Here is this morning’s sermon! If you don’t normally listen, I would recommend at least listening to the end today. I read Psalm 111 while Aaron played “Amazing Grace” on the organ – very cool!
Feeling God’s Peace & Blessings Upon Us All
Well … it is always nice when the subject of exorcism shows up in the lectionary.
When it was time for the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach the people that were there. And in the middle of his teaching, a man with an unclean spirit came through the doors of the synagogue and started yelling. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the man shouted. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Jesus reprimanded the man and sternly said, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
Actually, technically, Jesus was not reprimanding the man, rather he was yelling at the unclean spirit that was inside of the man.
So then the unclean spirit – not the man, the spirit – started causing the man to cry and have convulsions and then eventually the spirit came out of the man.
The exorcism happens and everyone was amazed at Jesus’ power and were wondering who he was and what he was teaching and very quickly word started to get out about Jesus.
When I start to literally think about what this whole scene might have looked like, I kind of feel a little bit grossed out. Maybe I watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a child, but the concept of an evil spirit being trapped inside someone’s body and then being violently extricated just kind of creeps me out a little bit. It’s like a tapeworm – your body is your body and only the proper organs should be in there. Not evil spirits – or worms, apparently.
Maybe I’m not the best person to preach on this particular subject. Growing up I was always something of a skeptic when it came to healing ministries. In the end, the elements that are being used to “heal” were just that – elements; Elements that you could find on a periodic table or in the grocery store. They are oil, water, herbs and ashes. I did not logically understand how they have healing powers. I was skeptical; I just was not sure that I believed in healing ministries.
A few years ago, towards the end of my sophomore year of college, I was having something of a quarter life crisis and – among other things – was starting to question my call into ministry. During a trip to Honduras that summer with the Children’s Rescue Mission, I did a lot of observing and a lot of listening. I was trying to figure out what in my life was missing that had first led me onto the path towards ministry. I was getting frustrated because I just could not find what I was looking for.
We took a trip one day to a small village on the top of a mountain that overlooked Teupasenti and the Mission buildings. After we had worshipped with the community and handed out food for the week, everyone split off and started to talk and play games. Miguel, the director of the mission and one of the most devout Christians I know, took my hand and brought my mom and me to the edge of the mountain.
The juxtaposition of the view was something I still have not come to terms with. On the one hand, the scenery was beautiful with a deep blue sky and mountains and villages sprawling as far as I could see. On the other hand, I knew that up close there was utter devastation and poverty in the villages. The stark contrast almost acted as a metaphor for the confusion I was feeling over life.
Miguel asked if we could pray together and my mom and I said yes. But what happened next wasn’t any ordinary prayer; it was a blessing. Miguel placed his hands on me and blessed me. He asked God to continue to guide me in my discernment and in my ministry and to protect me when I stumble. And in that moment I felt something move through me. The negative thoughts were gone. I felt renewed. I felt strong. And I knew that I was going to be okay.
It was not an exorcism of course. But I did feel in that moment the negative thoughts that had filled my mind leave my body. And when they left there was room to feel God’s peace and blessings.
Of course, I was still skeptical. When I returned to the United States I kept wondering if I had just imagined the whole afternoon. Surely I was not healed, right? I was just in a foreign country and able to think about things differently. Maybe what I thought was the Holy Spirit moving through me was just a strong gust of wind. We were on top of a mountain, after all.
Fast forward a few years. I was a chaplain at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta and had gotten paged to my floor one afternoon. The wife of one of my patients – a middle aged man undergoing cancer treatment – asked me if I would be willing to do a healing ritual and anointing with both her and her husband.
I said that I would and excused myself to the chaplain’s lounge so I could gather some supplies and, more importantly, my thoughts as I prepared to do this. I was still a skeptic of healing rituals, anointing and exorcisms. What could I do for this couple that the doctors and the social workers weren’t already trying to do?
I guess I should point out that I never really looked like a chaplain during my time at Grady. I was always in heels that made the nurses cringe and I rarely carried a bible. So there I stood in the elevator, uncomfortably staring at the bible in my one hand and the jar of oil in my other hand, wondering what I was supposed to say in the coming moments.
I took a deep breath, walked into this man’s room, put down my bible and oil and did what I do best: I talked. I sat on the edge of the bed and talked. We talked about his treatment, about their marriage, about their faith and about her struggles with past substance abuse and how she was handling now being a caretaker. Eventually I just knew it was time. I picked up my bible and opened to the psalms. Very slowly I read Psalm 23 and I said a prayer. After I said ‘Amen’ I carefully closed my bible and picked up the oil; I anointed him first and then her, praying that they feel God’s peace & blessings in that moment and in all of their moments to come. Then the three of us sat in silence.
And there, in a sterile old hospital room on a hot summer day, the spirit moved and the secular was made holy. And we all felt God’s peace and blessings.
Of course I cannot tell this story without admitting that when I went to turn the bottle of oil over to get some on my finger I did not quite cover the hole all the way and ended up with oil pouring down my arm. It was not my most swift of moments; but it was a very human moment. And ‘human’ is sometimes really what we are called to be.
Yes, this story from the gospel is about a time when Jesus performed a miracle and extricated someone from an evil spirit that was within them. It is eye opening and, to be quite honest, not as pleasant as some of the other gospel stories that we read. But I think if we dig deeper we will find that this story is less about exorcism and more about letting go of our skepticism about how God really works and starting to look for God’s peace and blessings in unexpected places.
The man plagued by an evil spirit found God’s peace and blessings in the synagogue in the middle of the Sabbath. A confused college student found God’s peace and blessings on top of mountain in Honduras. A couple walking a difficult road of cancer treatment found God’s peace and blessings in a moment of touch and prayer. And a skeptical chaplain found God’s peace and blessings when she realized that sometimes it is not about the act or the elements, but about what they represent, how they connect us to one another and how they connect us to God.
Where have you felt God’s peace and blessings in your life? What unexpected place have you uncovered God’s grace? Or are you still looking?
Regardless of where you are on your journey through life, my charge to you today is to never stop taking that journey. You never know what you might find – and where you might find it.
I am going to close this morning’s sermon by re-reading today’s psalm, Psalm 111. I will be reading from the King James Version of the bible and we will hear Amazing Grace while I read. I pray that these words resonate within you – and that you find God’s peace and blessings all around you in this moment and in all your moments.
Praise ye the LORD. I will praise the LORD with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation.
The works of the LORD are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.
His work is honourable and glorious: and his righteousness endureth for ever.
He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered: the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.
He hath given meat unto them that fear him: he will ever be mindful of his covenant.
He hath shewed his people the power of his works, that he may give them the heritage of the heathen.
The works of his hands are verity and judgment; all his commandments are sure.
They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness.
He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.