Sunday’s sermon: The Worst-Kept Secret in Galilee

serve

Texts used – Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Mark 1:21-28

  • There’s a phrase that has snuck its way into our common lexicon, seeming to grow exponentially in popularity and usage with the explosion of social media over the past decade.
    • Phrase = “spoiler alert”: a warning that an important detail of the plot development of a movie, book, TV show, etc. is about to be revealed
    • Phrase that apparently originated back in Apr. 1971 with an article by Doug Kenney in a publication called National Lampoon[1]
      • Article entitled “Spoiled”
      • Purpose of the tongue-in-cheek article was to give away the endings for an entire lifetime’s worth of reading and movie watching → included critical plot points for thing like Citizen Kane, Psycho, all the Agatha Christie novels (among many others)
      • Presented (sarcastically) by author as a public service to “save time and money”
    • Phrase that has grown in popularity ever since but has exploded with the insertion of social media into our everyday lives → frequently see posts on Facebook from someone who’s just been to a popular new movie (for e.g., the newest Star Wars movie that came out about 5 weeks ago) who wants to talk about some crazy plot twist but doesn’t want to ruin it for others
      • “SPOILER ALERT” → big giant space underneath (gives people a chance to avoid reading if they so desire) → begin discussion
    • Shows up in lots and lots of media now as well, especially online articles, blog posts, etc.
      • Maelstrom of articles and blog posts that began with this phrase when the last book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was finally released in July 2007
  • Now, for the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus as a Man of Mystery in the gospel of Mark – about how Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself while insisting that those around him remain silent about his true identity as the Son of God. And up until now, with the exception of the localized pronouncements of John the Baptist, maintaining that secrecy has been a fairly easy task for Jesus. But today is different. Today is Spoiler Alert Sunday. Today is the first big step in Jesus’ identity becoming the worst-kept secret in Galilee.
    • Gospel text this morning begins innocently enough: Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching.[2]  → While it wasn’t necessarily common for random people to enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and start teaching, it wasn’t unheard of either.
      • Travelers
      • Visiting rabbis and other experts in the law (Pharisees, etc.)
      • Scripture does give us slight inkling that there is already something different about Jesus’ teaching: The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.[3]
        • Gr. “authority” = an interesting word – wrapped up in layers of meaning: freedom of choice/right to act or decide, capability, official power (that exercised by political rulers by virtue of their office) → This is the way that Jesus taught that day – with command and knowledge but also with a freedom and an ease that the people hadn’t seen before. So already, Jesus is starting to get noticed.
    • But then, there’s a disturbance, a commotion. – text: Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”[4]
      • Spoiler alert! Jesus’ secret identity has been screamed out in the middle of the synagogue
      • Sort of like all those times in all those superhero movies when someone has that momentary flash of recognition
        • Clark Kent is Superman?!
        • Peter Parker is Spiderman?!
        • Bruce Wayne is Batman?!
        • This Jesus guy is “the holy one from God”?!
    • Now, in all fairness, Jesus could have sidestepped this incident. He could have laughed it off as some guy spouting off – not any kind of situation to be taken seriously. But instead, Jesus reacts: “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out. Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves. “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away (immediately!) the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.[5]  → And there it is – the crucial tipping point.
      • The action – the possessed man calling Jesus out in front of the crowd
      • The reaction – Jesus casts the demon out → This is one of those places that we lose a little bit in the English translation, all. Our text describes Jesus as “speaking harshly to the demon.” But Jesus is doing more than just shouting at the man.
        • Gr. “harsh” carries the promise of action behind the words = rebuke, censure, warn → Because of the word that is used, all those who heard Jesus’ admonition would have understand that this was not an empty declaration.
      • “And immediately the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.”
