Capernaum, Possesing Spirits and Living Out our Worst Fears

Mark 1:21-28
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

On this 4th Sunday of the Season after Epiphany, in this season of unknowns, Jesus continues to be revealed to us. From the waters of Baptism, to the calling of his disciples, Jesus and his mission towards us and all creation is revealed in news ways. 

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples. 

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised and Bar Mitzvahed Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or a Rabbi who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach. 

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true. 

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God. 

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from. One person did. Or rather a man possessed by an unclean spirit. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world as he and the people around him are stuck the past, in the comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to. And Jesus is going wreck things. 

The spirit is the one who speaks. 

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatened the status quo. 

Sound familiar?

Or maybe, did that used to sound familiar? 

In years past, we may have heard this story from the Gospels and thought about how the quaint little synagogue in Capernaum was probably a little stiff and stodgy. But we also probably identified with them, we know these folks and their comfortable community. 

Or at least we did. 

These days we almost certainly wish we were the Capernaum Synagogue. The community faith able to keep their traditions, able to be unchanged by the outside world, able to just keep on keepin’ on without anything or anyone bringing disorder or disruption. 

But for nearly a year a now, we have been living the worst nightmare of the Capernaum Synagogue. We have been disrupted and forced to make nearly everything new. Even as we strive to retain as much of what we can of the familiar way of being church, they way we must form our community today has been completely transformed in the past year.

The man with the unclean spirit asked if Jesus had come to destroy. 

I wonder if on some level destruction for the folks in Capernaum looked liked us. Empty churches, lonely people, the feeling of disconnection and drifting apart. The knowledge that who we were when this all started is not who are now. And who are now is not who we will be by the end. We has been changed as individuals and as a community. 

That the whole world is being forced to change as result of this time we are living in, but just how everything has been changed isn’t settled yet. Much as been lost, but we aren’t sure what has been lost for good. 

The man with the unclean spirit expressed the collective anxiety of a system that feared change, that worked hard to maintain the status quo and the order of things. 

The spirit of our time is of anxiety and uncertainty, of having to live through change that we do not control, of having to endure things that are uncomfortable and difficult. This moment require sacrifices that we don’t know if we have it in us to keep making. 

There just might be a part of us that wants to stand up and say to God too, 

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

When the unclean spirit interrupts Jesus in the synagogue and names the threat that Jesus is – the threat to not only to the spirit’s possession of the man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole community and the status quo –  Jesus will have none of it. 

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit does. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future. 

Be Jesus knows that God is calling them into something new and unknown. 

And today, Jesus knows that we have been thrust into that new and unknown thing, and that even still our anxieties and worries, our fears and hesitations are keeping us from seeing God’s future. Because we would love to go back to our past, to recreate what we once were. We used to long for the glory days, but now we would settle for just the pre-pandemic world. We feel the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for generations before us just slipping away faster than ever. 

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that what we once were was wrong or bad. Jesus it not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like losing so much and failing all those who came before us. 

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among God’s people the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on to what we were, of our fears and worries of what we will become. 

It is not the past keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us a new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming us from the future, meetings us in the places that we are going to, not where we have already been. God knows we cannot go backwards. 

In 2021, we know that this has never been more true. There is no going back. 

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in Capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and the forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life. 

It might seem like folly to imagine a community of friends and family, gathered together in that community space and community home, like the Capernaum synagogue, or the familiar church buildings… 

But today, Jesus is calling us into something new. And Jesus has been calling us, calling the church, the Body of Christ into the new thing for quite a while now. 

And just as Jesus called out to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus is calling out to us. Calling out our fears and worries, our anxieties and hesitations. Jesus calling them out of us, showing us that no matter what the future brings, no matter what our present brings, that the God to whom we belong is a God of new things, new realities, new teachings and most of all –

New Life. 

It is all interim ministry

It is all interim ministry. As we have explored ministry trends during the 20th and 21st century and lived out the reality of being working pastors for the past 10 years, we have come to a conclusion – it is all interim ministry. A changing church and a changing world mean that we are always in between things and moving from one chapter to the next. 

Join Pastor Courtenay and Pastor Erik for a conversation about interim ministry and how all ministry is interim in the 21st century.

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synodof the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)

Hearing the Sermon First, before Following Jesus

GOSPEL: Mark 1:14-20
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Our sojourn into this time of transition, this time in between continues. We began at the River Jordan with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, and then we went with Jesus as he called Nathanael and Philip. We discovered that despite these two disciples not knowing what they were getting into…what mattered was Jesus finding and knowing them. And Jesus finding and knowing us. 

