God’s Will

Sunday, June 7
Second Sunday after Pentecost

Focus Theme
God’s Will

Weekly Prayer
God of judgment and mercy, when we hide ourselves in shame, you seek us out in love. Grant us the fullness of your forgiveness, that as one people, united by your grace, we may stand with Christ against the powers of evil. Amen.

Focus Reading
Mark 3:20-35

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” ó for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

All readings for this Sunday
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20 with Psalm 138
Genesis 3:8-15 with Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Focus Questions

1. What meaning does the word “demon” have for us today?

2. What do you think motivated Jesus’ family to visit him?

3. What are the strengths of “family” as an image for the church?

4. What are problems with this image for the church?

5. How do you discern God’s will for your life, and let God guide the choices you make?

Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)

This scene from the early part of Jesus’ ministry, right after he has chosen his twelve apostles, seems almost as chaotic as it must have felt to those gathered around Jesus. It might be helpful to get a sense of how the Gospel of Mark itself feels–it’s no leisurely story with nice, long sermons and extended conversations (think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and the woman at the well in John). The Marcan Jesus is on the move constantly, like a man on a mission with little time to spare and even less patience with people who like to criticize everything he does. We’re only in the third chapter of Mark now, but a quick read of those first chapters is exhausting: Jesus has gone from his hometown to the wilderness to Galilee to the sea to Capernaum to a house to a deserted place and back out to the towns of Galilee (we’re still in the first chapter) and then back to Capernaum and home, and then to the sea, and to Levi’s house, though the grain fields and to the synagogue, and then back to the sea, into a boat, before heading up the mountain where he gathered those twelve apostles around him, and then, finally, he went home.

Imagine all this travel with desperate crowds around him (people “from every quarter,” 1:45), clinging to him, begging for healing, begging to be released from the demons that had hold of them, and then picture a group of carping critics picking at everything he did–breaking the rules about healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and not fasting as they should. In other words, finding it more lawful to meet human need than to let human suffering go on unnecessarily: Jesus understood the heart of God’s Law.

Of course, we can understand that the crowds couldn’t help themselves: who among us would not do whatever it took to get our sick child, for example, to a healer who was doing the amazing things being attributed to Jesus? Still, it’s poignant to see how Jesus couldn’t even go home and have a meal in peace (a practice with much greater significance in that culture than we allow in our own). In chapter two, people dig through his roof and drop a paralyzed person right next to him, hoping for a cure, and after admiring their faith and handling the criticism of the scribes when he forgives the man’s sins, Jesus tells the man to get up and walk. That healing amazes the crowd, of course, and makes Jesus even more sought-after, but it really gets the attention of the religious powers that be, which explains why they’re back again, all the way from Jerusalem, here in the third chapter, as Jesus tries once more to go into a house for a break from all this activity.

Who are enemies, and who are friends?

The problems with crowd control persist, so much so that Jesus can’t even have supper with his friends, his disciples. But he isn’t surrounded only by people who were willing to admit their brokenness and their need, along with those institutional critics who, we suspect by this time, are looking to find fault with Jesus rather than to affirm the wonderful thing God is doing in him. The growing crowd also includes, of all people, the family of Jesus: his mother and his brothers, who can’t even get inside the house and talk to him face to face.

This is where things begin to get very difficult. We remember that one of the things that Jesus has been doing in his travels, one of the wonders that has drawn the crowds, is driving out demons, that is, exorcism. It’s a challenge to reconcile modern scientific insights and ancient worldviews about conditions that were described as demonic in the world of Mark but are seen as medical conditions today, including epilepsy and mental illness. We would like to dismiss such notions as primitive and even ignorant, and many of us feel more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of exorcism. We don’t know exactly what motivated Jesus’ family to come and get him (and possibly talk some sense into him, as parents are so inclined to do), but John M. Rottman suggests that their concern over his exorcisms might have been a factor. Rottman then notes the embarrassment of modern Christians who “conspire with his family to have Jesus the exorcist put away….locked up between the covers of the New Testament.” With many other commentators, Rottman observes that, in “a world of spiritual dangers” where “evil or something like it is alive and well,” we should continue to renounce evil in our baptismal vows; perhaps we should do so much more often than that. Meanwhile, we read this text, as Nibs Stroupe puts it, “in a world which seeks to cast out both angels and demons.”

Whether or not it was the exorcisms that alarmed them, or concern for his welfare and safety, or worry about too much “publicity” and uproar over one of their own, the family of Jesus–his mother and brothers–make their way through much of the crowd to reach the outside door of the house where Jesus was sitting. Scholars note that even such a small detail is significant: Judith Hoch Wray says that “house” is the “key word” here, and the understanding of who is on the inside and who is on the outside is central to the meaning of this passage. That question, of course, persists in the life of the church, the house that Jesus built, today, and offers plentiful material for our reflections not just on what is going on in this disturbing and intense scene, but in the chaotic world in which we try to live faithfully as well.

