I regularly participate in a wonderful Tuesday morning service called "Wine Before Breakfast." It happens at Wycliffe College on the University of Toronto campus, and it's led by theologian/author/professor/chaplain Brian Walsh. I've been honored to be asked to preach there a couple times, most recently this morning, the day after the Canadian federal election. We've been working our way through the book of Luke together. Since I haven't posted much on this blog lately, I thought I'd post my sermon text here. It's also on Brian's blog at Empire Remixed.
For anyone who could use a little post-election hope... read on.
Text: Luke 4:31-44
I have a confession to make.
If I came across this passage while reading the book of Luke, I would probably skim over it.
I would move right on to the next chapter.
But Brian asked me to reflect on it this morning…so I thought I’d reflect on what makes this passage especially “skimmable” for me.
I’ve come up with a few reasons.
First - We ALL KNOW Jesus healed people and cast out demons. The Gospels are full of these kinds of passages. You know, “Jesus went to another place and healed another bunch of people and cast out this other demon and told it to stop revealing who He was.”
If you’ve grown up in Sunday school, you come to expect these passages.
And you don’t necessarily expect to get anything new out of them.
Healing and demon-casting are just things Jesus does.
So it’s easy to skim over them.
I’ll come back to this point.
Second reason I would skim over this passage: The demon stories confuse me and make me feel like I’m naïve, like I’m missing something.
In the Gospels, demon-possessed people seem to be all over the place.
So why have I never encountered one?
- Is it because I’m a Baptist and I have limited experience with the charismatic?
- Are the demons sneakier now?
- Maybe they’re not as active in a personal way today, but more in a structural way, within systems?
- Would what the Gospels called “demons” be labeled “mental illness,” “schizophrenia,” or “epilepsy” today?
- Do I need to start watching more horror movies?
I’m inclined to be slow to blame things on demons and skeptical of those who do. I’m gay, and I have other gay friends who have actually had exorcisms performed on them, which I would call spiritual abuse.
But I also know that leaving room for some concept of the demonic makes us less likely to demonize our fellow human beings. It lets us redirect our collective energy and anger toward resisting evil in all its forms rather than resisting the people who happen to be our enemies right now.
Anyway, can have some lively conversations about demons over breakfast later on. I guess the point is, even if we end up disagreeing about demons, we can agree that in this passage, Jesus is liberating people from forces that seek to harm them.
Okay, here’s my third and last reason for skimming, and the core of my problem with this passage.
Everyone in Capernaum seems to love how Jesus speaks and does things with “authority.”
That word “authority” really grates on me.
It actually makes me cringe.
I guess you could say I have a problem with authority.
Especially after the eleven weeks of campaigning we’ve all endured.
In my experience, speaking with authority is speaking without humility.
Authority looks like an overconfident man in a suit, coming from a place of privilege.
Someone who just loves to push his weight around.
A self-interested, self-centred, and a so-called “self-made man.”
Large and in charge.
Assuming the world revolves around him.
To me, authority means preying on the fears of others.
Pandering to the powerful.
Protecting the status quo.
And speaking with authority is using fancy words to hide the fact that you’re not really saying anything.
It’s big talk and zero action.
Empty boasting, meaningless promises.
I have been disappointed with almost every person in my life who has spoken with authority and power.
Now, like many of you, I stayed up late watching election results last night. And like many people across the country, I went to bed with a weary mix of relief and disappointment.
I was absolutely relieved that one particularly disappointing authority was dethroned. This morning marks the start of the reign of “Mr. Anyone But Harper,” a new white man who now holds majority power, and while I think this is an improvement over the last ten years, I also know that Justin Trudeau will disappoint me.
And actually, I think that even Tom Mulcair – and maybe even Elizabeth May – would have also inevitably disappointed me as Prime Minister.
Each of these personalities has been built up as a potential Canadian Messiah, one who would save the day and set everything right, but in the real world, they’re just fallible humans like us, working in a very broken system. Those structural demonic spiritual forces definitely come into play in politics.
So at risk of becoming cynical, what is the Good News this post-election day? If you made it here at 7:22 in the morning after staying up late last night, you deserve some good news.
The least I can do is stop skimming long enough to find some for you.
The good news is that Stephen Harper is not in charge this morning.
