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Edward F. Markquart

Series B
Fighting the Blackberry Bushes

Epiphany 4B     Mark 1:21-28

The basis of the sermon for today is the gospel lesson which has already been read. “And the unclean spirit cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’ And Jesus said, “You better believe it.” And then Jesus preached the gospel and cast out demons.

Then we go two chapters later in the Gospel of Mark, to Mark 3:13 where Jesus appoints the twelve disciples to do the same. These disciples were the first beginnings of the church. That is, Jesus sent out the twelve apostles to first, preach the gospel, and secondly, to cast out the demons. These twelve disciples were the beginning of the church and their mission was crystal clear to them: first, to preach the gospel and second, to cast out the demons.

I would like to suggest to you this morning that the Lutheran church has been too much into preaching the gospel and not enough into casting out the demons.

I would like to begin this sermon by telling you a modern parable. It is a favorite story.  A number of years ago, we moved to Seattle, Washington, and we bought a house. This house was a catastrophic mess. The foundation of the house had sunk; the floors had sunk four to five inches; the big picture windows in the living room were cracked; the plaster board on the walls was cracked. This house was one glorious, ugly, nasty disaster.

Well, it was not only the inside of the house that was a catastrophic disaster; so was the outside. All around our house it was a living disaster. Let me explain. On all sides of our house, to the East, South, West and North, black berry bushes were sprawling in every direction. Blackberry bushes. Yes, you heard right. These were lovely, voluptuous, full growing, large stemmed blackberry bushes. And those blackberry bushes had been growing for years, perhaps decades. If you are a person who loves blackberry pie or blackberry wine or blackberry cider, our house was the house to buy. We had blackberries to feed all of our neighborhood, the church if not the city of Des Moines and the whole world beyond.

So, after moving into our house, I made a decision. I declared war on the blackberry bushes. Yes, I said war. I said to myself out loud, “I have come to destroy you.”

To begin my war with the blackberry bushes, I needed a little help on how to get rid of these lushly growing vines. I went to the resident gardener in the congregation who was an old Norwegian by the name of Al Lunde. He was one smart old coot, Old Man Lunde was. Lunde was like an old horse doctor, part time veterinarian,  part time plumber, part time electrician, who had his personal remedies for fixing everything. Old Man Lunde knew about gardening, Mother Nature, and blackberry bushes. Old Man Lunde said, “So you wanna get rid of all dos old blackberry bushes? What you do is to go out there in the middle of winter, in the very middle of the annual big freeze, and cut them suckers off as low as you can to the ground.” That made sense. So I waited until February and the big freeze came on. It was cold, freezing, really cold for Seattle, Washington and I went out that morning with my scythe which I had borrowed from Old Man Lunde, freezing my little tooties and I cut them all down. I then did a pastoral thing. That is, I prayed for the Lord to continue the big freeze for a few days. Then that cold, freezing air would get down into those roots and kill the blackberry bushes. I cu them all down, raked up the bushes into a pile to burn them, and waited for spring. I turned my back on them, and a few months later, I looked, and all the blackberry bushes were crawling all over the yard, crawling all over the bank, crawling all over the yard. North, South, East and West. What was I going to do? 

What was I going to do? The war was still on and the blackberry bushes had won the first battle.

So I approached my elderly neighbor by the name of Al, Al Powell, who was a retired Boeing engineer. And a great gardener. I said to Al, “I got this problem with my blackberry bushes. What do I do to actually get rid of them.” He said, “Amitrol! Amitrol will do in the blackberry bushes every time. Lots of it.” I bought gallons of Amitrol and began to spray them the next spring when they were just leafing out. I spayed them from top to bottom, backwards and forwards, inside and out, again and again. I sprayed them relentlessly. Those blackberry bushes shriveled up and got nice and brown. I cut the brown brambles off and burned them. I felt so momentarily proud. I turned my back for a few months and lo and behold, those blackberry bushes were all back again, laughing and smiling at me. All those black berry bushes wanting to grow berries to be pies and wines and cobblers. What should I do? The blackberry bushes won the second battle.

So I telephoned people at the University of Washington. I asked for the blackberry warfare department. A professor of horticulture said to me, “You have to go after their roots. Those roots, after all these years of growth, are down deep. You have to dig them up, way down into the roots, and one root at a time. You have to dig out ALL the roots, one at a time.”

For one week I dug. Another week. Week after week. Month after month. I dug at those banks at blackberry bushes. With a big pick and an iron bar, with sweat and tears and grumbling, I dug down until I found a knotty root ball way down deep in the ground. It was the worst job of my life. I found an enormous root system, big roots, big knotty root balls, miles of them, so it seemed. I dug and dug. I turned my back on them for a period of time, and when I looked back, they there were again, but smaller, considerably smaller. There were little ones. I pulled out these little sprigs.

