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Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We’re twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. Neither are from places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship. It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you? Would Jesus cast out anything from among us? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24)

Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity. For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible. It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us?
This is the part of the sermon modern preachers reach for an exegetical shoehorn to show how it is that this ancient shoe actually fits. The bible is concerned with well-being and communal health, not magic, or sorcery, nor dare I say it, not even the supernatural. Instead, it is focused on the all too natural and worldly problem of evil. But I don’t think we need to do that this year. We don’t need to borrow anything from the supernatural to translate Jesus’ meaning about the imminent and persistent danger of demons–do we?

No. This year we are all witnesses to the captivating demonic power of manipulation, lies, fear mongering, and name-calling to personalize, polarize, enflame, blind and fragment God’s beloved community into warring camps. Our politics, the pandemic, and climate crisis have made plain the deep divisions among us, some of which, we would not have believed nor were we fully aware just a short time ago.

We share the same country, even the same zip codes but not the same reality. There is good health care for some, but not others. The police can be relied upon to serve and protect some while others call upon the police only as a last resort, if at all. We have superlative, top 100 in the nation public schools, but not for everyone. Good food is stacked high and beautifully displayed in our grocery stores, yet 1 in 10 families in our nation are hungry.

Care for Real, our local food pantry, reports a 40% increase in the food distributed, and a 243% increase in new Edgewater households who came to them for food. Immanuel distributed more than $12,000 to neighbors for food, medicine and other necessities through our COVID Assistance fund just since last March. (Thank you for your generosity, by the way.) Yes. We see how income inequality has grown to the extent that just having a job does not ensure you can feed yourself or your family, nor keep the roof over your head.

2020 has been like an epiphany, an awakening, but we can’t claim to be woke while we still point fingers, draw lines, call other side names, or demonize each other. This makes us part of the problem, not the solution. We must cast out the demons that rule our hearts and minds and reveal themselves whenever we see suffering yet do not see the human being that is suffering.

The ministry of Jesus is to free the love God has placed within us, so it once again flows naturally between and among us. It is literally to cast out the demons that divide and separate us from our common humanity.

So again, we ask the same question as the man in the synagogue. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It can certainly feel that way. After all, what exactly will it cost us to set this world on its proper foundation? How may I be called upon to change my habits? What might I be expected to do? Jesus doesn’t answer these questions, but only said to the disciples, “Come and see.”

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum marveled that Jesus spoke as one who had “authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). To be clear, we all need people like the scribes. We need institutions and the people who run them. We need people who are qualified, accredited, skilled, competent and accountable. That’s one kind of authority and it’s essential—nothing works very well without it.

What people saw in Jesus is another kind of authority to which all those placed in authority must be open and appreciative. It’s the authority of someone who knows the truth and tells the truth because they lived it. It’s the authority of someone who knows what to do and gives instructions about how to act based on their own hard-won experience. This is the kind of authority Moses spoke of in our first reading. It is the authority of prophecy that is unafraid to speak truth to power. It is the kind of authority that we grant to those who know us and love us. This kind of authority has power. It has power even to cast out demons.

This kind of authority is our birth rite as children of God. Yet, we can never possess it, nor can we claim it. This power clings to us all when our words or our actions flow purely from the natural simplicity of God’s grace.

I believe we witnessed this kind of authority with the power to cast out demons eleven days ago on the steps of the U.S. capital. While the nation held its breath at another peaceful transition of power, a young woman with an auditory processing disorder that makes her hypersensitive to sound, raised by a single mother, a National Youth Poet Laureate, took the stage. The young black woman, Amanda Gorman, showed us again what the authority of a truth-teller and a prophet looks like in verse. She cast out demons.

“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always just-ice,” she said. “We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us…We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all…. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it” (Amanda Gorman, National Poet Laureate, The Hill We Climb).

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.

Epiphany 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had been so preoccupied with the logistics of the historic March on Washington he hadn’t given much thought to what he’d say. He began to write less than 12 hours before. He titled early drafts “Normalcy, Never Again.” Eyewitnesses say it wasn’t until the end of his famous speech that Dr. King stopped reading his notes, looked up and began to preach, after the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Tell them about the dream. The rest is history.

The miracle of the incarnation is God’s promise to move and speak through us. Epiphanies come in human shapes and sizes. When Dr. King set aside what he prepared to say God began to speak through him. He went from being a speaker to being a prophet. God spoke to the American people and to the world that day. He preached a message for then and for all time: God has a dream and invites you and I to inhabit it. Come and see.

