Sunday, January 28, 2018

4 Epiphany

Annual Meeting Sunday

January 28, 2017

Mark 1.21-28

+ Today is, of course, our Annual Meeting Sunday. And it is the Sunday in which I get to be the head cheerleader for our congregation. And there is so much to cheer about.

There is so much  vitality, life, pure energy that we have here. I know you feel it. I certainly feel it. And it is that vitality, that presence of the God’s life-giving and amazing Spirit, present among us, that we celebrate today.

So much has happened over this past year. We have had celebrated new members in our midst. We have celebrated great ministries. We celebrated a very successful Capital Campaign. And we celebrate new windows here in our Nave.

But we are more than all of this. We as St. Stephen’s are more than numbers and stained glass. Much more!

We are a presence. We are striving, together, to be the all-loving, all-accepting Presence of Christ to those how need us to be that Presence. And, I will say, that being such a Presence means doing uncomfortable things as well.

Being Christ’s Presence in this world, following Jesus to sometimes dark places, means that we must confront darkness at times as well. It means, we must, on occasion, confront evil.

Now, most of us consider ourselves fairly progressive Christians. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be here at St. Stephen’s and you probably wouldn’t be Episcopalian. And being fairly progressive means that we have a bit of a more, shall we say, open minded attitude regarding things we read in the Scriptures.

So, when we encounter things like evil in scripture, we often find ourselves resistant a bit.  Evil, of course, for people at that time meant demons and the Devil. We, however, find ourselves definitely resisting such things.

Demons? We think.

The Devil?

I’m not so certain I’m ready to acknowledge those things necessarily, certainly not in the same way that people in scriptural times did.

Certainly, I have had this same attitude. Although I too have issues sometimes with actual demons and Satan, I do believe fully and completely that yes, evil without a doubt, does exist in this world.  

Now, as frustrating and frightening as that may be, I also believe one further aspect of that.  Evil is not only something that God can defeat.  And ultimately, that God WILL defeat.  I’ll get into that a bit later.

But first, let’s deal with the evil at hand.  We get evil today in our Gospel reading. But first, before the evil, we get a bit of glory.

In the beginning of our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus in a place, at first, in which he is being marveled at.  People are amazed by his teaching.  It is certainly a high point for those early followers of Jesus.  It is a moment in which the decision they made to follow him has been, in some very real way, validated.

And then, in the midst of that adulation, in the midst of that wonderful, high moment, those followers find themselves confronting evil.  There, in the middle of all that praise, comes a person possessed by an evil spirit.  It was, no doubt, an unpleasant moment.

Just when things seem to be going well, there’s a crazy, possessed person in their midst. For us we have been confronted with things like this as well.  Well, maybe not crazy, possessed people.  Or maybe…crazy, possessed people.

But, let’s face it,  we do know a few things about evil.  For all the grand and glorious things we see on occasion as followers of Jesus, we are also reminded that there is still injustice and oppression and sexism and homophobia and racism and a multitude of other really horrible things going around us in the world and in our society.

Some of us have even seen the effects of violence in our own personal lives.  We see evil.  We know evil.  We are confronted with evil on a regular basis, and especially in those moments in which we really don’t want to confront evil.

But, what Jesus’ encounter with the evil spirit shows, however—and, again, as we all know here—is that evil is not quite what we thought it was. Yes, evil has much power in this world.  But it does not have ultimate power.  Evil does not—nor does it ever—win in the end.  History has shown this again and again.

Auschwitz, that seemingly impenetrable fortress of evil and death and horror, was eventually liberated.  It was ended.  Nazism (at least in Germany) was destroyed.  Hitler was defeated.

And, in following Jesus, when we confront evil and injustice and oppression and discrimination, we know full well that these things will all one day be cast out.  They all will be quieted.  And goodness will triumph ultimately in the end.

We know this as followers of Jesus.  We know this because we know that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

For us, when God’s blessings flow and we can feel that Presence of ultimate goodness at work in our lives, we like those people who witnesses Jesus casting out the evil spirit, are amazed.  We wonder and we marvel at what is happening.  And hopefully, like those first followers, we are motivated.  We are motivated to continue following Jesus, wherever he leads us. We are motivated to continue to stand up and speak out against evil when we are confronted with it.

That is what we have always done here at St. Stephen’s and that is what we will continue to do here.  We do this, because that is what followers of Jesus do.

But, being followers of Jesus also means facing evil full-on, knowing full-well that evil ultimately has no control over us. Evil—which may come to us in many forms—whether we confront it in the daily news or stories of horrendous violence in our own communities—or whether we are dealing with various forms of evil in our own lives, with discrimination or abuse or even things like illness and death, which are their own types of evil, we know that ultimately evil and hell will be defeated.   We know that, following Jesus, these things will not win out.

Yes, we know that in following Jesus, he isn’t always going to lead us through sun-lit fields full of easy pathways. He leads us again and again down paths in which we are forced to confront ugly things. We are led down path in which we must not only face, but confront evil and ugly, uncomfortable things.  We are led down paths that we don’t want to go down, at times.

Certainly, as we journey through our Church year toward Lent, we know that following Jesus means following him on the Way of the Cross, a path that goes through a place of darkness and violence and evil. But if we keep following, we will realize, again and again, that none of those dark evil things triumph in the end.  The path we follow Jesus upon leads us ultimately to sun-lit fields ahead somewhere.  That path to the cross leads us also beyond the cross.

We know good always wins.

That is what we are celebrating this morning and every Sunday morning.  The fact that, yes, we have been through those dark moments.  We have been through those lean years in our lives.  We have been through moments when it seems as though Jesus was leading us through desert wastes and arid lands.

But this morning, in this moment, we know—we are reminded: he is leading through a verdant land.  And as we follow, we will continue to see amazing things.

We are seeing this here at St. Stephen’s. Amazing things are happening here because God is at work here. God is present here. God is with us here.  God Spirit dwells here, with us and in us. And it is very good.

So, let us rejoice and be thankful today. Let us be thankful on this Annual Meeting Sunday for St. Stephen’s and all the good we do in the face of all of the evil of this world.  Let us be thankful for all that we have been given in this past year.  And let us look with joy into a future of unlimited possibilities.

God is at work in the midst of us this morning and always.  And on this morning we can truly say that it is wonderful and glorious.  What more can we do on this beautiful Sunday, but rejoice?

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