walk in the steps of the suffering Christ.

One more point. Becoming better disciples involves listening. You may not want to listen to me at this point, but hang in there. This is where the good part comes in. Let’s go back to the mountain for a moment and pay attention to the action. After Peter panics, a cloud covers the mountain and a voice declares, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.” The cloud represents the presence of God. The voice repeats the words we’ve already heard at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and then commands the disciples to listen. In response, the next words out of Jesus’ mouth are about suffering. The problem with the disciples is that they never get it. Even after hearing a divine voice, they never truly listen and understand.

For those of us who are afraid, for those who lack courage to take up the cross and follow, Scripture encourages us with two words: Fear not! The Bible is stubborn on this affirmation. When confronted with terror, God says, “Fear not.” I must admit, on my more cynical days I say, “Year, right. If I went on a backpacking trip with Jesus and he transformed before my eyes and shined like the bright morning sun, and then the most famous prophets of history appeared to shoot the breeze, and then a thick cloud smothered me and I heard a voice talking to me from within the water vapor, and then it all instantly disappeared and Jesus said, ‘I’m going to die, and by the way, let’s just keep all this between you and me,’ I would be stricken with fear and confusion.” And then Jesus says, “Fear not!?”

God’s antidote to fear is courage. We can hear the words “fear not” because Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses in every way. We can hear the words “fear not” because God can transform our fear into faith and give us the strength to follow Jesus.

Do you just admire Jesus, or are you ready to follow him? Our path to better discipleship begin when we can answer these three questions:

1. Who is Jesus to you?

2. What is Jesus asking you to do as his follower?

3. Are you afraid to do it? If so, hear the word of the Lord. “Fear not!”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sermon for February 15, 2009

Be Clean!
Mark 1:40-45
A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed. Then Jesus sent him on his way with a stern warning: “Don’t tell anyone about this. Instead, go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed.” But the man went and spread the word, proclaiming to everyone what had happened. As a result, large crowds soon surrounded Jesus, and he couldn’t publicly enter a town anywhere. He had to stay out in the secluded places, but people from everywhere kept coming to him.
When I was growing up, in the high school cafeteria the kids you sat down with to eat your lunch were always the same people. Woe unto you if you dared to sit at the table of the popular kids, or the geeks, or the jocks! You had to be with your group. How many of you went back to your 20th reunion, years later, to find that the same old factions were still there? People still sat at tables with the same old groups, and there was no attempt to cross those old invisible boundaries that divided us all.

We learned at an early age to make snap judgments about people. We divide people into groups all the time: Those we like and those we don't; those who are “my kind of people,” and those who aren't. In the process, we shut out many people who we could come to have close friendships with. If only we'd get beyond those mental boundaries that have shut them out.

Too often we're like the children of The Secret Society of 9. Harpers magazine once published the rules of their club:
  1. Do not tell a white lie, unless necessary.
  2. Do not hurt anyone in any way.
  3. Do not hit anyone-- except Ronny.
  4. Do not use words worse than "brat"
  5. Do not curse at all.
  6. Do not make faces, except at Ronny.
  7. Do not be selfish.
  8. Do not make a hog or a pig of yourself.
  9. Do not tattle, except on Ronny.
  10. Do not steal, except from Ronny.
  11. Do not destroy other people's property, except Ronny's.
  12. Do not be a sneak.
  13. Do not be grumpy, except to Ronny
  14. Do not answer back, except to Ronny
Poor Ronny! We can be like the children in that club. We can be so selective in who we relate to in God’s world. Around how many places in your life, have fences been put up to keep others out who we don't like, or aren't our kind, or just aren't in our group. We even become selective in the sharing of God's love--sharing it with everyone, except the Ronnies of the world. Who are the people in your world whom you've failed to reach out to and love?