As we continue into this short season of green before Lent where Jesus is revealed to us in new ways, we do so entering into a world and year of unknowns. In so many ways we are living with competing stories. If 2020 was about constant and surprising difficulty and hardship, 2021 seems to be (so far) about threads of good and bad. The world seems to be in chaos, insurrections have been mounted, vaccine distribution has been disrupted, a governor general has resigned in disgrace, our vulnerable northern indigenous communities are suffering from severe COVID-19 outbreaks. 

And yet new a US president has been inaugurated, full of compassion and empathy, honesty and selflessness… traits in a leader that we did not know we needed so badly. A new Vice-President, a woman, a black woman and woman of Indian decent has been sworn in, letting so many women and girls all over the world know that they too can achieve heights thought impossible before. 

And here closer to home, after months of lockdown, our case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths have finally dropped enough to allow us a few measures of relief… to shop for anything we might want or need. To have visitors, though limited in number, allowed to come into our homes. 

Threads of suffering, threads of hope. All at the same time and intermingled with each other, intermingled with our own stories of family, work, and community. 

Today, we hear another call story. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John. A story different than the one last week. Philip and Nathanael were looking to follow a Rabbi. But the four today are fishermen, some guys just out doing some work to make a living to feed their families and feed their community. 

So when Jesus just strolls up into the scene, calling them to follow, it might seem a little off. Now following a Rabbi was a privileged life in Hebrew society. Only the best and brightest Torah students were chosen for this honour, and the possibility of earning a position of prestige. So maybe it isn’t that crazy that Simon and Andrew, James and John leave their boats to follow Jesus. 

And yet, as these four make this choice to drop everything and follow the wandering preacher, it still feels pretty far fetched. Why would with a Rabbi wander up and call a bunch of fishermen to follow? And how can these 4 just leave their jobs, their families, their communities. Certainly people were depending on them. Certainly they were responsible to put food on the table. 

This year as we make our way through the gospel of Mark, we are entering into a conversation with the text in unique way. John preaches long sermons to his readers. Matthew and Luke, tell and then interpret the stories of Jesus. But Mark expects something more from his readers, from us. He invites us into a conversation, one where we already know the story, where we know things that the disciples and others don’t. We are part of the story, we are characters always in the background. 

And so Mark is posing questions to us, one about following and discipleship. Is it crazy to follow this Jesus? Why do those disciples just go? Why do we follow?

Questions that reveal our own complicated and messy relationship with authority and leaders these days. 

Certainly we are people living in a complicated time, born into a complicated time. We are people living a world that is struggling with the idea of changing ourselves for the betterment of our neighbour, of fighting for inclusivity and equality, opening our doors, knocking down fences and making room at the table. While at the same time wrestling with our instinct to put ourselves first, to circle the wagons, to keep people out or make others change to fit our vision of the world. Threads of selfishness, threads of faithfulness. 

As much as last week we contemplated what it meant to not know what the future has in store for us, this week the notion of following someone who says “Trust me” can be triggering. We have seen this story too many times before… and still there is a part of us that catches the vision. It is hard, even after months and struggle, to hear the pleas and exhortations of our leaders to come together and work for the common good and not feel a bit moved by them. 

And yet, something inside of us – the original sinner inside of us – knows that we cannot fulfilled these calls to be better angels. That we will always succumb to our fear and failings.

And so when Mark asks this question of the reader, “Why would you follow Jesus?” 

It isn’t the starting and ending place. 

Mark does’t begin with a promise of a leader who says they will solve all the problems, nor with an exhortation to the power of the human spirit. 

Mark begins, or Jesus begins, with the very first sermon that Jesus preaches in the Gospels. 

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus doesn’t begin with us. Jesus doesn’t even begin with himself. Jesus begins with God. 

The time is now and the God is entering into this human world, this human struggle between threads of suffering and selfishness, threads of hope and faithfulness. 

And God is coming near, God is bringing a new world into this old one. 

So repent, be changed, be transformed.

Believe the good news, trust in the one who is trustworthy. 

And it is here that the conversation with the reader begin, here where we become characters in the story.

Because even though this is the first sermon of Jesus in all the Gospels, it is a sermon that requires the hearer to know the end of the story. 

Because the Kingdom of God is revealed most fully not a in a place or throne room, but on a cross. 

Because the Good News is that we can trust is not all our suffering and problems being taken away, but resurrection and new life coming about on the 3rd day, about the story of life going on instead of ending on Good Friday. 

And in Mark’s question to the reader is also the answer. 

“Why would you follow Jesus?”

Because in the Christ suffering and death are no longer our ending, but instead life goes on in the One who is raised from the dead and who bring the Kingdom near. 

