Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Some days I can’t decide if I’m Statler or Waldorf.

You know Statler and Waldorf, two old guys in the balcony, complaining about The Muppet Show? And while they may not find the show very entertaining, they have no trouble entertaining each other:

WALDORF: They aren’t half bad.
STATLER: Nope, they’re ALL bad!

Maybe it’s a product of entering late-middle-age—complaining about what the kids are doing, saying ‘back in my day’ far too often, or appearing shocked and appalled when someone doesn’t know about 8-track tapes or the leisure suit.

Or maybe it’s just fun to complain. It would be ironic to complain that more people don’t know about Eric Berne’s 1964 classic “Games People Play,” and my favourite game which Dr. Berne calls “Ain’t it Awful.” The ‘game’ is how people try to outdo each other with examples of what’s wrong with the world without ever engaging in a meaningful conversation.

‘Ain’t it Awful’ could be the theme of half the conversations we have in the wider-church. It’s at presbytery and conference that the real Statler and Waldorfs emerge, with everyone complaining about everyone else and no one enjoying the meeting. Actually, the parallel between the wider-church and the Muppets is a good one: like Statler and Waldorf, everyone who is complaining is part of the show, making it a case of ‘you’re really complaining about yourself.’

Like a story within a story. The Muppet Show is a classic example of this—a story about presenting a story, with the narrative switching back and forth between the presentation of the story and the story of how the story is being presented. A bit like the Wizard of Oz, which is, in fact, and story about about a story within a story. Or for Simpsons fans, “Itchy and Scratchy” a cartoon being watched my cartoon characters.

You will not lack for things to ponder this afternoon, or perhaps you will try to forget the whole thing. Just now you heard a preacher comment on his sermon within his sermon, and this commentary, by extension, is the comment on the comment within the sermon, which is clearly going too far. And when we’ve gone too far, the only logical thing to do is look at the Bible.

The passage we heard from Mark 5 presents a story within a story. It’s the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter interrupted by the story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman. The entire narrative begins in a boat, when landing, is met by a great crowd. A leader named Jairus falls at Jesus feet and begs that the Lord heal his daughter, now at the point of death. ‘If you lay your hands on her,’ he says, ‘she will be made well.’

Proceeding toward Jairus’ home, a woman who had suffered with a constant issue of blood—for twelve years—came up behind Jesus and touched his cloak. She had convinced herself that if she should merely touch his clothes, she would be made well. Her faith was rewarded, the bleeding stopped, and then something nearly as extraordinary happened: Jesus said, ‘who touched me?’

The fools of this story in a story—the disciples—answer ‘don’t you see the crowd pressing in? And yet you ask who touched you?’ But turning, Jesus knew. And knowing he knew, she fell before him and said ‘when you touched me, your faith made you well. Go in peace.’

But the interruption is interrupted by friends of Jairus. Arriving from Jairus’s house, they report the girl as died, and insist Jairus trouble the Master no more. On hearing this, Jesus speaks (yes, he interrupts the interruption to the interruption) these words: ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ Moving to Jairus’ house, Jesus tells them to stop weeping. ‘The child is not dead,’ he says, ‘only sleeping.’

This, of course, is met with derision. Jesus clears the house, and taking the parents of this small girl, they head inside. He took her hand and said, ‘Little girl, get up!’ At this, she got up, and began to walk about. He ordered them to tell no one, ‘and them told them to give her something to eat.’

I think the last line is the my favourite part of the outer story: raising the dead, then reminding the utterly astonished parents that she might be hungry. The Bread of Life reminds the parents of the newly living to give the girl bread. She might even ask my favourite line from the inner story: ‘who touched me,’ or who took my hand and made me well?

