Teaching that Calls out Evil

Hmmmm, in working on the sermon for this weekend, I began to wonder, “What was Jesus teaching — I mean exactly what was Jesus teaching — when the man with the unclean spirit yelled out “Have you come to destroy us?!” A colleague of mine, put that question into some different words — perhaps, “Have you come to destroy the way of life that we hold dear?”

I’ll give that this certainly could be your basic exorcism casting out a demon. The belief in demon-possession was common. And folks would have been very impressed if Jesus could cast out demons by simple command. But I’m interested in the ‘unclean spirits’, the ‘evil’, that takes over our lives, our world. Whether they be our love of violence and clamor for revenge, our greed, our racism, our heterosexism …. the list goes on.
I really like Michael B Raschko’s “A Companion to the Gospel of Mark”, (Twenty-Third Publications), in which he talks about how sin and evil can possess and distort the heart of each person, corrupt and pervert the lives of institutions great and small. He names particularly excessive individualism and consumerism. (see his book, pages 23-24)

The gospel of Jesus the Christ gives us the values and words to name the evil, call it out, and live in the direction of God’s Reign.

Sooo…. I wonder what exactly Jesus was teaching that day that ruffled the feathers, and rattled the cage of the man with the unclean spirit? Was he talking about money? That’s what he talked about most. Was he talking about forgiveness and reconciliation? That would upset the spirit of one who felt a right to hate and revenge. Was he talking about Love, that great commandment? If he talked about Love with the authenticity of his life behind it, he would surely be speaking as one with authority and evil would see itself in the mirror of Jesus and recognize itself for what it is.
I wonder what he was teaching ….

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Despising God’s Grace

I seldom preach on Jonah. In the lectionary cycle it comes around only once and always shares the day with Jesus calling disciples who drop their nets (and leave Dad in the boat) to follow him. But today I enjoyed delving into the humor of Jonah.
The focus of this moral tale is Jonah’s rage that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah just cannot abide the values of God. Jonah would rather die than see the Ninevites forgiven. Jonah would simply not believe that the Ninevites – those foreigners – those brutal Assyrians — could really repent.
As I look at our religious landscape, and particularly at the conservative brand of Christianity that yells loudest in this day and time, I see a sad association with Jonah. Far often ‘Christians’ despise God’ grace. We rage at the very idea of God ‘relenting to punish’. (Unless, of course, we are talking about ourselves!) We may think we are responding to God’s call. The problem is that we have not chosen to understand and embrace who God is!. Then when God …. well, turns out to be God, and brings even those we despise to GodSelf, we call it evil. Very often we deal with that by running to a kind of church that will agree with and prop us up in our desire for condemnation, hatred, and revenge.
If we read the Gospels and we come to know the person of Jesus the Christ, we find God’s grace and mercy, slowness to anger, and abounding love embodied in Jesus. May we respond to God’s call in our lives with a growing understand that our God is a graceful God who intends that everyone be redeemed.

Pastor’s Lectionary Study Group

Like many pastors, I meet weekly with an ecumenical group of colleagues for lectionary study.  This is not the first wonderful group of this kind in my years of ministry; I’ve been fortunate to participate in three of these.  This group meets on Tuesday mornings at 8:30, rotating our gatherings between our different church buildings.  In recent summers, when our schedules are less dependable, we have held our gatherings in a neighborhood coffee shop.

The group at this time includes 2 Disciples of Christ, 2 United Church of Christ, 2 Presbyterian, and 1 Episcopal Church pastors/priest.  We are 3 women and 4 men.  We are gay and straight. We are in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.   We are high church and low church and somewhere in between. We are congregational pastors, hospice chaplain, and a director of an ecumenical urban ministry.  Our congregations/ministries are all located within about a 2 mile radius — in the inner city.

The added gift is that our congregations have grown to share in ministry together through outreach, worship, and special events. Just last week, one of the Presbyterian congregations hosted the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper that was a fundraiser for our outreach ministry.  Then all of the congregations shared in our “Ashes to Go” on the street on Ash Wednesday.  And that evening, we shared in Ash Wednesday worship hosted at the Episcopal church.   On Maundy Thursday, we will be at one of the UCC churches.  And on Good Friday, we will all share in our annual “Way of the Cross Walk” through our neighborhood.  Almost 40 years ago three of our congregations, along with another that is no longer in existence, developed the ecumenical urban ministry that we now all support (along with the support of many other congregations in the metropolitan area).