Sadly, this is not 1963. I’d wager there are more police and National Guard on the national mall today than regular people. 10-foot high “unscalable” barricades surround the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other monuments. I’ve read only 1,000 people will attend the inauguration in-person. That’s 1/200dths of normal. After 10 months of pandemic, nationwide protests, a contentious national election, a bloody insurrection, two impeachments, and continued threats of political violence, cynicism, disillusionment, and exhaustion rule many American hearts and minds. Alcohol and marijuana sales are soaring. Last night, I received an email from Bishop Curry warning that so-called, ‘liberal churches,’ might become targets for extremists.
These feel like the days of Eli from our first reading. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b). Eli was a priest down on his luck, feeling guilty because he couldn’t stand up to other priests, in particular his own sons, who habitually dishonored God through extortion, greed, and sexual assault. Eli no longer expected to see or hear anything from God because he didn’t have the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desired.

Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. We can relate to Nathanael. Upon receiving the good news of the Messiah from Philip his first reaction is skepticism. The disillusionment of Roman occupation and the corruption of religious leaders is not easy to dislodge. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree—was he social distancing? Was he moping? Does he dare to dream about a better life? Nathanael dismisses Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world as it should be that requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.

The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, tells that when she was caring for her dying mother, it was as if the entire world shrunk to the size of her mother’s hospital room. In times of grief and high anxiety, we can lose track of our dreams. We mistake realism for reality. It can take all the energy we have to look beyond our misfortunes and failures, to behold again the larger vision, the big picture—the power of holy imagination, the lure of an alternate reality—that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Yet within what we perceive to be limitations are possibilities for renewal and growth.

As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call is to fall in love with Love itself. Through encounter with Christ, we learn to be lovers of people, because as Christian people, we are called to invite others into the dream, to become members with us in the beloved community. Nathanael wasn’t changed so much as he was set into motion by Jesus’ call. That’s really all that is required to become a disciple. Follow me. Come and see.

Eli’s first and second response to God’s prompting of the boy, Samuel, was confusion and not a little annoyance at being needlessly awakened. Yet, finally, he recognized there was another possibility. Eli put aside his own self-interest. He wasn’t worried about keeping his job or motivated by loyalty to his sons. When Eli realized what might be happening with Samuel, he could have tried to trick him, or to shut him away, or even to have killed him. Yet Eli was faithful to God. Eli is an unsung hero. He proved his faithfulness to God by stepping aside, by passing the baton, by nurturing the next generation of leadership in the story of God’s ongoing mission.

We need more Eli’s today. Can you and I be like Eli? Now that our complacent slumbers have been repeatedly disrupted by violence against black bodies, by a worldwide pandemic, by a culture of subordination and sexual assault against women, by extreme income inequality, and mass extinction will we recognize it is finally time to stop doing business as usual? Can we finally acknowledge the many ways we have participated and/or acquiesced to these wrongs? Despite that, can we step forward, following after Jesus, and like Nathanael, like Eli, walk the way of the cross? Can the vast scene of American carnage stretching be an epiphany for us? Come and see. Follow me, Jesus says.

Jesus invites you and me to dream again like you did when you were a child. As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call we must cultivate a holy imagination, because to be Christian is to tell people about the dream that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
In 1959, after the successful completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King went on a pilgrimage to India. He desired to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, the philosophy of nonviolence, and about the people and culture that inspired it. He was received by large crowds as a national dignitary. Yet he was not prepared, when at a school full of admirers, he was enthusiastically introduced as ‘an American Untouchable.” You may know there is a very old caste system in India. It ranks some people ahead of other people. Dalit is a name given to people of the very lowest class. They are literally, considered untouchable, by those of higher classes. The school for Dalit children immediately recognized Dr. King as a hero of their own. Rather than recoil from this loss of face, Dr. King came to embrace the title as a badge of honor.

Like Eli, and Nathanael, and Dr. King we are led on the path of renewal and discipleship by listening to the voice of the Samuel’s of the world, the witness of those on the margins, the no-accounts, the unprivileged, and invisible. It is not a command but a call. It is an invitation to dream again. Come, follow, seek and find healing for your wounds and a purpose to dignify your life. Jesus invites us to walk the path to wellness that will not be easy, and possibly even dangerous. Come, follow me, Jesus says, Let me teach you how to dream again and how to live.