Maybe it wasn’t just seeing a Rabbi walk down the Beach that made Simon and Andrew, James and John jump from their boats. 

Maybe they needed to hear that sermon first. 

Or maybe like us they needed to be reminded of the end of the story. 

While we struggle between threads of hope and faithfulness and threads of suffering and selfishness, God is reminding us of, God is bringing us to, God transforming us for a different world. 

And as this moment in our history shows us both our best and worst simultaneously, as this moment reveals these two forces colliding in us, forces that would work for a better world, and forces that would push us to look after only ourselves…

Jesus reminds us that our salvation, our future, our hope making is not up to us. 

Jesus reminds that our failures and mistakes, our selfishness and sufferings to not destroy us. 

No matter the soaring speeches given is Capitols and on TV. No matter the whining and vitriol spewed online and in-person… 

That this world and our future belong to God. 

That we belong to and follow the One who brings the Kingdom near. 

That we are transformed by the God in whom life begins and has no ending. 

That we hear again and again the good news of promise given for us in the Word proclaimed and love shared between siblings in the Body of Christ, and that is why we follow. 

And so with that Good news ringing on our ears, with the voice from heaven naming Jesus and us beloved Children, as we are found and known like Philip and Nathanael… Jesus strolls onto our beaches and into our lives reminding us of the Gospel truth that we already know and calling us again by saying, 

“Follow me”

We do not like living by faith

GOSPEL: John 1:43-51
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

One of the images of modern life that I often come back to is one that I heard during a radio interview with an Old Testament professor. He was describing his cancer diagnosis and how that impacted his self-perception. He said that before his meeting with his doctor that this life – the plans and dreams that he had – was loud and filled the sky. The things, ideas, and feelings going on around him  filled the airspace and the sound space of his conciousness. 

But when he left his doctor’s office after receiving his diagnosis, it was like the soundtrack to his life had been turned off. There was deafening silence. He felt small and alone. 

I can’t help but think we are all going through something similar. The soundtracks to our lives have been turned down or off. The plans and dreams that we had have been made small or erased completely. Before March of last year, our worlds were full of long term plans. From school years and retirement dates, to vacation plans and economic forecasts, to hockey season predictions and election cycle prognostications. We had plans big and small, and we were in the habit of making long-term projections and casting forward visions. 

Now, it is hard think more than public health order restriction cycle ahead. Our plans are for a few days or weeks at a time, and always with the caveat that things may change.

And nearly a year into living a life of small short terms plans, I have been reminding myself that for most of human history, people have lived this way. Living in crisis or under oppression has a way cutting plans short, of making the future hazy and uncertain. 

Last Sunday, we transitioned out of the Christmas season into the season after Epiphany. We began with the Baptism of Jesus and we will continue for next few weeks having pieces of Jesus’ ministry revealed to us, preparing us for Lent, Good Friday and Easter. 

Today, as we hear the story of Philip and Nathanael’s call to follow Jesus there is a familiar open endedness to it all. *We* might know how the story of Jesus and his disciples goes from here, but we also know that Philip and Nathanael don’t have a clue of what they are getting into. 

Philip and Nathanael’s call story is different than that of the others. Those fisherman: Peter, James and John who will leave their boats next week; they are jumping at the opportunity of a lifetime. The are leaving a life of hard labour for the opportunity of being the student of a Rabbi. 

But Nathanael and Philip, this is what they are hoping for. Philip reveals to us that he is a student searching for a teacher when he quotes the prophecy of scripture, something only a student of religion would know. Then Jesus identifies Nathanael as one too when says, “I saw you under the fig tree.” A colloquialism indicating a place of learning, as Rabbis often taught their students under the shade of a fig trees. 

Being the follower of a Rabbi in first century Israel wasn’t an invitation to a life of vagrancy that we might imagine. Rabbis were well respected members of the social structure, and learning the scriptures from a well respected teacher was a gateway into the religious system of the day, the group in power and control over Hebrew society. And being chosen by a Rabbi to follow was like winning the lottery, only the best and brightest were invited to follow. Maybe Philip and Nathanael imagined becoming Scribes or Pharisees, positions of power and privilege in the world. 

And yet, Jesus is also somewhat unknown and unconventional. He is identifiable as a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith, but he is also new to town, he just shows up and call followers. And as Jesus finds Philip and Nathanael, they find themselves following a Rabbi as they dreamed, but maybe not as certain about how this would turn out.

In fact, as the three talk it becomes clear that these two followers in search of a teacher haven’t a clue of what they are getting into. 