This morning, as we sat together in the library of our Disciples congregation studying our preaching text for this coming Sunday, I could not help but think of the amazing gift of this community of pastors and congregations.  As pastors we support each other personally.  We listen to and challenge each other.  We laugh and we cry together.  We are able to share and help each other work through difficult times in our congregations.  As congregations, we grow and change and deepen in our ministry through relationship with each other.

I have been in lectionary groups that used a research approach, bringing a variety of resources from theological and biblical scholars to the text each week.  That was a good approach.  This group, however, approaches the text through Lectio Divina.  I have grown to cherish the experience of group lectio and the prayerful, always fresh connection to the text that emerges from our time together.

This type of group cannot always be created.  Some groups work and some do not.  There are times and situations that are more or less conducive.  Every group is different.  But I am convinced that, through these relationships, the ministry of the Church is strengthened in ways we would never have imagined.

Thanks be to God for my dear, dear friends in ministry!

Autism and Church

Last night three other members of the congregation and I attended a workshop on Autism.  It was done by the Judevine Center on Autism and was a wonderfully helpful evening.  With two children in our congregation with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we are coming to realize the very special needs of children with autism and their parents.  One of our dreams is to develop ways to include and care for children with autism and to provide support and life-giving spiritual community and space for families with children with autism.  The challenge is huge, but I believe that if we take it step by step, we will be able to provide the hospitality of Christ’s community.  And most of all we will come to know God in deeper, more profound ways.

Last week, it took by breath away when a 5 year old little girl with autism who does not speak, slipped her hand into mine for the first time.  It was a holy moment — God’s relationship creating movement in a child’s life and in mine.

In these days as our lectionary readings are in Mark, we have been reading the texts in which Jesus casts out evil spirits, or demons.  I am so very aware that those “evil spirits” or “demons” were thought to be present in such conditions as epilepsy or autism.  In Mark, teaching and healing or casting out evil spirits was all bound up together — a teaching with authority.  Could it have been that as people truly understood the gospel, then healing took on a different meaning?   Those who were cast out, isolated because of their illness or difference could be seen as whole people and  welcomed into the  community.  Maybe then, maybe not  … but most certainly now!

Yes, the child who grows to be able to communicate and socialize more fully is being healed.  But surely it is also the case that we are being healed and made more whole day by day, relationship by relationship, as our community includes every child and every family.  God deepen our understanding and therefore our joy!

Preaching from the Cloud

I’ve recently picked up again Thomas Troeger’s book Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999). Indeed, we are always ‘under reconstruction’ but it seems that in these days we are called to examine ourselves anew. In recent years the pull toward ‘seeker’ and ‘contemporary’ worship has often included a rejection of tradition. Troeger approaches preaching by calling us to see tradition not only in the image of the anchor (buried in the bottom of the sea, holding us in place, stunting our movement) but in the image of the ‘cloud of witnesses.’ I am moved by his words: “a cloud forms and reforms with the play of wind and light. An anchor may stunt innovation, but not a cloud. The cloud of witnesses reminds us that reality will not stay put. The cloud reveals that tradition is a dynamic process, that tradition initiates creativity, that tradition gives our imaginations depth and wisdom by connecting us to a greater base of human experience than the puny little domain of the present moment. Knowledge of the past feeds our imaginations and stimulates our visionary energies for preaching in a fragmented age.” (Troeger, 22)

Troeger goes on to acknowledge the danger of assuming that the witnesses who speak to one of us are the same witnesses who speak to everyone. He references Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s observation: “I learned to distrust those who claim objectivity, which in my view is merely the subjectivity of those who have the power to impose it on others.” (Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Orbis Books, 1996) The cloud of witnesses is far greater that any one individual, race, nation, or religious tradition.

Perhaps this knowledge, living deep inside me, is the reason I have been drawn in recent time to those who have gone before — not only in what I consider “my tradition,” but traditions different from my own. In fact, I find myself no longer willing to claim “my tradition” in the limited way I once did. It is all my tradition to explore and tap; the voices of those who have gone before us are able to speak to me so that I make new friends and find new family. Whether the medieval women mystics or Latin American, Asian, or African voices, or Black American witnesses, I need to hear the voices of those who have experienced God’s life-giving grace in times of turmoil and transformation for the church. I am healthiest when I remember that many, many have dared to embrace the challenge of preaching — long before I was was born. I am healthiest when I remember that I am one voice among the many. I enjoy responding to Troeger’s guiding:

“Stop. Imagine the cloud. Who emerges from the cloud for you? What wisdom do they have that you need? Let them join in the conversation. Hear them intermingling, correcting and affirming my witnesses from the cloud.”