Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:21-28

On a cold January morning a few years back, a man in a baseball cap stood in the bustling corridor of a metro station in Washington DC. He opened up a violin case and started to play. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their morning commute.

Three minutes went by and a middle-aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but then he looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year-old boy. His mother hurried him along, but the kid stopped to look back at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed a little harder than usual and the child continued to walk while constantly turning his head. Several other children repeated this action. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped to listen for any amount of time. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and the usual sounds of the morning commute took over the corridor, no one seemed to notice. No one applauded, and there was no recognition.

What no one seemed to know, was that the violinist was Joshua Bell, a child-prodigy violinist and one of the most renowned classical musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. 

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the cheap seats went for $100 per seat.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about the perception and priorities of people. Some of the questions asked were: in an everyday environment at an unexpected hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it?[1]

This story illustrates something that Mark is getting at in today’s gospel reading. In our story for today, only one person recognized Jesus for who he actually was. A lot of the people in the synagogue merely thought he was an authoritative teacher. They knew that he was different than the scribes, but they couldn’t put their finger on exactly why. Then a man in their midst, a man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Quite the confession we have here.

The unclean spirit is the only person in the entire synagogue to recognize the Word made flesh in Christ. No one else recognizes who Christ truly is. Mark’s story presents us with the fundamental question that asks if we are even capable of recognizing God in the world? Much like the Washington Post experiment asked us if we recognize beauty in the world, Mark asks us if we can do any better than the man with the unclean spirit.

     So how do we recognize God in our midst today?

I read a story this past week about a family in California. A mom and her two kids, an infant son and a 10-year-old daughter were driving across a bridge on the 101 when they were accidentally rear-ended by a semi. The semi went through the railing and fell a hundred feet to the creek below. The car teetered on the edge of the bridge – not quite off the ground, but not quite on it either. When the emergency vehicles got to the scene, they wanted to maneuver the car back onto solid ground so they could rescue this family. Almost every attempt was met with the car teetering even more – threatening to drop them to creek as well. About a half an hour later – many attempts tried and failed – a group of Navy men and women came up to this scene and said they had a vehicle back in line that had a crane that could help bring the vehicle back onto solid ground. After a couple hours of being trapped in this vehicle, the mother and children were back on solid ground and emergency crews were able to get them out of their car. When news crews were interviewing some spectators of this whole thing, one woman called it a miracle and said God was here helping them the whole time.

I think it’s easy for us to see God in stories like this, stories of the rescued family with a renewed sense of life. Stories of blessing are often closely tied to God’s presence. But how can we recognize God from the perspective of the trucker’s family? Where is God for them? Where is God in our suffering?

I’m sure these disciples of Jesus are perhaps a bit confused that the first thing Jesus does after calling them to be his disciples is goes into a synagogue and encounters this spirit. The first act of Jesus’ ministry – following his call to the disciples – is to point out the suffering and evil that goes along with our life in this world. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying to his disciples, this road isn’t going to be easy. As we inch closer and closer to Ash Wednesday, we can begin to feel this move toward suffering. That even in the midst of this suffering, there is transformation.

This suffering from unclean spirits isn’t something that’s relegated to stories in the newspaper or on television or in the dusty hallways of Mark’s time. We know these all too well. We all hear those voices in the back of our head – the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, that we’re unlovable… Those voices that creep in on those lonely, sleepless nights. These are the voices of the unclean spirits. We know this suffering all too well, don’t we? But the good news is that even in the midst of suffering, there is transformation.

This is the main point of this gospel text. Until we face the evil and the suffering in this world and in us – until we name the forces that seek to destroy us: addiction, loneliness, depression, sin – it’s only in naming this brokenness and acknowledging its power, that we open ourselves up to be healed. The first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. My friends, we have a problem. We have a problem with brokenness. We have a problem with sin. We have a problem with selfishness. By acknowledging these problems, these shortcomings, we stop to see God’s healing presence in ways the commuters in the DC metro station that January morning did not. We stop to see God’s healing presence in the creek beneath the teetering car in the semi. We stop to see God’s healing presence in the man with the unclean spirit. And we stop to see God’s healing presence in us. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

1. If you’ve ever taken a class from David Lose, you’ve undoubtedly heard this story — but it’s a great example of recognizing beauty.

