Thursday, January 26, 2012

Must we talk about exorcism?

Our texts for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, and Mark 1:21-28, which can be read here.

I've been dreading this week for a while--for it brings me to face a topic I would prefer to avoid, a component of Jesus' ministry that I would find it far easier to gloss over or write off as belonging to a past era rather than working to figure out how to apply to our life as modern-day disciples.

Yet this week, we cannot avoid it: it's time to talk about exorcism.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does many "works of power"--healing the sick and injured, raising the dead, calming the storm. Yet one of the most frequent ways Jesus displays his power as one filled with the Spirit of God is through casting spirits out of tortured, afflicted people. In addition to today's story of Jesus casting an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue, Jesus casts a whole legion of spirits out of a man and into a herd of pigs in Mark 5:1-20, relieves a little girl of a demon in Mark 7:24-30, in Mark 9:14-29 casts a demon out of a boy whom the disciples had failed in their efforts to exorcise (you can read these three very interesting stories here).

Perhaps even scarier than the fact that this is something Jesus did repeatedly--at least scarier to someone like me who admittedly doesn't quite know what to make of exorcism stories--is that the power to exorcise is something Jesus said those who followed him would possess. In Mark 6.7, Jesus "called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits."

What on earth does that mean for we who are sent by Christ today? What is this power Jesus has--this power Jesus has now entrusted to us?

Is this a power that's even valid anymore? In our rational, modern day scientific society, many people write off the "demons" of the New Testament as things like seizures and neurologically explainable mental illness--things better treated with medicine than any sort of holy authority. Unfortunately, this has placed a terrible stigma on those who suffer these things over the centuries--a stigma that I hope, at last, is being removed. It has also led to a restriction of exorcism to faith healers who can lay a hand on a tormented person and leave them writhing on the floor--acts that are often all spectacle and no substance.

The question is: is there something else Jesus is talking about here? Are there other spirits lurking among us today that we are called to play a part in casting out as followers of Jesus--voices that compete with and oppose the Spirit of God within us, hidden tormentors of our souls? What *could* it look like for us to claim this power to exorcise these things that destroy us in the way Jesus intended--and to let Jesus have this sort of power over us?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Response Time

Our texts for this week as we continue our Epiphany journey through "Jesus' First Days" are Jonah 3:1-10, Psalm 62:5-12, and Mark 1:14-20. You may read them here.

This week, our church council has been preparing to go on a retreat together. As part of our preparation, we have all been instructed to take the Myers-Brigg Temperament Indicator to help us learn more about how we're wired, how we react, process and respond. As I took the inventory this week, I was asked to respond "Yes or No" to things like the following: "You are usually the first to react to a sudden event: the telephone ringing or unexpected question"; "You prefer to act immediately rather than speculate about various options"; "Your decisions are based more on the feelings of a moment than on the careful planning." My answer to each of these questions was a definitive NO. Though I have learned to adapt to abrupt shifts or the unexpected, at heart I am about as far from a reactive, spur-of-the-moment, sudden change person as you can get. My reactions are slow; it takes me a while to process; if you ask me to do something suddenly, it's usually not going to go well.

And so it is as I look at today's two stories of people responding to God's call,I find myself much more "in the boat" (to use a bad pun) with Jonah in response to God's call than with the Ninevites or the disciples we meet in Mark. Earlier in Jonah's story, God had instructed him to go to Ninevah--the hometown of his enemies--and proclaim God's word to them. Jonah has spent his whole life trending away from those gross people in Ninevah; turn around now and go preach to them? Not a chance. And so Jonah puts himself on a boat headed in the opposite direction, then ends up in the belly of a great fish at the bottom of the sea. There he has time to reflect on his decisions and finally, begrudgingly, say, "OK--I will go."

Go Jonah does--yet still begrudgingly. He goes halfway into the city and proclaims a half-hearted message to the people. The people, however, are immediately ready to respond--suddenly, abruptly, unexpectedly. They clean up their lives and change their hearts to trust in God so quickly that those of us who like deliberate decisions may look at them and say, "Is this for real? This can't be real. No one just changes like that."

I feel the same way in hearing about Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus utters simple words--"Follow me"--and immediately they drop everything--their livelihood, families, stability. They just take off after this guy that, as far as we know, they've never laid eyes on before. Is this for real? Are they insane? You can't just drop everything and follow!

These stories, then, hit upon the question of our response time. All the people in these stories, eventually, responded to God's call; for Jonah, it involved a trip to the depths of the sea. For Ninevah, it was good they reacted quickly because it was just in the nick of time. For the disciples, they heard the urgency in Jesus' voice and something there was enough to make them respond--to compel them to drop those nets and follow.

It makes me wonder: how do we react when God suddenly breaks into our lives--by hiding in fear, or following with abandon (and, likely, a little fear as well)? How do we recognize God as the thing to which we are called to respond immediately amidst all the world's options? How do we know when God is calling us to leave our careful plans aside and follow the rush of a Spirit we cannot explain? And is it okay, sometimes, if our response time lags a bit?

But perhaps the question underneath all our responses is this: do we believe God has the power to change us quickly, suddenly, forever?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Meet Mark, This Year's Gospel

Our texts for this Sunday, January 15, are 1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, and Mark 1:9-13. The Old Testament readings can be found here; to read the verses from Mark, go here.

