Sunday, June 7, 2015

Whose Side Are You On?

June 7, 2015 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Sometimes, when we’re watching television or a movie together, my kids want to know who the bad guy is. In their shows, it’s usually pretty clear. Villains have names like the Wicked Witch or Cruella de Vil. They wear scary, evil-looking masks, or they cackle wildly to let their juvenile audiences know whose side they are on. But how do you explain to a kid whether the Hulk is good or bad? What about Wolverine? And, God forbid you watch any of these shows with your children, but what about Hannibal Lector or Frank Underwood or Walter White? The same is true in real life, too. Sometimes people are on our side even when they’re allegiances are suspect. Consider, for example, the politics of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. The last five years have basically turned the old phrase on its head and demonstrated that, if you’re not against us, you’re with us. 

Actually, more often than not, it’s convenient to straddle the moral fence. In business, people who always say “yes” to their boss are seen as pushovers who get taken advantage of by their coworkers. The same is true in friendships. I don’t want to be too nice—then everyone will ask me to help him move. And, for most of us, the same is true of our faith. God forbid anyone mistake us for an über-Christian. No one likes a Goody Two-Shoes—even in the Bible Belt. We’re not zealots; we’re Episcopalians! If anyone is going to let religion stand in the way of decorum and good manners, it is not we. But today’s gospel leaves no room for the middle road of polite society if polite society interferes with God’s kingdom.

Like many bible stories, this passage from Mark includes some good guys and some bad guys. The good guys are Jesus and his disciples. They’re so busy preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing those who are sick and casing out the demons of those who are possessed that they don’t even have time to eat. And there are also the bad guys—the scribes, the religious authorities who don’t like what Jesus and his disciples are doing. In Mark 2, Jesus heals a paralytic lowered down through a roof by his friends, but first he declares that that man’s sins are forgiven—blasphemy in the ears of the scribes. He calls Levi, the tax collector, to be his disciple and spends time eating dinner with sinners like him—unthinkable in the minds of the Pharisees. Jesus encourages his disciples not to fast even when it is time to fast. He lets them pluck heads of grain on Sabbath even though it is forbidden. Finally, in a dramatic Sabbath showdown with the authorities, Jesus heals the withered hand of a man in a synagogue, and, from that moment on, the Jewish leaders sought to have Jesus arrested and killed.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that they were trying to stir up trouble as Jesus’ popularity soared. “This man has Beelzebul!” they cried out. “It is by the power of Satan that he casts out Satan. He is no holy man! Have you seen how he breaks the Law of Moses and lets his disciples run wild? His power doesn’t come from above. It comes from Satan himself!” You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to know who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story. Even a casual reader of scripture knows that the gospel tells of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day.

But that’s not really the interesting part of this passage, is it? That isn’t the part that catches our ears. What do we want to know about? What part grabs your attention? It’s Jesus’ family, isn’t it? What about them? What part do they play in the story?

The way Jesus treats them is startling, isn’t it? “Jesus!” the crowd calls to him. “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside, looking for you. Don’t you want to go and see them?” “What family are you talking about?” Jesus replied. “Here, these people who are here with me now, these are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God—they are my family.”

Blood might be thicker than water, but it still doesn’t count for anything in the kingdom of God. Consider for a moment how much more important family was back then. In that culture, in that context, families stayed together no matter what. Since Joseph is not mentioned after Jesus’ childhood, Jesus’ mother—the one who risked everything to bring God’s Son into the world—would have depended upon her son to support her in her widowhood. And, as a dutiful, faithful man, he owed it to her and to his faith to take care of her. Their relationship was all she had, but, to Jesus, it seems to mean nothing. “Who is my mother?” he asks. “Here is my mother. Here are my brothers. Those people out there? I don’t know who you’re talking about. The only relationships that matter are those that are built for the kingdom of God.”

But, as shocking and unsettling as that is, I think this passage is even sharper than that. Notice what it was that brought Jesus’ family out to look for him. “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” They were worried about him. Jesus was acting crazy. He was so passionate in his preaching—so zealous in his ministry—that he refused to stop even to eat. And some of the people thought he might have lost his mind. “Go out and get him,” they said to his family. “He will listen to you. He’s a good man and a good preacher, but the sun is hot, and he’s tired, and he’s starting to say some crazy things. It would be better if you went out and brought him back inside.” So that’s what they went out to do—to save Jesus from himself. But whose side were they really on? Looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers—those who do the will of God—not those people out there. If they will not stand in support of God’s kingdom, I will have nothing to do with them.”

Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters meant well, but meaning well isn’t good enough for God’s kingdom. Jesus says some pretty radical things—like “love your enemies” and “give everything you have to the poor” and “turn the other cheek” and “if you want to save your life, you must lose it” and “I came not to save the righteous but to rescue the lost.” Teachings like those made the religious authorities uncomfortable, and, if those things make you uncomfortable, too, that’s a good thing. They’re supposed to. It means you’re getting it. It means you’re hearing the sharp, unsettling message of the gospel. But, if you’re so uncomfortable with Jesus’ radical political, social, and economic description of God’s kingdom that you’d rather him go inside for a while and give you a break, you cannot be a part of him or his family. You’re either with him, or you’re against him. If you’re not all in, don’t bother. If you can’t commit to the kingdom with everything you have, you might as well skip it altogether. Meaning well doesn’t cut it. Only those who do the will of God can be a part of the kingdom family.

In our culture, it’s easy to be a Christian…on the outside. Wear a cross necklace. Show up in church every once in a while. Talk to your friends about the latest devotional you read. Hang religious art in your house. Put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper magnet on your car. And find a convenient time in mixed company to complain about how our nation has lost its Christian identity. But is any of that what Jesus means by doing the will of God, or is that the kind of well-meaning that actually stands in the way of the kingdom? Being a Christian is not like going to Morrison’s Cafeteria. You can’t just take what you want and leave the rest behind. It’s all or nothing.
So whose side are you on? Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” Those who do the will of God—that’s who. And what does it mean to do the will of God? To let nothing stand in the way of God’s love. To let God’s love be the most important thing in your life—more than your job, more than your friends, more than your family, more than your church, even more than your life itself. Easy enough, right? The good news is that you already have everything you need to do it because God has already loved you in that way. His love for you is full and total and complete, and his love is all you need. All you have to do is get out of the way and let that love take over.

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