Sermon for 4th Epiphany -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
In my second pastoral call, I served for nine years as assistant to the bishop in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod. My office was in a converted church building along a busy highway.
One Holy Week while I was on the synod staff I met Jesus. And I threw Jesus out of my office!
It was one of those days – you know the kind. I was very busy. Just too many interruptions. Our receptionist called with another interruption. A man was waiting to see me.
I sighed. Probably someone looking for a handout, I thought. The location of our office was along a busy highway, one connecting the cities of Allentown and Reading, Pennsylvania. This location just seemed to invite people looking for help to stop by on their way from Connecticut to Kentucky or some other journey. Besides, our offices looked like a church, not an office, so folks assumed they could come in and ask for help.
I decided to see this man, but I would be sure to make it quick. To make sure that happened, I did not even have him come upstairs to my office – I used one of the empty offices downstairs.
“I’d like a few minutes of your time,” he began as we entered the empty office. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills to hand me money. I put up my hands to refuse this gift, not a usual practice for me, I might add, but something just seemed wrong with his offer.
“My name is Arnie,” he began, “Here’s my card.”
I looked at the business card Arnie had just handed to me. It had Mary’s name in one corner and Joseph’s name in another. I remember this fellow, I thought to myself. I had seen him once in downtown Bethlehem where we lived at that time. This man thinks he is Jesus.
Sure enough, Arnie began to speak, saying, “My mother’s name is Mary and my father’s name is Joseph.”
Well, I did not have time for this. I pulled on Arnie’s arm, as he continued to speak, and headed him for the office door.
“I have spoken with you before,” I said, “And I really don’t have time to speak with you now.”
I had not really spoken to Arnie before – I had tried to avoid him the last time I had seen him, too. As I pushed him out of the door, Arnie turned and said to me, “Thank you for showing me out the door.” His voice was full of hurt.
Now that did not feel very good, but I had important work to do and headed back to my desk. Fifteen or so minutes later, another of our secretaries called me from her basement office. “That man you spoke with,” she said, “he is sitting in his car in our parking lot, crying.” I looked outside and saw Arnie behind the wheel of his old Cadillac. He was crying. Before I could decide what to do, he drove away.
That’s when what I had done hit me: I had met Jesus and thrown him out of my office! Now, of course, Arnie only thought he was Jesus and I could not even be sure of that assumption since I had not given him a chance to go that far. Regardless, I had been rather purposely unkind to one of God’s children, and a rather vulnerable “child” at that.
I had always prided myself at being kind to others. In my busy-ness, I had hurt someone, someone whose only fault may have been that he identified closely with his and my Lord.
Fortunately, I got another chance with Arnie. Almost a year later he came to see me again. This time he asked for me by name. This time I saw him in my own second floor office. Thankfully, Arnie did not seem to remember the incident of the previous year. Instead, he wanted to show my some crosses he had made. He wanted to leave me a bag of apples. He wanted to share information about an evangelistic service he was promoting.
He gave me a number his wooden crosses as gifts. He prayed with me, both of us on our knees in prayer, for fifteen minutes. Maybe it just seemed that long. Then, Arnie said, “I know you are busy, I won’t take any more of your time,” and left.
Each of the gospel writers has an overall theme as he tells the story of Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and new lawgiver, a new Moses. In John, Jesus creates unexpected abundance and new life. In Luke, Jesus releases those held captive, heals the ill and infirm and proclaims good news to the poor and the Lord’s favor to all.
And then we have the Gospel of Mark which we have been following these last weeks. As Mark tells Jesus’ story, Jesus begins his ministry by picking a fight with an unclean spirit!
Thus, Mark’s gospel begins with a confrontation. Whatever dramatic value beginning with a fight scene might initially promise, there is little doubt of who will win this showdown. The spirit protests Jesus’ very presence and Jesus casts him away with a command as authoritative as it is succinct. And with this bold teaching and show of power, the text tells us that Jesus’ fame spreads quickly.
Thus, Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God, you and me, from the abundant life that God desires for all of us.
And this is why this text is important today. We certainly do not speak often to unclean spirits in our lives today. But the message of this text still matters: God wants the most for us from this life and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created.
You see, especially in Mark’s gospel, God regularly shows up where we might least expect God to be. In today’s Gospel, God shows up in a man with an unclean spirit. Or in my example, in a visitor who thinks he is Jesus.
Mark is telling us that God is a God of the broken and that the church is to be a fellowship of the needy. And, for Mark, that is all that is needed to be a disciple of Jesus – recognizing our own deep needs and trusting that Jesus has come to meet these needs.
All of us have places of brokenness and disappointment and even fear in our lives. And it is in these moments that God draws us closest. And then God asks us to “pay it forward,” so to speak, to act towards others who appear broken with love and kindness. Even if they have an unclean spirit. Even if they think they are Jesus. God is still casting out the unclean spirits of this world and God wants to use us to continue this work.
So, the next time you are in your own time of brokenness and disappointment and fear please remember that we have a God who can draw us closest in these times, a God who even has the power to call out “unclean spirits” in our lives and the lives of others. And, the next time you come into contact with one of God’s more vulnerable children, please remember this text also. God is closest to all people in their most vulnerable times and calls us to be his representative to others, even if they think they are Jesus.
Just remember this: Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God, you and me, from the abundant life that God desires for all of us. God wants the most for us from this life and God stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created.
The church is to be a fellowship of the needy. Our call is to recognize our own deep needs and trust that Jesus has come to meet these needs. And, with the recognition and trust we are freed to be Jesus to others, those closest to us and those we do not even know, even those who may think they are Jesus. Because, in a very real way, those with the greatest needs can be Jesus for us.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
God Shows Up
Sermon for 4th Epiphany
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
January 31/ February 1, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica