Sunday, February 8th, 2015 – Sermon on Mark 1:29-39

Mark 1:29-39

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus had just entered the town of Capernaum after calling the fishermen Simon and Andrew and James and John as his disciples. It was the Sabbath day and Jesus went into the synagogue to teach, when there was a man possessed with an unclean evil spirit. And the evil spirit knew who Jesus really was – the Holy One. Jesus then destroys the evil spirit by casting him out of the man. And everyone was amazed.

Our gospel reading for today picks up right where we left off. That same day, after they left the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples go to Simon Peter’s house, where Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. While that might not sound like a big deal to us, back when there were no antibiotics, but just a cool rag on the forehead – it was a pretty serious thing to have a fever.

So, they tell Jesus what’s going on and he immediately goes to her. Now, there are far too many women in the Bible who are nameless and unknown and Peter’s mother-in-law is one of them. So, let’s do her the honor of giving her a name. Someone give her a name…

We’ll call her Betty.

So, Jesus goes to Betty’s side and he takes her by the hand and lifts her up. And immediately, the fever leaves her. He simply takes her by the hand and lifts her up and the fever is gone.

And so, we are reminded of the healing power of touch. Of simply taking someone by the hand.

A dear friend of mine has been sick for the past couple of months and needed surgery. She said, “Being sick is so isolating. You aren’t touched very much. No one touches you. No one comes near you. It’s awful.” Maybe that’s how it was for Betty. Maybe she was sick and no one had laid a hand on her in so long. And then along comes Jesus, who takes her by the hand and lifts her up. And the fever is gone.

So all of this just got me thinking about the power of touch, of simply holding someone’s hand and how healing it can be. When was the last time you held someone’s hand? There is something sacred about holding someone’s hand. I think we know this. This might be too much information, but I can’t remember the handful of first kisses I’ve had in my life, but I can remember almost all of the times I held a girl’s hand for the first time.

You know, I hold Elliot’s hand all the time. At home when we are playing or going to sleep. When we are walking down the street. And sometimes for no reason at all. And then it dawned on me – when did my dad and I stop holding each other’s hands? I can’t remember, but it was a long time ago.

When Lauren and I were in marriage counseling, a counselor once said that the next time we got into an argument, to try sitting on the couch holding hands while we argued. There something about holding each other’s hands that forces you to be kinder to each other.

We don’t really live in a culture where it is socially acceptable to hold hands with your friends. Which is a shame I think. The cultures in the world where it is acceptable are much older than American culture. So maybe it is a wisdom that will come with maturity and with time.

There is something sacred about holding someone’s hand. There is something that is healing about it. And I think we know this.

So that is what Jesus does. He takes Betty by the hand and lifts her up and her fever leaves. And right after that, the text says, she began to serve them.

Just what Betty needs, right? She’s just been lying in bed for days with a fever, and now that it’s gone she’s supposed to just get back to work and make everyone a snack? At first glance, it’s not the Bible’s finest moment when it comes to women’s rights and equality. But we will come back to that.

So, evening arrives, and the disciples are bringing all these people to Jesus who are sick or possessed with demons. And eventually, it says, the whole city was outside the door. Everyone. And so we are reminded that there is not one person who is not in need of some form of healing in their life. The whole city was outside the door.

This made me think of something that Elliot said this past week. Elliot loves pens and flashlights and he loves to take them apart and put them back together. One morning this past week, he woke up and while we snuggled in bed, he said, “Daddy, screw me back together because I’m broken.”

I couldn’t help but think about how true that statement is for all of us. I mean, in some way, we all need to be screwed back together don’t we? Because we all are broken in some way. For some of us our brokenness is just more visible or public than others.

So if we are honest, Elliot and I, and all of us, would be gathered at that door, with the whole city, waiting to see how Jesus would heal us too.

Jesus goes on to heal many of them and casts out many of the demons. Notice it doesn’t say that he cured everyone or cast out all the demons. Just many of them, and then after that he sneaks away for a break. A chance to breathe, to pray, and regain his strength.

But it didn’t last long. Soon enough, Simon Peter and the other’s were out hunting for him. That’s what the text says – hunting for him. Which is pretty strong language if you ask me. That crowd of people must have been pretty desperate for more of what Jesus had to offer. They are literally hunting him down.

