“It’s Me, O Lord.”

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

January 31, 2021

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart and especially the hearts of the
people of this land, that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

“It’s Me, O Lord.”

It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my stranger or my neighbour, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my stranger or my neighbour, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not long after I became a parishioner at St. Bart’s in the City of New York, I think it was in 2007, Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to speak at the Rector’s Forum. He began his remarks by sharing a surprising thought.

Since the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire did not have a cathedral, the Bishop visited at and presided at a different church each week. After just a few weeks as bishop, Robinson came to a fascinating realization. At each parish, there were homeless people wondering around the church during the service. He was astonished to realize that everyone accepted this, no one seemed to be bothered by it, and no one did anything about it. No one confronted them, no one tried to control them, no one tried to force them to “behave in church,” and no one tried to kick them out. The problem, he learned, was that most of the visitors were people who had been expelled from mental institutions as a result of cuts in budgeting.

Bishop Robinson went on to say, that this was one of the happiest moments in ministry for him. In it he realized how truly loving, welcoming, and inclusive the parishes in that diocese were. To this day, it remains one of those things that I contemplate when I dream about what Beloved Community could be. And, it remains a challenge for me—and for us. How close are we to realizing that experience of church. Do we honestly have the love, the patience, the tolerance to welcome even people whom we might find annoying, distracting, frustrating, and inconvenient. What if they are smelly, dirty, loud, and frightening. What if they interrupt our worship with their screams?

The accounts of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus do not give us the impression that he got off to a good start. In my favorite account, found in the fourth chapter of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke, following his inaugural sermon, we hear this account, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” This took place in the Synagogue where Jesus was a member. And the would-be murderers were people who had known him for his whole life. Faced with an experience like that, I suspect that most preachers would quickly reevaluate their vocation. This goes far beyond criticizing the preacher for going on too long!

Today, we hear another account of the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry—this time from Mark. It is helpful to remember that this is the very first Gospel to have been put into writing—most likely some time after the year 70 of the Common Era. And thus, it gives us one of the very earliest views into the actual words and actions of Jesus.

This is a story of a surprising reversal of what one might expect to find in a community of faith. At first everything appears to go quite well. It is depicted as a pleasant and welcoming community. Jesus is present on the Sabbath. He and his friends are welcomed to the Synagogue. It is an open and appreciative community. After the readings from the Torah and the Prophets, Jesus is allowed to teach and preach. His sermon is well-received. In fact, the congregation appears to be very receptive. They are astonished by the “power” of Jesus teaching. His words move them, and warm their hearts. Had the account ended there, we might well have been tempted to think that this would be the beginning of a huge success story. We would expected that Rabbi Yeshua was off to a good start.

Things suddenly take an unexpected turn, though, and the story unfolds in a way that shocks and confuses all who are present. Mark’s Gospel is disappointingly concise—and very matter-of-fact. It does not give us the details which would help us to enter into the story more easily. Since “inquiring minds want to know,” we are left asking questions—rather than finding everything explained for us. We are forced to do the hard work of trying to unpack the account and find the meaning which it contains.

All at once, the service is interrupted in a very dramatic way. One of the congregants—we are told that he is a man with an unclean spirit—jumps up and starts yelling! What a surprise!

If we step back for just a moment, we are allowed to try to make sense of this story Is this the first time that something like this has happened in that Synagogue? Is a person who regularly attends? Is it possible that this person often disrupts the service? We do not have answers to these questions, of course. But one possibility is that this is the kind of community which Bishop Robinson discovered as a new Bishop in New Hampshire.

The question, then, is what is the purpose of places of worship? It is the question of why do we choose to go to Church? It is the question of what do we expect to find there? It is the question of what is most truly and fully needed. To be blunt, is church exclusively a place we go to find comfort, encouragement, and hope. Or, is it possible that church is also a place where we are offered the opportunity to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, and to be confronted with difficult-even painful questions?

The interaction between Jesus and the man with the unclean spirit might give us some answers. The first thing to note is that the Gospel makes a clear distinction between the man and the spirit. It is the spirit who asks questions and offers opinions—not the man. And, thus it is the spirit, and not the man, who is rebuked! If we choose not to focus on whether or not this is a demon, in the way that watching too many horror movies late at night might cause us to do, we encounter a very profound reality. The humanity of the possessed person is revealed to us. This is someone who is deeply wounded, hurt, and suffering. The possession has broken his spirit. This is someone who is desperately in need of love, of healing, and of hope. This is someone who constantly lives in fear. His life has been completely disrupted by forces beyond his control. His is a life of fear, of suffering and pain. He is at a loss as to what to do. His community is at a loss as to what to do. And yet, he has not been chained, has not been excluded, has not been muzzled. Clearly, he is loved.

It is interesting that Jesus allows the spirit to ask questions: What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? By the forces of chaos and disruption, By fear and hopelessness, Jesus is confronted. What will his ministry be? What will he offer to those who are hurting and in pain. With what words and actions will he comfort, console, and encourage.

Jesus responds immediately to the unclean spirit. He rebukes and expels the spirt. He restores the man to health, to wholeness, to normal life. He is restored to his family, to his community, to himself. Jesus accomplishes something which no one else has been able to do!

The paradox here, is that we come to realize that this afflicted, wounded, and suffering person represents something far more important. He represents the community. It is to this very community that Jesus has come to love, to serve, to heal, to restore, and to empower.

Should we choose to accept this image, it says some very important things about us. We need those who are wounded, who are suffering, who feel excluded—far more than they need us. We need to hear their questions; we need to have them confront and challenge us. We need to provide them a safe space in which they may speak truth as they have experienced it. We need to have them awaken our awareness to things which are all around us that we do not see and do not understand. We need to have them shake us free from our comfort, and from our privilege. We need them to help us realize that we are also wounded, broken, and in pain. Only then, will it be possible for us to be healed as well. Only then, will Beloved Community be a possibility.

We need people who appear to be “other!” We have no idea what their lives are truly like. If we have not experienced rejection, oppression, discrimination and prejudice, those realities will seem meaningless to us. If we are not Black, Indigenous or Latino, we will be blind to the reality of Racial hatred. If we are not female, we will not understand misogyny or exclusive and manipulative patriarchy. If we are not LGBT+, we will not understand homophobia or transphobia. If we are not Jewish, we will not understand anti-Judaism. If we are not Muslim, we will not understand Islamophobia. If we are not from some other culture or ethnicity, we will not understand xenophobia.

Jesus comes, not only to rebuke and expel unclean spirits. He also comes to give voice to those who have previously been silenced. He comes to open privileged eyes and hearts to injustice, inequality, racial hatred, misogyny, bigotry and to all the forces of division, fear, and violence. Jesus comes to heal and restore communities.

The invitation then, is to realize that it is not only others who are in need of God’s love and healing. It’s me! Only if each of us is truly open will it be possible for this promised reconciliation and love to be effective. Only then will we truly become Beloved Community.

“Not anyone else, but us O Lord. We stand in the need of prayer.”

2 thoughts on ““It’s Me, O Lord.”

  1. Pingback: Sermon for Jan 31 – Br. Millard, “It’s Me, O Lord” – Trinity Church

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