Scholars have two names for this story within a story, one you are not expected to remember (intercalation) and one you may still be thinking about at lunch: called ‘the Markan sandwich.’ Yes, biblical scholars can be that fun. Throughout Mark there are examples of ‘the Markan sandwich,’ stories within stories, Mark interrupting himself to somehow make a point. Here at three:

We heard one three weeks ago: 1. Jesus’ family are looking for him, 2. Jesus tells the leaders that a house divided cannot stand, 3. and his family are still looking for him. Or 1. Cursing the fig tree, 2. Cleansing the temple, and 3. explaining why he cursed the fig tree. And of course, 1. Jairus’ daughter, 2. the woman with an issue of blood, and 3. Jairus’ daughter.

Like the parables of Jesus, Mark has added these sandwiches to challenge us, to make us think, to stir things up. And we’re not even sure why. The stories are powerful enough on their own, but Mark says, ‘wait, there’s more.’ Look deeper, compare and contrast, find what’s hidden in plain sight when I interrupt a healing with a healing.

Does it intensify the experience for the reader? Does the interruption explain something we might not otherwise see? Let’s take that as our working theory—that Mark wants us to see something we might not otherwise see, and look again.

The theme of both stories is ‘your faith has made you well.’ Jesus says it to the poor woman in the centre of the story and Jairus says it to Jesus at the beginning of the passage (“Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well.”) Belief in Jesus as the power of God made these people well: A girl of twelve and a woman with an illness for the same twelve years. We don’t even have time to explore that one.

But now some caution. From the time of the early church we have lived with the mystery of this statement “your faith has made you well.” It has been the focus of prayer in the face of illness since the time Jesus spoke these words. Now, we could say ‘the healing power of God concluded with the earthly ministry of Jesus,’ and further that faith and wellness are more spiritual themes rather than a potential reality. We could.

But that doesn’t match the experience of countless believers. Many have prayed and some have been healed, in the great mystery of a life of faith. Now, some will say that makes God unfair—or negligent—or even non-existent, and to them we say ‘let God be God.’ Having faith does not offer you protection from harm nor does it guarantee that your prayers will be answered (in the affirmative).

Instead, we live within the mystery and the tension of a God we worship but cannot fully comprehend; a God we serve but cannot bribe with our service; and a God that sends what we need when we even don’t know what we need at all. “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Heb 11.1)

And for Jairus, his daughter, and the woman who touched Jesus, faith and hope came together in a moment of grace, a mysterious blessing that wasn’t earned or coerced, but arrived with faith and a simple touch. She touched his cloak and the healing flowed from God in Jesus to this poor woman, and made her well.

In the spirit of the day I want to end my sermon with part of a sermon, one preached on Friday by the President of the United States. President Obama was preaching at the funeral of the Rev. Clem Pinkney, the victim of a terrible crime, a victim along with three colleagues and five members of his church.

His theme was grace, amazing grace, that mysterious blessing that isn’t earned or coerced, but arrives in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. And so we let him speak:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. (Applause.) He has given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves. (Applause.) We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He's once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Of all the lessons on the boat, few are as important as close the windows.

Save one hand for the boat, watch the boom (the most appropriately named part of a sailboat), beware of hypothermia and hyperthermia (overheating)—all these lessons pale in comparison to close the windows.

You see, when we are heeled over, sometimes beyond a 45 degree angle, there is little danger to boat are crew. As skipper reminds us, there is the equivalent of a Volkswagen Beetle hanging beneath the boat, saving us from ending up in the drink—even if we are heeled over to an unnerving degree.

Unless you forget to close the windows. Because if you forget to close the windows, the water that was supposed to lap against the windows of the well-heeled boat will enter the boat and cause it to sink to the bottom. And sinking the boat is both rude to your guests and inconvenient to your insurance provider.

But they learn to manage. Guests swim to shore, I press the ‘distress’ button on my little radio (and choose the menu item ‘some idiot forgot to close the windows’) and in a couple of days the insurance company will dispatch some nice people who will retrieve your boat, dry it out, and give it back to you as quickly as they can.

