Some Bibles print the words of Jesus in red letters. So since the four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, this is where you’ll find the red letters, recording the things Jesus said, or at least the things the Gospel-writers heard or think he said. And who can name the four Gospels? Anyone in your home who has been confirmed or is currently taking confirmation classes, you should be able to name these! Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Since Mark is the shortest Gospel, it has the fewest red letters.
Today’s Gospel lesson begins in the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. The weird thing is that there aren’t any red letters to tell us what he was teaching; all we know is that people were paying attention because of the way he was teaching—with authority! He was new on the scene but he knew what he was talking about, and he spoke as though he had the authority of God. The religious teachers got nervous about this—who does this man think he is?
In Mark’s Gospel, this story appears near the beginning. Jesus has only just begun his public ministry, so this is one of the first things he does, with just a few disciples with him—do you remember from last week’s lesson what their names were? So far, Jesus doesn’t yet even have twelve disciples, maybe only the four whose names we learned last week: Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee.
Jesus has already said “The dominion of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” This is good news for all people, especially the people who are vulnerable, living in poverty, sick, or rejected by society. Jesus is in the business of setting people free—sometimes this means healing people, sometimes it means teaching them, and sometimes teaching requires correcting a wrong idea. That’s what it means to rebuke—to disapprove of an idea and then correct it.
When Jesus starts rebuking, it makes me feel nervous. I don’t know about you, but I do not enjoy confrontation. I’m not good at thinking fast in the moment; I tend to freeze up and go silent. So even reading the story of someone going into a worship space and shouting, while Jesus is teaching, it makes me tense. What’s with the shouting? Aren’t we here for peace?
Indeed. Aren’t we here for some peace? The trouble is, the kind of peace that I might like is the kind of peace that keeps me comfortable while other people struggle—that peace is false. It isn’t the kind of peace that Jesus is here for. Jesus brings a peace that isn’t afraid to upset the assumptions of people who have power. And Jesus himself isn’t afraid to call out the unclean spirits.
The only red letters in this story are the words that Jesus speaks to rebuke an unclean spirit: “Be silent. Come out of him.” What’s wild is that the evil spirit obeys him. If an evil spirit can obey God, why not you or me?
What do you do when evil enters your holy space? The thing is, it happens all the time. Evil doesn’t really blow through the doors like an obvious force. It usually starts out small, hitching a ride in the thoughts of human beings. And even if you think you’re not good at confrontation or rebuke, that doesn’t mean you get to avoid it. There are lots of things I don’t think I’m good at, but I still have to do them. Cooking is an example—there are lots of people who are better cooks than me, but I still have to feed my family somehow. Or exercising—I’m not really good at it, but no one else’s exercise will benefit me; I really just have to do it, even if I’m not good at it. Or praying—I’ve done lots of praying in my life, but I never feel like I’m good at it. And that’s okay—it keeps me humble. That’s probably why it’s called spiritual practice, not spiritual perfection.
But those things aren’t evil, so let me give an example of how evil starts small. I used to think white supremacy was a term for extreme behavior, only used for white people who want to kill other people just for the color of their skin. But really, white supremacy, all it is, is just a tiny little lie that begins with thinking it’s okay to think that white people are just a little bit better because their skin is white. That’s it. That’s all you have to believe: that it’s okay that white people are better.
Now that’s not about killing anybody. It’s so small, it can’t possibly hurt anyone, right? The problem is that white supremacy is not true. And if we allow even this small untruth to live on in our thinking, we’ll allow all sorts of terrible things to happen to people of color, we’ll think injustice is okay, and we’ll keep telling ourselves that it’s okay if white people are better; the lie is okay. Many of us white people would deny that we think this way, but the trouble is that our culture supports this thinking, so we don’t have evaluate what we really think, even at a subconscious level. Not a lot of us white people are willing to look at the ways we behave as though we support white supremacy—it’s hard work. But that’s the work of waging peace. ELCA Pastor Lenny Duncan wrote a book called “Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” and if you have white skin and hear that title you’d probably assume the entire book is a bunch of stuff that’s going to make you feel bad. That’s what I thought—I bought the book because a lot of people I respected were reading it, but I was prepared to be ripped to shreds. I was not expecting to read this and be encouraged. Making people feel bad is not a worthy goal; the dominion of God IS a worthy goal, and that’s what Pastor Duncan is going for.
