Sermon Snippet: Acts 19:11-20

Acts 19:11-20(See full sermon here.)

Today, in our culture, we don’t understand the world to be filled with demons–except maybe on Halloween. Otherwise, we’re more likely to ascribe illness to a virus or bacterial infection or cancer; erratic, illogical behavior is blamed on mental illness; a series of tragedies chalked up to bad choices or plain old bad luck.

We understand the causes differently than they did in the first century. But the problems persist. Whether you call it demons or disease or neurosis or bad luck–people still suffer, people still need the power of Christ to set them free and lead them to abundant life.

Back in Paul’s day, it seems that there was some confusion about how exactly that power worked. I imagine that the seven sons of Sceva weren’t the only people to confuse miracle with magic, to try to harness and control the power of God rather than opening themselves up to let God’s power control and transform them.

It’s been a temptation throughout the history of the Christian church–to think that if we say the right prayers, give money to the right people, worship in the right way, follow the right set of rules, hang out with the right crowd–the temptation to believe that if we just get some external piece right, the power of Christ will prevail in our lives for health, for wealth, for restored relationships . . . for whatever we want.

The earliest Anabaptists were, in large measure, arguing against such magical understandings of the power of Christ and the work of the church. Baptism is a choice to follow Jesus, not some magical protection spell. Communion is a demonstration of faith and community, not a trick to get God’s good favor. Prayer is a means of developing a relationship with God, not a ticket for forgiveness. We Mennonites have a long tradition of wrestling with the power of Christ–with what it is and what it isn’t.

There are, of course, grotesque examples today of people who try to manipulate the power of God. I once received a paper prayer rug in the mail with instructions to put it on the floor and pray while kneeling on it. And maybe send this organization a little money. And my prayers would come true.

And there are slightly more subtle examples of this phenomenon. . . . We can try to control God’s work in our spiritual lives as well. . . . I talked to my spiritual director yesterday about how I’ve been slacking on my spiritual practices and feeling a bit ungrounded, cranky, spiritually lazy. And if I’m honest, what I probably wanted was a few magic words or a specific formula for making God show up when I pray, for making the Holy Spirit hold my tongue when I’m getting ready to say something harsh. But instead we talked about several practices I could try. Because, according to him, there is no magic way to rub the lamp and make the genie appear. Sometimes we experience God in one way, sometimes in another.

God is not ours to control–not with the name of Jesus or by any other means. And our attempts to control God rarely turn out well. In fact, they often leave us vulnerable and wounded on the side of the road.

A key message of this story from Acts seems to be that we should not attempt to claim the power of Christ unless we are allowing Christ full claim to our lives as well.

But this is not the only story Luke tells about a renegade exorcist. In the prequel to Acts, the Gospel of Luke (9:49-50), the disciple John tells Jesus, “We saw this guy driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he is not one of us.”

And Jesus didn’t say, “How dare he!” He didn’t say, “I hope those demons send that guy running scared!” In fact, Jesus didn’t rebuke the exorcist at all. Jesus rebuked John. Jesus told John, “Don’t try to stop that guy. Whoever is not against you is for you.”

The work of casting out demons–of healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, of seeking the Divine–this is the work of God. It can be good and holy work, even if we don’t have the purist of intentions, the most faithful methods. It can be good and holy work even when we have ulterior motives, power issues, faithless hearts.

So I’m not sure where we go from here, with these two contradictory stories. Except to know that there is a difference between using the power of Christ and allowing the power of Christ to use and transform us. And to know that even when we don’t get it exactly right, there is grace.


Christmas and Killings: Where is God?

I was working on our Christmas Eve program Friday when I heard the news about the shootings in Connecticut. Shootings at an elementary school. An elementary school.

Dead bodies–little bodies–sprawled on the floor. Bloody children. Wailing parents.

It was hard to get back into the Christmas spirit after hearing that news. Hard to write about the coming of Emmanuel –God with us–while inside I’m screaming, “Where the hell were you, God?”.

But that question is really at the heart of Christmas–always, every year: Where are you, God?

And the answer, or part of the answer, is that God is not where we expect to find the Divine. God is not in the palace, where the magi sensibly begin their search. God is not floating in the sky, singing bass with the angel chorus. God is in that smelly stable; in that swaddled baby.

And it sucks sometimes because while God is restrained by swaddling clothes, the Roman government keeps oppressing people. And Herod orders the slaughter of the innocents. And a fat lot of good tiny baby Jesus does everyone crying and nursing and pooping his way across the desert.

Walter Brueggemann wrote a prayer titled, “The God we would rather have.” And it’s true. At least for me. There are times I would rather have a God that just fixes things–now.

