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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Claimed by Christ

In today's readings, Christ teaches with authority, and casts out demons.  Because through Baptism the Holy Spirit dwells in us, there is no room in us for whatever tries to possess us.  We are claimed by Christ, and freed to love and serve God and our neighbor.

Vicar Erik Doughty, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany; texts: Mark 1:21-28

So, when was the last exorcism you attended?

We in the rational, Enlightenment-affected, Science-friendly, Western church like to think, in daily life, that we are logical and self-controlled and sensible. We don’t often talk about things like unclean spirits, or how to get rid of them. But in liturgy and practice . . .

“We confess that we are in bondage to [or, “captive to”] sin, and cannot free ourselves.”

“Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”

“Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Our last exorcism was on January 8, the baptism of the newest member of the Spalding family; and before that, another on December 18, the baptism of the youngest Berka.

Our usual entry to Christian life and faith includes exorcism . . . and possession by Christ, into whose body the Holy Spirit enters at his baptism. (The Holy Spirit comes to us, too, in baptism.)

And in Affirmation of Baptism --what used to be called “Confirmation” -- those same renunciations are spoken again-- with the addition of this prayer: Stir up in (name) the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding; the spirit of counsel and might; the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord; the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.”

You see, in baptism the Triune God takes possession of us. The Holy Spirit enters in, lives in us. We are not our own. We belong as part of Christ’s body, the Church.

. . . and so, we speak Christ’s words, not our own.
. . . and so, we act in ways that build up community, not tearing down community.
. . . and so, we fear and love God. Perhaps you recall Luther’s small-catechism explanation of the eighth commandment? We should so fear and love God that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.

And no, this isn’t a sermon about the commandments-- but you can see the connections; you’re a smart bunch. In baptism, the Holy Spirit kicks out whatever unclean spirits are in us, and then the Holy Spirit lives within us, creating faith, allowing us to build community in ways we couldn’t before. It gives us a healthy fear of the Creator of All That Is; we see God and are awestruck.

And baptism, with its exorcism of other spirits and invocation of the Holy Spirit, also gives us love for God and for one another--and the neighbor Luther speaks about-- because God dwells not only in us, but also in places beyond us-- which we signify here at Mount Olive by reverencing the cross, and the Gospel book, and the altar, and the blessed communion bread and wine-- and God dwells in this congregation, too, each one of us, and so we bow to one another, forgiven sinner-to-forgiven sinner, one temple of the Holy Spirit to another Temple of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we should reverence the neighborhood as we exit the church building? Perhaps. God is present in the world, too.

And the peace of God comes from God AND dwells with each one of us, so that when we say “The peace of the Lord be with you,” it is not a symbolic formality but it is something actually happening, changing, transacting from one member of the body of Christ to another, in those words, at that moment. As Susan said last week during education hour, words are not just words; words have effects; and these are holy words; and they have holy effects. We do not say them idly. We should so fear and love God that we recognize the reality we create with our words (and with God’s words).

I’m going to preach to the choir a little now (not literally). Because you know this, but in a little while you’ll go out the church doors and others NEED to know this:

I have been reading an ongoing discussion about words, where one person used the word “homo”, reasoning that it was a logical abbreviation for a longer word referring to gay and lesbian people. Well-- we should so fear and love God that we do not call fellow members of the body of Christ -- or of our general human family -- names. We should so fear and love God that we build up the body of Christ in every way we can think of. We should so fear and love God that we acknowledge and encourage love when we find it.

And we should so fear and love God AND ONE ANOTHER that we do not use these texts today to hurt people. If we are going to name those things which draw us from God, those sins to which we are in bondage, let us say clearly that being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is not the same as having an unclean spirit. Being gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, does not draw us away from God any more than being heterosexual does.

By contrast, what becomes demonic are those things which take hold in us which we cannot control, and which clearly does harm to us, to others, to the community, to the church. Abuse- sexual or physical or emotional -- is demonic. Addiction-- to whatever we cannot shake, which takes control of us and will not let go of its own accord-- is demonic. For some, jealousy. For some, envy. For some, gluttony. For some, racism. There’s a pretty long list, actually.

You might know some of your own demons. And sometimes they will not go away completely in this life. I’ve actually given a name one of mine, a name for my tendency to sometimes be overly cautious and overly critical of myself, and to see everything in the most pessimistic way. Having a name for it allows me to realize it is not really *me*.

And I am convinced that it is the Holy Spirit residing within me that allowed me to see that personal demon for what it is-- and, in naming it, to have the authority to toss it out when I recognize it. “Oh hi-- I recognize you. Yes, I know what you’re going to say. Now shoo!” And you know, it no longer has the power over me that it had before. It stops in every now and then; and I say hello --and shoo it back out the door.

The same Jesus Christ who today exemplifies teaching with authority will, by the end of the Gospel according to Mark, lose every bit of authority and power we’ve heard today, stripped from him by our human desire for power and control and order. So I am not telling you “be like Jesus,” no, not quite. But, too, at the end of this Gospel we’re beginning now, Jesus has been raised from death, does not live in the tomb, but is out in the world again, alive, at work, living and acting now with authority granted by God, Christ who has utterly destroyed the power of sin and death. It is the risen Christ we worship today.

In the name of the risen Christ, whose light is spreading through the world, you and I are called to recognize and name chaos and darkness for what it is. And we are given the authority, as children of the Father, as members of the body of the risen Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit, to evict the demons we encounter. “Shoo, get out, I belong to Christ, not to you,” is a good start. I know that may sound glib. But we don’t need fancy language; we need to remember that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is already with us and in us, and in this faith community at Mount Olive.

Christ has claimed each person here. And Christ has no space to spare, no patience for unclean spirits; Christ washes us in baptism and says, “Come eat the bread of life; drink the cup of salvation, this is my body broken, my blood shed, for you-- a new covenant, for forgiveness of sin”.

The Holy Spirit is already in us, in residence; there is no vacancy for the unclean spirits. And so we are set free, you and I; set free to go out those doors and model in the world how incredibly amazing it is to belong to Christ, to love one another, to live without fear of sin but to live IN the awe and love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- and to live out confident love of God and neighbor, each day of the week.

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