He has an entire chapter titled “Dylann Roof and I Are Lutheran.” Perhaps you
remember that name, Dylann Roof, since he was the young man who went to a midweek Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and on June 17, 2015, he shot and killed nine people. It wasn’t long after that mass murder that we learned Dylann Roof and his family belonged to a Lutheran church—and not one of the other Lutheran church bodies, but the ELCA. He’s one of us.
Pastor Lenny Duncan studies the story of Dylann Roof and compares it with his
own—both of them had been deeply impacted by the death of Trayvon Martin in
February 2012. Pastor Duncan writes that after Trayvon Martin’s death, he first
searched online for Black Lives Matter, while “Dylann Roof searched online for “black on white crime” and began his radicalization into white nationalism.” 1
Pastor Duncan writes, “I’m struck always about how similar Dylann and I are. Both of us come from broken or stressed home situations and were in many ways marginalized (me by society, him by his peer groups). Similar to his discovery of white nationalism, I had been introduced to black nationalism as a teen and found something enticing in that message. Both of our lives included drug use and interactions with law enforcement. Both of us tried desperately to create a life for ourselves with no parents to use as guides. We both knew the feeling of loneliness that only injustice, perceived or real, can create. And Dylann and I are both Lutheran. We were both baptized at and have sat in the pews of ELCA churches. …We both have acclaimed that Christ is risen. We came from similar circumstances, and I believe God’s grace falls on this world evenly. So how did I end up leading Bible studies in one black church and Dylann committed an act of terrorism in another? That’s my point, Church. Dylann and I are both part of the same body, and our paths have converged in many ways—only to diverge in this tragic way.
With just the right amount of pressure, I might have wandered down a tragic path, too. 2
“…Dylann Roof and I are part of the same body of Christ, and the theological tension that creates is worth exploring as a denomination and as congregations. We should be asking questions. …What about our tradition and the way that we express Lutheranism allows something like blatant white supremacy to go unchallenged? …What about our congregations and the way we relate to the world has left us completely ill equipped to call out this sort of radical evil as it festers in our pews? What are we doing to equip our members to engage with their families and the broader community? How are we training them to start to talk these folks back from the edge of the abyss? 3
“…We have lost the ability to name radical evil because somewhere along the way, we stopped believing in it. Dear Church, it’s time we wage peace. 4 …Our Sunday Schools and pulpits are the tools we have to wage peace on this world. We have to raise a generation of anti-racist children who will in turn teach their children the dangers of then powerful drug that is whiteness and its addictive properties.”
I’m still new here at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, so I don’t know all the ways your congregation has addressed white supremacy or anti-racism—I know you’ve used your marquee sign on the corner as a way to proclaim Black Lives Matter, and that’s important. But what other ways can we wage peace against the evil of white supremacy? And are you ready to address it in your own life, your workplace, your school?
We don’t go into this work alone, of course. Jesus shows us the way and stands with us when we speak against evil. Following his example, when evil comes into your holy spaces, you deal directly with it. If an evil spirit can obey God, why not you or me?
And when the evil spirits cry out “Have you come to destroy us?” the people of faith will answer, Yes. Thank you for asking. We are here to destroy evil. Yes, that’s exactly what we’re here to do. We’re here to wage peace. We’re here for healing. We’re here with Jesus to set people free. In the process, may we also be set free by God’s grace. Amen.
1 Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., 2019page 56
2 Ibid 57.
3 Ibid 58.
4 Ibid 59.