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Small Efforts and Big Results

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

There’s a great video I caught at a great blog that I’ve been reading more and more lately. I think it speaks to the power of small efforts to produce a greater picture. In this case, it’s with a piece of art, but I think it can be true with anything we do, really.

It really speaks to those of us who value creativity in our fields. A lot of times it can feel like we don’t get a lot done, the to-do pile is always growing higher, and we’ll never cross that last thing off of the list. But this speaks to the value of small calculated efforts to help create a wonderful bigger picture.

The video is only a couple minutes long. It blew me away the first time I saw it. Check it out!

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/33091687]

 

So what small step are you going to do today to impact your life? Vocation? Ministry?

It’s those small things really do wind up mattering most.

Cheers,
Eric

ericclapp.org is 1 Year Old!

Today is a pretty special day. To think, it was only one year ago that I was sitting in a Gospel of John class bored to tears to the point where I finally decided to put the blog online! A lot of these posts started in a Microsoft Word document that just sat on my computer for awhile before finally being put on here.

In honor of the 1-year birthday, here are the top 5 most viewed posts of the last year. It gives a good perspective on a lot of the topics that got people talking. Check them out if you haven’t. There are some great conversations that have been had over the past year.

5. What Does “Love Wins” Really Mean?

4. More Programs Aren’t the Answer

3. Church in the Present Tense: Theology

2. Sermon I Want to Preach On Christmas Eve, But Won’t

1. So Here’s the Thing About Rob Bell

Those are the 5 posts that have the most traffic and have been a great catalyst for conversations.

I hope the next year sees me as blessed as I have felt in this one.

Here’s to another great year of trusting that ideas matter and that the conversation is more important than the result.

Cheers,
Eric

Two Questions for Millennials & Gen X-ers

The only thing that limits us is our imagination…

At the church I’m at in Arizona, I’ve been put in charge of creating a new worship service to attract “all the young people”. That being said, I’m in the brainstorming stages right now and I want to crowd-source some of this brainstorming. That being said, I’d love to get your input on 2 questions.

1. What made you leave (or consider leaving) the church? (Or if you stayed in church, what made you stay?)

2. What kinds of things would be important for you to find in a church, if you were to go back?

Any input you’d be willing to give would be GREATLY appreciated!

Cheers,
Eric

Jars of Clay & A New Language for Church

This past Friday night, my wife and I went to a Jars of Clay concert at a church in Mesa. We got the “VIP” package which included participating in a Q&A session beforehand with the band. I was really excited for this because I think a lot of Christian music artists focus more on the Christian and less on the music. But not Jars of Clay. They have substance. They talk about suffering and brokenness with an honesty that’s pretty unparalleled in the Christian music scene.

When we got to the Q&A session most of the people were asking questions like “What’s *insert song that’s meant to be ambiguous* about?” It was pretty frustrating. But one of the things that stuck out to me was that even though the questions were awfully shallow, some of the responses and stories had some incredible depth.

One of the things that stuck out was when Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine got the microphone and talked about how the language of our church has become so toxic. The language of our church has become one of exclusion. That’s not good. The language of our church ought to be language of recovery. That really resonated with me. So often the majority of Christians take this accusatory look toward culture — holding everyone to some sort of unspoken moral standard, just waiting to tear down. That doesn’t help anybody.

But the language of recovery comes from a place humility. It acknowledges that we are all displaced from where we ought to be. It starts with acknowledging the brokenness of all, which is where so many people come up short. It takes that attitude that ‘I’m more than happy to point out your brokenness, but don’t you dare point out mine!’ It’s so unhealthy.

There’s one song that really embodies this idea of recovery and what recovery looks like. It’s the Jars of Clay song called “Oh My God”. In an interview they described this song as all of their laments to God — all the things that make them say “Oh my God”. Check it out! (It’s about 6 minutes long, but the verses and the build at the end are WELL worth the wait.)

 

What are your impressions of the song? Is there any language of recovery in your church? What do you think that would look like?

Cheers,
Eric

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