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No Possessions


Sermon for Friends Congregational Church

“No Possessions”

Delivered by Rev. Dr. Dan De Leon
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

If you were with us on Wednesday night, our intimate gathering took a look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians; we unpacked 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.  Paul talks about knowledge and love, and about how ignorance is the beginning of true knowledge, because from that point knowledge leads to love.  We have to let go of thinking that we have life all figured out before we can really obtain knowledge.  And that kind of humble quest for knowledge always leads us to our neighbor: the joys and concerns of our neighbor, the wealth and plight of our neighbor, the highs and lows of our neighbor.  Paul might suggest that if we have all knowledge but have no concept of how we belong to each other, no concept of how our destinies are bound together, then we know nothing.  So, it’s in that spirit of us being bound together, of us belonging one unto the other, that I urge us to think about this story….

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Martin Luther once said, “When the word of God is rightly preached, demons are set loose.”  No pressure on the preacher, right?  When the word of God is rightly preached, demons are set loose.  But we understand the sermon as a corporate experience.  We are the body of Christ, and we hear the Word of God together, and that Word speaks to us each in different ways.  So I would add to Luther’s statement, “When the Word of God is rightly heard, demons are set loose.”

Think about that story from Mark’s gospel.  Let’s sum it up.  Jesus walks into the synagogue and starts preaching.  A man who’s possessed by an unclean spirit jumps up and says, “I know who you are, Jesus of Nazareth!  Get out of here!”  And Jesus says, “Shut up.”  That’s worship in the synagogue for you.

Fast forward to worship in this place.  It’s the same thing.  We came to worship this morning to be in relationship with God.  (Maybe we find our relationship with God through a class or singing with the choir or a good cup of coffee, but we came to worship this morning to be in relationship with God.)  Now, when we came to worship this morning, we brought our baggage with us.  We brought our unclean spirits, we brought our demons with us.  And the demons we brought with us recognize Jesus, they recognize the healing and liberating Word of God, and upon recognizing that Word of God that is in Christ Jesus they say, “Get away!  We’ve got life figured out here for Carmen, for Kristen, for Izzy, for Justin.  We’ve made things justified and manageable for Judy and Linda and Brian and Chris.  We’ve got a handle on this!”  And Jesus says, “Shhhh!  You need to listen!  Whatever is possessing you,” Jesus says, “is keeping you from the very presence of God you came here to be in relationship with.”  That’s worship in the church for you, and that’s our sacred challenge: Letting go of the things that possess us in order to let God’s living Word heal us and set us free.  When the word of God is rightly heard, demons are set loose!

So, what part of God’s living Word made manifest in the words of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus Christ are we not rightly hearing?

Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

I can do justice all day long.  It feels good to do good deeds, but loving mercy and walking humbly?  As my four-year-old daughter would say, “That’s not good for me.”  Love mercy and walk humbly?  You’re breaking up, Lord!  I can’t hear you!

Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

My neighbor bothers me to no end, and my self-image isn’t tip top these days.  Love my neighbor as I love myself?  You’re going to have to speak up, Lord!  I can’t hear you!

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

I’m sorry, Lord, I thought you said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  That sounds nice, but that can’t be what you meant when you were talking to me.  I can’t quite hear you, Lord! Speak up, Lord!  Nothing that you’re saying meshes with my lifestyle!  Nothing that you’re saying jives with the ethics I find to be understandable and just!  Nothing that you’re saying is good for me!”

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!  Be quiet,” says Jesus of Nazareth, “Listen!  Come out of him!  Come out of her.”

That’s what Jesus says to the unclean spirit that possesses the man in the synagogue.  That’s worship for you.  Pinpointing whatever possesses us is the first part of removing the cotton balls from our ears so that we might rightly hear the Word of God.  So, what possesses us?

Gretchen Ziegenhals is managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.  She says, “If we are honest, we recognize that we are all possessed—by jealousies, addictions, pride, unhealthy life styles, excessive worries or unforgiving spirits—issues that need to be exorcised,” she says, “in order for us to live the lives that God in intended for us.”

Who is possessed by always wanting to have the last word in a conversation thread on Facebook, especially when it has to do with politics?  Who is possessed by worrying about other people’s lives—not other people’s lot in life, but worrying about other people’s lives, how they carry themselves in the world on a day-today basis?  Who is possessed by fear—fear of change, fear of being unloved, fear of going broke, fear of losing our position in society?  How about work?  Who is possessed by an addiction to work?  Whatever our possession is, the point is that whatever possesses us stands in contradiction to the Spirit of Christ, the Living Word of God that desires only for us to have a whole and healthy life.  “I have come that they would have life and have it abundantly,” says our Christ.

I want to share something with you.  There was a recent study done that tracked the health of civil service workers in Great Britain.  It showed that people who work 11 hours a day or more, more than doubled their risk of major depression compared with colleagues putting in eight hours a day.  You might think that working longer hours to make more money would make one happy.  But the study revealed that those long hours of work wiped out the euphoric effect of extra income.

Marianna Virtanen is an epidemiologist at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.  She conducted a study prior to this one where she found that working long hours also increases the risk of heart disease and of decline in cognitive function.  Isn’t there something in the Word of God about remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy?  I don’t know.  I can’t really hear that good Word all the time.

Let’s do this: Think about your work for a moment.  Think about your job.  And you don’t have to be employed to have a job.  If you’re a student, school is your job.  The search for paid employment can be the hardest work out there.  Whatever you do that consumes most of your day, think about that.  It can be the work of solving interpersonal disputes or running errands or raising children or volunteering.  Whatever your work is, think about that for a moment.  Think about your work.  How much time do you devote on a weekly basis to that work?

