A Sermon about Casting Out Demons: Lectionary 10 / Pentecost 3

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
10 June 2018 + Lectionary 10B (Pentecost 3)
Mark 3.20-35


Well, that escalated quickly. In one moment, Jesus and his disciples are about to sit down for a quiet meal at home. And then, all of a sudden, Jesus is confronted by an angry mob, made up of the religious scribes and his own family. He’s gone out of his mind! He’s possessed by a demon!

How did we get here? What happened, only three chapters into Jesus’s ministry in Mark, to elicit such a strong reaction against him? When his family heard it… heard what? Maybe it’s helpful to back up a bit…

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’s disciples plucking grain to eat and Jesus himself healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath — actions that lead to a debate about what Sabbath is all about and, ultimately, to the beginning of the conspiracy to have Jesus destroyed. Then, Jesus retreats with his disciples, with a great multitude in tow, and Jesus continues to preach and teach, to cure and heal, to cast out demons and drive out unclean spirits. So overwhelmed by the response and all the people coming to him, Jesus starts recruiting followers, twelve of them to be exact, whom he appoints to proclaim the message of good news and continue the work of casting out demons that he began.

And then he comes home, to sit down and have a little rest and something to eat, which brings us to our passage at hand. When his family heard it… When his family heard about everything Jesus was doing — announcing the dawn of the reign of God, proclaiming the message of good news and liberation, casting out demons and driving out evil forces — they went out to restrain him…

“While confined here in the Birmingham city jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. begins his letter to his fellow clergy colleagues, “I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’” In the hard-fought struggle against segregation, the response among many in the church, and mostly the white church, if we’re being honest, was one of hesitancy: Wait! they said. It was to those who tried to restrain King and other civil rights leaders, who thought it was all too much, too quickly, whose words and actions (or lack thereof) suggested that those fighting injustice had gone out of their minds, it is to these people that King responds: Waiting doesn’t work because waiting almost always means never. Because freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.

Wait! those who try to restrain Jesus tell him. It’s too much, too quickly. Sure, there are people who are hungry, who are suffering, who are sick, who are possessed by demons, and someone should do something about that, eventually. But not now. It’s causing too much of a scene. Wait…

Speaking of demons: Mark seems to be a bit obsessed with them. Jesus gains popularity by casting out demons; his disciples have the authority to cast out demons themselves; and the scribes are convinced that Jesus himself is possessed by a demon. What are we supposed to make of that? Demons, in the supernatural sense, can seem like a foreign concept to our supposedly sophisticated, 21st-century minds, though it is also true that many of our Christian siblings around the globe even today are convinced of their existence. I honestly don’t know, and that question is for another sermon.

But I am convinced that evil is real: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, gun violence, lack of access to health care, immigrants separated from their families at the border,  the stigma of suicide and mental illness, gender-based violence and discrimination, ecological harm and destruction to our planet. Evil is real, and these are our demons.

Evil pervaded Jesus’s world as much as it plagues our own. The demons of injustice haven’t gone away in all these years and it seems they’re not going away anytime soon, and that makes the call to wait, the call to exercise restraint, all the more absurd.

Jesus sees the demons of injustice around him, and he is compelled to do something, to act: to resist oppression, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to proclaim liberation and abundant life for all.

We know this is the call of the church. We don’t always practice it, but we hear it all the time. Yet even at our best, sometimes it can feel like a losing battle. How long, O Lord? we cry, echoing the psalmist, exasperated and weary at seeing so much brokenness, so much evil, so much injustice, around us every day.

In the midst of that, the biblical witness also reminds us of our chosenness by God. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus announces that the reign of God is one where outsiders will become insiders, and he redraws the lines of family and belonging. Who are my mother and my brothers? Jesus isn’t exactly dismissing or forgetting his birth family, as if he needs to be reminded. But looking at those who sit around him, he says, Here are my mother and my brothers! These, all of them, all who are oppressed, cast down, marginalized, are my family!

In God’s reign of justice that Jesus has come to announce, all are included. When Jesus redraws the lines of family and belonging, he paints a picture of what the reign of God looks like: displacing a reign of evil and the demons of injustice with God’s reign of justice and equity, displacing a reign of exclusion with God’s message of inclusion, displacing a reign of hate with the gospel message of love.

In Mark, the beginning of Jesus’s ministry starts with his baptism, a sign of his chosenness by God: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And in our baptism, we too are chosen and beloved by God.

In Jesus’s family, water is thicker than blood. It is the waters of baptism that that make us siblings with and in Christ; it is these waters which unite us with God; and it is these waters which unite us with each other. In the waters of baptism, God chooses us and binds us together in God’s family.

It is these waters of baptism into which we are immersed and from which we rise daily, drowning evil, committed to resisting the demons of injustice, and striving for God’s reign of love.