        • Belief of the people rested not just on Jesus’ words but on his actions as well → surely would have triggered the warning from our OT text this morning for them: The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. … Now, you might be wondering, How will we know which word God hasn’t spoken? Here’s the answer: The prophet who speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about – that’s the word the Lord hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.[6]  → And on the flip side, any prophet that speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing does happen in acting and speaking on behalf of God. This is a Scripture that the people in the synagogue that morning surely would have heard before – something that would have stuck in their minds. And there it was playing out before them. Jesus spoke. The demon was cast out. He must truly be “the holy one of God.”
        • Scholar: [Jesus’] teaching and healing both cause the people around him to react in astonishment and respond with the same type of urgency and authority to spread the news of who Jesus is. His actions reveal a key element of Jesus’ identity: he is one with authority.[7]
        • Sort of like an anti-bullying activity that’s popular with schools and youth groups today – [EXPLAIN TOOTHPASTE ACTIVITY] → Once those words were out of Jesus’ mouth, they couldn’t be unspoken. Things had been set into motion.
          • Maybe it was intentional – this was the right time and the right place to begin to unveil Jesus’ true identity and purpose
          • Maybe it was Jesus being so wrapped up in the work of the Kingdom that his actions spoke before his brain could stop him
  • Either way, Jesus was acting with urgency and authority for the work of God’s Kingdom on earth, and that, friends, is where we find our inspiration – our call – for today. Jesus acts, not thinking about his own self-preservation or how to make things easiest for himself, but as one who immediately wants to do the most amount of good in the lives of the people around him. And he does this, not to garner that honor and attention for himself, but strictly for God’s glory.
    • Sounds like our OT text this morning – text is all about one who would come speaking and acting on behalf of God: I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites – one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.[8]
      • The command is God’s command
      • The words are God’s words
      • The message is God’s message
      • It’s not about making life easier. It’s not about making life safer or cushier or more luxurious. It’s not a message about getting a higher return on what you give or about lifting up those who are already in power. It’s a message of hope in unexpected places. It’s a message of strength in the most weakening circumstances. It’s a message of sight for the blind and healing for those who are suffering – in body, mind, or spirit. It’s a message that spoke to people the minute Jesus said it 2000 years ago, and it’s message that continues to speak to us today – to spur us on in God’s mission the way it spurred Jesus on, despite whatever challenges may arise because of that sacred word. It truly is a message meant to change lives, the lives of those who speak it and the lives of all those with ears to hear. It is a message to change the world.
        • Scholar: Jesus spends much of his ministry teaching, healing, loving, and speaking truth in a way that creates space for people to wonder alternative possibilities for their life than what is dictated to them with rules, laws, and commandments. People are compelled to follow to see if they can figure out for themselves who Jesus is. People are open to believing the impossible because they see the impossible happen before their eyes.[9]
  • But what about when we’re not good with words? What if we’re less like the verbally acrobatic Paul and more like Moses at the burning bush, saying to God, “I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.”[10]  → story from the gospel this morning is less about words and more about immediate action
    • Yes, Jesus’ actions are precipitated by the words he speaks, but it is the action itself – the driving out of the demon, the healing of the man – that causes those around him to marvel and begin to spread word about this “holy one of God” like wildfire.
      • Not about being able to explain the event
      • Not about being able to explain the intricacies of exactly who Jesus is
      • Not about finding the right words or the right turn of phrase
      • All of these are reactions that we tend to prize in our society today. If you can’t explain it … if you can’t put it into the exact right words … if you can’t defend your point eloquently and effectively … if you don’t have “proof” to back up your point … if you can’t convince me in 60 seconds or less, then when you have to say must not be valid. But in Mark’s gospel of immediacy, in this story in which Jesus reveals more than he may have wanted to about himself for the sake of healing a man in need, it’s not about words. It’s about actions. Not as a way to earn God’s favor or grace. Not as a way to somehow secure our salvation.
        • Paul in Eph: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.[11]
        • Actions for the sake of embodying that message of grace in a way that can truly affect and change people’s lives
        • “How do our actions reveal who Christ is to the world, not by shouting explanations of Christ’s identity, but instead by acting in a ways that creates space, compels, and opens others to believe the impossible?”[12]  How do our actions reveal that Christ? Amen.

