Jesus, Kanye, & LeBron: A Sermon on Mark 6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. – Mark 6:1-13

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

I heard a story a couple weeks ago about an elderly woman who lived down the street from a young Neil Armstrong. She described him as quite the troublemaker — sort of an Eddie Haskell type character. So when she saw on her television that little Neil Armstrong from down the street was the first man to step foot on the moon, she refused to believe it. There’s no way that bratty kid from down the street could possibly become the first man to walk in space.

This is kind of like when Jesus comes back to teach in his hometown. Initially the crowds were astounded. But then they started wondering where little Jesus from down the village pathway could become such an astounding teacher and prophet. Listen to their words: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” This is a total dig on Jesus. The lowly carpenter from the single-parent family? How could he possibly be teaching like this?

And it makes sense too. 3 chapters earlier — in Mark 3 — Jesus pretty much disowned his family. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” This is kind of like the equivalent of LeBron James jet-setting back to Cleveland to show off his brand new championship ring. The people of Cleveland would riot in the streets if something like that would happen. The people who were listening to Jesus consider this an insult to his hometown and so his neighbors are rightfully pissed.

Then Jesus comes in with “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” I’ve been listening to a song lately called “No Church in the Wild.”  It’s by a couple of guys named Kanye West and Jay-Z. The hook of the song starts out by comparing power dynamics. “What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God? What’s a God to a non-believer?” The question we could ask Jesus in Mark’s gospel today is “What’s a prophet to people who won’t listen?” So we get a hint that something is about to change. There’s about to be a major shift in Mark’s story.

He calls the disciples to him and begins to send them out 2 by 2 to go into the homes and preach repentance and drive out unclean spirits. This 2 by 2 thing isn’t new to us with Bible stories, is it? We remember Noah. Except, in Mark, this is just turning Noah’s command on its head.

In Genesis, Noah essentially calls out that all creatures should come to him 2 by 2 or they would die in the flood.

In Mark, Jesus sends the disciples out 2 by 2 so that there may be life.

In John 10, the gospel writer says that Jesus has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. God has come down with a love so overflowing that it not only fills us, but it breaks out of our homes and our lives. It breaks out of every boundary we try to put on it and explodes out into the world. We’re sent out to live like this love matters.

We’re sent out to live loved.

When that happens, when we love people as we have been loved, there is healing. Hearts that have been broken, heels that are bruised from being dug in the ground against our family and friends — all of these wounds that we have are healed in love. Demons are cast out and those have fallen ill are anointed. So our job is to go out!

Live the precious life that you have been given knowing that there is not a single thing you can do to separate us from the love of God. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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A Sermon on John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

– John 12:20-33

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. I think anyone who was a kid during Jordan’s career had this fascination with him that we just couldn’t shake. I even watched the AA minor league team of the Chicago White Sox, the Birmingham Barons. And for those of you who remember Jordan’s baseball days, they weren’t pretty. But I watched because I had a complete fascination with him.

That all ended a few years ago when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. On a night that was meant for celebration and a fond sense of nostalgia, Jordan got up to give a speech that was as egomaniacal as ever. It became very clear that he was using that platform to settle scores. He called out his on-court rivals and taunted them with petty grievances and wise cracks. This is clearly a man who had not forgotten ANY of the transgressions that people had done to him over the years.

In our text from Jeremiah today, Michael Jordan is like Israel. Now, follow me for a bit on this one. In our passage from Jeremiah today, Israel seems to hang on to old transgressions. They neither forgive, nor forget. But then God comes to establish a new covenant with them. And in this new covenant, God not only forgives, but he “remembers their sin no more”.

In essence, God does what his people cannot do. God forgets. In response to their failures and shortcomings, God refuses to recognize them. In response to their infidelity and waywardness, God calls them faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real and despicable wretchedness, God’s memory has to be pushed and prodded to find any recollection. God memory is wiped clean.

But there’s a part of this that’s so hard. We cherish our memories so much that when even the slightest slip of our brain fails to recall something, it can make us mad. How many times have you had something – maybe a name or a memory – right on the tip of your tongue that it’s driven you to near madness to recall it. The problem is that our memories carry so much of our identity. We fear that if we lose our memory, we’ll lose our identities as well. And it’s here that the words of Jesus in the gospel of John come to us.

In our verses from John, the Greeks confront Jesus. They come out of nowhere and want to see Jesus. Almost nothing is said about them or why they ask Philip or why there is this whole run around rather than going straight to Jesus. It’s important to note here that by “Greeks”, the designation here is for foreigners. Gentile is the biblical term, but Greeks go along with it – basically what it means is non-Jewish foreigners. John emphasizes the always-expanding reach of the gospel. People are beginning to come from literally the ends of the earth to see Jesus.

