Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Ever notice how nothing is ever our fault?  Or at least, not really.  It seems like other people always have a bigger role to play than we do when things go south.  We go through our ups and downs in life, we have curveballs thrown at us, and yeah, sometimes we slip up and fall.  But if only all those other people would just get their act together, then you know life would be a lot easier, better, more the way it should be.

Those darned other people.

You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?  They are the ones who trigger us, make us angry, and frustrate us.  They’re the one who just don’t see life the way they should, you know, like how we see it.  They’re the ones who treat people like us poorly, the ones that stand up for ideals that go against our ideals, the ones that voted for the party that we didn’t vote for, or believe in the god that we don’t believe in.

Yeah, them.

If only they would smarten up.  If only they would be more woke.  If only they would open their sheep eyes and see the error of their ways and know just the trouble they are causing with their closed mindedness, their stubborn ways, their completely misguided notions that they could ever be right.

Pfft.  Get on my level.

You might be thinking, “uh, we’re not like that.  YOU might be, but we’re ok.”  Sure, ok, maybe you’re not at that level… like my level, but don’t we to a certain extent like to deflect onto others? Don’t we often assume that even minor infractions can’t be our fault, and we like to think “if only”?  Like, if only my boss were more lenient then they would see how good of an employee I am.  Or if only my spouse were more patient and understanding then we would fight so much.  Or if only this pastor were more connected to his congregation and community then maybe we would have more people here on Sundays.  Or if only these people would see that the food sacrificed to idols is still food and frankly delicious, so there really isn’t anything wrong with us eating it.

If only.

So it really isn’t ever our fault then, is it?  I mean, not really. There always seems to be some kind of external force that causes us to do things, feel things, and think things that we know we shouldn’t but we do anyway, because these external forces are strong and mighty and overpower us, trigger us, manipulate us.

Of course, when I say it out loud like I just did, we know that we shouldn’t be thinking this way.  We know we should be taking responsibility for our part in things too.  We know that sometimes it might perhaps be our fault.  But in that heat of the moment, I wonder how often we are able to swallow that pride and actually stop and think how and where did we go wrong, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again?

If you’re anything like me, not often at all.  My knee-jerk reaction is to see who (other than myself) could be at fault and should take the blame.  I look at all the external forces at play and see at what I can point my fingers.  In my anger I look around to find who or what I can focus that anger on.  I do pretty much everything I can to distract myself from ever thinking that maybe perhaps possibly I had a pretty big role whatever bad thing that had happened, that maybe perhaps possibly I screwed up somehow, that maybe perhaps possibly I have no one to blame but myself.

Because c’mon, that’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?  It isn’t easy to look at ourselves, point out our own faults, and take the blame for things.  That is shameful, it’s embarrassing, it just makes us feel bad about ourselves and really we don’t want to do that.

So we deflect.  We shift the blame.  We do what we can to protect ourselves from ever having to admit our own shortcomings and feel that awkward discomfort in knowing that we too can sometimes be so very human.

It’s just easier to blame everyone and everything else.

In today’s gospel lesson, we read about a guy who suffers from an unclean spirit.  And it’s never really clear as to what an unclean spirit can be defined as, but traditionally we equate them with demons, beings of evil that serve the devil Satan’s beck and call, that little red guy that sits on our shoulder opposite of the little angel on our other shoulder and this little devil feeds us bad ideas and manipulates us to do bad things.  Traditionally, we see these “unclean spirits” as those external forces in our lives, the ones that make us do bad and crazy things, the things that are really to blame for all the evil in us and in the world.

“The devil made me do it.”  It’s not my doing, I was powerless against this really powerful celestial baddie that is literally hell-bent on making me do the things I know I should be doing.  So what can I do?  It wasn’t my fault.

There it is again.  Even in matters of theology and spirituality we are shifting the blame.  Because really, did the devil make you do it?  The actual devil with a pitchfork in his hand thought you were special enough to focus on and make you do some bad thing?  Or are we just blaming a “devil” so it would be easier for us to feel forgiven?

And so I wonder if that is what it is all about.  Do we avoid this discomfort in admitting our fault because we think that maybe our faults would make it hard for us to be forgiven?  Do we sometimes shift the blame onto others because we feel that maybe taking the blame would drop us out of God’s grace?  Do we sometimes point our fingers elsewhere, away from us, in thinking that if we pointed them inward that we would be loved any less?

And when we run out of plausible things to blame and point our fingers at, we come up with these external spiritual forces like a literal devil or demons and say that these unseen beings are the puppet masters that manipulated us to do things that we clearly know better than to do.  I’m not saying that there is no devil or demons, but if there are, I wonder if they actually have an active role in making us do bad things.  Maybe we sometimes hope they do so we can just blame them for those things.

Because that discomfort in taking blame really is a powerful thing, isn’t it?  The guilt in knowing that we are actually at fault for something is crippling.  The shame in accepting the fact that we are sinners, broken, absolutely imperfect is such a burden and so we alleviate it by watering down our sin, brushing off our faults, and justifying every misguided deed and thought that we might have had.

I think this is why the people in our Old Testament reading today said that they’ll die if they keep hearing the Word of God from whatever prophet that will succeed Moses.  They’ve had it with the condemnation, the judgement, the mirror held up before them forcing them to see themselves as they are: full of blemish, blame, and brokenness.  They just don’t want to feel that discomfort in coming to grips with who they are, what they’ve done, and the shame that comes with being at fault.

But do you think that guilt and shame held God back?  Do you think that the brokenness and blemish actually removed them from God’s kingdom?  Do you think that their faults, our faults, could actually ever remove us from the love of God?

If the stories we read in scripture, the examples we have in our history and our own lives, and the promises of God that we are reminded of week after week mean anything to us, then no, nothing, not distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, nothing in all of creation… not even death could separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus approaches this man with the unclean spirit, confronts his discomfort in being the presence of holiness and authority, and holds him in love, rebuking whatever holds him back from accepting his complete brokenness and utter need of a Saviour.  And in that love, Jesus declares to this man with the unclean spirit complete acceptance, welcome, and forgiveness.

See, when we deny our faults, when we deflect our blame, when we point our fingers at demons and devils, we negate our own need for a Saviour.  Essentially, we’re saying that we’re good enough because we’re not really that bad.  But when we recognise our brokenness, accept our fallen nature, even embrace our sinfulness, then we see just how much we are in need of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love.

And because God so graciously gives all that to all people, then we can more fully appreciate just how much God has done for us, our community, and the world, in that while we were sinners, so very much so, God comes to us with a forgiveness before unknown, a love yet unseen, a peace that surpasses all understanding.

I know, being at fault sucks.  Blaming ourselves for things is uncomfortable.  We don’t like the shame of guilt and sin.  But it is in that fault, blame, and guilt that we can see just how strong God’s grace is, how deep and how wide God’s love, how expansive God’s forgiveness, that we be filled with the Spirit, forgiven by the cross, and lifted up to new heights of community and ministry, showing us that even though we are sinners, we are loved.  We are accepted.  We are called children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom, worthy members of the body of Christ.

So yeah, we all have our faults and our guilt.  We all have our shortcomings and weaknesses.  We all have those areas of shame in which we just don’t always like to admit.  But as Luther told us, we can sin boldly, but also believe bolder still in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the victor over sin.  We can heed Luther’s words here because it is in all of that brokenness that we can see God present and working, strengthening and building up, healing and making us whole.

In this season after the Epiphany, where we look at the church and Jesus’ role in it, let’s not detract from our own need for God’s love and grace, that we might embrace the gifts of God that fill us in our weakness, alleviate our guilt, and redeems us all into salvation and peace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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