Ducks in a row and an out-of-the-box Spirit

Chaos, in fact, is another key word for approaching this text. Jesus is causing more than a scene–he’s risking chaos, disorder, the authorities believe, by challenging established understandings and long-held beliefs about things like the Sabbath, table hospitality, and religious practices. The authorities from Jerusalem are not “bad guys” here: they are no doubt sincere in their belief that they have worked hard, studied long, and prayed fervently for understandings of God’s will that will maintain a measure of order even in violent and brutal times, even under the heel of the latest empire to rule over the people of God. Maybe that’s what makes this text so difficult, so uncomfortable: we may prefer to place ourselves around Jesus at that table, hanging on his every word, but we in the church so often play the role of the authorities who spend more time and energy asserting the rightness of our beliefs and practices (sincerely, very sincerely) rather than opening ourselves to the dynamic, out-of-the-box movement of God’s hand at work in our lives. Just when we think we have things well-organized, orderly, strategically planned and lovingly established, with all our ducks in a row, God comes along and turns things over for a fresh perspective, showing us hidden possibilities and unexpected grace.

I think Jesus must have been tired, really, really tired. He must have been exhausted: not just road-weary and anxious to sleep in his own bed (if indeed he had one) but overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of human suffering that surrounded him. It never ended, it never let up. He was hungry, and he was pressed in by people all around him. We believe that Jesus was fully human as well as fully God, and I suspect that the fully human Jesus would have appreciated some down-time, some quiet, some relief from the stress and the demands of his ministry. And just when he thinks he might sit down and have a little supper and a quiet talk with his friends, here come his mom and his brothers, criticizing him in their own (loving) way, thinking that he has gone over the deep end, lost his marbles, or, as the text says, “gone out of his mind.” If you hear that kind of talk about your son and brother, you have to go fetch him and bring him home for a nice long rest. Actually, “fetch” is too gentle a word: Richard Deibert says that the Greek word used here is “an aggressive Greek verb that can mean ‘seize,’ ‘grab,’ or ‘arrest.'” We’ll hear Mark use it again when the authorities come to arrest Jesus in the garden. Richard Swanson suggests that we at least consider the possibility that Jesus’ family has a point, that his mother knows things we don’t know about Jesus. He delightfully speculates about the mild-mannered, Presbyterian minister who spoke quietly and gently at all times on his children’s program: “My guess is that Fred Rogers’s mother (who knitted his cardigans) never worried that her son had lost his mind.” And so, as Charles Cousar puts it, the family of Jesus decides to do an “intervention.”

Mother, you’re not being helpful

Jesus, of course, did not find the concern of his mother and brothers helpful. Still, his family’s assessment is downright charitable compared to the scribes’ opinion that all of these amazing things, these healings and exorcisms (and we haven’t gotten to loaves multiplying or seas calming yet)–things that anyone with any sense would recognize as good things, are actually rooted in, springing from, evil itself, drawing on the power of Beelzebul, or Satan. How frustrating must that be for Jesus? Wouldn’t he have a right to expect the religious experts, the ones who ought to know better, to “have his back” on this? Shouldn’t the leaders of the people care about the people’s welfare, their need, their suffering, their healing? Imagine, for example, a truly compassionate, gifted pastor trying to tend to the needs of her flock and the ministry of those beyond the walls of the church, all the while being picked at and undercut by, of all people, leaders of her own church who make judgmental and discouraging comments (often, as we know, out in the parking lot rather than face to face). That’s what I picture happening at this crowded little meal, with the crowd noisily pressing on the door outside: Jesus, tired and hungry and stressed, being pushed to his limit by judgmental, mean-spirited, small-minded and insecure religious experts. The grace of God might just be too powerful, too amazing, for too many of us.

Is that what Jesus is talking about when he says that disturbing thing about the one and only sin that won’t be forgiven? Year ago, I heard someone say that the only people who go to hell are the ones who choose to go there, who choose to spend eternity apart from God, who choose everything that is not-God. It was only logical, after all: if you really hate the things of God, why would you choose to spend eternity with God? An interesting way to put it, and some of the scholars approach this disturbing text in a similar way, I think: Lamar Williamson, Jr. is most helpful when he calls the sin against the Holy Spirit “unforgivable because it rejects the very agent of God’s healing and forgiveness,” and anyone who worries about it is, in a sense, logically, innocent of it. “Only those who set themselves against forgiveness,” he writes, “are excluded from it.” And Charles Cousar contrasts the fixed position of the scribes, with the humbler, more open attitude of those who know they are broken and in need of forgiveness, for the religious experts’ “certitude is born neither of weakness nor of honest seeking. Since they leave no opening for God, they cannot conceive of being mistaken in their judgment.” Scholars seem to agree that the great sin here was the failure to see goodness for what it is, and evil for what it is, and to recognize, to acknowledge the difference. No wonder Jesus was angry. And yet what may be missed is the remarkable expansiveness of God’s mercy that Jesus describes in that verse 28, about all sins being forgiven.