Except, of course, for that ghost boat. Some years ago, somewhere in Humber Bay, some idiot forgot to close the windows and their boat sank. In this case, it sank so quickly that the sails were still trimmed and the most unusual thing happened: when the salvage people returned to the spot a day or two later, the boat was gone. She sailed away—under water—on the strong currents in Humber Bay and was never seen again. She is still out there if you want a free boat, but you have to catch her.

I’m sure that back in the day, on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and his disciples passed the time doing exactly what we do out on Humber Bay: telling stories. Maybe the story of a Galilean ghost boat because Simon or one of the sons of Zebedee forgot to close the windows. Or the puzzle of the 153 fish, because Jesus said ‘try fishing from the other side.’ Or the narrow misses, weather-wise, on a lake with a reputation for sudden storms and violent waves.

And after a long day of fishing or tending Jesus’ terrestrial flock, after the last story was retold one more time, and after the gentle rocking took it’s toll on a sleepy Lord and Saviour, Jesus slept. If you’ve never tried it, I recommend it. Bunched up sails, the ones that skipper says ought to be promptly folded, make a fine bed. The lapping of the waves have a hypnotic quality, and assuming you don’t get sea-sick, the motion of the waves are a fine sedative.

Of course sailors are the most wind-conscious ones among us. Driving to the club, look for the movement of the trees, or flags, or that solitary windmill that someone though might be a good addition to the CNE grounds. Once on the boat, the study intensifies. You consult the club’s anemometer, or the one on the boat, or a handheld one if you want to know if the wind up there matches the wind down here. Then you study the wind lines in the water. Or the effect the wind is having on the boats at a distance. All these things add up to your wind-consciousness, and may have some bearing on the outcome of the race.

The disciples felt it first: a sudden wind arose. Round lakes like Galilee and Simcoe are more prone to sudden storms, something you will find noted somewhere on the chart. Mark notes that other boats were with them, so there was likely a commotion on the water, shouting caution to each other, as the storm hit each boat in turn. This one was stronger than most, with again Mark taking care to note that the boat was nearly swamped. Even closed windows wouldn’t help in this storm.

Yet Jesus slept. There in the stern, Mark says, resting on a cushion, Mark says, Jesus slept. They couldn’t stand it any longer. “Teacher,” they said, “do you not care that we are perishing?” It seems he did. For he immediately rebuked the wind and stilled the storm. “Peace, be still” were his exact words, and the sea was dead calm.

I’m trying to imagine what what would be more frightening. These sailors, these veterans of a round and violent little lake, would have a healthy fear of wind and weather, but the stillness? What could be more frightening than the stillness? The wind and the waves obey him, and becalm on his command—begging the question ‘what else can he do?’

So frightened, with fear painted on their faces and on the faces of the men in nearby boats, we get the second rebuke: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Okay, Jesus, you’re being a little unfair. I know I risk my own weather event, right here in the pulpit, but you have to agree that Jesus is being a little unfair. Actually, you should reserve judgement, lest a weather event appear for all. For what could be more frightening than an answer to prayer?

You pray for strength and courage, and suddenly you face down your fears.
You pray for a sense of wholeness, and things fall in place.
You pray for healing, and hurts disappear.
You prayer a prayer of thanks, and even more is added.
You pray for the words that comfort or confront and suddenly they come.
You pray for forgiveness and then you remember that ‘anyone in Christ is a new creation.’

Frightening only begins to describe this phenomenon. The world says we are alone with no where to turn, and we struggle to remember ‘we are not alone, we live in God’s world.‘ Even with a keen sense of the healing and forgiving presence of the Most High, it is still disconcerting when God breaks in and says ‘Peace, be still.’