I planted my lawn. I planted my garden. I planted my tam junipers, rhododendrons, azaleas and my ivy so that these plants would take over the yard and the bank. These plants started to grow and grow.

After about ten years, the battle was won. I had destroyed the blackberry bushes in our yard. I had won the battle with the blackberry bushes in our yard.

What I found out at that time is that the land is either going to be occupied with a good lawn and good rhododendrons and azaleas and tam junipers and ivy or it was going to be occupied by the blackberry bushes. It was either or. Either the blackberry bushes or the good plants. You see, the land never remained neutral. Either the land was ruled by weeds or it was ruled by beautiful plantings. It never remained neutral. It is never neutral. Never. The land is always ruled by that which is good or the land is ruled by that which is evil. It is always either or.

Well, by now, you have figured out this parable, I am sure. The parable has become a deeply ingrained metaphor on how I understand life. The blackberry bushes represent the power of evil which exists in this world. The power of evil, like the blackberry bushes, is constantly growing. It is constantly coming at you, even when it is underground. The blackberry bushes are never neutral. You cannot turn your back on them. They are either growing at you or you are coming at them. It is one or the other.

I have noticed that you cannot turn your back on the power of evil which is growing in your own life, either. About the time you think that you have defeated the power of evil in your own personal life, that power of evil spurts up again within you. About the time you think that you have your little personal demons, they spurt up again. Whether it be alcohol, drugs, jealousies, family conflicts, temper tantrums, little materialisms, sexual fantasies, or whatever are the demons in your life, those demons hanker after you and come at you again and again and again. Life and demon attacks never cease. About the time you think that you have your demons under control, they come back in all their glory.

And I have discovered the more the power of evil is rooted in your life and the more the power of evil is rooted in our culture, it is more difficult to exterminate.

I would like to suggest to you this morning that our society is becoming increasingly a demon possessed society. That our society is becoming increasingly possessed by the power of evil, that the blackberry bushes are really growing and thriving in our culture.

Now, by demon possession, I am not talking about the mickey mouse stuff like the old movie, The Exorcist, with people foaming at their mouths, with sofas and chairs floating around the air or levitating, with knives and forks floating in the air. I am not talking about that imaginary kid’s stuff that is made for movies. I am talking about the real stuff.

Real demon possession is when the power of evil possesses a culture and individual lives in that culture. For example, Germany during World War II was a demon possessed, evil culture. It wasn’t simply Hitler who was demon possessed but that whole nation or enough segments of that whole nation became possessed by the power of evil. Otherwise, how could six million Jews be exterminated, in the name of goodness? How could that happen if a culture had not become evil? When good people do nothing and try not to know about the evil that is going on all around them.

Real demon possession was the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia years ago. Three million out of seven million Cambodians were exterminated in one year. All those teachers they lined up one after another and they shot them all dead. This was one of the most awful things that has ever happened in human history. That was a demon possessed culture. It simply wasn’t Pol Pot who was demon possessed. It was that culture which allowed that kind of evil to perpetuate itself.

Real demon possession: Think of Bosnia. At one time, it was a demon possessed land.

Real demon possession: Think of Hutus and Tutsies in Central Africa. As we witnessed the butchery in that culture, we know that it was a demon possessed land.

Think of all those people who allowed that kind of evil to perpetuate itself.

What I am suggesting to you is that our culture here in America is very much like the blackberry bushes in my back yard from some years ago. Those blackberry bushes are rampaging, running a wild and ours is increasingly a demon possessed society.

Let me give you several examples because I think some of you may be thinking that I am exaggerating. You know, we can be numb to evil violence within our society and pretend that it doesn’t hurt anymore.

Let me give indications of a rapidly accelerating demon possession within our society.

Have you looked at the FBI reports lately? On violent crimes, assaults, rapes and muggings? Have you looked at those statistics which seemed quite level in the 1910s, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990. Focus on the 1970s. That chart in the 70s goes straight up. Those violent crimes go up like a straight line in a bull market.

Or family violence here in King County. I took a course that studied family violence here in King County. Twenty years ago, 78% of the cases reported to King County were due to neglect. 20% of the cases were due to physical violence. 3% to sexual abuse.  Twenty years later, 35% of the cases reported to King County were due to physical violence, 20-25% due to sexual abuse of children, and 45% of the cases were due to neglect. In other words, in twenty years, 53% of the family violence cases in our King County are due to physical violence and sexual violence. Physical violence within families and sexual abuse of children have been growing at an alarming rate here in King County. This is an enormous shift. Can you say that the blackberry vines are not growing in King County in the last twenty years? You know who you are kidding.

