Shut Up!

My sermon from January 28, 2018 is below. It focuses on the gospel reading from Mark 1, the story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. As I touch on in the sermon, we don’t think about things like illness, trauma, and struggles the same way people did thousands of years ago. We don’t personify our demons in quite the same way. But we do still struggle with many things. Do you find it helpful or unhelpful to think about things as “demons” or “unclean spirits”? Why?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s said that a first impression—good or bad—has serious and lasting consequences. It’s partly because, as humans, we have to process so much information that our brains make decisions without us even realizing it. We have to make judgments quickly, sort people we’re meeting for the first time into categories: a person we can trust or not, worth our time and attention or not, good for the job or not.

When we learn more about someone, when we have a second and third and fourth impression, we can learn to change that initial judgment, but from a psychological standpoint, it takes a lot of work to rethink our first impression. First impressions matter.

Our reading from the Gospel of Mark today, in a way, is Jesus’ first impression. It is the first public act of ministry that he performs. He is baptized by John in the Jordan River, is led out into the desert where he is tempted by the devil, and then this moment at the synagogue on sabbath occurs.

His very first act of ministry, the first impression that he gives to his new disciples, to the crowds who are astounded at his teachings, is to cast out an unclean spirit. It’s hard for us to know what to make of this phrase “unclean spirit.” After all we don’t think about illness and medicine or psychology the way people in first century Palestine did.

But we can easily imagine the impact and effect of suffering with such a spirit, from other passages in the gospel. This man is at the synagogue today, but he will likely become ostracized if his condition persists. Those who love him must be in great distress—agonized over his current situation and afraid for his future. And this is the very first thing Jesus does: free this man from the hold of the unclean spirit and restore him to himself and his community.

I don’t know much about these unclean spirits, or demons as they are often called. I don’t know where they come from, whether they come from inside or outside us, I don’t know whether they are actual demons or human darkness. But before we are tempted to dismiss this story as inconsequential, a relic of a different way of thinking, we should think about what we do know.

I do know things like addiction and compulsion and anxiety and despair can take a hold of us and make us do things we don’t want to do. I know that evil and darkness and destructive forces are real. Jesus takes away this man’s unclean spirit and restores him to abundant life in the community.

What are the things that rob us, that rob our loved ones, of abundant life? Addiction? Loss of gainful employment? Unsafe working conditions? Situations where power is abused or harassment and discrimination are tolerated? Lack of access to housing, education, or medical treatment?

God is not simply against these things in some theoretical way, rather God stands completely opposed to them and the way that they seek to limit and control us. And there’s an interesting thing about this—the demons know it. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the demons always recognize Jesus’ authority and the demons are afraid.

Which is exactly why our demons—those things that keep us from abundant life—our demons try to keep us away from people who remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God.

And what is Jesus’ response to that? In our reading in English it seems kind of tame: Jesus rebukes the demon and says, “Be silent!” If we wanted to retranslate the original Greek, though, Jesus essentially yells and tells the spirit to shut up!

I learned early as kid that we don’t tell people to shut up, because that isn’t a nice thing to say. And Jesus is all about being nice, right? But Jesus isn’t wishy-washy or quiet when it comes to things like this. Jesus isn’t tame. He tells that unclean spirit to shut up about its lies, to shut up trying to convince this man that this is all he is and that this is all he is worth.

Jesus tells the demon to take a hike so that this man may reclaim his dignity, so that this man might know the truth of who and whose he is. Jesus defiantly reminds us of our own worth and value even when we can’t see it ourselves. Jesus persistently and unfailingly reminds us of our dignity as children of God until we can at last see that dignity in ourselves and in others.

Alex Hampson is going to be baptized in a few minutes, and it will be proclaimed once again that God loves Alex as a beloved child and that nothing will ever change that love. Like the Spirit descended on Jesus in his baptism, God will say: this is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased. And it’s not just Alex, but all of us who are claimed and loved by God just as we are.

The truth is that all of us, including Alex, are going to hear other messages in our lives. Messages that tell us we are not good enough. That we do not have anything to offer, that we need to be better in order to be worthy of love. We hear these messages everywhere, from commercials and billboards, our own insecurities, to more some more difficult demons to fight, like addiction and depression.

And to those messages, to those voices, who tell us that we are not enough, we can say: Shut up! Because Jesus tells them to be quiet and get the heck out of here. When those voices, those thoughts come to you—to your loved ones—remember that at the end of the day there is always a louder voice. The voice of God. Which sends those voices of insecurity and doubt running away scared. The voice of God which declares loudly for all to hear that you are loved and you are worthy. You are beloved. Amen.

