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Monday, February 1, 2021

Amazed and Astounded by Christ Jesus


Mark 1:21-28            2021 Annual Celebration and Meeting Worship

            Today’s worship was planned as an offering of praise and thanksgiving to God as every instance of worship should be, but for today we also added the word “celebrate” to describe the day’s activities and focus. Today is a day of annual celebration for Zion.

Yet, Old Man Snow may have had something to say about that, as the forecast messed with our ability to meet in person. Still, the gospel for today is one in which to dwell for a while, especially as we think about God’s presence and gifts to us, and the power and authority of Jesus in our lives, in our world, and most especially on this day of days, in our church.

            People gather in the synagogue to hear Jesus teach and there is something about him that just exudes authority. We don’t know exactly what Jesus was saying, or what Scriptures he was unpacking for them, but we can imagine that with power and great insight he was teaching about God’s steadfast love, mercy, passion, and power in the world and in their lives.

            Whatever the particulars of his words, the reaction of the people is clear – they are amazed at him, they are astounded by him. These are people who are living the wide variety of human conditions – some isolated, some afraid, some struggling, some joyful, some complacent, some complicit, some searching, some believing, some faithful, all of them sinful. They look a great deal like us, don’t they?

            This gospel text calls us to trust in Jesus as we celebrate God’s presence, activity, and ongoing call to the people of Zion. We are the Body of Christ knit together in and through relationship to God and to one another, with a common call to faith in, and service to, Our Lord Jesus.

We are disciples of Christ, and workers together in the kingdom of God, and today is the day we come together to name where we have seen God’s presence and power, and to celebrate the wonderful things that God is doing in and through us all. It is also the day in which we would have carried on some business, that we might continue to faithfully serve Jesus Christ through the various aspects of our life together as his church. - That much has been postponed to next week - so, stay tuned! Still, our scriptures speak to this time in the life of Christ's church as we plan for the year ahead.

In the synagogue that day, there was a disruption. A man who is described as having an unclean spirit – various translations may render this as his being possessed by an evil spirit, containing an unclean spirit, or even as being demon -possessed. In whatever way the man or the spirit are described, he wants to know what Jesus will do with "them", if he will destroy them, and then, interestingly, identifies Jesus as the Holy One of God.

Whether or not the people know who Jesus is, this spirit knows who he is and is rightly terrified. The people may have been amazed at the authority they saw and heard as Jesus taught them from the scriptures but this demon knows the truth about Jesus’ true identity and source and unlimited nature of his power.

As events transpire, Jesus’ power is revealed to all who are present that day, as Jesus casts out the evil one, restoring the man to fullness.

To be honest, I have no idea what the “spirit” in this story actually is.  Some say it is some form of spiritual or mental illness, others insist it is an actual demon — a malevolent spiritual being that ensnares human souls.  Still others argue that spirits in the New Testament are metaphors for anything that might “possess” or “control” us — anger, fear, lust, greed, hatred, envy, and any other sinful power that created enmity between people and in our relationship with God.

I’m not sure that it matters exactly what the spirit represents, because whatever it was, it had ravaged the poor man and stolen his essence, his very life. According to Mark's account, the man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him.  The man had no control over his body — the spirit convulsed him.  The man had no community — the spirit isolated him.  And the man had no dignity — the spirit dehumanized him.

            Then Jesus comes along, and he has the power, the presence, and the authority to drive away the evil, to give the man back his life. This is the Jesus that we worship, and this is the Jesus whose presence and power we celebrate today.

            A year ago, we were wrapping up a month-long process in which we examined our life together as church. We had been engaged in months, with the R3 team leading us, of practicing naming God’s presence in the world or in our lives that week. We were beginning to fill up the display case outside our sanctuary with sightings of God that we were witness to and desired to share with our brothers and sisters in Christ – vital practice for doing the same kind of witnessing in our lives outside of this place.

            There was excitement in the air. From you we learned that this congregation still feels called to gather to grow in faith and strength and to then go out into the world to serve – the essence of our mission statement. And then, COVID struck.

            It has been a long and hard year for all of us for many reasons. But the truth is that we still have a great deal to celebrate today because the power and authority and presence and joy of Jesus have been a thread woven of many strands that have carried us through this year.

            Jesus has been present as we have continued to be connected to one another through cards and calls, through the outdoor worship services over the course of the summer months and through online worship services and mailings. Jesus has been present, calling us to continue in the outreach ministries in which we had been engaged and to increase our reach into the community, feeding and assisting our neighbors.

            As a result, we served over 1780 warm, “homecooked” meals to people in our community from March through January. An amazing 1600 of those were delivered directly to low income elderly and disabled individuals in the Nathan’s Village Housing community by our amazing volunteers.

About another 165 were delivered to Zooks Motel, where other struggling individuals are sheltered. The remainder of the meals have been served in a drive-thru fashion for those who come to the church. I wish you could see their faces and hear their words of gratitude and wonder. In recent months, they have received blessings, and prayers and at Christmas, gift bags filled with treats and small items of love.

