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.



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