We put fences up all around us. They give us some comfort. Fences keep danger out. Fences protect those who dwell within them. In her book Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons researched incidences of girls who exclude one another in school and social circles. She found that the practice of exclusion among young girls was extremely common. Simmons tells the story of Jenny. Jenny moved from San Diego to Wyoming during her seventh grade year. Two popular girls, who felt threatened by her arrival, made a point to force all the other girls in that grade sign a pledge to call Jenny a secret nasty code name, to exclude her from all activities and to torment her in ways that would not be recognized by the teachers. Jenny spent an entire school year afraid to walk in the halls of her new school. On the outside of the circle looking in, she was the leper of her seventh grade Wyoming class. Many women remember similar incidents, from their childhoods. They have experienced the feeling of being excluded from human society. Many men also remember being the victim of the class bully. For some reason the bully picks them out as the victim, and through verbal and physical abuse isolates them from the social structure.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus obliterates fences that have put up to contain and exclude God’s people. When approached by a man with leprosy, Jesus touches the man and says “Be Clean.” The leper is instantly cured. I don’t know if we really understand how bold Jesus was. We can’t fathom the risks he took in order to break down the fences that keep people from entering fully into relationship with God and one another.

In Jesus’ day, the term leprosy embraced a wide range of disorders including rashes, acne, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. There was no treatment. Because of the fear of infection, lepers were banned from all contact with other people. They lived in isolated bands, begging at a distance for food. It is hard to imagine a more miserable and hopeless group of outcasts. To make matters worse, it was commonly believed that lepers were suffering for their sins. Lepers were seen as sinners who were abandoned by God to the powers of evil. Leprosy caused fear and repulsion. It marks its victim as morally repugnant. When the leper approaches Jesus, he probably shouts “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn the crowds away from danger. Nobody wanted to be polluted by his presence, either physically or spiritually. In a sense, lepers had to carry their fences around with them. The only hope for a cure was from a holy person.

Jesus does not run away. He responds to the person who has been pushed to the margins of society. According to one set of ancient manuscripts, when the leper approaches Jesus and begs for healing, Jesus is moved with pity. Out of compassion, Jesus touches him and proclaims him clean. That is what we heard in today’s reading.

Another translation follows a different reading found in a second set of ancient manuscripts. According to this set, when the leper approaches Jesus and begs for healing, Jesus is moved by anger. With a snort of rage, Jesus touches him and proclaims him clean.

So, which set of manuscripts reflects Mark’s original intent? Was Mark depicting a sympathetic, compassionate Jesus moved by the leper’s suffering to heal him? Or was Mark depicting an angry Jesus with a bad temper?

I can see where both emotions, compassion and anger, would have been appropriate. Jesus shows compassion to a person forced to live on the edges or boundaries of society. Jesus shows a grunt of anger at the wickedness of a system that labels a person as a sinner because of a skin rash. Jesus decided to do something about it. He healed this leper by touching him directly. By doing so, Jesus made a clear statement that this man was not impure -- that he could be touched without fear of infection -- that he ought not to have been cast out. In one bold action, Jesus restores this man. His health returns. More than that, he is allowed to reenter society. With a touch, with a word, Jesus knocks over the fence. The limits are gone.

People of God, be careful where you draw lines. Whenever you draw a line that marks who is in and who is outside of the fence, remember -- Jesus is always on the other side of the line!

One of the great stories of compassion that has the mark of Jesus all over it involves an elderly crippled lady who lived in Missouri during World War II. She spent most days lying on a day bed, knitting socks and other garments for her church’s thrift shop. Her husband was a small-town newspaper publisher. He came home one day and told her that the son of a friend of theirs had been killed on the battlefields of Europe. She asked him, “What can I do for his mother? I pray for the soldiers, but I want to do more.” His response was, “You have a compassionate spirit. Write his mother a note and let her know how much you love her and that her son is in the arms of Jesus.” She did just that. In fact, for the next three years she wrote more than 300 notes to mothers who had sons killed in the war. She showed her compassion by touching the lives of hurting people. She was a servant of the grace of Jesus.