Now Jesus, ever the teacher, will simply repeat the question until he gets the answer he’s looking for: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In other words, they had no words. They are stunned into silence, and can only whisper to each other saying, “who, then, is this?” Between Jesus demanding the storm be silent and the silence of the disciples, we may see a pattern forming. Let’s look back:

Jesus heals the man with the unclean spirit: But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (1.21ff) Jesus heals a leper, and demands more silence: “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest." (1.44) Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, and his critics were stunned into silence. (3.4) Jesus cured many by the seaside: diseases, unclean spirits. Then he sternly ordered them not to make him known. (3.12)

The sick and their demons can’t keep quiet, but the critics are silent. Jesus manages the wind and the waves, and the disciples are speechless. The pattern seems to be an unending need for healing and calm, and an ongoing failure to understand. Or a noisy reception to the work of God in their midst, except among those who should be able to calmly describe what is happening here.

Maybe they are caught in the conundrum that continues to challenge us, down to today: the storm-stiller is present to us but the storms persist. Maybe the silence of the religious ones and the disciples is based on the problem that will bedevil them until the end of time: the storm-stiller is present to us but the storms persist.

They (and we) are learning that a relationship with God in Jesus does not mean storms will cease, or trouble will not find you, or life will become suddenly straight-forward. Quite the opposite: storms arise, trouble comes, life is complex. What’s different, and what’s generally met with the silence and awe, is the knowledge that God is ever-present, at sea with us, always in the same boat.

May we witness to the presence of God in Jesus, and may our silent awe turn to songs of praise, Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

You either love it or hate it.

You are minding your own business, watching a movie or a television show, and suddenly someone looks directly at the camera and begins speaking. Or maybe the character says nothing, and simply looks in the direction of the audience. In dramatic terms, the fourth wall has been breached.

Woody Allen did it in Annie Hall. Frank Underwood regularly speaks to the audience in House of Cards. And in the seemingly new genre called the mockumentary (The Office, Modern Family) characters add commentary to the unfolding story, pausing to speak to documentarian who remains off-screen. And, of course, I need to mention The Wonder Years, breaking ground as a family comedy narrated by a grown-up version of the lead character himself.

The fourth wall, then, is the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. Most often it remains intact, with the audience content to watch the drama unfold with all the the necessary amounts of suspended belief. But every once in a while—and to great effect—the audience is drawn into the story.

In Shakespeare’s day, you might find actors in the audience, perhaps chasing another character onto the stage. Maybe an actor would speak an aside to the audience, mocking another member of the cast. You might even find a character enlisting the help of a member of audience in some way, like hiding a prop that’s part of the story.[1]

And, of course, this doesn’t begin with Shakespeare. It can be found in Greek drama and literature, and it can be found in the Bible. In the passage Sylvia read for us we find a prime example, verses 33 and 34:

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

We’ll unpack Mark’s aside in moment, and try to understand where it fits in the unfolding story of Jesus, but first we need to look at this idea of breaking the fourth wall in the Bible. Why do it? And what does it achieve? And what do we learn through the words that are addressed to the reader rather than the participants in the story?

The first reason would be to teach. Readers are students, and as we follow the story there will inevitably be details or concepts that are lost on the reader. And if these are lost on the first readers, from the same time and the same culture, how much more will they be lost on us? So the aside is a tool to help both present and future readers understand. Mark 7 provides a perfect example:

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

In Jesus’ most scatological of stories, Mark is trying to preserve the exchange between the master and students, but obviously lacks confidence that the full implications of the parable will be clear to the audience. “In saying this...” becomes a lesson for the next generation of students, and for us, wherever we number in the generations.[2]

Another purpose is to admonish, or warn the reader—in case you are taking the story too lightly. Various illustrations are literally life-and-death for the reader, and sometimes Mark seems to be unconvinced that his readers understand the gravity of the information being relayed. Listen to Mark 13:

12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Four little words—let the reader understand—but the impact couldn’t be greater. Mark’s so-called ‘little apocalypse’ is describing the end of time, when the Son of Man will appear in the clouds with power and great glory, to gather the elect and save them from the unfolding tribulation. You might think the topic itself, and the “M for Mature” content might be enough to grab the attention of the reader, but Mark goes further. He actually reaches from the pages of his Gospel and grabs us by the scruff of the neck and says “let the reader understand.” Okay, I get it. Mark, let go.