The Greeks are the outsiders in this story. Jesus knows that when they come to see Jesus that the message really has reached the ends of the earth. This new covenant talked about in Jeremiah and found in the person of Jesus is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Much like how just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus talking of the temple of his body, Jeremiah dislocates the presence of God as well. God is now outside of the stone temples, and is in the community, moving, breathing, and living among us.

This is meant to break down the walls that we build up between insider and outsider. We build these walls as a way of remembering past transgressions. When we hang on to those things that God has forgotten long ago. This is where the insider-outsider thing becomes so dangerous. We build walls to keep people out. Most often it’s a power play. The insiders have the power and do everything they can to stay the insiders so they can keep the power.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this insider-outsider thing with this past week with the Trayvon Martin story that’s been gaining national prominence. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year old African American boy visiting his dad in a gated community in suburban Orlando. He was on the way back from a 7-11 with an iced tea and a pack of Skittles in hand when a volunteer neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman started following him – assuming he was an outsider. The next few details are a little hazy. But what we do know is that Zimmerman kept pursuing the boy. Some witnesses heard a struggle, Zimmerman fired the 9mm handgun he was carrying and the 17-year old boy was dead before the authorities even got there. Because he claimed self-defense, and Florida has some interesting laws, Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested or charged with the murder. But no matter what winds up happening, the fact remains that a boy is dead because he was perceived by an insider to be an outsider. And because guns are more powerful than Skittles.

As I’ve been getting this sermon ready this week, and reading all about this tragedy, I’m caught by the fact that the Greeks in our gospel come to Philip. Then Philip goes to Andrew. And then they go to Jesus. It’s as if these disciples are unsure if they should let the Greeks get to Jesus. The disciples are contemplating restricting access to these outsiders. But then when they bring it to Jesus, he realizes it’s time to change course. “The hour has come,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified…. And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” All people: insider and outsider. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Young and old. Democrat and Republican. Rich and poor. Are we getting this? This is a sign of the new covenant that is written on our hearts, that all people are drawn to God.

I think about this insider-outsider question all the time with confirmation and working with youth. A lot of times our focus is on teaching them the information of the faith so they, too, can be an insider. But one of the things I’m constantly finding is that the questions that teenagers these days are asking are a lot more about why the outsiders are outside. About why the walls exist at all. We’re communicating on two different levels. We’re trying to keep them in the classroom telling them the salient information about being an insider, while they’re constantly looking out the window wondering why the outsiders can’t be let in. I often wonder if we’re equipping them to be able to feel God’s presence over the clamor of all the demands placed on them – school, sports, jobs, money, and family?  Can they hold their own in the struggle between a rigid, unflinching, religious fundamentalism and allure of an apathetic, untended faith?  Are we, as a community, equipping them with the ability to discern how to live a life of faith in a 4G world?

We’ve been having these conversations. We know that unless we pass on the faith to following generations, it’s going to whither and die. It means opening up our community to see and experience Jesus again, as the One who makes all things new, as the One who creates something out of nothing. As the One who takes disobedience and unfaithfulness and creates a new covenant of forgetfulness and forgiveness.

It means moving in new ways as a community. We’ve started to take some of these steps in things like the BeTween group that Louise has started. And re-thinking some of the ways we do worship with the Saturday evening service. Some new ways of outreach in the ways that Leonard is helping us. We’ve taken the beginning steps in addressing some of these issues.

But we need people who genuinely care for our children and our children’s children. We need people who are willing to share their stories of faith. We need people who are not just willing to pass along the information of the faith – the X’s and O’s of what it means to believe, but to tell stories of their encounters with the living God. And I know this may take stepping out of our comfort zone. It may take a little disruption from the status quo of our lives. But this is how God works. God brings the Greeks – the outsiders, the foreigners, the people who didn’t know Jesus – to Israel to let Jesus know that his time was coming near.