That woman reminds me of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God. God’s world is one of inclusive wholeness. Jesus restores people’s humanity and life. He invites people to grasp new opportunities to rejoin the community. We miss the point if we insist this story is about a supernatural curing that depends on the intervention of God. We can be the hands that touch a wounded soul. We can express the words that soothe a wounded spirit. We can be the arms that hold and hug a person who may be dying. We can be the friends who sit and listen and love another because we see a child of God in need. We reach out in prayer, with a touch, with a word.

The God of Jesus, is a God of graciousness and goodness who accepts everyone and brings about justice and well-being for everyone . . .without exception. That’s worth celebrating.
And where it is denied, that’s worth getting angry about!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sermon for February 8, 2009

The Demands of Discipleship
Mark 1:29-39
February 8, 2008

After Jesus left the synagogue with James and John, they went to Simon and Andrew’s home. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a high fever. They told Jesus about her right away. So he went to her bedside, took her by the hand, and helped her sit up. Then the fever left her, and she prepared a meal for them. That evening after sunset, many sick and demon-possessed people were brought to Jesus. The whole town gathered at the door to watch. So Jesus healed many people who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons. But because the demons knew who he was, he did not allow them to speak. Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray. Later Simon and the others went out to find him. When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them, too. That is why I came.” So he traveled throughout the region of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.

The previous day had been quite demanding for Jesus. The new one promises to be the same. The previous day he taught in the synagogue in Capernaum. He called the demons out of a possessed man. Now the people will not leave him alone. News about him spreads quickly over the whole region of Galilee. The people press upon him with their problems, bringing him their diseased to be healed.

It was for this reason that Jesus came to us. His mission was to meet the needs of humankind, but there were so many of them. How would Jesus them all? Given his own humanity, where would he get the strength to keep up the pace, to continually face the crowd with the fresh new teaching that they desperately needed, to keep on giving of himself in limitless ways?

Sound familiar? If Jesus needed help, what about you and me? Given the demands placed upon our time, our energies, our resources that are simply a part of living from day to day, how do we find the time and energy to be faithful followers of God. Everyday there are needs to be met, decisions to be made, business to be attended to. Everyday there are people to relate to, conflicts to be resolved, actions that require more than we in our own strength alone can achieve. If Jesus needed help, what about you and me?

Here’s how Jesus did it, “Before daybreak Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray.”

Jesus knew he needed help. He knew that he could not live in this world without God. If he was going to spend himself for others, he must spend time spiritually refreshing himself. Jesus knew that it was not humanly possible to accomplish all that he needed to complete every day of his life by his own strength alone. He also knew that he didn't have to. Not when his loving Father was ever present, ready to provide, whatever he needed, whenever he needed it, however he needed it. All he had to do was ask. Remember, the Bible says we have not because we ask not. If we ask, we will receive.

Jesus didn't leave his meeting with God to chance. It appears from this text that he had an appointed time and place. His favorite time for his meeting with God was early morning. It takes discipline to get up in the morning for anything, and yet Jesus felt it was important enough. Some of us wouldn’t think of starting our day without a cup of coffee, but we start the day without God. We wouldn’t dare leave the house without a shower, but we leave without a serious time of prayer. My question is, can we manage not to? We already know that tomorrow will be a busy day. The demands put upon us will drain our energy and put our knowledge and talents to use. But what does our discipleship demand? How can we meet the needs around us without being filled with the energy and authority that only God can give?

That’s why we pray. Prayer is coming to God. Prayer is seeking God. Prayer is the appeal of the soul to God. Prayer is standing before God as “an empty pitcher before a full fountain.” Prayer is connecting with God who is the power source. Prayer is opening ourselves up to God for nourishment, as the flowers and trees open up to their environment: the air, the sunlight, and the rain. Prayer is communing with God. Prayer is living an intimate relationship with God. In prayer, we surrender all that we are to all that God is. In prayer, Jesus sought the strength that only communion with God could provide. If Jesus needed this in his life, what about you and me?

Prayer is everything. It’s what we do on Sunday, and what we do on Monday. Prayer is life. Prayer is an inner journey, and a relationship with a lover or friend. Prayer is practice and reflection. Prayer is silence and sound. Prayer is union and communion. Prayer is protest and passion. Prayer is intimacy and obedience. Prayer is everything.

Let’s be honest, shall we? Most of our meetings with God are not planned. Our prayers are occasional, spontaneous, spur of the moment prayers. If we meet with God, it’s usually an emergency or a crisis. Our backs are up against the wall, bills are due, a child is sick, it’s the end of the semester and there are exams to take, too many papers to write, too many proposals to get in, we need help. “I know what I’ll do,” we say, “I’ll ask God for help.” If the truth be told, we have tried everything else, now we will try God.

Is that the way to carry on a relationship with the lover of our souls? Is that how we should approach the one who loves us above all else – the one whom we say we love with heart, soul, mind, and strength? If you love God, why not take time to talk to God and let God talk to you?

In the Christian mystic tradition, there is a spiritual discipline called “practicing the presence of God.” It means really believing what we learned in Sunday School classes, confirmation sessions, and what we hear in sermons is actually true —God exists; God is always with us; God always loves us; God always helps us even when we don’t understand what God is doing. God is doing something new, even when we fear that God is doing nothing at all. “Practicing the presence of God,” means trusting that God are loves us fully and eternally. There is not a single moment in time when God is not with us. There is not a single experience in which God is absent.

Prayer grows out of the awareness that God is everywhere and in everything we do. Mary Oliver expresses this awareness in her poem “The Summer Day”:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

We practice the presence of God as we go about our daily tasks. Routine chores take on a sacred dimension when we practice the presence of God while doing them. Something as simple as eating has the power to make us sensitive to God’s presence. This form of praying is one of the easiest ways to pray. All in requires is that you accept the reality of God’s presence with you. Because of God’s presence, every thing we do, every movement we make, has a spiritual, a sacred dimension to it.

I think that some of us have a hard time with this because we don’t know what to say. We want to pray, but our minds go blank. We are like the child who accompanied his father to run some errands. When lunchtime arrived, the two of them went to a diner for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer.” Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but he just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When he finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?” With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.”

So, let me give you some words to try out. When you are about to begin a job or task, pause and offer up a prayer like this:
You, O God, are the creator of the whole world and of everything that is in it. You are found, not in lofty words or elaborate plans, but here, in the simple moments of life. Help me to know your presence, no matter what tasks lays before me. Use my heart and my hands for your glory. Amen.
Try it. Say something like this throughout your day, every day. Image what will happen inside of you, within your family, within our church if we began to pray like this. I think a few things will begin to happen.

First we will see Christ. Rather than looking for seeing sinners and unclean folk, we will see the world through what one church father called “grace-healed eyes.” We will look at the poor, the downtrodden, and the outcasts of society and see none other than the very image of the Son of God. This day I will not look for an enemy. In prayer, I see the potential for new relationships as I look at others with grace-healed eyes. When we practice the presence of God, we will see Christ.

Not only that, when we practice the presence of God, we will become like Christ. That’s the goal of our faith, isn’t it? We begin to take on the character traits of Jesus. His voice is my voice. His love is my love. His heart is my heart. His anger is my anger. His suffering for the world is mine. His involvement with the outcast is mine. His emphasis on the weightier matters will be mine. His impatience with religious squabbles that hurt people will be implanted in my own heart.
I think we will find something else begin to happen. We will find strength to be disciples. We will face the demands around us with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. The presence of God will refresh us. Our relationship with God will renew us. And you will begin to live in a spirit of prayer.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sermon for February 1, 2009

Touching Evil
Mark 1:21-28

I admit it – when it comes to the remote control usage in our house, I claim final authority. I sit in my favorite chair and scroll through the channels with the futile hope that if I flip through them fast enough and often enough, something interesting will automatically appear on my TV screen. It drives the family nuts. There are three shows that always stop my eager channel-flipping thumb. They captivate me. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I get some strange pleasure from them. The first is professional wrestling. What can I say? The second show that always stops me is fundraising on PBS. Not the endless showings of that Peter, Paul and Mary documentary or the insipid doo wop reunion shows. I’m talking about the actual pleas from smiling station mangers asking to support public television. I’m watch and root for them to make their fundraising goal, although I never call to make the pledge.