“Everyone is searching for you,” they say. Which makes sense. All that healing and demon casting is good stuff. Who wouldn’t want more of it? Plus, from the sounds of it, Jesus didn’t get to everyone yet.

But Jesus has a different plan. He says, “Okay, then it’s time. Let’s get out of here and move on to the next town.” And they’re gone. Off to another town, preaching the good news and casting out demons. Jesus’ goal wasn’t to heal and save just Capernaum. He’s got his eyes on the whole world. Which meant he couldn’t stay there. But he had to move on.

Which doesn’t seem entirely fair to all of the people left behind in Capernaum. Those who weren’t healed or who didn’t have their demons cast out. It doesn’t seem like Jesus to just leave them be. Unless he had a plan in place for that too.

Which brings me back to Betty.

Remember how after being healed, she immediately got up to serve everyone? Well, it has to do with more than just making them sandwiches. The Greek word there meaning to serve is diakoneo. So Betty’s fever left and immediately she got up to diakoneo. Well, In about 10 chapters, Jesus is going to tell his disciples that he has come not to be served, but to serve – diakoneo. (Mark 10:45). He has come to do what Betty does – to diakoneo – to serve.[1] Maybe our bracelets should say WWBD – What would Betty do?

And a couple chapters later, when Jesus is hanging on a cross, and when all of the other disciples have abandoned him, we learn that there was a group of women who watched from a distance. A group of mostly unnamed women who, as the text says, “provided for him for him in Galilee.” And the word there for “provided for”? Diakoneo. It was a group of women who had diakoneoed , served, with Jesus. Which means maybe one of those women was Betty. One of those faithful disciples.

Her fever left her and immediately, she diakoneoed. She served. Whatever Betty did after she was healed from her fever – well, it wasn’t what we might think as forgettable or menial work. It was Jesus work. Her serving was discipleship work. When I visit with people who have been struck with a debilitating illness, many will say that the worst part is the loss of independence and the loss of having purpose. They feel like a drain on people’s lives and like they have nothing they can contribute to the world. And sometimes, more than healing, all they want is a purpose in this world to live for. When Betty was freed from her fever and illness, she was restored back to feeling like she had a valuable role and purpose within the community. She wasn’t simply freed from something; she was freed for something.[2] For a life to go and serve others, taking them by the hand and lifting them up as had been done for her.

Why would Jesus go on to the next town and leave the rest of the people in Capernaum? Because he knew they were in good hands. Healing hands. Betty’s hands.

I mean that is what Jesus has come to do, right? Not to do it all himself but to teach and to train disciples and followers to preach and heal and to offer grace and forgiveness, to restore people to community, and speak truth to power. To make the gospel free of charge, as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians. Or in other words, to bring near the kingdom of God. Which was Jesus’ first sermon – the kingdom of God has come near. Jesus has come to invite others to be bearers of the gospel to the world, even after he’s gone. Jesus needs partners in this divine work – otherwise, why would he call any disciples, when he could just do it all himself?

So where has someone lifted you up by the hand? Where has someone entered into your suffering so as to help you through it? And now, how might you go and serve as a disciple, lifting others up who are in need?

Please hear me. You don’t need to quit your job or go and commit every Saturday to something spectacular. But maybe it is seeing with new eyes that wherever you are is an opportunity to bring about the kingdom of God. I just spoke with a friend this week, a life-long Christian, who never thought of his regular day job, his everyday stuff, as an opportunity to do ministry with people. He just thought it was to pay the bills and any ministry acts are on the side. Little did he know that the way he treats his co-workers and customers can be an act of faith. Or the focus that he gives to doing his job well so that no one gets sick is act of faith. He never knew. Do you know? That your day-to-day stuff is always an opportunity to love as you have been loved, to forgive as you have been forgiven, to serve as you have been served? Or in other words, to bring near the kingdom of God.

One last thing. You know when Elliot had a fever, we didn’t wait around for Jesus to heal it. We went to the doctor and got medicine. So I don’t know what to say about healing stories and how they work. But what I do know is that God is present when my wife puts a cool rag on his forehead and rocks him to sleep. I know that God is present when you sit and hold the hand of a loved one who is hurting.

I know Jesus’ won’t leave this world unattended and uncared for. That’s why he sent you. You have healing hands too. Thanks be to God.

