Sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, January 18, 2004, Epiphany 2, dedicated to women and men in this nation who laid down their lives for justice decades and even centuries before the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We all stand on their shoulders! And always to the glory of God!
Isaiah 62:1-5; Mark 3:19b-30
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
As our story opens, there is a darkness upon the land. Evil seems ever-present. The light seems overwhelmed by the dark. As such evil and demonic presence break through human mental and physical defenses, it feels as though this presences has come like thieves in the night to steal hope, to destroy all who have faith and belief. These thieves drain all human strength and personality. Family members call other family members evil. Friends turn against friends. These thieves are hostile and malignant. They are spiritual parasites. Taking the souls of those whom they encountered, these thieves left in their wake meanspirited, twisted, and decimated beings.
There are a few who valiantly battle these spirits. But, the force of the onslaught is great. A broken and fractured fellowship is all that stands between the hope and life which once lived in this land and the evil that now consumes it. This is the context of our Gospel today. First Century Palestine was a place overrun with demons and the presence of evil. "Exorcists were in high demand. There was a bull market on madness. That is why Jesus and his disciples were in such demand. He is an exorcist extra ordinaire. He wields exorcism the way a soldier swings a sword. It is one of the most lethal weapons in his arsenal. According to Mark's gospel, the three purposes of Jesus' ministry were to teach, to heal and to exorcize demons! These, by association with him, become the purposes of the Christian life. While most of us feel somewhat comfortable with the purpose and power to teach and heal, the power to exorcize is different. It is fraught with challenges. Nevertheless, the power to drive out evil, to exorcize demons is a power Jesus gave to the church! In other words, Jesus calls you and me to be exorcists.
Already in Mark 3:19b and following, we read about the effect of battling evil on Jesus himself. Immediately after calling the twelve, he goes home to Nazareth. The growing crowds continue to gather around him. We read, his own family comes out to "restrain him" from being with the crowds. Some are saying he has lost his mind. They are calling him the devil, for, in their fear of the unleashing of the power of God, they have come to believe that only the ruler of the demons could cast out demons. Jesus says, "How could Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself it will not stand. If (even) a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand" (Mk. 3:23-25). Divided, the house falls. Divided, the kingdom falls. The work of the demons and the power of evil on an individual basis, a familial basis and on a national basis is the work of dividing and conquering - from the souls of the one to the soul of the nation.
He reminds the crowds they are messing with the Holy Spirit when they begin calling what is the power of God, in effect, the power of evil. They must not interfere with the power of God's coming kingdom. As Dr. Brian Blunt, of Princeton Theological Seminary explained last week, when I was gathered with 23 other colleagues at The Roundtable Connection in Florida, "The kingdom of God is a force, not a place." Jesus is speaking to the crowds admonishing them not to mess with the force of God. It is a mighty strong presence which will not simply go away. We don't go there. This force comes to us!
The kingdom of God is a force. It is a force which, in the case of Jesus' family, they couldn't see. They were frightened when their son and brother came home with a hoard of people following him. "What is going on? ," they must have wondered! "This isn't the same nice, `Lil Jesus' that left home some time back." "What has gotten into him?," they must have thought. Clearly, it was the power of God, the force of the kingdom. He could not be divided. He would not yield to all these threats and accusations, all this Satan talk- these invectives- swirling around him and headed right at him!
The power of God to change evil to good, to unite the demon-possessed individuals, households, and nations throughout time is a force with which we must be reckoned. It is a force and a power which will not be moved when it stands strong. It is a force and power which will not be stopped when it moves toward the prize of freedom and justice. I have felt this, in my own lifetime most fully expressed and extended by many African-American preachers and teachers. In their voices, rising from the pain and the absolute evil of slavery, I have heard no less than the angels of God calling to me and all of us to unite - individually, as households of faith, and as a nation - to end discrimination and injustice in every form and forum in which it shows its ugly face.
This force knocks down doors of injustice, doors that have been constructed to hold back the powerless and to hold in the powerful. When yielded by us as Christian people, it is a force of exorcism! I am reminded of one such Christian exorcist. "She was born in slavery as Isabella Baumfree. But by the time she kicked down the door of polite, white, Christian, feminist society, she was a powerful black woman preacher dedicated to cause of exorcizing slavery, racism, and sexism from this land. Everywhere she went, she was told she was an outsider who didn't belong. Everywhere she went, she kicked down doors on her way inside where she was determined to make herself at home in her own way, not the way others thought was appropriate. She broke into a meeting of white women in May 1851 in Akron, Ohio and exorcized the spirit of American Christian womanhood and opened up the possibility at least, that black women, even black slave women, should have all the freedoms and rights that white women were enjoying and were fighting for in the future. This exorcist on the outside, was exercising a way inside for herself, her sisters, and her people" (drawn from Brian Blount's sermon, "The Exorcist," 1/11/04 at Pilgrim Congregational Church, Coconut Grove, FL.).
You know Isabella Baumfree as Sojourner Truth. She preached these words in one of the most famous short sermon in the history of America:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seem them most sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Did you hear what she said? She invoked the name of Jesus for the healing of our nation, for the exorcism of our souls. She was spitting out the evil spirits of slavery, segregation, and hatred. She was a force that could not be stopped. Thanks be to God.
Another such exorcizing force was a man, who without a doubt, is the greatest Christian hero of my life - the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thisman, this paradoxical force of faith, who was gunned down in the prime of his life and witness, tells the story of his own evolution as a pilgrim of nonviolence in an essay which first appeared in Christian Century, April 27, 1960. (I need to point out that in 1960, Dr. King had only been an ordained minister for 5 ½ years when he wrote these words. He was 31 years old. He was only 34 when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial).
Dr. King attributed his intellectual quest to eliminate social evil to the writings of the social gospel's theological leader, Walter Raushenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis. Citing Raushenbusch's claims on both the spiritual and social salvation of humanity, King came to believe that saving souls without concern for the social well-being was a form of evil in itself. He wrote: "Any religion that professes to be concerned about the soul's of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial" (quoted in A Testament of Hope, ed. By James M. Washington, Harper-Collins, 1986, p. 38).
Martin Luther King, Jr. came to realize that the only power with which to meet social and injustice was the power of love. Not a love which spoke of superficial optimism, but a love delivered through organizing people into direct action - a love which he came to see as manifest in the soul force of Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha.
Satyagraha is a word that comes from two sources - in Hindi, "Satya" is "truth which equals love," and "graha" is "force." So Satyagraha means "Truth-force," or "Love-force." Once in Montgomery, Alabama in his first church, Dr. King garnered the combined power of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount together with the power of Gandhi's truth-force in the organizing the bus boycott of 1954-1955. It was truth-force, the organizing of poor people in nonviolent action and soul-force that eventually brought a nation to confess its sins and begin to redress the evil of social injustice and racism. Forty years later, Truth-force is still needed to exorcize the demons from persons and systems who seek to undo our nation.
When Dr. King was gunned down in April of 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, I believe those striving for freedom and justice, went into a deep period of grieving and a paralyzing period of inaction. Like the early followers who went into hiding after his crucifixion, only to emerge empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, I believe that we in America were waiting for the emergence of another King. We were waiting, if you will, for the Return of the King.
I couldn't help but reflect on the recent release of "The Return of the King," the third film depicting JRR Tolkien's trilogy Lord of the Rings, as I was thinking about the parallel between Dr. King, Christ the King, and Tolkien's king. In the story, a fellowship of nine, battle the evil force and power of Sauron - who is depicted simply as an evil eye. This fellowship is comprised of one wizard, one dwarf, one elf, two men, and four Hobbits - one of whom - Frodo - is the bearer of The Ring. Sauron seeks the Ring. With it, he will consolidate all his evil power. The fellowship seeks to destroy the ring and thus end its powerful hold on the one who possesses it. The Fellowship of the Ring is joined in its fight against evil by elves, trees, several kingdoms of men, spirits of the mountain, and by tale's end, eagles. In the end, the one who was once rejected as King because he was a Ranger, leads the fellowship forces to victory. But, through it all, the force of evil is great. Evil must be exorcized from the land.
While Frodo and Sam (and of course Gollum) struggle to get to mountain where the Ring can be destroyed in the lava fires that flow there, Frodo's compatriots in the fellowship battle Sauron and his forces as they march across the land bringing death and destruction everywhere. Evil is a powerful foe, we learn. But, when the power of good unites, evil can be defeated. Although this formulaic principle is seen in most stories, Tolkien clearly shows how the forces of good have their own personal, existential struggles, generational and tribal struggles, and host of other challenges which keep them from uniting and overcoming evil with good. It takes the Hobbits, these playful little creatures with hairy feet, big and (mostly pure) hearts, and lots of love to unite the forces in the end. Just when it looks like the fellowship will tear asunder, the Hobbits intervene as a force for good and in the end they lead the fellowship to victory.
I liken this force to the force provided by the children of Birmingham, Alabama in the Spring of 1963. Following the church bombing in Birmingham, the children joined the civil rights fight (against their parents will) to awaken the nation to the terrible truth of injustice as we all witnessed the arrests and fire-hosing of the innocents on national TV. King, himself, later attributed the salvation of the civil rights movement to the children of Birmingham.
In the gospel, Jesus calls on the pure in heart to see God and save the people. Quite frankly, I feel too often you and I are seeking the return of the king. We look for him on clouds descending. We hope he comes on chariots of fire. We look for him in the rising star of some young African-American preacher. But, the truth of the gospel is that we are the fellowship that will deliver the world from the grip of evil to the path of righteousness and peace. If we fail to pray, to organize, to exorcize the demons, and to act for justice, then the power of evil will prevail.
The time is now. It is our fellowship which the King established, joined with the fellowship of other believers and of those who seek peace and justice beyond our faith, which will guide us in the ways of hope and righteousness. Do not seek a salvific King, because the salvific King, Jesus the Christ, has crowned us to lead the movement! Do not look to the heavens for answers. God has provided the answers in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the inspirational models of such Christian exorcists as Sojourner Truth, and the methodology in Gandhi and King's movements. I believe we will discover, as in the fellowship of the rings, that the ones who lead and inspire us may not look like the ones we expected when we started this journey. But, always remember, our Savior, upon returning to his own hometown and family, was not even seen as the force of good! Open your eyes, children of God. Christ is in our midst and he is calling us to live into our calling as Christian exorcists, as deliverers of love-force, as the holy fellowship of peacemakers in troubled world. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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