Sunday, January 31, 2021
Every few months or so in the first congregation I served, I’d look up while I was preaching to the balcony and see a guy, I’ll call him Bob, sitting there, by himself. He always snuck in after the service had started and left before communion. He didn’t come often but he came regularly. He came by the house sometimes to talk – he had had a hard life, and the bottom line was, he was an alcoholic with mental illness, he didn’t want to disturb others on the main floor of the sanctuary, he didn’t feel that he deserved communion, and he was drinking himself to death. But he felt welcome, and he liked to come to church every now and again to feel safe, to feel that he was with his church family. What I loved about my little congregation is that everyone knew when Bob was there. They somehow sent him their love while giving him his space. They were happy to see him when he showed up, whenever and however he showed up to church, yellow-eyed, thin as a rail, often with the smell of alcohol around him and sometimes with pretty dirty clothes.
I wonder if this man with an unclean spirit we hear about in the gospel this morning was kind of like Bob. Did he go to the synagogue regularly – did everyone know his smell, where he sat and that he was harmless if sometimes disruptive with this unclean spirit? Or were people on edge, not knowing who this stranger was and worried about what might happen with his outburst? Did people shake their heads with sympathy, wishing things were different for Bob but not knowing what else to do other than pray for him and welcome him, even if a little uneasily? We don’t know what this unclean spirit was that was possessing this man and we don’t know the man’s name, but we know the people like Bob who are possessed by demons you can see and hear: severe mental illness like chronic schizophrenia, drug and alcohol addiction, perhaps a physical illness like epilepsy or Tourette’s syndrome, homelessness. People were watching Jesus closely to see how he would respond to this man’s condition. Perhaps they had other demons themselves they were wrestling with that were more easily hidden. Demons like depression, anxiety, , chronic health conditions. Hunger and poverty. Others could have been dealing with physical or emotional or sexual abuse, or just a general feeling of self-loathing, that I’m not enough, that I don’t measure up. These demons know who Jesus is, and they are afraid, Mark tells us. “Have you come to destroy us?” they ask. They know the answer – yes. And Jesus, who has just been teaching with authority, casts them out of this man who has been suffering for who knows how long, with a few words: “Be silent, and come out of him!” The word about Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, spreads throughout the region, because Jesus doesn’t just teach with authority, he acts – and he has power over even demons that no one else knows what to do about. The people go out and tell everyone, because it’s not just one demon that has been cast out. Suddenly, a lot of people know that whatever their fears, whatever they are suffering from, these demons are no match for the power of God working through Jesus.
This morning, we are reflecting on the scary word “evangelism,” as something that followers of Jesus try to practice, even if it is scary. Our church is a part of the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” but unfortunately, like the word “repentance” that I spoke about last week, “evangelical” can carry negative connotations. We think of pushy people handing out tracts or knocking on doors, quoting scripture from memory perhaps. Worship and fellowship we can get onboard with, it’s easier to say “not for me,” when it comes to evangelism. Evangelism and Gospel are the same word in Greek. They mean, “good news.” And if you’ve ever noticed, “angel” is within the word “Evangelism,” which means “messenger.” Evangelism, simply put, is sharing a message of good news. The good news about Jesus spreads quickly when those in the synagogue see how Jesus instantly heals this man of his demons. Often our concern these days is that sharing the good news of our faith in Jesus imposes on others’ beliefs. But that’s if we think that evangelism is about imposing “shoulds” onto other people’s lives. Rather, I like to think of evangelism as sharing MY experience of good news. We’re not responsible for conversion, God is. It’s our job to tell our story with our words and with our deeds of what God has done for us. It’s our job to be in relationship with God and others so that we can share how God brings good news for our bad situations. The resource I’m using to talk about evangelism today in our class talks about “the kind of news that casts out fear, gives hope, sheds light, and transforms life.” Again, if we feel like our message makes people feel guilty or ashamed or unworthy, then we need to rethink what we are saying and whether it really is good news. But we also need to have the courage to encourage others, like Bob, who truly need to hear some good news for their bad situations.
The demons, the bad news people face today may not be crying out or easily visible, but there is still a lot of suffering we know friends, family, even we ourselves are dealing with that only Jesus has authority over to heal. The question becomes, if you, like these people at Capernaum, have experienced the power of Jesus at work in your life and haven’t told others about this good news, why not?
There is a lot I could say about evangelism because I get pretty passionate about the topic. Even before I was a pastor, I have had the privilege of seeing how a simple conversation or story I shared touched someone’s life in a way I couldn’t have imagined, and I certainly don’t consider myself an expert evangelist. For today, I’d like us to consider the opportunities that we have on a regular basis to share a good news message about God with someone else. I have found that in training lay people to feel like they can talk about their faith at all, it is helpful to start with some ordinary examples. For example, a friend posts on Facebook that her husband has cancer again. What could you say or do? Bring a meal over, send a card, ask her if you can pray for them! A co-worker on Monday asks you what you did over the weekend…you could answer truthfully that you went to church, and even share the YouTube link or set a date where they could come with you to church if they express interest. A friend confides that she’s struggling with her mother’s death and is feeling angry with God. You could share your own experience of grief when you when through a tough time, and if you don’t know what else to say, you could share my number or email address as someone she could talk to about these feelings. You see your elderly neighbor struggling to get the trash out, or gutters that need cleaning, or snow that needs shoveling. You take care of it, then if they say “You didn’t have to do that,” you could say we’re talking about faith practices at church and you’ve been thinking about how you could better serve your neighbor. These aren’t earth-shattering, demon-casting-out words and deeds, and even these may seem intimidating. Perhaps you work in a setting where you wouldn’t want to bring faith up even to just share that you go to church. Maybe you feel like you’re the one who needs the neighbor to help you, not the other way around! But you get the picture. If we worship a God who can cast out the demonic with a word, certainly God can work through our feeble attempts to share the good news of what God has done for us in our words and actions. The most important thing for us to reflect on today is how God has changed our lives for the better because of our faith in Jesus. And then we can think about how we might share that good news with others: God has given us courage, hope, light, and life. This is what evangelism is all about. Amen.