Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder what it is that gets you moving or causes you to take action. If I asked you to ‘please stand’ right now, I suspect you would do it, because that’s one of those things we do that here at church, and the fact that I’m up front leading gives a certain authority to my words. In fact, let’s try something right now…would you please raise your right hand in the air…. (Great. Thanks.) I wonder what else gets you moving or causes you to take action; what has authority in your life? Maybe it’s your alarm clock that says, “it’s time to get up now.” Or maybe it’s your doctor who says, “you’re due for an appointment,” or your dentist who says, “you really do need to floss.” Maybe it’s your teacher who says, “the assignment is due on Wednesday,” or your boss who says, “I expect a certain amount of productivity.”

When I was a kid, there was one voice that would make me move especially quickly. It was my dad’s voice. When he would lower his pitch and say, ‘Kristine,’ I knew I was in trouble, and I’d get moving. More often than not, it was because I was watching tv when I could have been productive, so I’d get up off the couch and change my activity. Or when he’d put his coat and shoes on and stand at the base of the stairs and yell, “we’re late, and don’t forget to unplug that curling iron,” you can be sure that I would pull the plug out of the wall. For years afterward when I still used a curling iron, or to this day when I use an iron, I don’t simply turn it off, I remove it from the outlet.

There are all kinds of things that claim to be an authority in our lives, and some of them actually do have authority causing us to take action. I wonder, what holds sway in your life?

This is the second week in our new sermon series called, “All In.” Last week, we started reading the Gospel of Mark – the story of Jesus and how God came to us in the incarnation, how God fully invested Godself in a relationship with us and took on human form.

We’ll be reading Mark from now until Easter at the end of March. It feels good to be reading these stories of Jesus again. You know, Christians are often uncomfortable with the Old Testament because we’re not sure what to do with it; we’re not sure how the God of the Old Testament connects with the God who is revealed in Jesus, so we’ve sort of pushed it to the side over the years. This past fall, we spent time in the Hebrew scriptures to get to know them better and to see how this same God revealed in the Old Testament is the one who comes to us in Jesus. That’s good, and it’s important, but it’s refreshing now to feast on the stories of Jesus. So here we are in Mark.

We’re starting at the beginning, and we’ll read the stories in order. We won’t read every story in worship, but we’ll read a bunch of them, and we’ll get a sense of what Mark is about. Mark’s Gospel is dense, the stories are packed together, and there’s constant movement. We get this sense of urgency.

Here’s what’s happened so far…

The Gospel of Mark begins with a phrase, not a sentence but a clause: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

  • Jesus gets baptized by John in the Jordan River. The Spirit drives him into the wilderness for 40 days,
  • And then he comes to Galilee proclaiming one of the shortest sermons ever: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God has come near, Jesus says. What in the world does that mean? What in the world does that look like? Jesus is going to show The kingdom of God has come near. This is God’s way in the world.

In this short reading today of 25 verses, there are 6 episodes, you might say, and in them are 5 stories of miracles. The first one deserves our attention; it comes first, you see, so it’s important.

Jesus goes to the synagogue, the house of worship and study, and he teaches. He is approached by a man with an unclean spirit – a spirit that opposes God. In Mark, the unclean spirits are part of the forces of evil, those things that separate us from God. Honestly, we can get uncomfortable pretty quickly with the notion of unclean spirits, but let’s think about them as all the things that separate us from God, the things that are contrary to God’s way in the world – things like fear, anger, jealousy, greed…like when I’m consumed by anger at my spouse or colleague, jealous of my neighbor’s good fortune, or gripped with fear and paralyzed from moving forward. Those things can control me. In Jesus’ baptism, he heard a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the beloved, and with you I am well-pleased.” This unclean spirit was saying just the opposite, so Jesus cast the spirit out of the man.

The thing that surprises the people who are there is that he speaks with authority. He has the power to make things change. Over and over again, we hear that the people are amazed because Jesus speaks and acts with authority. He has the power to change things, to change reality. He holds sway.

It’s worth noting that the spirit leaves the man, but it’s not destroyed. The power of evil is still present in the world. We know that. There are things that separate us from God. There are things that defy God and rebel again God in this world. Some of those things hold sway in our lives, but not always…

This past November, when ISIS attacks in Paris claimed the lives of some 130 people and injured over 350, a young woman named Helene Muyal Leiris was among the concert-goers who was killed at the Bataclan concert hall. Her husband, Antoine Leiris wrote an open letter to the killers and posted it on Facebook. In his letter, he made it clear that he wouldn’t let anger hold ultimate sway over his life.

The letter was then translated to English, and the BBC asked him to read it for a video (here’s a link) that’s been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Here’s what he said:

“Friday night, you took an exceptional life – the love of my life, the mother of my son – but you will not have my hatred….If this God, for whom you kill blindly, made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife would have been one more wound in his heart.

So, no, I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You’re asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.

I saw her this morning….She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday night, just as beautiful as when I fell hopelessly in love over 12 years ago. Of course I am devastated by this pain, I give you this little victory, but the pain will be short-lived….

We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world. I don’t have any more time to devote to you. I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.”

In this God-become-flesh – in the incarnation of Jesus – we see a different way of being in the world. We see a different kind of authority and leadership.

For Jesus, the way to demonstrate power is not by crushing one’s opponent but in servant leadership. Jesus goes to the cross and dies, and then God raises him up again.

Antoine Leiris’s response points to Jesus, to the kingdom of God, to God’s way in the world. And it is a gift of Grace. Undeserved, unrequested Grace. The attackers didn’t deserve to be forgiven. They didn’t even ask to be forgiven. And yet, that’s the gift they were given. This is the gift we are given from God, too. Grace.

We are in the season of Epiphany now. An ‘epiphany moment’ is a moment when you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. It’s revelation. In the church, we lift up this time after Christmas and shine a light on how God is revealed in Christ.

The kingdom of God – God’s way in the world – was revealed in the letter Antoine Leiris wrote to his wife’s killers. In his courageous act of refusing to hate his wife’s killers, he pointed to God’s way in the world.

“This is what I came to do,” Jesus said, “to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near.” That’s Jesus mission. Now here’s the thing, Jesus is not going to tell us what that means, he’s not going to describe it; Jesus shows us what the kingdom looks like. And the very first thing Jesus does is cast out an unclean spirit that opposes God’s will. He opposes all that is contrary to God, he calls out the forces of evil that would rob the children of God of all that God intends for us. He points to it, and in an extraordinary turn of events, he speaks with authority, with the power to make change. Jesus holds sway.

When Jesus releases the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue, he doesn’t destroy it. The spirit is still there; but it no longer has control of the man’s life. In the same way, there are all kinds of things in this world that rebel against God, that try to hold us captive. But Jesus proclaims the good news that there is another way in this world, God’s way, and it’s meant to make us flourish. It’s not often the voice we hear from the culture; it’s counter-cultural, but its pull is just as strong, and far more life-giving. We recognize that voice in these words attributed to St. Francis, and with them I conclude:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.