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 Calling Out Injustice Even When It’s Uncomfortable (or costs you your head)

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Louis Stokes VA Medical Center
15 July 2015 + Pentecost 7B
Mark 6.14-19; Amos 7.7-15

[Now with audio for your listening pleasure]


Sometimes I wish I didn’t come from a tradition that compels me to preach the lectionary because sometimes the preacher winds up with texts like this one, texts that make you add a question mark, “The Gospel of the Lord?” Texts that make you feel uncomfortable. But I wonder if maybe that’s the point of this text—discomfort. Hold on to that thought.


Our reading from Mark’s gospel begins on a note that beckons us back to the verses that immediately precede it: “King Herod heard of the disciples’ preaching.” It’s enough to assume, as the text leads us to believe, that Herod had simply caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is well into his public ministry and has caused so much of a stir that he’s just been thrown out of his hometown of Nazareth. And so he sends his disciples out to keep the momentum going.

Feast of Herod, Bartholomeus Strobel

But I think there’s something more to what piqued Herod’s interest. The message that disciples preached, we’re told, is repentance. When Herod heard of it, the text goes on, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” It made him remember another man who preached repentance, a man whom he had killed. And I suspect that it made him afraid.

The way Mark tells it, Herod had married his brother’s wife, a direct violation of Torah, and John the Baptist called him out on it. Even though Herod was a Jew, he was first and foremost a government official working for Caesar. His interests were the interests of the Roman Empire, not God’s law. But because Herod was a Jew, the text tells us that he still feared John, a righteous and holy man, and protected him, even in prison.

Herod’s new wife, on the other hand, not so much. And so when Herod threw his birthday party and promised his stepdaughter whatever she asked for, she went to her mother who finally had a chance to act on her grudge and demand John’s gruesome death. This put Herod in a difficult place, but in order to preserve his authority and the respect of the people, he gives her what she asks for.

John called out Herod for violating Torah, and he ultimately got himself killed for it. John risked his life for the sake of asserting that God’s law trumps the practices of the Roman Empire. John’s message of repentance was rejected, like Jesus’s message after him was rejected. Jesus announced his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Rome. The kingdom where demons are cast out, where lepers and paralytics and hemorrhaging women are cured, where the dead are raised to life. The kingdom where outcasts are sought out and gathered in, the kingdom that makes those who struggle to hold on to power fearful of losing it. It’s not difficult to imagine why Herod was afraid.


Of course, this emphasis on justice was nothing new. The Hebrew prophets before John and Jesus had been preaching God’s concern for the oppressed, widows, orphans, foreigners, for a long time. Perhaps no prophet is more scathing in his indictment against those who exploit the poor than Amos.

Our first reading today contains the third of three visions about God’s judgment against Israel. In it, God shows Amos a plumb line. Now in construction a plumb line is used to make sure walls are built in a straight line. Here, it’s a religious and ethical plumb line, and God’s people have failed to align themselves with it. And Amos names their sin, as one translation puts it: “Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy! You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless. You measure out grain with dishonest measures and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales” (Amos 8.4-5, NLT). God condemns their exploitation of the poor and even goes far as to condemn their worship practices: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.21-24, NRSV).

sign from a “Moral Monday” march in Chicago, protesting Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts

Hypocrites, God calls them. The festivals and observances prescribed by Torah are meaningless when they neglect justice, the heart of God’s law. And Amos calls the people out on it. But it’s not a popular message. It’s not a message King Jeroboam or his priest want to hear. “O seer,” they say to Amos, “go, flee away to the land of Judah… but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” We don’t want to hear it. It makes us uncomfortable. We like what we got going on here. Go away.


Such is the prophetic tradition in which John takes his place in our gospel text. But it doesn’t sound much like gospel. This text reminds us that the calling out of injustice is risky business. It’s uncomfortable, life-threatening even. This text, it seems, is not good news. This text is more like Good Friday. The powers that be appear to win. Like Amos, John the Baptist is silenced. And the text foreshadows that, like John, Jesus too will be silenced. All for preaching repentance and justice.

This text reminds us that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. It hinges on corruption and stems from greed and fear. It is power misused and has no regard for the other. It is power that seeks to control and feel better than the other.

The Resurrection, El Greco

But God’s power is vastly different from Herod’s power. Herod’s power is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death. But God’s power is always concerned for the other, the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed. God’s power is disarming and unexpected. It breaks in and says there’s another way. God’s power comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall. God’s power comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi. God’s power comes to us in the form of a crucified Savior. And God’s power finally comes to us in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s power ends with life.

That might not be immediately obvious when you just look at this banquet, but you see, there are actually two banquets in Mark’s gospel. This week’s reading ends with Herod’s banquet of death, but immediately following is Jesus’s banquet of life and abundance. Jesus feeds five thousand people, with leftovers. That banquet points us back to God’s power and God’s justice. And that’s where the good news is.


Like Amos and John the Baptist and Jesus’s disciples, we are called to call out injustice. We know it’s risky business. There are consequences. And it’s uncomfortable. But we do it because we know that resurrection is always the last word. To paraphrase one preacher this week (Barbara Lundblad), we do it because we believe that God’s promise of life is stronger than the threat of death and because we believe God’s kingdom, God’s reign of justice, has come near, and that makes all the difference. [1]


“Moral Monday” protest with Bishop Wayne Miller of the Metro Chicago Synod (ELCA)

In my home state of Illinois this summer, it’s what has given dozens of clergy and people of faith the ability to risk arrest in protest of the governor’s proposed budget cuts that would be especially devastating to society’s most vulnerable. They risk calling out injustice where they see it, and yes, they disturb the comfortable status quo of those in power.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew something about disturbing the status quo too. He knew something about God’s justice back in Montgomery, Alabama, when he took charge of a movement that began by challenging where someone gets to sit on a bus. He risked saying there’s another way because he knew that all people are created in the image of God and are of inherent sacred worth and dignity. He knew that until the very end when his preaching and activism took him to Memphis, Tennessee, to advocate for sanitation workers.

When King railed against injustice and the powers that be, he knew what it was like to live in Good Friday. But he knew Easter was coming, as he preached in his Easter sermon from 1957: “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” [2] He was no stranger to struggle and despair and rejection, but he was more confidently acquainted with the inevitability of God’s justice.

God’s justice says that all eat and are filled. God’s justice says that all are welcome. God’s justice says that black lives matter. God’s justice says that love wins. And we can continue to call for God’s justice because we know God’s kingdom has come near and we know there’s another way. We can live with the risk and the discomfort and even read difficult texts like this one because we know where the story ends. Thanks be to God.

Amen.


And then I played this song:


[1] http://day1.org/6698-truth_and_consequences

[2] http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/questions_that_easter_answers/