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