Unlike many of my teenage friends who were interested in romantic comedies about other teenagers finding love for the first time, I was always attracted to books and movies about demons, demon possession, exorcisms...that sort of thing. I can remember when Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie) first came out in the theater and how disappointed I was because it didn’t seem “authentic” enough. So when the TV show started, I was very excited by the magic, mythology, and of course, the demons.
But in the realm of fantasy, movies and books about demons are just that...fantasy. People are always terrified, running away, and trying to survive. The plot is built on fear and struggle, and at the end, there’s always this sense of relief because it’s “over”.
And yet, when we read the gospel stories of demon possession and exorcism, we don’t have that same sense of terror and suspense. For some of us, we might think of these stories as miraculous...things that only happened in the time of Jesus. Others of us might view these types of stories as a way for people in the early church to understand mental illness. And some of us might outright dismiss these stories as part of the “mythology” of the Jesus movement.
In the Gospel of Mark, there are 18 recorded miracles; 13 of these miracles are about healing. Of these 13 healing stories, 4 are stories of exorcism. For the writer of Mark, exorcisms performed by Jesus are always in the context of healing...of bringing someone back into a state of “cleanliness” or “purity”.
So in today’s gospel story, Jesus and his first followers--the men whom he’d called to be fishers of people--have entered into the temple on the Sabbath. There Jesus is participating in scripture study with other men and the writer tells us that he is speaking with authority. Among those gathered is a man with an “unclean spirit”.
As we are learning in Bible Study, there were many customs and traditions for the Jewish people around temple worship and cleanliness. Throughout the Old Testament we learn about sacrifices and purification rituals that were necessary for someone who was ritually unclean to perform prior to returning to the temple to worship with the community. Yet, this man appears not to have violated any purity laws, but rather is filled with an unclean spirit.
And Jesus speaks with authority. It’s an authority that even the demons--this unclean spirit--recognizes. It’s an authority that offers healing because it comes from God. And this authority will heal lepers, the blind, and a woman who bleeds for 12 years. It is an authority that brings peace to the broken and the broken-hearted.
Outside of fantasy novels, movies and the occasional tv preachers who perform exorcisms, we don’t think about casting out of demons on a day to day basis. It’s not part of our daily reality. And most of the time, if someone presents with mental illness, we refer them to appropriate resources, or flat out ignore them.
But let me tell you about Kevin. Kevin was a guest for two nights at the warming shelter. He was quite, polite, and grateful for a warm meal and a safe place for the night. As I was welcoming the guests, addressing questions and concerns, Kevin shared with me that he was trying to get to Boise. And he was hopeful for a bus ticket. We made arrangements for him to come by the church the next day to get a bus voucher.
The next day, after Kevin and I got his bus ticket situation settled, I asked him how he came to be at the shelter. He told me bits and pieces of his life story...his past struggle with drugs and alcohol and trying to live sober, his son in the army, his on again off again life on the street for twenty years. His story was both unique and somewhat typical of many of our guests at the shelter. But then he got quiet. And he told me how unworthy he was of God’s love and mercy. I told him that everyone is worthy...God’s mercy and love were boundless. Kevin, with tears in his eyes, with the words getting stuck in his throat, told me he was too broken.
And now I understand, Kevin and this man in Mark’s gospel story, this man with the unclean spirit, they both need the healing that only Jesus can give. We aren’t called--I’m not called--to exorcise the demons that people have. But we are called to be present, to listen to stories, to pray, and to invite--through word and deed--to invite others to experience the healing, love and mercy that only God can give.
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
The story from 1 Samuel is a story of calling. God calls the boy Samuel to reveal to the tired and corrupt priest Eli, that his time is over. A new, radical transition is about to take place. Samuel is one of those in a long line of “unlikely” prophets and apostles...the ones that “shouldn’t” be called by God to do anything special. And yet, he responds to God’s calling to follow.
The story from the Gospel of John is also one of calling. It is here that Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael to follow him in his ministry. The gospel writer doesn’t tell us that Philip and Nathanael are particularly important people in their community...they seem to be pretty average men. If anything, Nathanael might even be a little gullible by today’s standards; he confesses that Jesus is the Son of God simply because Jesus says he saw him sitting under a fig tree and knew his heart to be pure. By all accounts, Philip and Nathanael have nothing unique to offer Jesus as followers, except that they respond to his call.
From time to time when I met someone new and we begin the conversations of getting to know one another, the person will ask me if I always knew that I wanted to be a priest. If you’ve had this conversation with me, you’ll know that I often laugh or give this long “Ooooh, noooo” response. The truth is, never in a million years would I have imagined becoming a priest. I was not the most “saintly” child and young adult...I made a ton of mistakes, got in lots of trouble with my parents and teachers, and was hard headed. In my early adult years, I got married and divorced and wasn’t sure what direction my life was going in. Priesthood wasn’t anywhere on my radar.
But that’s how it is with God. When something new is about to happen, God calls the most unlikely to respond, to come and see how the Kingdom of God is unfolding, and how they are apart of that transition.
