If you have ever heard me preach before, you know that I truly enjoy the humorous side of life.
So I have got to begin today with a brief story. It happened here recently and it gave me some release from the stress that we have been under lately–though I promise that I will not mention any names so as not to embarrass anyone.
At youth group meeting recently—we were going around the room sharing our highs and lows—discussing the good and difficult things that we had experienced since our previous time together. One young person was telling a story of challenging situation:
“So there was this old lady . . .”
For clarification I asked, “So was this person about my age?”
“Oh, NOOOO, Deacon Peggy. This person was WAAAAY younger than you.”
Oh, goodness. It felt good to laugh like that. It did remind me that I need to sign up for Mother Dawn’s upcoming four week funeral planning workshop. God bless the candor of the innocent.
Heaven knows, I needed a good laugh—maybe some of you as well? The last couple of weeks have been a real test for us—these are indeed the sort of times that try men’s and women’s souls. And it occurred to me that perhaps the difference between a tragedy and a trial is that we are somehow able to take something away from a trial that makes us better as people.
Still, as is always the case, our trials pale in comparison to the sacrifice Our Lord made out of a deep and abiding love for us.
Two weeks ago, Father Jon reminded us that in this period after Epiphany—prior to the beginning of Lent, one thing that is happening in our Gospel readings is the revelation of who Jesus truly is. Earlier in the book of Mark, the gospeller describes John’s baptism of Jesus. And we read of him being publically recognized by God as his own “beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
In another lesson, that young apostolic recruit, Nathaniel, initially skeptical about his friends’ claims, suddenly recognizes and proclaims that Jesus is the King of Israel, the Son of God.
And last week we heard the story of Andrew and Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee abruptly leaving their nets after recognizing that there was something extraordinary about this stranger, this Jesus.
And in today’s gospel reading, too, we have a moment of recognition.
However, how ironic is it that the one recognizing Jesus this time is not a scribe or Pharisee or other learned scholar of Israel, but rather Satan’s agent—the unclean spirit crying with a loud voice—“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
And even after Jesus has called the unclean spirit to leave the body of this man and others—the teachers and scribes, the rabbis and Pharisees, eventually pervert this evidence to suggest that Jesus was actually in league with Satan.
So the irony in today’s story is that the unclean spirits were able to recognize Jesus when the well-educated biblical scholars and holy men of the day could not or would not do so.
Now some contemporary Christian preachers believe that the point of this passage is that we have a duty to actively search for and drive out unclean spirits whenever we encounter them in people around us.
Unfortunately, the problem today seems to be that the spirits have become eerily quiet. I have yet to hear of any contemporary spirits calling out a warning to those close by.
Probably the reason is that Jesus and the apostles are no longer walking about in the world. So, without Jesus and the apostles around to draw out those spirits—aren’t we, with our human hubris, in danger of accosting innocent individuals with our personal attempts at Exorcizing evil in others?
And there was that admonition about attempting to remove the log from one’s own eye before trying to remove the splinter from the eye of a brother.
In fact, when I think about this issue more seriously, I realize that the unclean spirits I need to focus on are the ones who reside here, in my own heart and my own mind.
Now THOSE two places hold enough unclean spirits to keep me occupied—well, truthfully, until the day I die.
But you know what? I think more important than exhorting Christians to spend their time seeking out the bad in other people– or even in themselves—the real power and lesson of this passage is about recognizing Jesus: When and where do I fail to recognize Jesus?
Remember when he said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me”?
How many times a day, do I fail to recognize and address need in those around me?
Many of you have probably heard of an experiment that sometimes happens in churches, where the minister dresses up as a street person and then poses, hunched over and huddled on the front steps of the church before service. Waiting. Waiting to see what response, what recognition—what welcome, if any, he or she will receive from the church members filing into the church on Sunday morning.
I kind of wanted to try that here. But I decided it would just be unfairly hard on us. Especially after the tension surrounding the protest our church experienced last week. An unknown stranger at our church doorstep this week might have truly alarmed us.
As it happens, last week, there was a group of strangers at the 10:45 service. They arrived before most of our parishioners–who were at the church’s annual meeting. The strangers filed in and filled a pew toward the back.
There was some nervousness about their arrival.
The security police who had been assigned to be with us last week said they had been alerted about a whole group of strangers who had filed into the church.
“No one recognizes them as parishioners. They are young. And one of them is barefoot.”
It is a good thing that we are a loving parish which watches out for and protects one another.
Nonetheless, the good news is that we did reach out to those strangers, greeted them, warmly, as is our custom, and learned that they were a group visiting from Hesston College — a religious class that was going around, “trying on” worship services of various churches.
A St. James’ parishioner said, “Please forgive us if we seem a little tense this morning. You may have noticed that we are experiencing some drama out front.”
They smiled back. “Yes, we had to cross the picket line.” Now those are some courageous people!
Can you imagine, coming to a strange church, only to discover loudspeakers spewing ugly words and protesters trying to create havoc on the church lawn: How many of us wouldn’t have been tempted to turn around and go elsewhere?
In some ways, those strangers that day, may well have been a test of our strength and a demonstration of their faith as Christians.
What if we had chosen not to greet them, to remain confused and scared about who they might be? We might have left a group of strangers stranded in our midst.
The world is a scary place; there is no doubt about that. Terrible things happen, even in God’s house. Some days it seems as though we have been put on constant alert. Today, one of our greatest challenges may very well be our fear of one another.
So here is the question: And maybe this is the final, most important lesson from today’s scripture. How will we make sure that others can recognize Jesus in the world today?
What will we do to make sure that people who are filled with fear, doubt, sorrow and loss can recognize some small part of Jesus through our actions?
This past Friday, a remorse-filled and suffering young man faced a judge who was to decide his future. The courtroom was packed—a third of the crowd, maybe more, were members of the young man’s home church–St. James Episcopal Church.
And for all the observers in the courtroom that day, there was a single thread binding them together—their desire to express their unconditional love and support for that young man. The judge himself, touching the stack of 50 or 60 letters of support before him, said—that in all his years on the bench, he had never seen anything like it. I submit that Jesus was there that morning—present and accounted for.
Every day, we wake up and thank God for young people who lighten the darkness of our days with laughter and we pray for the strength, and the courage, and the grace to go about doing God’s will in the world—to be the hands and gentle voice of Jesus.
We pray for the wisdom to know how best to keep ourselves and others as safe as we possibly can, even as we seek to recognize and serve Jesus in our brothers and sisters and make Jesus known to others through our actions.
And WHY do we do this?
Because of our faith because we really, truly believe that our God is with us always.