Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2024

And they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! Jesus commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On Tuesday, about twenty-seven of us from Trinity and St. Michael’s joined Episcopalians around the country who went to see a new movie, “A Case for Love.”  For one day only, it opened on about a thousand screams nationwide.  This inspiring film is about the life and teaching of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, but also so much more.  It is filled with stories and interviews from all kinds of people about the life-changing power of love.

In a recent interview with the director, he says that one of the most powerful parts of the film for him was conducting “person on the street” interviews with more than two hundred random strangers.  These took place all over the country, in cities, in small towns, in rural places.  But the question was always the same, “What does unselfish love mean to you?”  

At several different moments, I found myself in tears.  But, what moved me the most about the film was hearing from young people about the importance of love, as well as their poignant reminders that love can be hard to find today.  

At one point, Bishop Curry sums up the challenges we face with a quote from Martin Luther King:  “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.”  Above all, Bishop Curry is asking us to take loving actions now to heal the deep divisions in our society.

The film also included interviews that went deeper.  They spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders, members of our military, parents and foster parents of kids with special needs, a family working with Honduran refugees, and a couple living and working for change in a neighborhood ravaged by guns and gangs. 

We heard from retired Republican Senator John Danforth, who is also an Episcopal priest.  He has devoted much of his retirement to working to restore civility in our national life.  We also heard from Democratic politician Pete Buttigieg, who is a lay Episcopalian and a naval officer, as well as a married gay man.

Some of the stories were especially hard to hear.  A Marine platoon leader and his wife spoke openly about his PTSD and their difficult journey toward healing. Among other things, he told about the death of one of his Marines by suicide.  The very first story we heard featured a woman who was recovering from addiction after having been sexually trafficked from the time she was five.  She spent decades selling her body on the streets.  She spoke about Thistle Farms, the ministry founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens in Nashville.  She testified that the love she found there changed her life forever.

 In telling these and other stories, the film took its cue from Bishop Curry’s teaching, grounded in the Bible, that love is not merely sentimental.  Love is hard work.  It takes a commitment.  It involves a practical attitude and a realistic strategy to change the world.  Often, it begins in small ways, with the parts of the world right around us. 

Today’s lesson from Mark introduces the main theme of his Gospel–namely, the conflict between the Kingdom of God, on the one hand, and the powers of violence and death, on the other.  We meet these powers at work in a man who is possessed by an unclean spirit.  Jesus sees him.  And then, he acts with divine authority to cast this demon out–to set this man free.  Jesus is not afraid of the power of evil in our world.  Like the prophets before him, he confronts evil with the life-giving authority of love.  Of course, God’s love is often frustrated by the power of evil.  Jesus himself suffers death and defeat on the Cross.  Love’s victory remains incomplete, until Easter Day.  

Last week, I preached about Jesus telling his apostles to fish for people.  Jesus calls us to “seek and serve” those who are struggling and drowning beneath the waves.  He calls us to serve and befriend each other in his Name, especially those who are suffering, oppressed, isolated, and afraid. 

Recently, we had a meeting of our Youth and Children’s Formation Committee.  Elise Hill, one of the new co-chairs of our Outreach Committee, shared some of the research they have been doing about needs in our community.  Elise has spoken with school counselors, with probation officers, and with other people who work with youth around our town.  One of the things she noted is the increasing isolation and lack of coping skills that many young people are exhibiting today.  In particular, young men in Gregg County have an alarming rate of death by suicide.  

We are planning to partner with existing ministries and/or to start new ones, in order to make a difference.  And we are talking about age-appropriate ways to involve our youth and children and their parents in reaching out and making a difference. 

But I’d like to step back a bit from these conversations and look at the larger cultural moment.  This is much, much bigger than the youth.  It is all of us.  As Americans, we are deeply divided and often afraid.  We don’t know our neighbors.  There are appalling levels of violence throughout our society.  We need to turn back to God–and back to each other.

That’s why the world needs churches like Trinity and St. Michael’s and other communities of faith dedicated to loving others unselfishly and creating face-to-face community.  It confirms many of the central features of the Vestry’s vision for Trinity, which we have developed and refined together over the last five years.  

It also confirms the crucial importance of Christian formation for all ages–especially children and youth.  Rachel White is a huge asset for this mission.  And, as I’ve shared with you before, we need to do everything we can to give Rachel the volunteers and the financial resources that she needs–and to remove every obstacle to her success.  

Beyond that, however, people of all ages need opportunities to worship God, to grow in our faith, and to learn how deeply we are loved.  We need to create loving community for all people, with Jesus at the living center.  We need to follow in his steps.  We need to learn to live for others.  We need to go out and share his love  with the neighbors he gives us—no exceptions allowed.

Today, as we gather for our annual parish meeting, let us rededicate ourselves to this mission from God  As Bishop Curry has reminded us, again and again, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”  We face a choice between “chaos and community….For we must learn to live together, as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.”