Likewise, we find ourselves in a similar moment. After 10 months of living small lives, we too are at a moment where we might not be too sure of what we are getting into. Our futures are uncertain, vague and hazy. 

It is a feeling we don’t like. In fact, if this year has revealed something about us, it is that we DO NOT like living by faith. 

We have been asked to trust our leaders, trust politicians, public health officials, scientists and business leaders. We have been asked or forced to cancel our plans, pull our life plans and habits back, and trust that everything will be okay. 

And it is clear that many of us do not like this at all. People have complained, protested and resisted. But even those of us who have kept the rules are probably growing quite weary of it all. 

And then you would think that as people of faith, as church folk, we would be used to the idea of trusting and living by faith that God will see us through, even when we don’t know where we are going, whether it is safe and how we are going to get there. You would think that as all of society is asked to live by faith, that people of faith could show a good example… but many of our siblings in faith have been quite the opposite. 

We too simply do not like having to trust. We want to know where we are going, we want to protect ourselves, we want to hold the map. We want to be in control of the process, to be the ones making the decisions. 

And so in 2021, and maybe more than ever before, this story of Jesus calling disciples, asking them to trust without knowing where they are going and where this is all headed… this story is uncomfortable for us. Uncomfortable for us a a society, for us a individuals and especially uncomfortable for as faith communities… especially as faith communities living with loads of uncertainty long before the words pandemic, Coronavirus, PPE and social distancing were ever introduced into our daily vocabulary.

But Jesus knows that the solution to Philip’s and Nathanael’s desire to control their future isn’t more control, more knowledge or more power. 

Jesus cuts through their anxiety and uncertainty to provide the thing that they truly need. 

The moments go by so quickly the are easy to miss. 

Jesus finds Philip. 

Jesus sees Nathanael. 

Before Philip could figure out his own way. Before Nathanael could ask his questions. Before they wonder and worry about what is coming next and where following this unconventional Rabbi would lead them.

Jesus does the knowing and the finding. 

Jesus figures out God’s way to these two disciples. Jesus makes the journey to them, knowing who they are and knowing where they need to go. 

And for all Philip and Nathanael’s desire to know their future, to know their path, to control how they will get where they are going… it is being found and being known that breaks through their hesitancy. 

When Jesus finds Philips and invites him to follow, Philip cannot help but excitedly go and tell Nathanael. 

When Jesus reveals that he has known Nathanael, who he is, his hopes and dreams, his fears and wonderings, all by simply seeing him under the fig tree…. Nathanael confesses that Jesus is God’s son. 

Because the solution to their anxiety and fear about the future… the solution to our anxiety and fear about our future is not control or knowledge. 

The solution is being found by the one who holds the future in their hands. 

The solution is being known by the one who will walk with us wherever we end up, wherever we go. 

For you see, being found and being known is exactly what God has been doing with us since the beginning. Just as God declared Jesus a beloved child last week, God declares the same with us. 

Our fears for the future are met by the God who finds us and knows us. The God who brings us into community, into God’s very body, into the community of the faithful.

As we sit in this post-Christmas New Years 2021 moment, with so many of the promises of something better in 2021 being dashed already, with fear for what comes next, with a weariness of living by faith…

God continues to do what has always done. 

Jesus finds us in the waters of baptism.

Jesus finds us in the word and prayers and hymns that proclaim God’s love for us. 

Jesus finds us no matter where we are, no matter where we worship, no matter how alone we feel. 

Jesus knows us in our siblings in faith. 

Jesus knows us intimately and fully, and declares that we are God’s children, we are God’s beloved.

Jesus knows us our story and brings us into God’s story. 

Jesus shows us that God knows our way even when it is unclear to us.

Jesus reminds us of the God who knows our past, our present and our future. 

And Jesus join us in the uncertainty that we are living through, and declares that no matter what comes that God’s plan for us is new life. 

On this second Sunday after Epiphany, when it is clear that all of our hopes, dreams and plans for the future will not come to pass as we imagined. 

Jesus finds us and Jesus knows us. 

And Jesus invites us again into God’s future. A future that might be hazy and uncertain and unclear to us, but a future that belongs to God. And even when we tired of living by faith, Jesus reminds that God continues to have faith in us. 


Ep.8 Ministry in 2021 – Ughhh

Er… Happy New year?

So, 2021 hasn’t started out exactly as we all dreamed it would heading into Christmas. The pandemic is still raging, churches are still mostly virtual and democracy is only in a free falling crisis.

What does that mean for people of faith in 2021? What will ministry look like for the next 3 months, 6 months or 12 months?

Join Pastor Courtenay and Pastor Erik for a conversation about ministry in 2021 and what this new year might bring.  

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)