The truest of family values

Still, that is only one half of what may trouble our hearts as we read this story from Mark’s Gospel. We may also wonder how Jesus could dismiss so summarily the very people who had loved him all of his life, who raised and nurtured him (in the faith as well as providing his physical needs and safety), who could very well be outside the door because of their concern and love, not just out of embarrassment or doubt in what he was about. In that culture and time, even more than in our own, with our “family values” narrative so worn-out in the political arena today, family was central to one’s identity and security. Family was what determined who you are.

Ironically, we might jump too quickly to dismiss the family, because of Jesus’ words, and misunderstand or disrespect the strength of this fabric that held the people of Israel together. Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson offer a note of caution: “Jewish families have shown remarkable capacity to sustain identity and witness for more than three millennia. In today’s world of dysfunctional relationships,” then, we should “commend such families as models of tenacious love and justice characteristic of God’s realm.” Nibs Stroupe reminds us that in John’s Gospel, Jesus, as he is dying, shows tender concern about his mother’s welfare; he is not, Stroupe says, “antifamily and individualistic.” However, a careful reading of Mark’s Gospel (without any birth/infancy narrative) shows that the writer of the earliest Gospel does not emphasize the family of Jesus; GÈrald Caron writes, “In all likelihood, MarkÖdid not know of any positive traditions about the family of Jesus!” (One more example of how enlightening it is to read the entire Gospel of Mark at one sitting.)

Will we choose God’s will, or not?

Perhaps one way to approach this difficult moment in the life and ministry of Jesus is to point to its ultimate significance: will we choose God’s will, or not? Even the blessing of family can be an obstacle to faithfulness if we create an idol, a fixed, immutable “god” of one way of living, one source of life and strength and identity, instead of recognizing the ground of all being, the source of all life, the identity we share as children of God. I once saw a news story about the very high percentage of people who live alone in the United States, and I remembered this text. Where is the “family” that matters so much in their lives? Actually, “family” can be a most flexible concept, as we see in the reality of “family of choice” that gay and lesbian people gather around themselves when their birth families, alas, reject them. By doing so, they re-identify, re-frame, the experience of family, rather than denying its importance or their need for it. Just about everyone recognizes the need to be part of something larger than themselves that is loving, sheltering, and good. But it can also be challenging, it can invite us to newness and maybe even unnerve us at times. (Think about what a first baby does to new parents, for example.) Families can prompt us, teach us, to do things we never thought we could do, and while offering us a center of gravity, also propel us outward to be of service to the world beyond. Isn’t that true of the family of church, the “house” that Jesus fashions from the unlikeliest of members, the sinners, rejects, tax collectors, the sick, the formerly-demon-possessed-but-now-freed people who hungrily, gratefully followed him on those travels?

Today, these words of Jesus push against our nice little images of families as self-contained units of consumption busily pursuing an exhausting schedule of activities that, ironically, keep us too busy to connect with one another inside the household or, even less, to other households around us. Ira Brent Driggers astutely observes that “Jesus will not settle for isolated family units coming and going on Sunday morning,” for “God pulls us out of our self-interested households, giving us the means of growing in faith and love through the gift of brothers and sisters we would have otherwise ignored.”

Re-framing family for the house that Jesus built

Clearly, Jesus redefines family. He doesn’t reject the institution of family, and he doesn’t reject his own family. He just opens us the meaning of family, expands it, re-frames it. In this new and improved way of experiencing family, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious expert or a perfect person. It doesn’t matter who your mother or father is, or what you’ve done in the past. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, gay or straight, old or young, rich or poor, perfectly able-bodied or not (most of us are not), one race or ethnic group or another. As Wendy Farley tells the story, “Looking around him at the crowd of misfits, crazies, and his relentlessly undiscerning disciples he says, ‘This is my family!’ÖIt is just the diverse mess of humanity, with all of its moral, physical, spiritual beauty and imperfection.” The experts are not rejected or excluded, but they do fail to open their eyes and hearts to what Jesus is saying and doing, and they are gravely mistaken when they fail to see goodness right before their eyes. They draw a line in the wrong place, and stay on the outside of the circle of grace–a circle they have drawn themselves.

Which side of that line are we on? Don E. Saliers brings us back, in a way, to the theme of demons when he calls our “self-absorption” a kind of captivity from which Jesus frees us. “Jesus comes to dedemonize us,” he writes, and the gospel calls us to “weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It asks us to live into the densities of human joy and suffering.” And Nibs Stroupe reminds us that demons still hold us captive whenever the powers of racism, materialism, patriarchy and militarism rule our individual and collective lives. My colleague, Susan Blain, puts all of this so succinctly in the Assurance of Pardon in the Worship Ways resource for this Second Sunday after Pentecost: “In Christ,” she writes, “we are forgiven all our failed efforts at community, and invited afresh to rejoin the family of God, seeking blessing for all.” Amen!

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_7_2015.

For further reflection

Brom, 21st century
“Men who fear demons see demons everywhere.”

Jay McInerney, 21st century
“The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families.”

Erma Bombeck, 20th century
“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.”

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

Trenton Lee Stewart, 21st century
“You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.”

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, 20th century
“Where there is prayer, the fallen spirits have no power.”

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