Tomorrow we celebrate the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. On Wednesday we honored him at our midweek service. On Monday night there will be a community wide celebration at Riverside Church beginning at 5pm with a potluck supper. If you study The Rev. Dr. King’s life, you know that he was destined to be a preacher--he was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers. He went on to get his BA, BD and PhD in Systematic Theology from Boston College. But did he know that he would later become a leader in the Civil Rights Movement or was this a special calling from God? Personally, I believe it was a calling from God.
Like Samuel, Philip, Nathanael and all the other prophets, apostles, teachers and preachers that came before and after him, Martin Luther King was called by God to help bring about God’s justice in the world. Part of the reason that I think that the Rev. Dr. King is considered by the church a prophet, is because he called attention to the need for transformation and was deeply grounded in love.
In his August 16, 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he asked “where do we go from here”. It had been 10 years since the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the segregation of whites and blacks. In the year preceding this speech, there had been an increase in black voter registration. Adult education and community organization training had been started. Revitalization of housing projects had begun in Chicago, as well as economic support for black small business owners. Housing for the black elderly community members had begun in Atlanta, with the hope of making more housing available from Mississippi to North Carolina.
Like a biblical prophet, Dr. King called to us to reflect on who were were, where we’d come from and where we still needed to go. In response to his question “where do we go from here” he said, “First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black. “ And then he went on to say, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”
This is a calling that is put before all of us in our baptismal covenant...to respect the dignity of every human being. And it’s something that we constantly have to work on. This calling began in the Old Testament when Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, it continued through the rise of priests and kings, and in the New Testament we read that Jesus was constantly working to overturn systems of domination and oppression by asking his followers to care for the women, the orphaned, and the “least of these”. This is still our calling today. And all of us can do this, even if we’re not prophets or priests. All of us are called to use our power with love, putting our faith into action for justice and freedom.
And so this morning I ask you to consider how you are responding to this call from Jesus...will you come and see how God is enacting change in the world?
Jan 11, 2015 Baptism of our Lord
This week I’ve been think a lot about transformation. I have been witness to people’s pain and hopelessness, and watched as new opportunities have presented themselves to transform that pain into joy. This week I saw the return of a shelter guest with their 30 day sobriety chip from AA. This week I sat with a dying mother, a woman strong in her faith, and prayed with her daughter, a woman who had walked away from the church. This week I listened as a colleague wrestled with his calling to priesthood, and yet still experiences God’s grace in the midst of his confusion.
Yet, even in the midst of these revelations of God’s grace, I found myself at a loss for words of wisdom about the baptism of Jesus. So I sat here, looking at our beautiful stained glass windows, praying for inspiration and a new way of hearing this gospel story. I have played with all the traditional questions of "why did Jesus need to get baptized" and "what does it mean to be baptized in the Spirit". So when all else fails, pray. And so I did.
The first window is for Advent...the time of preparation and waiting. It is the start of the new liturgical year. We sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and read the story of John telling us to "prepare the way". We watch, wait, and hope for God’s incarnation.
The second window is for Christmas...the celebration of the in-breaking of God into our world through the birth of a child. We celebrate the coming of Immanuel--God with us--and read about angels and shepherds.
The third window is for Epiphany...a time of revelation, of seeing things in a new way, a time of light and life. We celebrate and magi who come bearing gifts, but who chose to return home on a different road. We celebrate the naming and baptism of Jesus, and our calling to be among God’s beloved.
The fourth window is for Lent...another time of preparation. But this time we're wilderness wanderers, reflecting on our sin and call to obedience. Again, we prepare for the pending death of Christ. We fast and pray. We read the Passion narrative and are told that the temple curtain is torn.
The fifth window is for Easter...the celebration of rebirth. We celebrate our risen Lord through praise and thanksgiving, and we participate in the outward signs of inward grace--the rites of baptism and confirmation. We experience new life in Christ, and we are reconciled and healed. We rejoice with Alleluias abounding.
The sixth window is for Pentecost...the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Again, an in-breaking of God. A celebration of new spiritual gifts of healing, teaching, and preaching. We go into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, which is symbolized by a descending dove.
The final window is a tribute to St. Francis and a reminder to be instruments of peace and to preach the gospel, using words only when necessary.
And in meditating on these windows, the words of Mark's gospel came over me. Suddenly I had new eyes and ears for this gospel. So let's look at it again.
John the Baptizer is proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins and telling people about the coming of one who will baptize in the spirit. This is the Advent moment if you will. Be prepared. Watch for the one who is coming. And people from all around are coming to hear this message--this annunciation if you will--and they are waiting.
And then Jesus comes into the picture. Mark doesn't give us a birth narrative the way Matthew and Luke do, so in some ways, Jesus appearing on the scene is Mark's birth story...Jesus is coming to be "reborn" through baptism. And when he comes out of the water, God says "You are my Son, the Beloved".