I don’t know why so many people today are rocking in shock at the loss of someone they love. I don’t know why a young man would take guns into a school in the first place. I have some ideas about quality mental health care, parental support, and gun control–but I really don’t know how to prevent this from happening again.

Ultimately, I don’t know how to keep my own children safe–or yours. I don’t know how to protect their bodies or their spirits–or mine.

In these days of Advent and Christmas, as we sing Emmanuel, I will try to believe it even though I don’t understand it. I will try to believe in the presence of God with us through the Christ child–not in the dogmatic “believe this or go to hell” sense, but in the original sense of the word believe: to give one’s heart to.

However many pieces of my heart there might be to give.

Advent with the Family: Egg Carton Advent Calendar

Every year I try to find a healthy balance as I celebrate the holiday season with my family. On one hand, I want it to be fun. We all love candy and cookies and presents and lights. On the other hand, I am aware that the focus of our celebration should be on Christ and that spending lots of money on our wants while neglecting the needs of others is not a Christ-honoring way to celebrate.

We have no perfect system in place; it’s a creative challenge every year. But there is one family tradition that anchors our time of preparation and celebration. Each year we prepare and use an Advent calendar. Here is our calendar for this year:


Grace (age 8) did most of the work on this. All it takes is 3 egg cartons (well, 2 plus one cup) and 25 paper circles–I used a 2″ circle punch. Underneath each circle is a small paper cut out of something for our Nativity scene (angel, shepherd, donkey, star . . . ) and a few pieces of candy. (Which some might consider bribery. But there is a fine line between bribery and motivation.)

[For Advent 2014, we also included a scripture reading or quote for each day. You can find the list we used here.]

Each day of Advent (or as often as possible) we take off one of the circles, eat the candy, and glue the figure on our scene. If it’s a really good night we will take time for prayer and/or scripture reading. And the kids love to light the Advent candle. Baby Jesus, of course, is under number 25. He gets put in place Christmas morning before we open presents.

So while we definitely do not have this whole family Advent/Christmas thing all figured out, I do commend to you this practice. It is one that my teenage children still enjoy. (Or at least they pretend to for the sake of the candy.) And it is a daily reminder to focus on the gift of Jesus, however hectic the season gets.

I would love to hear about your family traditions during the Christmas season. What helps to keep you rooted in Christ?

Wednesday Worship Piece: Isaiah 25:6-9

This Sunday we are observing All Saints’ Day. This call to worship is inspired by the lectionary reading for the day from Isaiah 25:6-9. (Leader reads plain text, people read bold.)

Hurricanes and floods and environmental havoc;
drones and IEDs and handguns;
cancer and heart disease and bodies shutting down;
poverty and injustice and oppression.
The ways of death in this world are many.
The words of death surround us.
The fear of death envelopes us.
But we come now to hear a different Word,
a true Word
a life-giving Word.
We are here on Isaiah’s mountain
where tears are wiped away,
where a banquet table has been set,
where death has been swallowed up forever.
We do not fully understand it.
We may not fully believe it.
And yet here it is:
the power of Christ’s life within us and among us.
So let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation!

 And here is a link to an edited version of  Hebrews 11:1-12:2, put into a format for three readers. It’s not lectionary, but it fits nicely with All Saints. (Though some of these guys –and Rahab–aren’t exactly saintly.)

*As always, you are welcome to use this material in your own worship context. Acknowledgment is appreciated.

Rest for the Weary

My devotional scripture reading for this morning was Matthew 11: 28-30:

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

As soon as I read “Come to me,” my spirit filled in the rest of the passage and a gentle smile emerged on my face.

“All you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” That’s me! I’ve been facing some stress at work lately. (Which probably goes without saying for a pastor.) I am experiencing a heightened level of stress at home as my husband and I continue to deal with the challenges of parenting. Summer presents its own wearying rhythm of three kids going in different directions at different times; it’s been hard for me to keep up this year.

This week it’s been a little difficult to roll myself out of bed in the mornings. Hard to resist the draw of a late afternoon nap. Easy to curl up in bed with a book as soon as the kids are down for the night.

I haven’t been happy about my weariness. I’ve been frustrated that I’m not getting more done. I’ve felt guilty for taking a nap when I should be starting supper. I’ve felt like there must be something wrong with me to stay in bed past 7:00 in the morning.

So I’ve been praying for energy. I’ve been praying that I might feel perkier, do more, sleep less.

And now I hear these words from Jesus: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.”

Not energy. Not motivation. Not a good swift kick in the pants.

Rest. Rest for your soul.

And as Christ gives, may we graciously receive. Amen.