NOTE: During these 5 weeks of Epiphany when we are moving verse by verse through Mark's first chapter, I would encourage you to read the entire first chapter of Mark every week (linked above) sometime before coming to worship--straight through, just 45 short verses from start to finish. What sense of who Jesus is do they give you?

This blog (and our next few weeks in worship) will act as your very own introduction to Mark, the Gospel we will be reading for most of the coming year (that's right, friends--with the exception of a few weeks after Easter, we will be reading Mark more or less from now til Thanksgiving!).

What does this mean for you? Well, you will like Mark if...

1) You have a touch of ADD and/or like people who get to the point: Because Mark does, too. He often begins a story, then gets distracted and tells another story, then comes back to the original story. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels by far. He does not waste words, but tells many of the well-known stories of Jesus life with incredible succinctness. He only tells the stories that he wants us to know, and tells them in an almost Twitter-esque brevity.

2) You love action movies: Because Mark moves FAST. His favorite word is the word "immediately", which appears about 43 times in the Gospel--11 times in the first chapter alone. Especially in his first 10 chapters, Mark is booking it at a pretty fast tempo through the ministry of Jesus, and he doesn't like to waste time. This story is urgent.

3) You have a thing for mystery and/or think actions speak louder than words: In Mark's Gospel, the reader and Jesus know who Jesus is almost from the outset, but most of the characters in the story remain rather clueless. This is largely because of what has been called Mark's secrecy motif--Jesus is constantly telling people not to tell who he is. He wants to show this for himself with the life he lives.

4) You want to get a sense of who this Jesus guy is and what he's about: Mark wanted to paint a picture with quick, clear strokes of who Jesus is--Son of God, Messiah, one with great strength and authority yet who would suffer and die. This is the earliest written account (we believe) we have of Jesus' life, and as a result brings us close to the core of this figure who has changed the course of history. If you want to get a quick introduction to Jesus' ways, Mark is an excellent place to start.

As we start with Mark, we'll be spending the next month or so on the beginning of Jesus' ministry, moving almost verse by verse through chapter 1. In this chapter, Jesus appears, is baptized, is tempted, begins to teach, calls disciples, performs his first miracle, heals, prays, travels, and breaks all sorts of rules and conventions--all in the span of about 36 verses. This first chapter is a good place for us to dwell, for in the beginning of Jesus' ministry we learn a LOT about what his life is going to be about. There is no better place for us to start.

We begin this week with the first appearance of Jesus in this gospel: not in a manger, but in a river, where he suddenly appears to be baptized by John. Why do you think this is the first visual of Jesus that Mark gives us? What does it mean that this is how the story of Jesus in this Gospel begins--with Jesus joining the pilgrims at the Jordan, seeing the heavens turn open, and hearing a voice that had to both comfort and confuse?

Join us on Sunday as we begin our Markan journey by asking these questions together!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas...

Our texts for this Sunday--on which we will celebrate Epiphany--are Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72, and Matthew 2:1-12. Give these very interconnected texts a read here.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" used to be my least favorite Christmas song. Every time it came on the radio (unless it was this totally amazing version recorded by The Muppets) I would change the station. What do twelve days have to do with anything? And who would really want their true love to give them such completely ridiculous gifts?

And then in seminary I learned what the 12 days of Christmas actually are: the days that unfold between Christmas Day and January 6, which is designated as "Epiphany"--the day on which we celebrate the visit of the magi and the revelation of Christ's light to all the nations of the world. Epiphany is actually a more ancient Christian festival than the celebration of Christmas, but today--at least in American culture where we prefer to celebrate the "50 Days Before Christmas" rather than "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with decorations up by November 15 and down by December 26--the day of Epiphany, as well as the 10 days of Christmas falling before it, and the seven-week season of Epiphany that follows it, often get lost in the shuffle.

What do we lose in losing such a season? This week I read a reflection by Linda J. Vogel and Dwight W. Vogel on how daily life intersects and needs the seasons of the Christian worship year, and was reminded anew how much Epiphany--a day and season of revelation and worship, of illumination and worldwide impact--is needed. Consider their wise words:

When we long for things to be different, when we watch and
we are an Advent people.

When we recognize the presence of the holy in the
we celebrate Christmas.

When a sense of the sacramental is broken open to us, and we
respond by offering our material wealth, our worship, our
lives and our deaths,
we live an Epiphany life.

The magi, or wise men, of the Gospel reading that falls on Epiphany every year shows us what it looks like to live such "an Epiphany life": Here we find people who studied the world around them and the promises of God, and who made the connections between the two. Here we find people willing to take a journey that was costly in more ways than one--that could have even cost them their lives when it brought them in contact with a violent ruler who felt threatened. Here we find wealthy, educated people not afraid to humble themselves before a peasant toddler, to offer worship that--on the surface--would make them look...well...kind of silly.

The wise men who sought Jesus by the light of the star seem a good place to start the Epiphany journey that will occur not just on this Twelfth Day of Christmas, but stretching weeks into the future as we begin to walk with a growing Jesus as he begins his own revelation of who he is and the Epiphany life to which he is, even now, calling us. Be with us on Sunday as we move from the season of waiting and the season of recognizing into coming days accompanied by the magi's wisdom as we seek to follow the star together.