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Reluctant and Eager Disciples

Here is my sermon from January 21, 2018, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. We have Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1, and Jonah prophesying to the people of Nineveh. (If you have time, and you haven’t before, read all of Jonah. It’ll only take about 20 minutes!) Have you ever identified with one or the other of these responses to God’s call?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The few times in my life I have been forced to go fishing, my boredom at all the waiting was only matched by my terror when I actually caught a fish. I decided pretty early on in my Girl Scout career that this fishing thing was just not for me. Sometimes I wish I’d stuck it out just a little bit longer, because there are so many stories about fish and fishing in the Bible. Imagine all the stories I’d have to tell in my sermons!

It’s ok, though. At their heart, these stories aren’t really about fish or fishing. Today we have a story from Jonah and the calling of the disciples in Mark that center around fish, but are really a couple of different examples of responding to God’s call.

I have to admit upfront that Jonah is probably one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s this absurd trek taken with the reluctant prophet. If you never knew the Bible contained comedy before, you should read Jonah start to finish—it’s only four chapters. It reminds me a lot of books like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. Although they are laugh-out-loud hilarious at parts, the absurdity is there to teach us some important truths.

In our reading today, we start in the middle of the story: the word of God comes to Jonah a second time. Jonah didn’t much like what God asked him to do the first time—go and preach to the Ninevites—so he ran the opposite direction and got on a boat the first time.

That didn’t work out so well for him, as he ended up in the belly of a big fish for three days, only to be spat back out. After all that, God comes to Jonah again, with almost the exact same words: Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

Now Jonah really can’t be blamed for not wanting to go to Nineveh. It’s the capital of the Assyrian Empire, who has been attacking and killing the Jewish tribes for the past couple of centuries. Nineveh was a bad, bad place.

But it becomes clear that fear wasn’t Jonah’s only motivation for avoiding Nineveh. When he preaches what is possibly the worst, but most effective sermon ever, and the people repent, God changes God’s mind about destroying the city. And that is just what Jonah was afraid of.

Jonah knew that God is gracious and merciful, and he did not want that grace to be shown to the Ninevites. He did not want God’s grace to extend beyond his own people. When God announces that because of their repentance, the city of Nineveh will not be destroyed, Jonah is really disappointed.

His reluctance to follow God’s call and preach to the people of Nineveh stemmed from his fear of the chance that he might be successful. And he was—despite himself—Jonah was an instrument of God’s grace.

It’s a hard job Jonah had—I can’t judge him. Who wants God to extend forgiveness and grace to their enemies? Who among us truly wants those we dislike and despise, and who despise us in return, to be extended mercy? Jonah may be a comical prophet, but he speaks the words of our hearts. What he, and we, needed to learn, though, is that God’s grace is something that you cannot lose by giving it away. Our share of God’s love does not decrease by bringing more people under its care.

On the other end of the call story spectrum, we have the first disciples: Andrew and Simon, James and John. Rather than being reluctant, they are all but tripping over themselves to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. It makes me wonder what they had heard about Jesus before now. Were they expecting this man to call to them? Were they taken completely by surprise?

We don’t know, and we won’t ever know, really. What we do know is that they go immediately. As soon as Jesus calls, offers them a new identity as fishers of people, they are there. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you hear this story about the disciples being called, and you might wish you could have that kind of faith and courage. The kind that doesn’t doubt, but simply trusts. That goes at once, without questions.

But I have to remind myself that, yes, while the disciples are certainly to be celebrated for their trust and speed in answering Jesus’ call, this is not the end of their story, but just the beginning. It’s a great beginning, but there’s going to be much to learn ahead, much stumbling, much misunderstanding, and much backsliding.

This early decision to follow Jesus needs to be reaffirmed and even corrected time and again. At Caesarea Philippi, Simon affirms his faith in Jesus, but not his faith in Jesus as the suffering Messiah—that will take a lifetime. On the mount of transfiguration, Peter knows how good it is to be with Jesus but forgets that the real task to follow Jesus. In the courtyard, warming himself before the fire, Peter threatens to give up a lifetime of fidelity for a moment of fear. At the very end, when Jesus is on the cross, Peter, Andrew, James, and John are nowhere to be found. Even then, God does not count that moment as the final word: now Jesus will go before them, for a lifetime.

The truth is, becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime. And we all probably fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the ultra-reluctant Jonah and the ever eager disciples.

The joy of this week’s readings is that God is able to use many different types responses—the feet-dragging ones that require much prodding, and the jumping out of the boat instantaneously ones. God calls, and uses, many different people, with a variety of gifts, to accomplish God’s work.

We are all of us called to be disciples. It’s a calling that we receive from our very beginnings as Christians in the waters of baptism, where we hear that all the baptized are called to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and dead, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. It might start at baptism, but it’s a calling that we live into over the course of our whole lives.

So, wherever you might be right now on the spectrum—running away, as fast as you can, like Jonah, or eagerly jumping into a new beginning like the disciples—know this: you are not alone. As a community, we are all on the path of following God together. And we are not alone. Because the God who calls us to bring good news, to be fishers of people, is the God who travels with us on our journeys. The God who sustains us when things are difficult, and the God who rejoices with us at the good news. Amen.