How about this sweet little statistic? 30% of all girls in the USA will be sexually abused by age eighteen? How do you like that if you have girls for children? Or if you have boys, one out of ten boys are abused by age eighteen. And you say that there are no significant changes going on in our society.

How about reports in emergency wards at hospitals. According to this physician who was teaching the class, 20% of the surgeries in the emergency wards are due to family battering. Do you think that is the way it was thirty years ago? Let’s get real. Forty years ago? Fifty years ago? There is an enormous change going on within our society and there is much more physical violence in our society than a few decades ago.

My wife teaches in the Kent School district. The law now requires a sign in the schools which says “No guns allowed.” That sign is right along side of other signs which read, “No arsons allowed” and “No drugs allowed.” Is that the way it was thirty years ago?

In our schools in Federal Way, there have been drive by shootings and they had to close the school. If you are an older person, did that happen to you in your school of childhood?

How about all the school buses being followed home by unmarked police cars? Was that part of your childhood? And you say that the world has not changed?

I think of our friends who live near our local grade school. These friends have a home with shrubbery out on the front lawn. Some young fifth and sixth grade kids on the way home from school vandalize the shrubs. The mother in the house came out to address the kids and what was their response? “I’m sorry.” No, the kids give this mother the finger.

How about the changes in pornography? There have been changes in pornography here in America in recent years. According to recent articles in Time Magazine and Reader’s Digest, in the past, twenty years ago, Americans seem to enjoy the “soft porn” pictures of nude women appearing in sexual poses. Not any more. It is hard porn that sells. Two naked women, one driving a spike through another’s eyeball. Much pornography has been sadistic and brutal.

I read the other day that by the time American children reach the age of eighteen, they will have watched 18,000 murders on television. And you say that society hasn’t changed much, that the blackberry bushes of violence are not growing in America? And you are trying to tell me that is the way it always has been? Twenty, thirty, forty years ago? Things have changed here in America. Things are not as they were.

And it is not merely because we are growing older and it is not merely because there is more accurate reporting today and it is not merely because an old moral fuddy duddy is preaching today. I am simply here to report that the blackberry bushes are growing here in American society and are growing at an alarming rate.

We discover that this growing violence is not confined to the populations of larger inner cities as in the past. We who didn’t live in the inner city, found it expedient to ignore what was happening in the large inner cities. And now we discover that the rate of violence is growing in our suburbs. In fact, the highest rate of child abuse in the State of Washington is not found in the inner city of Seattle but in south King County where we live. There are more cases of child abuse reported here in our area than in the inner city of Seattle.

May I suggest to you today that there is a growing disintegration in our society and that we are seeing merely the tip of the iceberg.  Because underneath that iceberg is a massive growing society disintegration which our future is going to experience.

I that that there is a number of us who naively bought into the illusion that evil is neutral, that evil does not need to be fought against, that evil is something that is “just there.” Not realizing that the power of evil is active. Not realizing that the power of evil is aggressive and assertive. Not realizing that the power of evil is like the blackberry bushes in my backyard. If you don’t fight those blackberry bushes, I guarantee you that they are going to be coming at you. Many of us grew up in a generation from years ago that naively thought that the power of evil was “just there” and could be ignored.

Jesus came to cast out the demons, yesterday and today, in the centuries past and in our current century. In the text for today, we find out there were two parts to Jesus’ ministry. One was to preach the gospel. And the second was to cast our demons. Jesus sent out his disciples to do the same: to preach the gospel and to cast out demons. In the text for today, the demons ask, “Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus said, “You had better believe it.” I have come to preach the gospel and to destroy the demons.

Jesus then commissioned twelve disciples and they were given two jobs: to preach the gospel and cast out demons.

It is the current year and that job that Jesus gave the church has not changed. That is the mission of our congregation as well and the mission of all who are called to be Christians. We are to preach the gospel and cast out demons. That is the mission of the church and our congregation, to work for the elimination and control of the power of evil in our midst.

Immediately following the sermon for today, we will sing a hymn that reflects this mission. “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus, going on before. At the signs of triumph, Satan’s legions flee, on then Christian soldiers, on to victory. Hell’s foundations quiver at the shouts of praise, brothers with your voices, loud the anthems raise.” The whole mood of that hymn grows out of the awareness we are locked in battle with demonic forces that exist in our world today. If you are not in a warfare with the demonic, you are contributing to the problem.

Well, what do we do? What does one do with this rising sense of violence that is gripping our society and our homes? Where do we as individual Christians and as responsible members of a Christian community, start? What do we do when Jesus says that we are to preach the gospel and cast our demons?

Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of monumental evil around us. We then sometimes capitulate, withdraw from combat, run away and try to find a safe place for me and my family, away from the evil around us and in us.

I would like to suggest three alternatives for us to consider.

The first is that we continue to be agents of conversion. That we ourselves are more fully converted to Jesus Christ. That we are the ambassadors where unchurched people become more fully committed to Christ. Where the peace and patience and power of Jesus Christ rule inside your life and mine.

A genuine Christian person is not, by definition, a violent person. A person who has Christ living inside of them does not strike, physically harm or maim other people. A person who is a genuine person in Christ does not verbally or emotionally abuse or harm other people. A human soul is like the land: it is either ruled by Christ or ruled by Satan. It is ruled by love and kindness or ruled by violence and hate. You cannot have it both ways.  At the heart of the church is to be ambassadors to help people’s lives to be converted to Jesus Christ.

At the heart of violence is for people’s hearts to be converted to Jesus Christ and his way of loving. That will always be the mission of the church.

Secondly, I would like to suggest another mission and that is to strengthen the family structure. To reaffirm what it means to be effective mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters. That we help each other to be loving families. To reaffirm our Christian family structure is very important to me.

It seems to me that the strongest resource and asset of Grace Lutheran Church are its strong families. We should be reaching out to hurting families who are caught in the edge and the web of domestic violence. We need to reach out to hurting people who are being beat up within their families and are having to call DAWN or other helpful agencies to escape the hell in which they are found. We need to be reaching out to families which are at risk and are being drawn into a web of violence.

I have been pleased to be in conversation with two members of our congregation recently who have taken in members of their family or friends who were being beaten up by some abusive husband. These two families in our church went the extra mile and they brought these more crippled families into their homes at economic and personal hardship. We need to affirm and support such families.

We need to more clearly identify with our Child Care Center and with the families at risk who are part of our Child Care Center. Until our Child Care Center began, we did not have periodic visits by the Child Protective Care Services. Because of the Child Care Center and because of the diversity of people who use our day care, now Child Protective Services comes to our day care. Through conversations with Sharon Colello, the director of our Child Care Center, I am keenly aware of the number of their families who are on the edge and into the web of domestic violence.

What I am saying to you is that our congregation needs to be intentional about reaching out to families who are caught in domestic violence, just like we are intentional in ministering to our homeless people, just like we are intentional with our sister church in Haiti, just like we are intentional with the Mexico orphanage, just like we are intentional with so many ministries. As a congregation, we need to be equivalently intentional with families who are caught in the web of domestic violence. We need to find a way to prioritize our energies and be creative and much more helpful in this area of south King County which has the highest rate of domestic violence in the state.

The third area that I believe that we can be effective as we combat the roots of violence within our society and county is to become involved politically. As soon as I use the word, “politics,” from the pulpit, people start to get nervous and wonder what he is going to say now. People do not like preachers to be talking about political activities.

At the heart of so much violence in our culture is related to law. I believe that there are certain laws that need to be dealt with in particular ways. The kind of violence and sexuality that we have allowed into our media is absolutely disgusting. The kinds of violent videos that our kids now watch for their Friday night entertainment. It is very different than it use to be. Violence has become so much more sadistic than it has been in the past. In addition, I believe that handguns are now easily accessible. Our children now have to carry MACE to school. The doors in the schools now have to say “No guns allowed.”

It seems to me that it has come time when the people rise up and say, “This has got to stop.” Especially with the high availability of handguns.

I think another issue on the American scene is that our laws are wired in such a way is to reinforce children to have babies. Children to have two and three and four children and receive government subsidies for it.

We need to look a the laws which allow the degree of poverty in our inner cities. That we as the richest country in the world allow such wretch poverty to go on in our inner cities. That our inner cities are so poor, poorer than many Third World nations, is a great crime against humanity. The primary cause of violence in America is poverty.

And what I would like to suggest to you, not knowing the right answers, that some of the answers have to do with politics and laws. I would hope that responsible Christians would go and work and work in those political activities which reduce the amount of poverty and poverty’s consequence of increased violence.

We need to reduce poverty in our inner cities. We need to reduce the number of handguns available to teenagers. We need to reduce the number of children having babies and receiving government subsidies for it.

Yes, a long time ago, they came to Jesus. The demons said, “Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus looked the demons right in the eye and said, “You had better believe it. I have come to preach the gospel and to cast out demons.” Then Jesus appointed twelve disciples and he looked his twelve disciples in the eye and said, “I have a job for you. You are going to preach the gospel and cast our demons.”

The disciples did and they changed the world. You and I are invited to do the same.

Remember: When you cast out demons, you have to get down at the roots. And when you get down to the root of violence, it is almost always poverty. And it is ALWAYS Satan, the power of evil. You gotta pull it out by its very root and then plant good seeds and a good lawn of healthy relationships.

It took me ten years to clean up the blackberry bushes in my back yard and it will take a lot longer to clean up the violence in America.


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