This is all in addition to the contributions of Panera Bread and other food items that have been offered to Potters House and other local ministries and food distribution centers, with what is left over being given away at the community dinners. We have done all of this while maintaining COVID protocols.

None of this could have been done without the power and presence of Jesus in this place. At the beginning of the pandemic we worried how the church would keep going financially and when we sensed the call to increase these feeding ministries we wondered how we would ever fund them, as well as help the people we knew would increasingly come for assistance from the Helping Hands fund.

How would we maintain the staffing we needed to do the work that increased due to COVID? Should we in fact pull back and hunker down for survival which is, let’s face it, usually our first inclination?

But God’s activity was already stirring the hearts of some of our members, moving the staff to learn more and do more, and equipping us all the way. Youth met remotely, even VBS was conducted over the internet as we equipped families in their efforts to teach their children about Jesus. Boxes of love were delivered to our homebound. While we had to suspend indoor in-person worship, the church has never been closed! It has been busier than ever!

God has amazed us again and again with what we could do. It is not easy. It calls for sacrifice, creativity, thinking outside the box, and lots of energy. But life-giving, this movement of God is, through the Holy Spirit pushing us, empowering us, and accompanying us to do more and more especially in this time of trial!

            As a result, God has allowed us to continue and even grow our learning efforts through online meetings, mailings, and all we do. We have continued worshiping though in new and different ways, and we have learned that there are some things we need to begin or continue doing differently in order to be relevant in this vastly changed world.

            In October we made the bold move to move forward to welcome a local preschool/daycare into our building and offer them a home, recognizing that they serve our community in a vital way, and that those connections and that service aligns with our own sense of mission. The vote was overwhelmingly positive to make this move. This was the power of Jesus at work, opening doors, and offering life.  

            We are still the same struggling, sinful people in need of God’s grace and seeking to live out our baptismal identities by the Holy Spirit’s empowering that we were a year ago.

We are still in many ways seeking and struggling to “get it right.”

But we are also still the forgiven, beloved of God who are amazed at his power and strength, who are regularly astounded at his Word and his love. We are still in need of his command to drive out the spirits that distract, dismay, and distance us from knowing the peace of Christ that overcomes all evil and brings us each to joy in the midst of a fallen world again, and again, and again. May it be so.

We are still the amazed, astounded, grateful and grace-filled people of God, called by Jesus to come and follow. May we be blessed to respond. Amen.  


Mission Impossible: Only By the Grace of God


Epiphany 3 Year B

Jonah 3:1-5; Mark 1:14-20

            It all started when God asked Jonah to bring a message to the people of Nineveh about how their wickedness would be their downfall. Jonah is uninterested in this task.

Being God’s prophet is not for the faint of heart, but Nineveh is a particularly hard assignment. Located in Assyria, it is the land of Jonah’s worst enemies – Jonah understandably hates them for all the death and destruction they have caused his people. But God desires this people to be saved, and so God sends Jonah to herald the coming destruction if they don’t repent.

Man, what could go wrong in that scenario?  Jonah could be captured, tortured, and who knows what else? Besides, why would Jonah want to be any part of their salvation? We can completely understand Jonah’s next move – to get as far away from this mission as he possibly can. He hops a boat in Joppa that is headed to Tarshish, literally the opposite direction from Nineveh.

            Perhaps we can all understand Jonah’s reluctance, maybe we can even think of times when God has desired one thing from us, but we were reluctant and ignored God’s call, even sometimes going in the exact opposite direction.

There is a reason it took me twenty years to answer the call to ordained ministry; I’ve experienced this hesitancy, this inability to embrace God’s call because it wasn’t my choice, because I couldn’t see the sense of it, didn’t feel equipped for it, didn’t trust God enough to know that when God calls us to something, God never leaves us alone in it. Sometimes what God asks of us seems too hard, too inconvenient, too uncomfortable.

Sometimes God calls us to things we flat out don’t want to do, or don’t think we can do. Such was the case with Jonah.

I doubt there is anyone among us who is always more like Simon, Andrew, or the sons of Zebedee, who, when it comes to responding to God’s call, “immediately” drop everything and follow Jesus.

Most of us take time to weigh the consequences of big decisions. We research the pros and cons. We count the cost, because, my friends, there is always a cost to discipleship. Indeed, most of us are a lot more like Jonah – going in exactly the opposite direction when God’s demands seem too hard.

Jonah’s denial of God lands him on a boat headed in the exactly the opposite direction of where God wants him to be; a storm arises, and yes,  Jonah ends up in the drink, and then in the belly of a huge fish, and then unceremoniously vomited out onto the beach in a pile of stink, very close to the place he started out. That is when God’s voice comes to him again, calling him to proclaim this message God has given him to deliver – to his enemy.

In today’s vernacular, I can imagine Jonah’s initial response – “What the heck? Really? Are you kidding me?”  I can also think of a few other, choice words he might have said. Finally, however, reluctantly, begrudgingly, Jonah gets up and sets out for Nineveh.

A day’s walk into the city, he reluctantly, begrudgingly, begins to deliver God’s message of warning to the city.

