June 7, 2015
What on earth has Jesus been up to that his own family suggests he’s out of his mind, and the religious leaders accuse him of being possessed by the devil? It’s only CHAPTER 3 of Mark’s Gospel, after all! Jesus has only just begun his ministry! How can he have gotten everybody so worked up already? In order for us to make sense of today’s Gospel lesson, we need a brief recap of the first couple of chapters in Mark’s Gospel (and let me take this moment to make a blatant commercial for any and all of you to come to Trinity’s library on Thursday evenings at 6:00 p.m., as we are explore the Gospel of Mark this summer).
Back to your regularly scheduled programming …
So far in Mark’s story about Jesus, he’s been baptized, healed some people, preached about the kingdom of God, chosen his disciples, and cast out a few demons—notably one in the middle of the synagogue and in the presence of the scribes who are upset with him in today’s reading. Doesn’t seem like much cause for alarm, does it?
But here’s the thing. Among the disciples Jesus called were a tax collector—so a Jewish person who collects from his countrymen to pay the occupying Roman Empire, while also skimming a bit off the top for himself. And among those healings Jesus has been doing was a man with leprosy, whose disease religious and social customs have determined mark him as unclean and unacceptable. Not to mention that Jesus and his disciples have been doing some of this healing and casting out of demons on the Sabbath, when Jewish law dictates they should not work.
Possibly the worst provocation was the fact that the crowd who watched Jesus the exorcism Jesus did in the synagogue then whispered that Jesus did things “With authority, not the scribes.” That would sting, wouldn’t it? So Jesus been rattling every cage around, making it obvious that the kingdom of God is not like the one they’d all imagined their whole lives long, where good people get in (your own definition of “good” of course), and everyone else is kept out.
The kingdom of heaven as Jesus describes and embodies it is a hospitable community where everyone matters, where all are welcome—which is very different from saying, “Everyone is welcome to join our group, and we will be very patient with you while you learn to think and act just like us, do the activities we enjoy, sing the songs we like, and have the same political and social values we do.” Jesus is deliberately accepting and embracing people as they are, inviting them to be utterly themselves, and offering to help those in need, regardless of who they are, why they need help, or how they ask.
And that disturbs people. It’s enough to prompt the religious leaders to say Jesus is demon-possessed. That is a widely used technique for discrediting someone who is threatening your turf. Think of the town of Salem, MA, during the witch trials in the 17th century, or McCarthy’s anti-communism campaign in the 1950’s. If you were angry or jealous of a neighbor, the worst thing you could do was point the finger and say, “He’s a witch!” or “She’s one of them commie-pinkos!” Because what happened next was kangaroo courts, shunning, and—in the worst cases—execution. Fear and insecurity can make people do horrible things to one another. Although it’s popular, the blame game is one that no one ever wins.
This phenomenon is apparent as far back as today’s story from Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve’s insecurity and fear. Adam and Eve have fallen prey to the tempter’s suggestion that they don’t need God, but can know good and evil (a short hand way of saying that they can know all things) on their own. So they take matters into their own hands, only to discover that severing ties with God has not helped them much. In fact, their insecurity has only multiplied, so that now they are defining themselves over and against each other. Now they find themselves alienated from God, each other, creation, and even themselves. Fear has turned them mean and lonely.
A similar dynamic playing out in Mark’s Gospel reading. Here all these different folk – the crowds, the religious authorities, even Jesus’ own family – are trying to keep their own insecurity at bay by doing what we often do—creating and enforcing rules not for how helpful they are to our neighbors, but for how they help us to define ourselves. Not to mention how handy they are as a standard against which judge our neighbors. Those who don’t conform are called rebels, or radicals, or unnatural, or immoral. That is what’s happening to Jesus.
And, frankly, that is still what happens to those who follow him. Because the love of God we see revealed in Jesus knows no boundaries and respects no laws that would keep that love from being shared with and by everyone. Maybe the question isn’t “Why is Jesus getting so much flack in today’s reading?” as much as it is, “Why aren’t we getting more flack?” Why aren’t we pushing the boundaries of what’s socially and religiously acceptable in order to reach more folks with the always surprising, often upsetting, unimaginably gracious, and ridiculously inclusive love of Jesus? And if that is the kind of love we want to offer, how are we communicating that message in word and deed loudly and clearly, both inside our doors and outside of them? If anything is being made clear in this story from Mark, it is that the family of God is bigger and more inclusive than our biological ones, or even our congregational ones.
I know that many of us have been wringing our hands about the recent Pew Research Study’s finding that mainline Protestantism is shrinking. And many of us have been worried specifically about Trinity’s declining numbers. We may want to point fingers of blame in various directions. But in fact, it might be that Jesus’ kingdom is breaking in once again in a totally new way, that Jesus is pointing to a totally different collection of people and saying, “These are my mother and my brothers.” Maybe once again God is circumventing the expected people and pathways, even breaking our sacred rules in the process. As my friend Garrett says, “Maybe it’s time to stop researching the pews that are increasingly empty and start researching the places where God is present.”
The truth is that despite shrinking congregational membership numbers, the kingdom Jesus described and embodied is NOT dying. I offer as Exhibit A this remarkable statistic: every day in the U.S. 2% of the American population receives assistance and services from institutions founded by Lutherans. That’s roughly 6-7 million people who are being helped by Lutheran Social Ministry Operations—like Lutheran Social Services, or Lutheran Disaster Relief, or World Hunger Relief—every single day! (And this is only Lutherans – imagine how that number multiplies when you add other Christian traditions and organizations into the mix!) While congregational numbers are slipping (and therefore the pool of pockets from which the money comes is shrinking), these social ministries are GROWING!
For me, one of the most moving parts of our synod assembly last weekend was learning that the ELCA’s campaign to stamp out malaria has raised $14 million in the past _ years. From a church with membership numbers going down, our giving to worldwide ministries is booming! This is what I mean when I suggest that the kingdom of God might be coming in by a different door than the front door of a church building. It may be that the future of the church won’t look like the history of the church, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a future. It just means that God is doing something new and unexpected. And when we embrace and participate in God’s new way of working in the world, people might think we are crazy.
Maybe Trinity’s way of partnering in the kingdom work is in working with the at-risk teens from Operation Fresh Start or East High. Maybe it’s in our connection with the Canopy Center’s efforts to prevent child abuse or the Road Home’s work to provide housing for homeless families. Perhaps we’ll never again have a 40 voice choir touring Europe or Sunday school rooms overflowing with children, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing God’s work. That doesn’t mean Trinity is dying or that Christianity is now passe. It just means that God is at work in unexpected places using unexpected methods and people. Like maybe us and maybe people we never imagined as family members
Just this week, because of another generous gift to Trinity’s Needy Fund, we were able to assist 7 different families in crisis, ranging from helping with rent and utility bills to providing medical and legal assistance. These are our mother and our brothers, just as they are Jesus’s mother and brothers. And giving away money instead of sitting on it for a rainy day may be counter-intuitive by a lot of measures, but that’s how the kingdom of God rolls.
So let’s not point fingers. Let’s join hands. Let’s not say those we don’t understand are crazy or wrong. Let’s try to see if what they are doing comes from love. Because if an action is from God, from the Holy Spirit rather than demonic ones, it will be about love. If it casts out fear rather than instilling it, it will be from God. This is how we discern the spirits. And this is how we live as the kingdom of God.