[1] Ben Zimmer. “Spoiler Alert! Revealing the Origins of the ‘Spoiler.’” https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/spoiler-alert-revealing-the-origins-of-the-spoiler/. Written Oct. 14, 2014, accessed Jan. 28, 2018.

[2] Mk 1:21.

[3] Mk 1:22.

[4] Mk 1:23-24.

[5] Mk 1:25-28 (extra translation added).

[6] Deut 18:15, 21-22.

[7] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Extra! Extra! Read All about it!” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 97.

[8] Deut 18:18.

[9] Cho, 98.

[10] Ex 4:10.

[11] Eph 2:8-9 (NRSV).

[12] Cho, 98.

Reflection: The End of an Era

LeSueur church

Yesterday, on Sunday, January 28, 2018, the church that I was raised in held it’s very last service. For years, the attendance has been declining, so the session (church board, for you non-Presbyterians) and the congregation decided it was time to close the doors. And yesterday afternoon was the very last service.

It was an incredibly difficult day. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in this church. So many memories of my childhood are wrapped up in this congregation – the building and the people. During the service yesterday, there were a number of former pastors participating as well as 3 women raised up by the church (myself included) who are now ordained and serving the church in various capacities. Each of us was asked to speak for 5 minutes on our memories of The Presbyterian Church of Le Sueur. I basically cried my way through my reflection, but I wanted to share the words. Because even though it’s now closed, this congregation deserves it. So here’s my reflection:

“Our lives begin before our lives.”

A friend recently posted this on Facebook as she reminisced about a beloved grandmother who had just passed away. It was her way of honoring how the life that came before her – her grandmother’s life – molded and shaped and blessed her own life.

Our lives begin before our lives.

That’s a powerful sentiment for me today as I stand in this sanctuary for the last time – a place in which my life began before my life in so many ways. My family helped build this church. The Pinneys were some of the founding members of this church way back in the 1800s. And there are pictures of my grandpa standing just out there with a shovel and his trademark hat as they broke ground on this building more than 60 years ago.

But it goes so far beyond that for me. My life quite literally began before my life because my parents met here, shared the news of their engagement here, married here, raised their family here. Were it not for this congregation – for this church that had been my dad’s home since he was born and became my mom’s home-away-from-home when she moved here – I probably would not exist today.

And of course, the life of my faith began before my life in this congregation. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained within this beloved sanctuary. As a child, I toddled down these hallways, sang Sunday school songs (off-key) at the top of my voice, participated in all the Christmas and Easter pageants right up there, read liturgy as a layreader and counted heads as an usher. I taught Sunday school in those rooms back there and was enriched by the adult Sunday school class in ways that still influence and inform my life and my faith today. The first sermon I ever preached was in that pulpit right behind me.

As I spent 18 mos. seeking my first call, this congregation gave me a safe space – to preach, to teach, to try out all manner of crazy worship ideas! Y’all were so patient and so forgiving! In all its openness and compassion, this congregation helped me find and develop my voice – as a Christian, as a strong woman of faith, and eventually as a pastor. This congregation taught me the value of relationships in ministry, the power of the bond that is created when we work and worship and pray and praise together in true, loving, engaging community.

Our lives begin before our lives.

All of that faith formation – all of that grounding in the sacred and the sustaining love of God – began before my life in the people who were pillars of faith here: the people who shared their faith through teaching, the people who shared their faith through service, the people who shared their faith through music and worship, the people who shared their faith through love and compassion. I could stand here all day naming names, but I probably wouldn’t be able to get through that list. Many of those people are gone now, but the impact of their faith remains. The impact of their faith – their legacy – has touched each and every one of us in some way or another, informing and inspiring and shaping our faith into what it is today in so many different and meaningful ways.

And that goes in the other direction as well. Even though we are preparing to go our separate ways and the rolls of this congregation will soon cease to exist, our lives and the life of faith that we have developed here will live on in many forms – in the ways that we stay connected with one another, in the ways that we connect with new congregations and church homes, in the ways that we continue to learn about and enact our faith, and in the ways that we share that faith with others. No matter what happens, the life of this congregation will live on in us long after the last key has been turned in and the doors have been locked one final time. The life of faith that began here 152 years ago will nurture and form and bless countless other lives, some of whom haven’t even been born yet, because God is a God who does not walk away, does not close doors, does not forget. God is a God of presence and purpose, in this life and the next … whatever that “next” may be.

Our lives begin before our lives, and I will be forever grateful that this congregation has played such a significant part of my life.