Sermon for June 6, 2021, Pentecost +2B
Audio is here at my podcast site.
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”— 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.”
The Jesus of most modern Christians should not really upset anyone. Certainly, no one would call him crazy or demon-possessed. No one would want to eliminate him. He seems harmless enough. He teaches compassion and forgiveness; those virtues may not be considered practical, but who could find that objectionable in principle?
But that picture of “holy Jesus, meek and mild” must be inaccurate because, as the Gospels report, people did think he was crazy, demon-possessed, and wanted to kill him. Even the Roman government wanted him dead. His own family tried unsuccessfully to restrain him, whatever that could possibly mean.
But he was popular with the masses. Remember, the masses we are talking about were poor peasants. In a time when there was no cure for infection, when there were no pain relievers, no sanitation, or running water, disease was rampant. Jesus had a reputation for healing, and so became quite popular. So why object to a person with a healing ministry?
Family and Political Conflict
Some have argued that his family was upset that he did not set up a healing center in Nazareth. It could have become a cash cow for the family and the whole village. But Jesus kept moving, so that opportunity was lost. Maybe his family believed that you would have to be crazy to blow that kind of opportunity.
Clearly, Jesus was not afraid to stand up for what he believed was right, even in the face of family opposition. In his culture, the family was everything. But sometimes the family’s interests are outweighed by higher values.
Neither was Jesus afraid of conflict with the political leaders of his day. Mark tells us that scribes from the capital, Jerusalem came to confront Jesus.
Scribes from Jerusalem meant they were part of the Israelite government. They tried to undermine Jesus because he was a threat to them. You will recall that the aristocratic families who were the administrators of King Herod’s government and the chief priests who ran the temple were from the same families.
If Jesus told people that they were forgiven, then why would they need to go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice? If he could cast out their demons, why would they need a priest? In fact, if the people followed Jesus’ example, they might never go to Jerusalem’s temple anymore, in which case the whole power structure collapses.
So Jesus first dealt with the ruling class. They had accused him of performing exorcisms by the power of the devil. He made the case that if the devil is casting out the devil, he is self-defeated.
Rather, the devil is like a strong man. Jesus’ exorcism ministry is like tying him up. Once he is tied up, you can rob his house.
That’s an odd metaphor, but if the strong-man devil is holding people captive, maybe robing his house means setting the captives free. Setting people free from captivity, whether to the spiritual forces of evil or the oppressive forces of the palace-temple system was exactly what Jesus was doing.
Next, Jesus dealt with his family. Family obligations were paramount in his culture. How was it that he was not helping his family first?
For Jesus, family obligations went wider than blood relations. “Who is my family,” Jesus asked? Everyone who wants to be. If you are trying to obey God — remember the two commands important to Jesus are love God and love neighbor — then you are part of my family, and I’m obligated to you. Maybe my flesh-and-blood family don’t like it, but God does.
Let us take a step back from the details for a look at the larger picture. This text is about conflict. Jesus had conflicts. He had detractors. He had enemies. He made people angry. He did not go looking for trouble, but he got into trouble.
The sources of the conflicts were religious, political, and familial. These were also the sources of conflict in the early Christian communities. Religiously, they believed Jesus was Messiah, so if their Jewish community rejected that idea, there would be conflicts. In the decades after Jesus walked the earth, the Christians were eventually kicked out of the synagogues and persecuted.
Politically, early Christians would not swear the Roman loyalty oath. They refused to say “Caesar is Lord,” and so they were suspected of treason and were liable to be punished for it. And as for family conflicts, trust in Jesus as Messiah did split families.
What would happen if all three sources of conflict were wrapped up together? What if the political leadership was supported by the religious leadership, and they were members of your family?
Christian (sic) Nationalism
That may be happening today. There is a movement both here and in Europe in which identifies Christianity with the nation.
Christian nationalism, as it is called, whether in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, or America only differs in how their enemy is defined. In Europe the enemy is mainly Islam and Muslims.
In America the enemies are people of color. But in both Europe and America, the quest of the Christian nationalist is to make the family, that is, the white people in the nation, the sole protectors of “the Christian way of life,” at least as they define it. And across Europe, many Christian leaders, including some in the Reformed Church, give their support to anti-democratic governments in the name of Christian nationalism.
There is unmistakable racism involved in these movements. In Europe, the anti-Muslim rhetoric sometimes is coupled with anti-semitic rhetoric, within earshot of holocaust sites.
The quest of the Christian nationalists is to return the country to its supposedly former pristine state before all the people from other nations and races came in, whether Muslim or Jew.
The same is true in America. In a quest to keep America white, nationalists, in the name of Christianity, have burned crosses, dawned white robes and hoods with crosses on them, and carried signs with Christian symbols as they attack non-whites. They cry “blood” (meaning family) and “soil” (meaning the white nation) and make stiff-armed salutes, intentionally evoking memories we thought were too horrible to imagine repeating.
Unbelievable History (known future)
We have been reminded this past week about the extent to which white people have gone in this demonic quest for supremacy. One hundred years ago, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was demolished and the black residents attacked, and hundreds killed.
This was not an isolated incident. Researchers from the Equal Justice Initiative, headed by Bryan Stevenson have documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.
The Tulsa massacre was preceded here in Arkansas by the Elaine massacre of 1919 and succeeded by the Catcher, massacre of 1923. Charlottesville was only three years ago.
According to Christianity Today magazine, Christian nationalism
“is taking the name of Christ as a fig leaf to cover its political program, treating the message of Jesus as a tool of political propaganda and the church as the handmaiden and cheerleader of the state.”
It also points out that
“Christian nationalism is an ideology held overwhelmingly by white Americans, and it thus tends to exacerbate racial and ethnic cleavages.”
No one knows what will happen in the future. Tulsa was unimaginable, but it happened. The Holocaust was unimaginable, but it happened. This is meant to be a call to us to stay awake and to stay true to our deepest commitments.
Family and nation are precious gifts that we celebrate and love, but they do not claim our highest loyalty. Like Jesus, we are willing to face pushback, even conflict, when family, nation, and religion coalesce with exclusivist agendas.
Christianity can never be legitimately pressed into the service of any national agenda, not American, not Hungarian, not Czech, or any other nation.
If that is what is coming, we will be ready for it. We will keep telling the true Jesus stories and keep loving the God of Love, whom Jesus taught us to love, even if it gets people upset.