And the good news is that Justin Trudeau is not in charge either...
...because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to someone else.
And when I look at this passage, I see that this “someone else” is actually busy redefining the very word “authority.” He’s redeeming it for me.
Sure, he may be giving orders… but it’s demons, not people, that he’s ordering around.
He may be rebuking… but it’s fevers, not people, that he’s rebuking.
When it comes to leading people, Jesus is just beginning to demonstrate a radically new way, which Richard Beck, one of my favorite theologians, calls “the weak force of love.”
This is not an authority who prefers places of power and refinement. He steers clear of Jerusalem. He sucks at upward mobility, in fact, as we saw last week, he is prone to people trying to push him off cliffs. This passage begins with the words “Jesus went DOWN to Capernaum.” He likes to hang out among his fellow Galileans: the mongrels, the half-breeds, the peasants, the unwashed, the religiously uneducated.
And just when they want to make him famous, he moves on.
This is not an authority who campaigns on fear, who promises to protect the status quo. Now, granted, he DID mention foreigners in his campaign speech that we heard last week. But instead of framing them as terrorists with “barbaric cultural practices,” he talked about healing foreigners, and blessing foreigners.
Because Jesus is not an authority who comforts the comfortable. Instead, as we learned last last week, he reveals their blindness. He afflicts the comfortable with unwanted but necessary sight. And in today’s passage, we see him very tangibly comforting the afflicted.
It turns out Jesus isn’t full of hot air. He has big talk AND big action. He says: “I’ll bring good news to the poor, I’ll release captives, I’ll heal the blind, I’ll set people free” … and sure enough, the next day, we find him doing exactly that! Living up to those crazy promises that nearly got him killed. Almost immediately setting people free from illness and evil.
Jesus is the Word, and it’s not an empty word, not a dead word on a party platform, but a living and active Word, a Word that actually effects change in real time.
Earlier I pointed out that Jesus is constantly healing, constantly casting out demons. But I rarely stop and ask why. Why does Jesus spend his time on these things? It’s not like he can heal everyone. And even those he does heal will still die later on. So what’s the point?
Sure, he has compassion for these individuals he meets. The man in the synagogue. Simon’s mother-in-law. The sick people in the crowds.
But beyond compassion, I think these healings and exorcisms are a sign of something bigger. A tiny glimpse of what’s to come. An appetizer before the main course.
These miraculous acts of Jesus are the reassurance that sickness, evil, and death will not have the last word.
Fevers are not forever.
Depression is not forever.
Demons are not forever.
Structural evil will be shattered.
Racism will be banished.
Inequality will come to an end.
There will be a new world order.
With his acts of healing and liberation, Jesus grabs the dark veil of despair and cynicism hanging over all of us and tears holes in it, letting the light stream through.
His acts of healing and liberation breathe crisp fall air into our stale, stagnant places, leaving behind a taste of freshness, a lingering promise of more: more healing, more freedom, more love, life to the fullest.
This very morning, Jesus’ healing and liberation are ours to receive.
And His healing and liberation are ours to give.
We have the privilege of following Jesus, to become fellow healers, fellow liberators.
He has given us this authority.
He calls us to follow him into the uncomfortable places, the places of conflict and sickness. The messy places. The deathly places.
And if we choose to go there with Him, our role could be as dramatic as rebuking a fever and seeing it disappear… or it could be as unimpressive (but necessary!) as being a silent, intentional presence in the midst of someone’s pain, restoring a little corner of creation, while we all wait together for the full and final healing.
Voting in the election yesterday was important, because we got to have a say in how we want our collective resources and energy to be used, hopefully to increase the good in the world.
But every day can become an exercise of our true citizenship. This morning and every morning, as we follow Jesus to the bottom, to the margins, with healing and freedom in our hands and in our words, resisting evil with the weak force of love, every day can become a vote for the reign of God.
Today for the Kingdom,
tomorrow for the Kingdom
…and the next day for the Kingdom.
The politicians will not heal us.
The members of parliament do not know the words that will free us.
The prime minister will not save us.
But we follow the only true public servant.
We follow the man on the donkey’s back.
The Rabbi who washes feet.
The crucified and risen one.
All authority has already been given to Him...
and he is coming soon.