Rooted in this baptismal covenant, our identity as God’s own children, named and claimed as God’s own beloved, an identity which no one and nothing can ever take away, we are given the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves — indeed, the freedom and power to cast out demons.

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A Sermon about Stories and Baptism (or, Who says Snapchat is a frivolous waste of time?)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
8 January 2017 + Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3.13-17



I confess that, as of late, I have become obsessed with Snapchat. I normally consider myself to be pretty tech- and social media-savvy, but it was only a few months ago that a friend introduced me to this app. I have quickly become something of an expert.

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If you’re not familiar with Snapchat, it’s essentially designed to share photos and short videos with friends, but the content shared only lasts for up to ten seconds before disappearing. I think it’s a brilliant concept. Suddenly I can post all the selfies, pictures of food, or feline photo shoots I want—with no lasting evidence to suggest that I might be a self-absorbed, gluttonous, crazy cat person.

While “snaps,” as the messages are called, can be sent to particular friends, you can also post them to a feature of the app called “My Story,” which anyone can view for up to 24 hours—the idea being that your “Story” would capture your day over a handful of individual moments.

As a preacher, I can’t help but imagine the idea of stories through a theological lens. In pastoral care classes in seminary and one-on-one conversations with many of you, I have come to greatly value stories as windows into what makes a person who they are and what motivates them to do what they do.

Stories are crucial to human existence. They’re the ways we order and make sense of our lives. We tell stories about when we were born, where we grew up, when we fall in love, when loved ones die. We tell stories to understand our origins and to give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

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Scripture too is full of stories. Whether  or not these stories are literal accounts of history doesn’t make them any less true—true in the sense of what Marcus Borg has called their “more-than-literal” meaning. In other words, the stories of our faith are  essentially metaphors that convey some truth about who God is and who we are.

There’s the story of creation, fall, and promise that shows us a God who yearns to be in relationship with human beings, whatever the cost. Or the story of the exodus, that speaks of God’s desire to liberate those who suffer oppression.

More recently in our church year, we heard the story of the nativity, the moment when God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, as an act of solidarity with human beings.

Regrettably, the gospels offer us precious little in the way of the childhood stories of Jesus, aside from his circumcision and that unfortunate episode where Mary and Joseph lose their pre-teen son in downtown Jerusalem.

Instead, in the gospel of Matthew, we go immediately from Jesus’s birth and John the Baptist’s preaching to the first story of an adult Jesus, just before he begins his public ministry: his baptism.

Wait a minute, though: Wasn’t the whole point of John’s ministry of offering baptism to his followers for the sake of repentance and the forgiveness of sin? It’s no wonder, then, that we get this skirmish between John and Jesus. I need to be baptized by you, John begins, and do you come to me? It seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

Let it be so now, or perhaps truer to the original Greek text: Permit it at this specific time, for this specific purpose.

Like the other stories of our faith tradition recorded in the pages of scripture, this episode too tells us something more-than-literal. Of course, Jesus is not in need of forgiveness, but he comes to John “to fulfill all righteousness,” righteousness as an act of discipleship, a way of participating in the unfolding of the reign of God and the message that Jesus came to share.

So Jesus’s baptism is at once drastically unlike our own baptisms—I don’t remember any doves or voices from heaven at mine—but it also tells us something familiar about the life of faith. To paraphrase biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, baptism assumes wilderness.

Immediately after his baptism follows the other familiar story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. When Lewis suggests that baptism assumes wilderness, she reminds  us that being in the wilderness is part of what it means to be God’s people (just look at the ancient Israelites in the desert!). But I would even go so far as to say that wilderness is part of what it means to be human.

After all, there seems to be plenty of wilderness to journey through in this life. I was sitting in the chapel at Trinity Cathedral just this Friday when my phone buzzed with a news alert of yet another mass shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

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Wilderness, though, is often a lot more personal: grieving the death of a loved one, coping with the aftermath of a breakup or divorce, living in the uncertainty of unemployment or underemployment. Wilderness assumes that there will be ups and downs and more downs in the life of faith, but wilderness also assumes company.

There’s a reason that baptism takes place in the midst of the Sunday assembly. In turn, the pastor asks parents, sponsors, and the whole congregation if they promise to help, nurture, and support the baptized as they grow in the Christian faith and life.

Yes, in baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own, but we are also incorporated into the body of Christ, made visible in our local congregations. Baptism assumes wilderness, but it also means that we never have to go through that wilderness alone.

viewer-23g97nmIn just over a week, we as a congregation will embark on a book study, exploring together the meaning of our faith in order to be better equipped at telling our stories—our stories which begin in baptism but continue to unfold over our lives as people of God. Telling our stories offers us the chance not only to reflect on our own lives but also to offer strength and presence to others. It’s an act of discipleship and of community, as we live out God’s reign of love and justice.

