Monday, June 7, 2021

Trying to Stop God

 

June 6, 2021 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner


Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon beginning around 18:00.

If you got word that your grown-up child was in trouble, what kind of trouble would it be that would make you go and get that child to save them from themselves? Not what would make you want to go and rescue your child. Parents of children from 2 to 52 often feel that protective instinct. I mean what kind of trouble would it take for you to actually get up and go after your grown child in order to save them? Legal trouble? Marital trouble? Financial trouble? A trip to the hospital? A trip to jail?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ family comes to save him from himself. Back at home in Nazareth, they’ve heard what kind of trouble he’d been getting up to. It started as a few whispers accompanied by concerned looks, but it quickly got worse. People were beginning to talk openly about that firebrand rabbi. “He’s lost his mind,” they said, “a good boy like that, causing all that trouble.” Friends with connections throughout the region had told Jesus’ family that he had been saying and doing some really controversial stuff. He had managed to enrage the local authorities more than once, and those friends had heard that they had even sent for the religious leaders down in Jerusalem. If they got ahold of him first, it might be too late. Mary and her family had better hurry down to Capernaum, where Jesus and his followers were camped out. If they went quickly, they might be able to stop him before it really got out of hand—before the real trouble started.

But they didn’t make it in time. When the religious officials from the capital city arrived in Capernaum, they pronounced their official judgment upon Jesus: “He has Beelzelbul, and by the ruler of demons he cast out demons.” That’s a strong accusation—not merely that Jesus was making outlandish claims but that Satan himself was operating through this controversial rabbi. By the time a theological disputation devolves into calling one’s opponent an agent of Satan, there really isn’t much room left for dialogue. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had labeled him a prince of the devil, which meant that anything he did or said was automatically evil and that any claim he made about God was tantamount to blasphemy and worthy of execution by stoning. For most preachers in any tradition, that’s not a recipe for vocational advancement.

So what was it that Jesus did and said that got him in so much trouble? Why were the local and national religious leaders determined to sabotage his ministry? In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus gets himself in trouble right from the very beginning. As soon as he was baptized, he was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness, where he was confronted by Satan. When he got back into town, he found that Satan was waiting for him there as well. After calling a few disciples, Jesus’ first two miracles were to cast out a demon in a synagogue on the sabbath and the next day heal a leper, daring to touch the man in order to make him clean. Quickly, the compassionate rabbi, who was willing to flaunt the established rules, made a name for himself throughout the region. 

Then, Jesus healed a paralytic man, but, before he did, he pronounced that the man’s sins had been forgiven—a claim that was likened by some to blasphemy. He followed that up by spending time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, which only made the religious community more upset. Then, at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus again entered a synagogue on the sabbath, but this time the authorities were watching to see what he would do. When a man with a withered hand came to him in order to be healed, Jesus turned their own expectations back on them, asking, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath—to save life or kill?” But, when the authorities refused to answer his question, he was grieved at their hardness of heart and healed the man anyway. From that moment on, Mark tells us, the authorities went out and conspired to destroy him.

That’s more or less where today’s gospel lesson picks up—with reports of that meddlesome behavior reaching both his family and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, both of whom come to find him. One group comes to stop him before he gets into even more trouble, and the other comes to bring the full weight of that trouble upon him. And Mark sandwiches those two pursuits together into one episode to help us understand that, whether we’re coming to save Jesus from himself or coming to label him as an agent of Satan, we’re guilty of the same thing. We can’t stand in the way of the gospel’s work without standing in the way of God. A house divided against itself, Jesus tells us, cannot stand.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s important work. People who confront institutions of power are always vilified in the most extreme terms. When religious institutions are challenged, the challengers are called demonic. When economic institutions are challenged, they are called communist. When national institutions are challenged, they are called unpatriotic. When familial institutions are challenged, they are called traitorous. And labels like that make it hard to get anywhere in this world. It’s hard to get a job or a friend or a spouse or a loan or a or a pulpit if people who matter in this world have called you evil. 

And if my child was doing or saying something that brought heat like that upon them, I would want to get up and run after them and grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. I’d want to pick them up and put them in the back seat of my car and race away from danger. Wouldn’t all of us want to restrain our loved one before something bad happened to them? But what happens if that person we love is under fire because they are standing on the side of justice? What is the right thing to do if that person we are so worried about has put their life on the line for the sake of the gospel?

Jesus came to love those whom the world knew to be unlovable. He told sinners that they were forgiven. He invited outcasts to sit at his table. He gave healing and wholeness to those whom the religious traditions had been unable to help. And, when he did all of that, the people who had been in charge of the religious rules for generations were furious. They were angry enough to conspire in order to have him killed. And all Mary and her family wanted to do was rescue him and take him away from all of that.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked when told that his family was standing outside. “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ work was to make sure that everyone had a place in God’s family. And those of us who are committed to that work discover that our true home—our true family—is the one we have in Jesus Christ. 

We belong to a God who loves us not because we’re good enough, religious enough, or holy enough. We belong to a God who loves us just because. Believing that—believing that all people matter to God not because of what they have or think or say or do, where they’re from, or who they love—is threatening to those people and institutions that for generations have been in control of who gets a seat at the table. To some, it is even so threatening that they would respond by trying to kill those who talk about God and the world like that. What will we do in the face of a threat like that? Will we try to restrain the ones we love who face such danger? Or will we ask God to give us the strength to lend our voice and our bodies and our lives to stand with them?


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