The Stage of Creation

Below is my sermon from January 14, 2018, when St. Paul’s celebrated The Baptism of Our Lord. It is also Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in the U.S. Although the sermon touches on the baptism of Jesus as recorded in Mark 1, it mainly focuses on the first story of creation in Genesis 1. Even if you’re familiar with that story, take a minute or two and read it again–I find we always notice something new in even the most well known scriptures.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In one of my English classes in high school, we were required to read Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. Are folks familiar with it? The play tells the story of the small town of Grover’s Corners, between the years of 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its inhabitants.

What makes it unique, though, is that it is performed without a set, on an almost bare stage. There are no backdrops, no scenes, no props. The actors pantomime actions, without the physical items in their hands. The stage manager—a narrator of sorts—opens the play by setting the scene with his words.

Beginning from nothingness, Grover’s Corners is brought to life as the play begins to take shape on the blank stage. Similarly, in our first reading, from the very beginning of Genesis, the opening words of the Bible, God begins, not quite from nothing, but almost.

In the beginning when God begins to create the heavens and the earth, the earth is a formless void, and darkness covers the face of the deep. It is sometimes translated as “chaos” covering the face of the deep. Not nothing, but not truly anything either. And into this shapeless, chaotic darkness, a wind from God sweeps onto the stage. The breath, the spirit of God, makes its way to begin setting the scene.

And into the silence, God speaks: let there be light. And God separates the light from the darkness, bringing the beginnings of order to the chaotic world. Our reading only covered that first act of creation, but the poet of Genesis continues, weaving the tale of God bringing order and life and beauty out of those chaotic waters.

In addition to night and day, the waters would be separated so that there would be a sky. And the waters were to be gathered together so that dry land might appear beneath the sky, and God declared it good. And still creation continued: vegetation, plants of every kind, fruit trees of every kind came to life. And it was good.

The waters themselves yielded living creatures—the great sea monsters and everything that swarms within the waters. And birds flew through the air, and God said that it was good. And then on the dry land the living creatures appeared, the creeping things and wild animals, and the cattle. That, too, was good.

But it was not finished. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And God creates humanity, in the image of God. And God blesses them, and declares that with them, all creation is “very good.”

Out of a dark stage filled with chaos, creation has come forth. Starting with big, huge acts—creating dry land and continents and sky—God is not finished, but continues to focus more and more minutely—first with plants, then with the fish and sea creatures, with animals, until finally stooping down into the earth itself to create human beings.

There’s a moment in Our Town where a character receives a letter from her pastor. He addresses the envelope with great care, and with great detail: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

Her pastor is making a very valid point about humanity’s place in the universe. At the end of the day, we are very small. Our lives are but a blink in the face of creation, and being aware of our relative unimportance can keep us from being focused too inwardly, only caring about ourselves.

While I certainly understand his point, the creation story in Genesis offers a radically different perspective. The Mind of God; the Universe; the Solar System; Earth; the Western Hemisphere; the Continent of North America; the United States of America; New Hampshire; Sutton County; Grover’s Corners; the Crofut Farm; Jane Crofut. From the waters of creation down to each individual—we are not too small to notice. On the contrary, we matter immensely to God.

You could fill in the blanks with your name, and location. Every single one of us—we are none of us accidents of circumstance, but our very existence goes back to that loving, life-giving, creating mind of God. Every person could fill in the blanks—no matter their name, their religion, the country they call home: in America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe.

There is no person, no place, that is outside the mind of God, the care of God, or the love of God. We are made in the image of God and reflect the image of God through all of our differences and individuality. It is a fitting thing to reflect upon on Martin Luther King weekend, in honor of a man whose life’s work was to proclaim the dignity of all people, no matter their race or place of origin. It was a threatening enough idea that it got him killed. It remains threatening enough today that we still fear those who are different from us.

But we are not just made in the image of God, as if that were not enough. We are loved and claimed by God. At Jesus’ baptism, God offers affirmation and celebration of who Jesus is. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The voice from heaven, the same Spirit and voice that moved over the water blesses and claims Jesus.

This announcement comes before Jesus has done anything. Before his ministry—before he has taught, or has healed. Before he has fed thousands or found followers. God’s blessing and God’s love don’t follow our achievements. God’s love creates our potential for love.

We are called God’s beloved children not because of something we do but because of who God is—a loving parent who wants nothing more than to see us flourish. In Holy Baptism, God just chooses us. God says that we are enough, already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. Just as we are.

Created in the image of God, claimed by God, loved by God, we have the opportunity not only to reflect, however flawed and imperfectly we may do so, but to reflect God’s image to the world through our love and creativity and advocacy, but we also the opportunity to find the image of God in others. To recognize others as also being reflections of that divine love.

May we appreciate and celebrate the diversity of God’s image, and may we give thanks for our inclusion in that great diversity and love of creation. Amen.