Now that I’m preaching regularly I thought I might share some weekly messages. Since I don’t use notes when I preach I’m sure this message came out a little differently last Sunday but I’ve written it so that you might get the gist of it. I hope it speaks good news to you. Something to chew on…
This past week I have been watching the PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War. It is stunning and powerful and terrifying and heartbreaking.
In one episode there is an interview with the first American pilot shot down in enemy territory. He was held captive for something like 8 years. He talked of life in the prison, of the beatings, the humiliation, and ultimately saying things on camera he didn’t mean just to stay alive. And he talked about the shame he felt at that. He was imprisoned and oppressed both by the enemy and his own sense of shame. I’m not sure his prison bars were any more oppressive than the prison of pride that kept president after president thinking they could win an un-win-able war.
And yet, in the midst of all the politics of any war there are those who bravely serve their country, putting their lives on the line and facing great danger with the motivation of protecting others. If you have served in military war or conflict you know, in a way I can only imagine, what it costs you, and, although there are no words to adequately express full appreciation of your sacrifice, thank you for your brave and honorable service.
We are a mixed lot, are we not. All created in the image of God and our lives purposed for love and for service. And, we are a bunch of cracked pots, vulnerable to the temptations of greed, hatred, pride…the list goes on. And then there’s life in the systems of this world. Systems where greed becomes an asset and poverty a source of shame. Where vulnerability is seen as weakness and what is true becomes anyone’s guess.
Yes, there are forces within and without that, every day, threaten the balance of who we are created to be.
That’s why the Gospels that tell us of Jesus are such good news. To be reminded again of the sovereign ability of God’s love to break through all forces of evil and negativity, bringing the restorative power of grace, love, and freedom. To be reminded again that their is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark portrays a Jesus of action. The writer is not so much concerned with what Jesus says but what he does and the power in which he does it. In this particular gospel Jesus’ first act of ministry is exorcising an unclean spirit out of a man that was ranting and shrieking. By choosing something this dramatic he is letting us know the seriousness and vastness of God’s power embodied in Jesus.
The people following Jesus would have been wanting a military king to come defeat the Roman oppressors and to restore Israel to its proper place among the nations. Jesus’ words and actions reveal that God has something completely different in mind. Jesus is anointed all right, even anointed with power of war and might. But not in a military sense. Rather in the sense of a self-giving love that breaks down any strongholds whether of this world system or any other. A power which no opposing power can defeat.
There’s a lot of push and pull going on here. The scene takes place in the synagogue. Which makes it weird that the man with the unclean spirit was right out there in the middle. In this society of honor and shame this man would have definitely been considered unclean. Anything that was wrong with you was somehow your fault. You had done something to make God mad at you. He wouldn’t have been welcomed in the synagogue being unclean. And yet, there he is with this shrieking evil spirit. Right in the middle of what was supposed to be pure and righteous there is this dirty evil. And Jesus reveals an authority that out powers any ritual or teaching of those who were considered to be the experts.
We too can experience evil in the places that are meant for good.
Some years ago when I was serving in another church I went on a mission trip to Budapest Hungary. The purpose of it was to try to establish relationships with the people of Budapest. There were nine young people and me. The rest of them were musicians and singers. I wasn’t quite sure why I had been given this assignment by the senior pastor. Most of the people we encountered were young, bright, beautiful individuals who had their whole lives ahead of them, and yet I couldn’t help but notice a collective emptiness or sadness in them.
We went to a park the first afternoon we arrived. As the musicians set up their instruments I made my way to a park bench way over to the side of the park. The way I saw it, the last thing any of these bright and beautiful young adults would want to do was to talk with an old American woman. I was feeling so stubborn about this that I remember praying to God that if I was supposed to talk to anyone God would have to deliver them to the park bench.
And, as you would expect, no sooner had I prayed that prayer than I looked up and sitting beside me was this young man with pale skin, wild eyes, and frizzy hair, looking like a young Bob Dylan. He said hello and then went off on a tirade for about two minutes. His sentences were so completely laced with profanity it was hard to hear what he was saying. I’m no stranger to profanity but I didn’t realize one could say the “f” word that many times in one sentence and still communicate a message. Honestly, looking back on it, he did seem a little possessed.
I guess because I didn’t flinch or run away, eventually his language calmed down and he said that his people didn’t need us “Christians” to come over with our pretty songs and shallow words. The way he snarled the word “Christian” it actually sounded worse than any of the cuss words he had used.
He told me his country had real problems and they needed real solutions. He went on to say that he never prayed. And, that he had done some bad things and now he got up every day and asked God to help him get through the day.
When I felt like it was safe, I asked him if he had considered what he was doing when he asked God for help might be praying. His look of contempt at my question made me think, oh, here we go again he’s going to let me have it. But instead, he said with an emphatic no that praying was reciting prayers over “there”, pointing to a nearby cathedral, and he then declared he would never set foot in that place again.
This conversation left me puzzled and curious. Later on that week I toured the Holocaust museum. The story of the war was told from the perspective of the Hungarian Jew. What I would learn is, by the time the Nazi forces got there, the evil was so completely ramped up that more Jews were killed in Hungary in a shorter amount of time than anywhere else during the war. There were pictures of the same street corners where we were now holding street concerts and speaking of the love of Christ, where the Jewish people had then been pulled out of their homes and businesses and put on busses to concentration camps and torture and possible death.
To my horror I also learned that much of this happened in full sight, and without much if any resistance, of the Christian church there. In an awful attempt to be able to continue to do business as usual, the Church had compromised with the powers of oppression turning a blind eye to the injustice that was happening before them. Not everyone of course participated in this, but enough to be a significant part of the honest history.
What was meant for good had been imprisoned by evil, gripped by the unclean spirit of silence in the face of injustice and oppression.
I still process what I learned in my time there. What I realized is that by those simple and sometimes awkward street concerts and through our feeble conversations, the love of Christ was communicated in small ways. Little bits of grace spread over the physical spaces that have endured so much evil. What I realized is that God now calls and uses us all, in the power of Christ, to be the in-breaking of grace wherever we see pain, or injustice, or need. In whatever small and ordinary ways we can. We are all purposed to use our authority of Love to be little bits of redemption wherever we are.
By the power of the same Holy Spirit the early followers were awakened to in Pentecost, we folks of the twenty-first century now have the same authority Jesus exhibited on that day in the synagogue. The power to dispel hatred with love. Un-forgiveness with grace. Oppression with freedom. Even when that spirit of negativity and oppression lies deep within our own hearts.
This is not easy work. The journey is full of temptation to give in to the negative pulling us from all directions. But, while it is hard work, we don’t do it alone. We are given everything we need for the battle.
I’m going to ask you to do something for me. It’s an exercise I hope you will take with you this morning. An exercise to do anytime you feel discouraged in your walk, when that spirit of negativity grips you and tells you that you just can’t get it right. When you feel small against the pressures of this world. When you’ve lost your joy.
Right now, wherever you are as you read this, I’d like you to listen to your own breathing. If you need to cover your ears. Feel the beat of your heart, listen as you inhale and exhale. The sound of your breath. Let it speak softly to you. Can you hear it?
Each time you take a breath, every single time, it is God saying “I love you”. It is God saying “You are mine” It is God saying “I am with you.” It is God casting out anything that is oppressing you by telling you that you are not alone. It is God saying to you that you will always be held in love. It’s right there with each breath. God’s yes to you.
Take a moment to breathe that in.
May it be on earth as it is in heaven.