Amen

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/epiphany-5-b-freedom-for/

Sunday, February 1st, 2015 – Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I’ve been watching a lot of the TV show Scandal recently. It is a show about a high-powered attorney, Olivia Pope, and how she fixes other people’s problems. A significant part of the story line is her connection to the White House.

The Vice President Sally Langston is an extremely conservative politician who has always spoken of her Christian values and her faith in Jesus Christ as the foundation for her life and her politics. Well, in a recent episode, Sally is running for President in the upcoming election, and just weeks before Election Day, she finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, and it is about to go public, potentially ruining her political campaign and career. After a nasty argument and after he has threaten to give a “tell-all” interview, in a sudden and swift fit of rage, Sally Langston murdered her husband.

Like so many political scandals, Sally and her friends did what they could to cover it up. They made it look like a heart attack in his sleep. A couple of days later, her campaign manager, who knows everything, made references to this grave sin of hers, and suddenly Sally Langston stiffens her spine, looks him in the eye, and says, “I did not murder my husband. The devil murdered my husband when he snuck inside me. And the reason that I was not vigilant, the reason I did not rise up and turn the devil away is that he distracted me. With pride…I let the devil inside of me and he used my hand as a vessel of murder, a vessel of sin.”

She was possessed, she says. The devil made her do it. I don’t know about you, but that always sounds like an easy excuse to me. An opportunity to not take responsibility for your actions, and blame it on someone else, and when there is no one else – blame the devil.
But it does raise an interesting question: is anyone possessed with the devil or demons anymore? Do we even believe in demon possession?

That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear a text like our gospel reading for today. A text that involves being possessed by an evil spirit.

As the story goes, Jesus has just entered the town of Capernaum and he starts teaching in the synagogue, the church, one morning. And the people liked what they heard. It was a little different than their usual preacher and it was a nice change of pace. But then, suddenly, at the back of the room, a guy stands up mumbling a bunch of nonsense. He was clearly not in his right mind. Possessed by an unclean spirit, the text says. And as he gets closer and closer to Jesus, he gets louder and louder. “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 just yelled louder, telling this evil spirit to shut up and get the hell out. And it did. And everyone was amazed.

I never know what to do with stories like this in the Bible. I can’t help but wonder, how does this even matter to us today? Does that even still happen in this day an age? It seems like something that might still happen in a third world country where I arrogantly think they don’t know any better. But here in America, do we think people are possessed by demons and need an exorcism? I can honestly say that I have never been in a situation where someone did something out of the ordinary and my first thought was – they must be possessed by evil spirit. I have never thought that! Now, I might think someone is suffering from mental illness. Or a medical emergency. Some have said that perhaps those who were viewed as being possessed by a demon in the past, were simply having an epileptic seizure. They just didn’t know what to call it or what it was back then. Maybe that’s what was going on – a medical issue and not a spiritual one.

And I can tell you this – nowhere in my seminary training was there ever a class, or even the option of a class on how to perform an exorcism. So, clearly, seminaries and seminary professors are not that concerned with demon possession either. Therefore, I’m just saying, if you find yourself possessed with a demon, do not call me. I will have absolutely no idea what I am doing.

But maybe it doesn’t matter whether people are possessed by demons or whether it is mental illness or just a really bad day. Because the moment that I start to try to explain it away or make sense of it, the story loses all meaning and I have no use for it. When in fact, I think this story is trying to tell us something about ourselves and something about God. I may not be quick to believe in demon possession, but as preacher Fred Craddock has said, “(N)ot believing in demons has hardly (eliminated) evil in our world.”

We may not be sure what we think about demons, but I think we can all agree that evil is still alive and well, both in the world and in our own life.

I learned this past week that a group of police officers in Miami were using mug shots of black men for target practice at the shooting range. The way the story got out? A woman serving in the Florida National Guard was at the shooting range for her annual gun training, when she recognized that her own brother’s mug shot was being used for target practice. I think we can all agree that there is something wrong with that. And when I read stories like that, in 2015, I cannot help but think that our culture is still possessed by racism and fear of people who are different than us. And it is an evil possession.

Now, I would be arrogant and self-righteous if I didn’t look at my own life. Have I ever been possessed? Of course I have. I have done things, said things, behaved in certain ways, where afterwards I wondered, “Who was that guy? That wasn’t me.” There are still times in my life where I have felt held or controlled by a level of anger that I never knew was in me.