Picture a reluctant, recalcitrant 7 year old, when you demand he apologizes to his sister for some misdeed. It is the last thing he wants to do, but do it he must, so he performs the deed with as little enthusiasm and sincerity as possible.

I picture Jonah’s proclamation being a lot like that: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” But then, an amazing thing happens, and Jonah’s short, half-hearted warning works!

It goes viral through the city, even making its way to the king. And this whole city of enemy agents repents! They actually listen to the message! They turn from their evil ways, and God (who must have known all along this would happen, like any wise parent would), decides not to destroy them after all. All is well, right?

For the Ninevites, yes, but not so much for poor Jonah. This was one instance where he was hoping for failure, not success. Remember, he hates the Ninevites! In his mind, the one bright spot about being in that blighted city, was that surely he would have the chance to see his enemies destroyed, like they deserved. But then God “changes his mind”??

It is incredibly unfair and unexpected, and Jonah is mad; if you read on from here, then you know that Jonah goes off to pout. God, after all, should hate all the people whom he hates, who are really worth hating, by the way.

Jonah’s story, as ridiculous as it may seem, serves as a mirror to help us see our own humanity, a mirror that is especially hard to look in to. Jonah does not like that God showed grace to people Jonah despised. Jonah gets angry at God for being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – for them.

While Jonah feels grateful for the grace that God has shown him for his short-comings, he has an incredibly hard time accepting that God might be so gracious and merciful that even the nasty Ninevites could be forgiven and saved.

It can be hard to swallow when good things happen to bad people – or at least to the people for whom we hold little regard and plenty of animosity.

It is hard to accept that God could be so gracious as to love and forgive even the people we find unlovable and unforgivable, the Ninevites in our own lives:  those who have done us wrong; bullies, estranged family members, former spouses or exes, those nasty Republicans; those awful Democrats; our ne’er-do-well neighbors, the blighted immigrants, refugees, those MAGA people, the BLM people, the liberals, the conservatives – or whomever falls into that camp for you.

It is at times hard to swallow that God would bestow God’s love and forgiveness and favor on those we have deemed unworthy.

It is even harder to swallow that God would use us, call us out of our comfortable existence, to bear the cost of discipleship so that God’s grace and love might be known through us to the enemy or the stranger. While it is comforting to know that God has sent Jesus to redeem us from our sins, it is not comforting to know that God has also called us to get out of our comfort zones and share the gospel love of God known through Jesus Christ, with others, especially those we long to ignore or keep in their society-determined places.

But through the redemption of Jesus, this is exactly how God operates, and it is the best news we could hope for – because if God’s grace is big enough for all that, then it is big enough for you, and for me. It is big enough to see through our failures, our smallness, our insecurities and culpabilities.

The good news is, there is nothing, nothing that is too difficult for God’s grace to conquer.

In the Gospel story today, we hear Jesus call people to follow him, to “fish for people.” Simon, Andrew, James and John are called to leave behind the comforts and familiarity of the lives they have built, of the relationships they cherish, and to go into uncharted waters with Jesus.

Unlike Jonah, the four disciples he calls that day follow him “immediately.” They didn’t stop to Google “discipleship” or “fishers of men” to see what this path would entail. Jesus called and they answered.

I wonder if they knew how hard it would be to walk in Jesus’ footsteps? I wonder if they knew the dangers that lie in wait for them or the resistance they would face? I wonder if they knew that Jesus would call them to lives of service of all people, of reaching out to the least, the lost and the little in the world, that Jesus’ call would be to humbly serve, humbly speak, to forgive and seek forgiveness.

How good are we at “knowing” that?

This week, we turned a new page in the story of our nation with the inauguration of a new president and swearing in of a new and historic vice president. We heard a call for healing, not only from those figureheads, but from the words of scripture read and the words of prayers prayed at the ceremonies on Wednesday.

The God called upon for the healing of our nation is the one God whom we adore. Jesus calls us to be justice-bearers and peace-makers and we know that as followers of Jesus this is a life-long call and challenge, regardless of what is happening in the world around us. Yet, as the recipients of God’s generosity and mercy, we are the recipients of godly grace each and every day. And it is time to share the self-same goodness with all we meet.

Jesus never calls us to anything the God does not prepare us for. In sending Jesus Christ into the world our God sought to save the world, to build a kingdom of people who forgive, love, and build bridges and God forgives, loves, and builds bridges. We are part of that movement.

As we follow along in the gospel of Mark this year, we will see how unsteady the walk of these first disciples could be. The scriptures witness to their failures. Followers of Jesus sometimes stumble in their blindness to who it is that stands before them and what his words and his call to them mean.

Disciples aren’t perfect, they are forgiven. They don’t always succeed in what Jesus tells them to do, but they are pardoned for their failures and strengthened to continue.  

Just as Jonah, Peter, Andrew, James and John, and all the disciples were called for this blessed work, so are we. As they were equipped, so are we. As they were forgiven, so are we. Living in the brilliance of the light of Jesus, however, we march on, peace-makers, justice-bearers, and grace-sharers. May it be so. Amen.