Then it's almost as if the entire Lenten, Easter and Pentecost stories happen simultaneously for Mark...or maybe it's a foreshadowing of the events to come. Because as Jesus comes out of the water--out of death into new life--the heavens are torn open and the spirit descends on him like a dove. We see these events elsewhere...when Jesus dies on the cross, the temple curtain is torn; when Jesus is raised, it is into a new life, a heavenly life; and when the Spirit comes into the upper room, it is with a breath or wind like that of creation, descending like a dove.
So maybe I'm stretching our liturgical seasons a bit here in trying to make this connection with Mark. But then again, I think there might be something to it. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and he is known for writing in a way that foreshadows events to come. Maybe in this little opening piece of the gospel, Mark is telling us not only about the life of Jesus, but also the life of discipleship. We too have to prepare, wait, watch for the in-breaking of God, die to this life and be born anew, and then go out rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. It isn't a simple, stayed life, but one that is filled with the creative power of God.
Which brings me back to those traditional questions: Why does Jesus need to be baptized? What does it mean to be baptized in the Spirit?
According to theologian Lee Barrett, Jesus’ baptism and death on the cross are intimately linked. God naming Jesus as “Son” at his baptism, points the way to his suffering and death: “...Jesus voluntarily joins the ranks of penitent sinners. This trajectory is continued through [Mark’s] Gospel as Jesus accepts multiple forms of suffering. In fact...the “messianic secret” is the scandal that the Messiah must suffer, even to death. The victory of resurrection and anticipated return is inseparable from the obedient suffering; the crown cannot be had without the cross.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, Kindle Edition)
We know the Spirit is a creative force--it was there in the beginning as God's breath, breathing life into a formless void. We know that the liturgical action of baptism is an outward sign of an inward change--that somehow we are being called into relationship with God who knows us as "beloved". We know that the Spirit is transformative--it can enter into dark places and create light; it can energize us and send us out into the world just as it did for those early disciples in the upper room, and for those disciples of the early church. Being baptized with water in the Spirit drives us to participate in and proclaim with boldness the Good News of the Kingdom of God!
This morning, I invite you to meditate on our beautiful stained glass windows. How do they represent the story of your life in Christ? Where are you witnessing and experiencing transformation?
What a great story we have in this gospel lesson of the visit of the three magi or wise men. The writer of the gospel of Matthew really provides us with drama...Herod’s anxiety and paranoia is palpable...why is he so afraid of a baby? I can picture Mary still in the barn, holding the infant Jesus, perhaps nursing him or singing him a lullaby. And then these men, dressed in fine robes with treasure chests arrive. While the Bible doesn’t say that there were three of them, we make the assumption that there were based on the number of gifts presented. This assumption became legend through hymns such as “We three kings” and countless nativity paintings, and the eventual naming of the men--Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. The gifts they offer are pretty legendary too--gold, frankincense and myrrh. I remember once being told that these gifts were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death; the gold was for the cost of a tomb and the frankincense and myrrh were to be used as perfumes and ointments for his body.
And then there’s the wonderful children’s story that isn’t anywhere in the Bible--the story of the little drummer boy. Composed in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis and turned into a Christmas special in 1968 by Rankin and Bass (the same guys who made the Rudolph movie), it’s the story of a poor boy name Aaron who is angry at the world, and yet is called by the three wise men to accompany them on their journey to Bethlehem. When he arrives at the scene, he has nothing to offer but a song on his drum. And this song causes Jesus to laugh and Mary nods her head along in rhythm. The claymation Christmas special by Rankin and Bass ended with this quote:
Aaron's heart was filled with joy and love. And he knew at last that the hate he had carried there was wrong. As ALL hatred will ever be wrong. For more powerful, more beautiful by far than all the eons of sadness and cruelty and desolation which had come before, was that one tiny, crystalline second of laughter. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I share this story with you not to take away from the powerful and vibrant gospel message that Matthew provides, but because more often than not, while I’d love to be able to give Jesus special treasures like gold, frankincense and myrrh, the truth is I often I feel like I have nothing to give. I’m just boring old me with nothing special or unique to offer Jesus. And yet, in the story of Aaron, the little drummer boy, we learn that we--all that we are--is good enough. We learn that in offering ourselves, we are given back more love and grace than we could ever imagine.
So I thought this Sunday we’d have a little participation...a little activity if you will.
You have all been given a piece of paper and there are pens and pencils floating around.
On your piece of paper, I’d like you to write down what gift you bring before Jesus. A few years ago when we did this at the Epiphany evening service, words like “truthfulness, peace and love” were offered. Those are all great examples. But don’t let that limit you. Maybe you bring music, poetry, or laughter. Maybe you bring service, humility, or care. Whatever it is that you have to offer will be perfect. And it doesn’t have to be one word, it can be a phrase...that’s ok too. There are no wrong answers.
When you’re done writing down your gift, please pass your paper to the person closest to the center aisle...we’ll collect your gifts in a basket and present them to Jesus.
(Wait...when the gifts have been collected and brought forth, end with this prayer:)
Blessed Savior, in love you came to us as a child: Enlighten our hearts, that we may more deeply understand the richness of this gift and practice more faithfully your call to give of ourselves in love. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.