I firmly believe that God brings us together into one body, one community, regardless of age so that we can tell the stories that are important to us, the stories that give us life so that we may be living examples of God’s abundant life on this Earth. In his journey to the cross, Jesus invites us into a disruption of our tightly sealed, self-contained, seed-like identity into a God-given identity, that blossoms and blooms in communion with one another. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

A Sermon on John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

How many of you really enjoy bragging about yourself?  I mean, when was the last time you went on and on about your many, numerous awards or degrees? How many times have you just said, “Wow, that’s very nice — but here’s how great I am!”? Yeah, me neither. For those of us who grew up in the Midwest, we’re accustomed to a certain level of courtesy. Call it the Minnesota Nice factor.[1]

In our Gospel text today, however, we come across a picture of Jesus that does not easily fit into that world of niceties.  Instead, John paints a picture of Jesus going mad. He storms into the Temple and conjures up a whip out of cords. He drives out all the people, sheep, doves… every living creature is driven from the Temple court. He overturns tables and pours money out all over the floor. Jesus is acting insane!  I’ve heard it called “righteous indignation” before, but in the moment, when Jesus was flipping tables and driving a whip of cords in the ground to scare the animals out of the courts, I would imagine it looked an awful lot like anger. But it’s the conversation that follows between Jesus and the Jews that really sticks out to me.

After Jesus overturns the tables and kicks all the livestock out of the Temple, the Jews ask him “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In other words, “What gives you the right to come and disrupt this temple?” And Jesus answers in a way that, I’m sure, was quite perplexing to these men. He says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” This is where people start to get offended.  This is like shouting “Bomb!” in the line at airport security. The temple in Jerusalem was thought to be one of the holiest places in the world. It was thought that God actually lived within the walls of the temple. So when a hotshot who is fresh off his first miracle in the wedding at Cana comes and talks about destroying the temple – destroying the very dwelling place of God – there’s going to be at least a little bit of resistance.

The Jews here aren’t the half-wits they are sometimes portrayed to be. These are some very serious actions that Jesus is proposing here. They’d be asking a question like If Jesus really does destroy the temple, then where will we find God? How will we make God known? These people are scared of losing the very thing they’re giving their lives to. But lucky for us, the writer of John gives us the inside scoop that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.

As usual, Jesus is talking about something far deeper than the building they are standing in. The new temple is not made from bricks and mortar, but from body and blood. Jesus tries to get them (and us) to break out of our conception that the church, synagogue, or temple is the only place we can experience God. Jesus is talking about a God on the loose. God is no longer constrained to just dwelling in this one particular space, but now God is everywhere. This is echoed in other gospels at the crucifixion as the curtain of the temple is torn in two. But John puts it all the way at the beginning. John knows the end of the story and wants to clue us in early. But we still fall prey to the same thoughts that the Jews of this time did, don’t we?

A lot of times, we still hold fast to the idea that God is contained inside the church building. If I were to ask you where is God for you? Or where do you feel God’s presence the most? I’m sure pretty early in the conversation we would talk about church, as in these four walls of this building, in these pews with us people in white robes up front talking to you about God. That’s the natural answer. We feel closest to God when we gather as a community in times of worship and fellowship. The good news of today’s Gospel text is that God is so much bigger than that.

One of the most memorable moments in the 2000 Summer Olympics was when Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, swam in the 100-meter free style qualifying round. The 22-year-old African had only learned to swim the previous January. He’d only practiced in a 20-meter pool without lane markers, and had never raced more than 50 meters. By special invitation of the International Olympic Committee, under a special program that permits smaller, developing countries to participate even though their athletes don’t meet customary standards. He had been entered in the 100-meter men’s free-style. When the other two swimmers in his heat were disqualified because of false starts, Moussambani was forced to swim alone. As he raced, he was, to quote the Associated Press article about the race, “charmingly inept.” He rarely put his head under the water’s surface and flailed wildly to stay afloat. With ten meters left to the wall, he virtually came to a stop.

Even though his time was over a full minute slower than his nearest competitor , the capacity crowd at the Olympic Aquatic Center stood to their feet and cheered the swimmer on. After what seemed like forever, he reached the wall and hung on for dear life. When he had caught his breath and regained his composure, Moussambani said over the loud speaker, “I want to send hugs and kisses to the crowd. It was their cheering that kept me going.”

This is what the new temple looks like in our world. If we are the body of Christ in this world, and the dwelling place of God is Christ’s body, then that means that every time we encounter another person as a member of the body of Christ, we are encountering God. We are encountering the temple that Jesus re-built in three days. This new temple has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, but with body and blood.

This is what the body of Christ looks like in our world today. The body of Christ – where John tells us God is living – is made apparent when we choose to build up, rather than tear down.  When we choose to heal and mend, rather than let anger or cynicism get the best of us. So now we go out into the world that God calls us to, trusting that our work is not in vain, and living in the promise that the new temple has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, but only with body and blood. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

[1] Thanks to my friend, Culynn, for this idea for a way to get into the text. Very creative.