The final reason is the need to comfort or fortify the reader, something that is actually hidden in that brief passage that led to this discussion. Listen again:

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Mark’s aside describes to the reader what was happening in this moment, the moment immediately after Jesus shared the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. And I think it’s safe to say the disciples were struggling. Whenever someone says ‘as much as you can understand’ you’re allowed to take offense, since you’ve just been insulted. So we know the disciples were trying to keep up, and Mark just told us they were failing.

Next Mark says “he didn’t say anything to them without using a parable,” which we know, of course, in not true. We just looked at a long description of the apocalypse, not spoken in parables, but in terrifying prose. So maybe what Mark meant was ‘they heard everything as if it was spoken in parables,’ which is accurate since they rarely seemed to understand.

And then this: ‘when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.’ Now this makes sense. Better to finish the lesson in private, so as not to embarrass the group, since they were often missing the mark on these important Kingdom lessons. Having clueless students will eventually reflect badly on the teacher—something I’m sure Jesus was trying to avoid.

The comfort and fortification comes as the reader realizes that we too are struggling, and since we are in good company, no one need worry. If the people who followed Jesus each day couldn’t understand, then we can forgive ourselves for sometimes failing to understand.

Ironically, the best way to understand the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed, and how they demonstrate the Kingdom, is to look at another aside in the Bible. And this one, coming at the very end of John’s Gospel, brings together mysterious growth and surprizing growth found in the this morning’s parables. John writes:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (21:25)

Anyone reading the Gospels and pondering the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry will inevitably say ‘that’s it? That’s all there is?’ Surely he healed more and taught more an shared more inscrutable wisdom through parables. Surely more happened to transform workers and tax collectors and sinners into a group a followers that would someday transform the world.

The Kingdom of God is like a group of people who spend each day with Jesus and go from ordinary people like you and me and grow into the church that reaches down to today. And likewise, the Kingdom of God is like a handful of stories, shared in the distant past, yet growing in importance and meaning that even now as we gather in the protective shelter of the Word of God.

May we too be parables, signs of God’s Kingdom, matchless in growth and vibrant in describing the God we adore. Amen.

[2] Suggested by James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 3
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” 30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

A motion to amend a motion is in order.
A motion to amend an amendment to a motion is in order.
A motion to amend an amendment to the amendment is not in order.
When a motion, an amendment, and an amendment to the amendment are before the court, three votes are required: the motion to the amend the amendment, the amendment as amended, and the amended motion itself.

Can you tell Lang and I have spent the last two days at the annual meeting of Toronto Conference? And Lang, ever the glutton for these things remains there this morning, and I got to escape to be with you. Clearly, I got the better deal.

Conference is a gathering of the regional church, representing 300 or so churches in an area that begins here in the city and fans out as far as Owen Sound in the northwest and Parry Sound in the northeast. Back in my day you could count on 500 people coming together for the meeting, but now we’re about half that number. We used to meet in hockey rinks (yes, I was ordained in a hockey rink, and I am Canadian) but now we can comfortably meet in a decent-sized church.

We do all the things you might expect church folk to do when church folk gather: we pray, we sing hymns, we listen to speakers, we debate motions. We are often tempted to talk about the state of the church, but we usually talk about the great issues of the day instead.

So, for example, someone made a motion that we tell the church pension fund people to stop investing in oil companies, and someone amended the motion to tell church members to use less fossil fuels. The guy beside me said we should amend the amendment to insist everyone get a sailboat—sailors tend to sit together—and I think we all drove off to get lunch before the question was settled.

