I had a long phone conversation the other night with a young man who was deeply upset. He had left his home, and was staying with the family of a girl from his high school. He was fleeing his father, a damaged, alcoholic man who had ruled over his son, demanding his loyalty and devotion. “Just because he’s my father, it doesn’t entitle him to make me a co-dependent ,” the boy said, his voice shaking. This wasn’t adolescent rebellion. I understood what he was talking about because I had spent some time with the family, and saw how his father had affected them all, his wife and other two sons. It is true that the credential of fatherhood doesn’t bind a family to dutiful allegiance, no matter what.
It was hard to shake off the phone call. I thought a lot about my own father, with whom I too had a troubled relationship. I prayed for my young friend.
Eventually I went to bed and to sleep, but you there is this dog I’m taking care of—the pastor’s dog---who woke me up around 3am with what I assumed was nature’s call. OK, I got up, took him on a walk in the silent neighborhood—a walk which yielded none of the desired results.
So we returned I was now completely awake. I got some juice, and turned on the TV, hoping to find some really boring program to make me sleepy. Wrong idea. I turned to a channel that had one of those infomercials on, and it got me all excited. They were demonstrating the most amazing invention: a clothes-storage shrink-wrap suction machine that enables you to put four times the amount of clothing you normally fit into your closet. Yeah, it was really cool, this machine. You get these special bags, and you put your dresses or your suits… pants, sweaters, coats, shirts ‘n blouses---anything, you put them in the bags and you connect this machine, and it sucks the air out of the bag and the whole thing gets very very thin and shriveled up, and you just hang it in your tiny apartment closet in ¼ the space it normally takes up, and when you need something in the bag, you just open a little valve, and the air rushes back in and you take out the clothes you need and they’re fine and dandy, none the worse for the lack of air, and you just put them on and wear them, okey dokey. I mean, how fascinating it that? What really convinced me that I should call up right away and order one of these wonder machines, was when a guy in a white laboratory coat with a pen protector in his pocket came on to explain all the scientific principles about the machine and the process. He was in an impressive laboratory or something and he was speaking very authoritatively about how the whole thing worked. As soon as I saw him, I knew it was a good product.
After watching that infomercial all the way through—I think it was a half hour—I flipped the channels and found more amazing stuff. There was Dr. Bosley, with his medical license in full view, describing the benefits and ease of his hair transplant process. He also was very impressive. And there was Jay, who invented the Juiceman, showing off his latest version of the product and giving the recipe of a carrot/potato/cranberry/pea nectar. And then another guy, also very tech-looking, demonstrating his Ionic Turbo Pro machine, with Zenon technology in this testing lab. I flipped through the channels and found all these certified scientists and techies talking right out at me, like it was just the two of us together at 3am in the morning, very professional in their clothing and laboratories and clinics.
I flipped once more, and came upon a priest talking to me, just as intimately, just as persuasively. He was in a kind of churchy-looking place with stained glass windows and some statues in the background, and he was dressed in black and a roman collar. He was selling Jesus to me, but I have to be honest: it wasn’t near as fascinating as the shrink-wrap suction system for clothes storage. I mean, he tried, I felt for him. But after a few minutes I actually thought I had found my sleepy-time program.
It’s hard it’s hard to sell Jesus when you are competing against the miraculous Flex Tape that can heal a water pipe, or the Mighty Bright Light or even Peter Popoff’s Miracle Spring Water with testimonies from people who say that after drinking the water they stopped smoking, got a job, or won $25,000 in the lottery. How does a guy in a Roman collar compete against that? The authority you need to sell Jesus is not going to come from a roman collar costume or a set that looks like a church. And I’m not just talking about television. It’s true right here at this pulpit as well.
Jesus wasn’t wearing a Roman collar he wasn’t garbed in the academic robes of a scholar, he didn’t whip out a license in psychoanalysis when he exorcised unclean spirits from a screaming man. "Be quiet! Come out of him!". He was using a much different kind of authority. Jesus could expel demons, heal hearts and minds, free imprisoned souls by the authority of… his love. It had nothing to do with sets or costumes or diplomas. The overwhelming thing about Jesus was his love—a radical kind of love---and strangers only had to set their eyes upon him and they knew, deep down, that he was someone so extraordinary and so attractive and so compelling that they were willing to drop everything to follow him where ever, to entrust him with their whole lives and their every illness. They knew that he was plugged into the very Source of love that lives underneath everything. And the truth is that it is only that kind of love that can command authority over a person. Christ's radical, unthinkable love infected everyone who encountered it, even Judas, even Pilate,
And when Jesus was gone, after the ultimate triumph of love---the resurrection---his disciples inherited the power of that radical love, and they too were able to cast out demons and cure illnesses. They were full of his authority, and nothing stopped the power of their love to transform the world.
It is a power that belongs to us all, every one of us here in this place. No need for a studio or a great set, or a degree on the wall. No need for a collar or a pulpit in a church.
Listen to me, my brothers and sisters: the darkness and brokenness of the world is all around us. You can find it in a father who doesn’t know how to love his son, you have heard about it in the testimonies of women who have been abused and harassed, you can witness it in the daily nastiness of our political leaders and the horror of the latest terrorist bomb blast, you can even find it in the ways we treat one another in this church and in our school.
Unclean spirits in our culture whisper to us to do the wrong thing, to seek our own satisfaction, to plot for our own glory. They tell us over and over again that we are too stupid or too short or too fat or too ugly, that we don't have enough land or money or power or, worst of all, they tell us that there is no such thing as real love, that death is the real victor. And probably worst of all they convince us of the most horrendous, the greatest heresy ever: that we are not loveable.
The forces of darkness whisper to our fear in the night, and the tragedy is, the tragedy is we believe them---by no authority at all---we believe them.
There is good news, by the Author of love, and it is this: all of the above is a lie. You are loved. For everything you are, even your imperfections and failures, you are loved. That is the truth, that is the real truth.
And to those who whisper the lie to you when you are wandering in the darkness, another more powerful voice says "Be quiet! Come out of the man!” And the unclean spirit is released with a loud shriek, and you are free to know the truth about who you really are.
And here’s the thing, my brothers and sisters: That same authority can live within you. In a moment, after you receive from this table, Love will be coursing through your bloodstream. And when you leave this room, you will embody the truth and have the power and the authority of that love to share it with everyone else out there living under the lie.
Out there is a young man suffering from his father’s own brokenness. Out there is a woman who believes she is not smart enough or attractive enough. Out there is a gay man who feels condemned. Out there is an elderly woman who feels that the world doesn’t care whether she lives or dies. Out there is a homeless man being ignored by everyone who passes him by. Out there is a mother who thinks she has done it all wrong.
Let us take the power of Christ's love right now to our world to cast out demons, heal hearts and minds, and free imprisoned souls, maybe even our own.
You know what? Our world needs that much more than a shrink wrap suction system for clothing, regardless of the space you gain in the closet.