Now, just like anyone in this room, I wear a few different hats.  But for me, when it comes to the work of pastoral ministry alone, most of the time I work anywhere from 45 to 55 hours a week.  But every now and then I work closer to 65, 75, even 80 hours in a week.  I don’t mention this out of some egotistical pride that says, “Look at all the work I’ve done and all the overtime I’m putting in.”  That’s not what I’m saying.  This is our experience I’m talking about, because the world—our culture—encourages us to compete in terms of hours worked, and to brag about overtime.  But Jesus calls us to be in the world and not of it.  We’re called to be radically countercultural in our life of discipleship following Christ.  No, I mention this to say, “Shame on me.”

When I do work those 75- and 80-hour weeks, when the week is done, I crash physically, emotionally and spiritually—I crash.  And when I wake up from that mostly self-imposed stupor, and I try to come back to life, still drunk on the work that ran me into a wall, I look around, I try to put things in perspective, I try to get refreshed, and I start sounding like David Byrne in that Talking Heads song when he says, “Now you may ask yourself, how did I get here?”

A friend of mine shared an old saying with me this weekend, and I’ve held onto it: Watch your thoughts, they form your actions.  Watch your actions, they form your habits.  Watch your habits, they form your character.  Watch your character, it forms your destiny.  Is our destiny with Jesus, the one we call Christ, who says, “Do not worry about your life”—is our destiny with him?  Are our thoughts and our actions and our habits and our character leaning on the everlasting arms of God as the old hymn says, or has our destiny become possessed by work, by aiming to please, by proving our worth to others, by thinking that if we get hit by a bus the world will cave in?  Has our destiny become possessed by the demons of jealousy, addictions, pride, excessive worries, unhealthy lifestyles, grudges that hamstring our spirits and leave us unwilling to forgive?  Have we become so possessed and so far gone from the direction of God’s will and way that we are distant from our neighbor, from our friends, from our family, from the people we love, from the people we passed the peace with in this room just a few moments ago?

Bill Clinton said that our destiny is bound up with the destiny of every other American.  Sounds good, but let’s be a little more global and a little more spiritual here to get to the point.  When I was in DC last May for the Human Rights Campaign’s Clergy Call, there was a worship service that began with a prayer from a Metropolitan Community Church minister named Reverend Elder Darling Garner.  She said something that’s forever emblazoned on my heart in that prayer.  She said, “The universal spiritual truth is that none of us are free until all of us are free.”  The universal spiritual truth is that none of us are free until all of us are free.  Until all of us are free, until all of us are liberated from whatever possesses us, from whatever weighs us down, from whatever consequently keeps us distanced from one another and therefore distanced from God, then none of us are free.

So, in comes the church.  Parents have spent months preparing for the birth of their child, but when the baby is born, they’re suddenly possessed with worry about the simple things that we always overlook until the moment is upon us.  And then friends from their church family show up with a home-cooked meal, and another meal the next night, and another meal the next night, and those church friends say, “Shhhhhhh!  Don’t worry about dinner.  Don’t worry about food or cooking.  Be where you are needed most, and be who God intended you to be for each other and for your child.”

In comes the church.  A family’s home and all of their belongings are destroyed by sewage flooding into their house.  And suddenly they are possessed by fear and worry, and the mother of the family is possessed by the hard line of self-reliance and never asking for help.  But then friends from their church start showing up to strip carpet and paint walls and deliver new furniture pooled together by folks in the congregation, and those church friends say, “Shhhhhhh!  Don’t worry about your life, and quit thinking you can do this all on your own.  Receive this help as a blessing.  Let us roll up our sleeves and help you, because, after all, Jesus rolled up the shirt of his own back and washed his disciples’ feet.”

Sounds like a communal exorcism.  Sounds radically countercultural to the mores and routine of the world.  Sounds like everyone holding one another accountable to a covenant that says, “If all of us aren’t healthy and whole, none of us are healthy and whole.  Until all of us are free from whatever is possessing us, then none of us are free.”  So continues the mission of the church.

I’ve always thought of my possessions as the things that I own: the clothes on my back, the roof over my head, the money in my pocket.  John Lennon solidifies that thinking in one of the best songs ever: “Imagine no possessions…I wonder if you can…No need for greed or hunger…A brotherhood of man…Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”  No doubt that song influenced Brett Dennen’s song that Chris Hoffman and I have sung together before called “Heaven.”  The song says, “You must lose your earthly possessions.”  I get that my possessions are the things that I own, and that those possessions can become my idols, and that those possessions can end up dragging me down and my neighbor right along with me because of my selfishness.  I get that.
But today I’m thinking of possessions as more than what I own.  My possessions are also the things that own me.  It doesn’t matter if I own them or they own me; they’re my possessions.  So, my possessions are also the addiction to work and the temptation to withhold forgiveness and the obsessing over worries that drag me down.  Now that being said, here’s the Good News: We are called to give back to God not only the possessions of time and money that we own, we are also called to give God our possessions of pride, jealousy, ageism, racism, and apathy that own us; because whether we think we own it or it owns us, both of them can bring us down, and both of them can drag our neighbor down right along with us.  Whether we own them or they own us, our possessions have the demonic power to keep us in prison; to keep us caged one from another in an already divided world.  The Good News is that God-with-us in the presence of Jesus Christ came to set the captives free.  And Jesus, the living God-with-us, is working in this very room, because that’s worship for you.

Giving God our possessions of time and talent that we own is just as good as giving God our possessions of jealousy and pride that own us.  So give it up.  Giving God our possessions of labor and money that we own is just as good as giving God our possessions of addictions and excessive worries that own us.  So give them up.  Giving God our possessions of volunteer hours and monetary donations is just as good as giving God our possessions of unhealthy living and oppositions to forgiveness that own us.  So give them up!  Because none of us are free until all of us are free.  Amen.

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