Repossessed

(sermon 1/28/18)

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They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.  – Mark 1:21-28

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It happened more than ten years ago. I had just started pastoring this little country church about an hour south of Columbus, a brand-new Commissioned Lay Pastor, on the job for about a month, maybe two, ready to set the world on fire and do the very best I could for this wonderful little congregation. On this particular Sunday morning, I’d just taught an Adult Sunday School class, part of a series, about how the Bible came to be, and what the best available scholarship could tell us about who may have written various parts, and when, and why. When the class was over, as we moved into the sanctuary just before the service began, we noticed that we had visitors. They weren’t hard to notice, sitting in the sanctuary that held maybe forty or forty-five people on a normal Sunday. Four visitors, actually – a husband and wife, and a son, maybe 13, and a daughter, maybe 12. In other words, the supposed demographic gold mine for churches looking for visitors and potentially new members, especially for a congregation that hadn’t likely seen a new member in a number of years, and we were all pleased and excited to see them. They sat there in a nice row, each of them with their very own personal copy of the King James Version of the Bible with matching brown leatherette zip-up covers. The preaching text that morning was from the Second Letter to Timothy – and wanting to make some connection between the sermon and the Sunday School class, I’d wanted to say that even though the text of the letter says it was written by Paul, most scholars today agree that it wasn’t actually written by Paul, but rather, it was likely written by one of Paul’s followers, but ultimately that wasn’t important; what mattered was the content, the point that the words were making.

That was what I’d intended to say, anyway, but I never quite got all that out. As soon as I said that Paul likely hadn’t written the letter, the husband in this family jumped up out of his seat – it was so fast, so instantaneous, that you’d have thought the pew was spring-loaded and he’d just been ejected into the air. And within a split second, the three others sprung up, too. And the man started pushing his family out into the aisle while waving his finger at me and yelling at the top of his lungs, “Shame on you! Shame! Blasphemy! This is the Word of God! Paul wrote it or he didn’t; he wrote it or he didn’t! Shame on you! Shame! You’re a blasphemer!!!!” And he kept right on yelling as he marched his family up the aisle, and out the door, and SLAM! They were gone.

Well, my CLP training had prepared me for a lot of things, but this wasn’t one of them. I vaguely remember standing there in the pulpit looking as shocked and surprised as everyone else, but then, after a moment of fumbling around both verbally and physically, I regained my stride and we went on with the service.

Well, the following Sunday, the loud, spring-loaded visitors were still on everyone’s mind. Now in this church, there was a sturdy old oak office chair that sat along the back wall of the sanctuary, just inside the main entry vestibule. And every Sunday, a man named Joe, who was sort of the unofficial head usher, sat in that chair. So this Sunday, with people wondering what I might say about the events of the week before, I stepped into the pulpit, cleared my throat, and I looked to the back of the sanctuary and said, “Um, Joe, would you lock the door?” And we all laughed, and life went on.

In today’s gospel text, we heard about a similar kind of unexpected disruption and challenge to Jesus as he was teaching in a synagogue very early in his ministry. Of course, he handled his situation more decisively and with more authority than I handled mine, but, you know, that makes sense because he’s Jesus and I’m not. But just picture that scene. There’s Jesus, preaching and teaching and the people are amazed at what they were hearing, until Jesus is interrupted by this man that Mark tells us was possessed by an “unclean spirit.”

If you’re like me, you get a little uncomfortable with scriptural stories of spirit-possessed people. I mean, we’re living in an age of advanced knowledge of all sorts, and we also know that any number of perfectly understandable, non-supernatural mental illnesses were described in the pre-scientific culture of Jesus’ time as having been possessed by an unclean spirit. On the other hand, we know that we are beings of both body and spirit,  inherently, as part of our being human. We know that there is certainly a spiritual realm to the universe. So what was really going on with this disturbed man in this story?

I guess to me, the question of whether the man was possessed or suffering a mental or emotional illness is as unimportant as whether Paul wrote Second Timothy or not. The important point, to me, is the agony, the despair, that the man was feeling – and that he was apparently feeling it because of what Jesus was saying. Jesus was proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God’s love for all people. He was proclaiming the arrival of God’s good news for the poor, the sick, the lame, the hungry, the widow and the orphan and all those who have been pushed aside in this world.

And somehow, this was apparently bad news for the man. Clearly, whatever the details of his condition, he was miserable, but at least there was familiarity and comfort in his misery. He knew what he could count on, and what he couldn’t. But now, this new message from God, delivered with power and authority, meant that all that the man had come to depend on was being tossed out. Now there would be new rules, and undoubtedly change, and uncertainty; and for him, that wasn’t seen as gospel, good news, at all, but rather, it was very bad news, even with the love that the message came embedded in.

In response, Jesus speaks powerfully to the man; harshly, even. This actually becomes a recurring theme in Mark’s gospel, Jesus from time to time speaking with real harshness,  even anger, and virtually every time it happens, it’s a case like this – where Jesus is essentially rebuking someone or something in this world that was working to keep people from experiencing the full, abundant, loving, and yes, risk-taking, life that God intends for all of us. In this story, whether the man is literally possessed or not, Jesus is essentially “repossessing” him, whether he likes it or not; reclaiming him from being a child of misery and hopelessness, and reclaiming him as a child of God, belonging to God and God alone, and deserving of so much more than the limited, and limiting, way of living that the man had become accustomed to.