I’m sure all of us here in someway can relate. We all have our demons, if we can put it that way. All of us have suffered in someway from something that has taken ahold of us, and caused us to do something we didn’t want to do – whether it is an addiction, or depression, or an obsessive compulsion, or anger, or jealousy, or an overwhelming need for attention. We all have done things in our life that have been either destructive to ourselves or destructive to others, that has left us unrecognizable, even to ourselves.

So before I dismiss this story as something that is outdated and think that it has nothing to do with me, we had better think again. Because what we learn is that at some point in our life, all of us are the person with the unclean spirit in need of an exorcism.

But just as this text is meant, I think, to teach us something about ourselves, it is also meant to teach us something about the God revealed to us in Jesus.

A couple of things catch my attention. First, the evil spirit in the room is the only one who recognizes Jesus for who he really is. Sure, everyone in the synagogue is enthralled with the sermon that Jesus is giving them that morning in church, but that doesn’t mean that they understand who he is. Even after he casts out the demon, they still are a little unsure – what is this? A new teaching? Who is this guy?

But the evil spirit knows. 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. I know who you are, the Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us?

The evil spirit in the room is the only one who really recognizes Jesus for who he is. Why? Because evil spirits always know when God is around, because God is there to destroy them.

One of my favorite parts about being a pastor is the opportunity to do pre-marital counseling with couples before their wedding. And whenever a couple asks if I will perform their wedding ceremony, I always tell them that I like to do pre-marital counseling before the wedding to give them the best chance at having a healthy and strong marriage. Now, some couples hear that and think, “Cool. Let’s do it. Sounds like fun.” But a lot of couples are suspicious of it. And some even say no to the counseling. And it is the ones who say no that are the ones who I think need it the most. You see, they say no, because they know that it will involve looking at the evil spirits within their relationship, the unhealthy and harmful parts of their relationship, and working to destroy them. But evil spirits don’t like to be destroyed.

I know who you are, Jesus, the Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us? Yup, Jesus says.

Our demons always recognize who Jesus is and they are afraid of him, because they know that Jesus will try to destroy them. Jesus is always trying to destroy the things in our life that divide us rather than bring us together, or that plant seeds of hate and resentment instead of love and compassion, or the things that tear us down, rather than build us up. The things that curse us, rather than bless us.

Jesus is always coming to destroy the evil within us.

Now that might sound scary and frightening. But I noticed one more thing in the text.

Jesus doesn’t throw the person out of the synagogue. He throws the evil spirit out. You see, part of culture back in Jesus’ day was to keep the unclean away from those who were considered clean. So this poor man in the synagogue wouldn’t have lasted long, because he would have been quickly cast off into isolation with the others viewed as unclean and unworthy of being in the presence of God. And I think that is so true about our own lives. When our own demons grab a hold of us, the more and more isolated we become and the more and more unlovable we think we are. So often we want to cast out the person possessed by the evil. To demonize the person.

But unlike the culture of the day, Jesus doesn’t throw the man out. Only the evil spirit. You see, Jesus is coming not to destroy us, but to destroy the evil within us.

When we see someone possessed by their own demons, it’s always easy for us to want to just discard the person. It would be easy for me to think of those cops in Miami as clueless, racist men who should be fired from their jobs and run out of town. But Jesus won’t let me think that. Because Jesus does not cast out the person, he casts out the evil within the person. So I think God calls me to view those police officers as the children of God that they are, who have been gripped by an evil spirit of racism that Jesus wants to cast out once and for all.

Jesus is coming not to destroy us, but to destroy the evil within us.

And God will do that in all sorts of ways. Sometimes, God will destroy that evil in a quick and dramatic moment of grace and mercy. And sometimes it will take time. But I think one of God’s favorite ways to destroy the evil within us is through what happens right here at this table. By feeding you and blessing you and reminding you over and over again just how loved and valuable you are. So whatever that evil within you is, you can just leave it right up here. And let God throw it out. Because it no longer gets a say in your life. Only God gets a say in your life, and God says that you are never discardable. You are chosen as sons and daughters of God. Which means God will never leave us abandoned to our evil ways. But rather God will fight to the death to save us from ourselves. Amen.