Sermon from Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

It may surprise some of you to know that I am somewhat of a TV aficionado. Others, who have spent a bit more time with me, this may not come as too much of a surprise. One of my favorite shows on TV right now is a show called Breaking Bad. I won’t go in to the plot a whole lot because that might land me on the list of the long-winded preachers here at Our Savior’s – and that’s something I’ll hold off on for now. But one of the things I love about Breaking Bad is that a lot of the episodes begin with a very suspenseful opening that doesn’t quite make sense in the narrative of the show. But then we find out that the beginning is actually the end of the episode and a new scene starts “4 days earlier” and helps us to fill in the rest of the story. Have you seen TV shows that do this? If you watched Jack Bauer and followed along with the show 24 you know what this is like as well. Countless movies and television shows have done this. But this method of storytelling has roots far back in the halls of storytelling. We see it in today’s gospel from the book of Mark.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes James, John, and Peter up the mountain where Jesus is lifted up and begins to shine brighter than anything they’d ever seen. Then Moses and Elijah – two great figures from the Hebrew Bible, join him. Peter then says that this is a good place for them to be and wants to build a dwelling place for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Immediately a cloud overshadowed them and God’s voice breaks through this scene with a phrase that echoes the proclamation from Christ’s baptism, “This is my son, the beloved.” This is a phrase that is repeated only a few times in Mark’s gospel, but each time it is significant. The first was at the baptism, this is the second, and the third will come from the lips of the Roman centurion immediately after Christ’s death on a different kind of mountain.

So what does all of this mean? To answer that question, we should dig deeper into Peter’s words. Many scholars think that this particular part of the text took place during the Festival of Booths. This is a feast that celebrates the dwelling of God. Jews would build small booths where they would live for 7 days as a reminder that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Peter wants to stay in this place with them and build a dwelling for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter gets it. He recognizes that this is the kingdom of God breaking through. He recognizes that this is something that isn’t of this time or place. And so he wants to live here. I think a lot of times we want to do the same thing.

When I was young, maybe 2 or 3 years old, my parents bought me a little plastic console that had a steering wheel and a stick shift and – what all young children need at that time in their lives – a fully functional horn. I would sit behind that wheel and steer and shift and honk. In a way, I liked it so much because it was like seeing into my future. I loved being behind that wheel because I saw my mom and dad to that a lot and driving was just what grown-ups did. I wanted to stay there. But I couldn’t. I was still a 3-year old.

Just like I couldn’t stay behind that wheel forever, Peter can’t stay in that dwelling place of God forever either. They have to go back down the mountain. And I actually think that this is the great miracle of the Transfiguration story. A lot of people look at the Transfigured Jesus in dazzling white with Moses and Elijah and see that as the most awe-inspiring part of the story. But, for me, it’s what comes after. The gospel of this story is that Jesus comes down the mountain. He’s glowing and dazzling in all of his glory, but he gives that up to come down the mountain with the rest of the disciples and, indeed, the rest of the world. So many times we think our responsibility is to climb the mountain to be more like Jesus. We think that we, somehow, can rise to his level.

But our faith story isn’t a story of us going up, but of God coming down.

As we move into the season of Lent, we’ll find out just how far down this story goes. The Transfiguration is our mountain of light that begins the journey to the mountain of darkness. And the mountain of darkness really is an uncomfortable place to be. If we know the rest of Peter’s story, this can be an interesting contrast to the Transfiguration. Here, he insists on staying in the light, and when darkness rears its ugly head, Peter denies Christ. He gets scared. And if we’re quite honest, in our times of darkness, we get scared too.

But this is the miracle of the Transfiguration. We talk about this story as we begin Lent knowing that while we may be moving through a dark place in our lives, we are assured and reminded that Jesus is already there. Jesus is not afraid of what is difficult in our lives. Jesus will not reject us on account of our failings or insecurities. Jesus’ descent down the mountain reminds us that we don’t have to hide the hard parts of our lives from the God we have seen revealed in Jesus.

Today we are living in the in-between. We are living into that time where the future of God’s glory is not yet upon us. We know that day is coming, but is not yet here. We must come down the mountain and walk with each other in our darkness. We have seen the future and we know it glows with the light of God’s mercy and grace. The glory of it all is that Jesus comes down the mountain to walk with us in our valleys. He walks with us on our path of suffering, he walks with us all the way through the intense suffering of the cross and into the tomb where there is no body. So our job now is to be that light for all who walk in darkness. We know that the future is firmly in the hands of the One who comes down the mountain to dwell with us. So we work for justice and peace in this time and place to bring about an age where all are honored, dignified, and included in God’s Kingdom that has no end. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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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