In just a little while, we’ll be baptizing Matilda. In a way, baptism is a sign of this kind of repossession that’s occurring in this story – this idea of God clearly, decisively, and with power and authority claiming a person as belonging to God, and being a part of God’s covenant, and deserving of that same full, abundant life that Jesus wanted for the man in this story.

On this day, when we celebrate this new baptism, let’s think about our own baptism, and what it means to us – both the grace, the love, the acceptance; as well as the challenge and the responsibility, because in the realm of God we never get one without the other.

As far as yelling and shouting, if there’s to be any yelling today, let it be shouts of  joy and gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives, and that God promises to do in Matilda’s life. If there’s to be any jumping out of seats today, let it be to jump up and give Matilda a standing ovation as a sign of God’s love, and of ours.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Milestones

(sermon 1/7/18 – Baptism of Jesus)

Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (mosaic) - Ravenna, Italy
Baptism of Christ, mosaic detail, Ravenna, Italy, circa 451 CE

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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I remember when I was very young, for some reason, for most of the big annual events in our family – Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and so on – we usually gathered at my grandparents’ house to celebrate. When we did, you could be sure that at some point, my grandfather would drag out his 8mm movie camera to make sure the gathering would be recorded for posterity. That was fine, but back then, cameras really didn’t have low-light capabilities, so whenever the camera came out, so did the big lighting attachment that came with it. It was a metal bar that held two great big incandescent floodlights that, when lit, were about as bright as the sun and twice as hot. Really, as soon as he hit the switch, it scarred the retinas of everyone in the room. You could practically feel the moisture being evaporated out of your skin, paint started to peel off the walls, and the plastic flowers stuck in the ceramic black panther planter started to melt and drip down onto the table. And of course, right after he threw the switch, while we were all feeling like we’d just experienced a thermonuclear blast, the first thing my grandfather would say was “All right, now, everyone SMILE!”

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“Okay everyone, SMILE!”

Well, thank goodness that over time, cameras could do better and better with less and less light, and we went from 8mm film cameras to Super-8, then on to the big video cassette recorders that rode on your shoulder like a boom box, and then camcorders got smaller and smaller, and now, when most of us want to record something, we just pull out our phones.

Whether we record them or not, these kinds of events that my grandfather was thoughtful enough to record way back then, and the similar ones that we all experience today, are milestones in our lives. They’re mileposts that commemorate and help us to understand the whole arc of our lie’s journey. First words. First steps. First bicycle ride. First love. Eagle Scout ceremonies. Graduations, initiations, maybe ordinations. Marriages. Births. Deaths.

Today, we heard the story of one milestone in Jesus’ life – one that most of us have also experienced, the milestone of baptism. In this passage from Mark, we hear how Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized. Now, for the most part, we don’t know much about what Jesus was doing up till this time, but it appears that he’d been engaged in some kind of trade, apparently making a living as some kind of builder or craftsman, and he’d likely been doing so since he was maybe 14 or 15, so now at age 30 or so, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of a completely new direction – it’s the beginning of what’s essentially a second-career call for him. So when I read this story, I try to imagine what must have been going through Jesus’ mind as he was being baptized. How much did he know, and how much didn’t he know, about what the next few years were going to bring? Did he wonder how this would change his life? Did he wonder where God would lead him, or if God would protect him and provide for him? Did he wonder if he was even doing the right thing at all? All the questions that any of us might wonder as we start something new. But then, as Jesus is coming back up out of the water, he hears those amazing, validating words, “You are my Son, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is a visible sign of his acceptance by God, that God blessed him and his ministry, and that he is an integral part of the overarching covenant that God made with humanity.

For us, baptism means much the same thing. It’s an outward sign and seal of the great truth that God has claimed us, and calls us God’s own; that we’re also a part of that same covenant that God has established. That being part of this covenant is in some way that we can’t fully understand made possible through Jesus himself. Through baptism, Christ asks us to call ourselves by his name, the name Christian, and to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that through him, God forgives our shortcomings and failures in our relationship with God and one another. The waters of baptism symbolize that God chooses to consider those shortcomings, that sin, to be washed away. Baptism is the milestone that marks the beginning of our journey of faith in Christ, a journey that ultimately comes to its conclusion in our death.

This is a time of milestones for us here, as a church, too. Today, we all mourn the death of Dick, our beloved family member. At the same time, we celebrate the reality that he has completed his own journey that began with his baptism, and that he is now living life whole, healed, and in the presence of God. We also celebrate today because we’re welcoming Teresa as a new member to our congregation, and because of the news that Edwin will soon be starting as our new Coordinator of Youth Ministries. And we look forward to the great milestone of Matilda’s baptism, which will take place during worship on the 28th of this month.

The new year is going to bring a lot of milestones for us – milestones in our personal lives, in our national life, in the political realm, and our congregational life together, too. Who knows what all this year will bring? At the beginning of 2017, could we have imagined what the year would bring? Now, as we begin 2018, it’s exciting to imagine what will unfold this year for all of us.

Some of our milestones this year will probably be easy to recognize as they’re happening. Others will probably be more subtle – they won’t be marked by clouds rolling back, or descending doves, or the booming voice of God, or even the glaring lights of a movie camera. Some of them might only be recognized in hindsight, after we’ve had time to think about them. Whatever milestones do occur, though, and whether they come wrapped in joy and laughter, or fears, or even tears, we can experience them all with the assurance that God is journeying through it all together with us, alongside us, strengthening us; and that, just as was the case with Jesus, we’ll be kept in God’s loving embrace, whatever unfolds.

Thanks be to God.