Like the stories of scripture, our own stories are also sacred, revealing the ways that God continues to speak through us to a broken world.

A Sermon for the New Year on the Feast of the Name of Jesus

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First Lutheran Church of Avoca
1 January 2017 + Name of Jesus
Luke 2.15-21



Well, it’s finally over. 2016. It’s been quite a year. An understatement if ever there was one. I’m sure I was not alone last night in watching the ball drop in Times Square as we said “good riddance!” to the past year, in eager anticipation of turning the page and looking ahead to the future.

New Year’s Eve has the tendency to make us reflect on the past year, which gives us pause—especially this year, it seems. Of course, there are the happy, joy-filled moments: engagements and marriages, new births and milestone birthdays, memorable vacations. But it can also be outright depressing, combing through headlines of tragedy after tragedy,  or even just calling to mind those somber moments closer to home: a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, an unsettling diagnosis, the loss of a job.

These things and more are the reason that many churches during the holiday season hold Blue Christmas services for those who experience some degree of “disconnect from the joy and cheer” of these weeks that seems to come so easily to others. So much so that it can even make us feel isolated. [1]

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Blue Christmas at Table Grace Café, December 20, 2016

At my internship congregation in Omaha, we hosted one such Blue Christmas service at a local nonprofit cafe, sensing the need for some kind of ritual space to name the complex emotions that come from difficult experiences. It was an opportunity to provide safe, sacred space for those who needed it, and in that space, as I heard in feedback after the service by so many, comes a reminder of our belovedness by God and our inherent sacred worth as individuals.

Like Blue Christmas, the turning of the year brings up a lot of feelings—some of anguish and despair and sadness that seem like they will never end over what and who we may have lost in the past twelve months, and some of an anxious and timid hope over what the future holds.

In this liminal space between endings and beginnings, our readings for this feast day of the Name of Jesus could not be more appropriate. They speak of blessing and being named and chosen as God’s own.

The account of Jesus’s circumcision in the gospel of Luke is only one verse long, but this ritual for observant Jews in the ancient world was one of tremendous importance that signified God’s everlasting covenant with God’s people. And yet the even greater emphasis in this very short account is on the naming of Jesus, hence the title assigned to this feast day — Name of Jesus. Jesus’s name, which means “God saves,” signified both an act of blessing and a bold declaration of who this child was.

This twin act of blessing and naming is not a foreign concept to us who are Christian, either. In baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sealed by that Spirit and marked with cross of Christ forever. Baptism gives us our identity as beloved children of God, and it also gives us a sense of holy purpose: being so named and claimed as God’s own, we are sent — or we might say blessed — to love and serve all people and proclaim God’s extravagant love for them and for all creation.

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The church indeed does a lot of blessing. In baptism, we bless water, and at the table, we bless bread and wine. At other times, we bless homes, and pets, and backpacks, and bicycles. We bless these things not necessarily to make them “holy” or to transform them into something else. But we bless these ordinary things to remind ourselves of the source of all that is — that source that is so very good at blessing ordinary things, as our offering prayer for Christmas reminds us, coming to us a baby in a manger, sleeping on straw, and being greeted by shepherds. The holy blessing the ordinary.

Blessing comes to us most often at significant passages of time, and it reminds of who we are and what we are called to do. The act of blessing and receiving blessing gives us an opportunity to pause, to be renewed, and to begin again.

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Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797), abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, died  November 26, 1883

 

Isabella Baumfree, who was born into slavery but later escaped, went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Of course, you might know her better as Sojourner Truth, the name she gave herself when she converted to Methodism, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Her name literally became the theme of her life’s work, a blessing as she traveled and preached justice and equality until the day she died.

As for looking back on a year that seems scarce in blessings, maybe it’s not all that bad. In the midst of a wave of tragedies and celebrity deaths, many have blamed the calendar year for these things. But a recent Washington Post article points out that it only seems like 2016 has been the “worst year ever.” This is because violence and natural disasters are sudden events that are reported instantaneously. But the more positive, albeit quieter, trends get lost in the cracks: improving global health, falling poverty, and environmental progress all take years, decades, even centuries to really notice. [2]

This is not meant to sugarcoat the terrible things that happen in our world on a seemingly daily basis, or to excuse our failure to do the work of justice where it is most needed. But it is meant to suggest that we take a broader view.

Poet John O’Donohue speaks of the ups and downs of the year is his blessing for the end of a year:

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination. [3]

Indeed, there are always going to be ups and downs, but a broader view takes seriously the acts of blessing and naming. Let this new year be for us a time of blessing, remembering the ultimate blessing of being named as God’s own dearly beloved people, an identity which no one can ever take away.


[1] https://www.elm.org/2016/12/22/blue-christmas/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/29/stop-saying-that-2016-was-the-worst-year/?utm_term=.9873bfcad3d6

[3] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 160.