The third programs that stop me are the TV Preachers. They horrify and amuse me. Some of them are so creepy. I’ll watch for five or ten minutes if I can't find anything interesting just for a laugh. My favorite is the guy who dresses like Tom Jones and sells life-sized cardboard magnetic cut-outs of himself, and videos like “Kickin' the Devil Outta Your Life!” One time he interrupted his own sermon and began looking off into the distance, as if he had just spotted Sasquatch! Then came the gibberish: “Aba-soya-lato-yachimi-changa-kudio-abasoya- ba-ba!” Then he looked straight into the camera lens and revealed: "That was a word of knowledge for YOU.” Again, a sudden gibberish attack, almost like a seizure before he became utterly serious. “There’s a housewife in suburban New Jersey and another lady in Philadelphia. You know who you are don’t you? You know who you are because you’ve been suffering with a slipped disc in your back for YEARS! Yeah, I know. Modern medicine couldn’t heal you, but this was a SUPERNATURAL thing that just happened right here in my studio! I just heard those discs snap into place. Thank you Jesus! Thank you. I’m gonna be frank with you two: you need to send in a 500, NO, A 1000-dollar vow this minute! Call me at the number at the bottom of your television screen.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I genuinely respect people’s faith. But this resembled a liquidation sale of a cheap furniture factory. Unfortunately, thousands of people who cannot discern between legitimate theology and a scam send this guy money. I recently watched another TV preacher purge a demon from a suffering man over the phone. He claimed it was the worst case that had ever called his show. It took about thirty seconds to release this man from demonic possession. We are supposed to assume that he got his miracle. But at what cost? Who gives these people their authority?

Our world is filled with so called “authorities.” They fill the media with their most confident opinions. Health experts. Sporting pundits. Dietitians. Gardening experts. Stock market advisers. Psychologists. Astrologers. Ethical analysts. Political commentators. Automotive experts. Preachers claiming the only true gospel. Authorities are everywhere. The mass media delights in trotting them out on every question. They claim to really know what they are talking about. They want to influence us, and in some cases manipulate us for their purposes. The trouble is many of these authorities do not deliver what they promise. The stock market expert accepts no responsibility when his opinion costs you thousands. The automotive expert doesn’t care if you follow his opinion and end up buying a lemon. It doesn’t matter to the TV preacher if you gave your money away on an empty promise.

Today we listen to a different kind of expert. He’s been around for a long time. In the town of Capernaum, he taught in the synagogue’s Sabbath service. Those who listened “were astonished at his teaching, for unlike the scribes he taught them with a note of authority.” He healed a deranged man and they were the more amazed “With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” All kinds of people came under his sway: women, men, lepers, children, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, tax agents, laborers, call girls, soldiers, village people, city people, devout scholars, divorcees, the educated and illiterate. How can one explain it?

When Jesus of Nazareth taught, befriended, and healed people, something from deep within the human soul cried, “Yes! Yes! This is it! This is the real thing.” Jesus is a person of authority because he awakens an echo of God that lies deep inside us. We come face to face with him and something sacred, no matter how far buried under junk, resonates in his presence. A forgotten, neglected, or wounded part of us gasps with new hope. He awakens life that seems buried and bleak. Unlike the counterfeit authorities of our age, Jesus speaks to the core of our being, and that core stirs and starts to come to life.

Have you ever heard that voice, speaking to the core of your being? If not, then today is a chance to realize that Jesus, the one who speaks with God’s authority, has the power to liberate us from all that keeps us from being whole people. Christ shatters the domineering designs that shackle people to lower standards for life than God intends. Jesus stands ready to help us caste aside that which binds and constricts us, the demons that defeat our best and highest purposes. Christ stands ready with the authority of grace, which breaks the power of sin over us. Jesus speaks to our demons, and they obey.

