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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.  


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