I’m not entirely convinced this is what Jesus had in mind when he called the twelve and then sent them out to transform the world, but you never know. This afternoon Lang will be present while a half-dozen people are ordained—the next generation of leaders to carry the work of the church forward—so maybe we haven’t drifted too far from God’s plan for the church.

Still, what we do seems a little crazy. This thing called the church seems less and less sensical to the world out there. We gather to profess our love for God, for each other, and for our neighbour—a neighbour that includes a every widening group of people. The motions we make are mostly neighbour-driven: First Nations, the LGBT community, even the earth itself. All this effort, and all these topics, must seem a little crazy to the world out there.

But we’re in good company: Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” Healing the sick, eating with outcasts and sinners, drawing ordinary men and women to himself to become disciples—this must have seemed a little crazy to the world outside—but first it seemed a little crazy to his own family.

And the religious leaders, don’t even get Mark started on the religious leaders. They went right past crazy and settled on demon-possessed, then as now the best way to discredit the people who pose a threat to your way of life. ‘Only a demon can cast our demons’ was their clever line, tarring him with the same brush and trying to come up with a plausible reason for his other-worldly power. And it might have worked, except Jesus had his own clever response:

“How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

Now, my resident historians would have me pause here and mention Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech from 1858, but there’s just no time. I went long last week, and it won’t happen again. Because just then his mother and brothers arrived and said ‘send him out—we’re taking him home.’ When he was told that his mother and brothers were outside—on a mission to save him from himself—he shared the equally famous words “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Now, I would be in trouble at home if I didn’t tell you about at the heart of Carmen’s research, something she calls mutable ethnicity. Notice how Jesus takes a seemingly simple concept like kin and clan and expands it to include everyone who supports his work. In John (15) he says ‘I no longer call you servants but friends,’ a kind of transition from follower to disciple, but in Mark 3 he is using brother language to make everyone a member of his family.

And he sets the bar either really high or really low—depending on your perspective—when he says “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” It’s high if you recall that these people are called to pick up their cross and follow Jesus, and for this some will pay the ultimate price. But it’s low if all you need to do is love God and love your neighbour and then you are a part of the family. And you don’t even need to be very good at it: because most of the people in the house with Jesus that day were not the best sort of people, the kind of people in fact, that made Jesus’ mother and brothers unhappy in the first place.

So there are two things happening here, an anxious family who care deeply, and an anxious group of religious leaders who are deeply threatened. The first controversy is casting out demons, something God alone can be expected to do. This is the authority question that will continue to follow Jesus, first related to demons, and next related to forgiveness. Jesus will claim the right to forgive sin (Matthew 9) and extend that authority to each of us, something that has always made religious leaders uneasy.

And this takes us back to the annual meeting of Toronto Conference. Over the last two days we have heard testimonials from members of the court who spent the week in Ottawa, meeting with residential school survivors and hearing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the United Church, of course, lives in that awkward place between wanting to support First Nations brothers and sisters and acknowledging that we were one of the churches that operated residential schools.

As religious leaders, we struggle. Throughout the presentation you could feel the tension, and understand the struggle as people alternated between saying “what the government did” and “what we did.” And of course, with a government that’s easy to dislike, people tended to the “what the government did” and “what the government continues to fail to do” rather than keep the topic on what we did as a church. By what authority can we forgive others if we fail to forgive ourselves, or even acknowledge that we are in need of forgiveness?

As religious leaders we struggle because we prefer to be on the side of the oppressed, we prefer to be the sinless ones who forgive the sins of others rather than the church that committed grave sins and needs forgiveness.

The good news is that “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” And you don’t even have to be very good at it because most of the people in the house with Jesus that day were not the best sort of people, the kind of people in fact that could forgive sins while they had more than a few of their own that needed forgiving.

And so we carry on, as that imperfect vessel called the church: that does things that are crazy in the world’s eyes—like love God and neighbour—and lives in that tension between forgiving and needing to be forgiven. Amen.