I know. We don’t like to talk about demons. But I’m not talking about bat-winged creatures that torment you. I’m not talking about the enemies of TV evangelists and priests from horror movies. For me, any force that prevents even a single one of us from experiencing the full humanity God intends for all humanity is demonic. I think of possession as an unhealthy way of relating to God, our fellow human beings, and even our selves, that has taken root in us, taken on a life of its own, and threatens to take us over completely. I was once looking over some recovery literature and saw a piece called “A Letter From Your Addiction.” The beginning says,
I've come to visit once again. I love to see you suffer mentally physically spiritually and socially. I want to have you restless so you can never relax. I want you jumpy and nervous and anxious. I want to make you agitated and irritable so everything and everybody makes you uncomfortable. I want you to be depressed and confused so that you can’t think clearly or positively. I want to make you hate everything and everybody-especially yourself. I want you to feel guilty and remorseful for the things you have done in the past that you’ll never be able to let go. I want to make you angry and hateful toward the world for the way it is and the way you are. I want you to feel sorry for yourself and blame everything but your addiction for the way things are. I want you to be deceitful and untrustworthy, and to manipulate and con as many people as possible. I want to make you fearful and paranoid for no reason at all and I want you to wake up during all hours of the night screaming for me. You know you can’t sleep without me; I’m even in your dreams
Those are the words of evil. Addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and unhealthy relationships destroy constellations of lives. The evils of racism, sexism, and homophobia haunt our communities through generations. Poverty enslaves millions around the world, keeping them uneducated, unemployed, homeless, hungry, and hopeless despite an overabundance of resources.

Maybe if we close our eyes they will go away. No, that doesn’t work. They are too real to just ignore. Maybe we can run from them? But that won’t work either. Those who have tried know that our demons follow us.

I finally watched the movie “I Am Legend” with Will Smith playing Dr. Robert Neville, a world-famous epidemiologist. It’s a remake of Omega Man starring Chuck Heston. After a cancer cure mutates into a plague, Dr. Neville finds himself the only person left in New York City, and perhaps in the entire world. Something in his blood grants him immunity from a disease that turns people into sub-human, aggressive, violent killers. Neville’s only protection is his fortified bunker, and the sunlight -- which drives back the demonic hordes until nightfall. He tirelessly works on a cure for this disease, even though he thinks he is the only human left. But why? At one point in the movie, he meets two more survivors. They are traveling to a survivor’s colony, but Neville won’t go. He says, “The people who are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness.” I won’t give it all away, but by the end of the movie, Neville lights up the darkness. He doesn’t run and he doesn’t cover his eyes. He touches the evil around him. His courage and sacrifice give the rest of humanity a cure.

If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we are called to touch some of this evil, to light up the darkness, to courageously confront the demonic in our own lives and in our communities. We are called to name the powers that bind our lives and the lives of our sisters and brothers. We are called to name the abuse, the addictions, the bigotry, the violence, the poverty, the greed, the apathy, and every other demon that haunts this old world. This is part of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus.

As we take communion today, I want us to think about the authority that God gave to Jesus, and the authority that Jesus gives to us. Many of us have demons you are dealing with today. Your job may not be going well or you may have lost it. You may be struggling with illness or are feeling the pain of someone who is. You may be depressed, anxious, nervous, or scared. You may be looking for guidance or struggling to know where God is leading you. As you take the bread and the cup, remember the unbounded compassion that moves God to embrace us in all our faults and frailty and love us even more. We need to be healed in body, mind, and soul. We need to be raised from the dead and dying places in our lives. We need to be cleansed from every division. We need to be freed from the demonic powers that keep us separated from God and one another. We need help to become the people God created us to be.

As Christians, we believe God doesn’t play it safe up in heaven while we’re all down here enduring the daily grind. We believe that God-in-Jesus is the first one in line to take up the dangerous work of loving the world through its brokenness and back to wholeness, one crack at a time. Jesus will go all the way, even to the cross, even to death, to bring us the good news. Another world is possible. So we rest on his authority. We allow him to touch the evil within us and around us. And as he does, we find the courage to share the good news through our lips and through our lives. Don’t be afraid. Light up the darkness.


Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...