Note: I preached a version of this sermon on July 7, 2019 (Proper 9C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you were with us on Pentecost, you heard a sermon from my friend and mentor Pastor Raymond Legania. He told a story about my first sermon as his intern, which you can hear on the church website if you’re interested. But I didn’t preach until I’d been there for a month.
I arrived at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church in Englewood on the South Side of Chicago on a Monday. I worked all week on their summer program, a Children’s Defense Fund initiative called Freedom School. And on my first Sunday, Pastor Legania was going to introduce me to the congregation and install me as the seminary intern for the year. It was the first Sunday in July, 2007. And the Scriptures for the day were the same Scriptures we hear today.
Now what I’ll say about Pastor Legania is that he always did have a plan. He knew what he was going to preach. But the plan was always subject to change, up until the last possible minute. And on that day, the plan changed.
There was a couple there with a baby who maybe was and maybe wasn’t going to get baptized. They sat all the way in the back. And as the choir finished their hymn—in this church the choir sang, and the people joined in more often than not—before the sermon instead of after it—Pastor Legania took up the refrain. “Sometimes you have to encourage yourself in the Lord,” the song went. And with the congregation in a lather from the song, he repeated that line over and over—sometimes you have to encourage yourself. Sometimes your mother or your father or your pastor can’t do it for you, and you have to encourage yourself. And eventually he admitted, “I’m talking to one person today.” He even turned around and admitted that it wasn’t me. He looked back at me, sitting in the presider’s chairs, and said “I’m going to have to preach your installation another week, Pastor.”
I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget how he came around to the Gospel at last. The disciples are sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves. They’re sent out with nothing but each other and the power of God, and they come back amazed that the unclean spirits obey them. And Jesus tells them, basically, “You think you’ve seen things? I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning!” But he concludes by telling them “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits obey you—rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
After the sermon, the family came up and the baby was baptized. And at the end of the service, when the pastor opened the doors of the church, the father of the baby came up to be received.
After church, Pastor Legania told me, “I didn’t know if that baptism was going to happen.” I figured out that the one person he was talking to was that father, trying to coax him to bring his daughter up to the water of rebirth, and to bring himself into the heart of the church. And it worked.
Two days later the baby died in a SIDS incident. And we gathered again for the little child’s funeral. It was shattering. When I saw Pastor Legania a couple of weeks ago I reminded him of that. I would never forget the baptism or the funeral, but I could not remember the child’s name. It had gotten lost in all the other names of children I’d known there and since. It was Robynique, Pastor Legania told me. He said that he’d been working with that family for a long time, through lots of things, and they were doing a lot better.
If you’ve experienced new or revived faith, you may understand what’s going on in this story a little better than most people. When you’re new in this, you can feel like the spirits obey you. Doubt flees from you, temptations lose some of their power, sorrow and grief and darkness are beaten back by the power of your faith. And that is true and good. But Jesus reminds his friends that this feeling of spiritual power is not the true and proper cause of rejoicing. Because that’s going to come and go. Some demons are going to be very tenacious and won’t leave. Others will find a way to sneak back in when you think they’ve been cast out.
But either way, Jesus tells his disciples, rejoice that your names are written in heaven. Rejoice that you were sealed in baptism. Rejoice that when your name was called, you answered; you came up, you used the weakness of the moment to seize God’s promises for you. That’s the miracle. That’s the defeat of Satan and his empty promises and his power.
So I’ll always think of them together—that poor child, who would have just finished sixth grade if she’d lived, but who was sealed by the Holy Spirit in her infancy and whose name was written in heaven just days before she left this world; that sullen and reluctant father, who came up with his daughter to the water of life; and that pastor who threw out the sermon he had planned and spoke to them and only them.
The prophet Isaiah today tells use to rejoice with Jerusalem, who nurses her children like a mother from her own breast, and dandles them on her knee, and comforts them. When Christians hear these words we are meant to hear them as an image of the Church. The Church feeds us out of her own body, and comforts and cares for us. And the ministry she does for us can reach us anywhere—through one pastor’s sermon, through one crisis, in the last two days of our lives. And it’s not because anyone who does this work is a hero or possesses great spiritual powers or is more noble or virtuous than anyone else. It’s because people have been sent, like sheep into a world of wolves, to preach good news and forgive sins and heal what is ailing and cast out the forces that oppress us. To speak to one person, to wash one new soul, and to see that no one’s name is forgotten in heaven.