Sunday, June 10, 2018

Third 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.”
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.”

There are questions you always answer in the affirmative, unless the answer is supposed to be no.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple question “does this look good?” Children’s artwork, yes, partner’s wardrobe ensemble, yes—to which you should likely add “yes, I really like it.” The opposite, of course, is the question that demands a negative response. I’m thinking of my colleague in Michigan who put a sign on her office door that says “Tell me, does this pulpit make my butt look fat?” The answer is no.

I fell into a similar dilemma recently when I was asked to listen to the paper that Carmen wrote for some scholarly meeting in Regina. First, she drew me in with the title, “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll.” I’m immediately thinking Dan Brown meets Danielle Steele in a kind of sexy thriller set in an exotic location—if you could class the Dead Sea as an exotic location.

Before I say more, I should remind you that I have studied theology. And while the lessons thirty-years-past fade, I have distinct memories of attending school. Nevertheless, when confronted with contemporary scholarship, I feel like I’m listening to adults in a Charlie Brown special.

So I listened to the “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll” and then the question: “what do you think?” It seems that the wrong answer is saying “I guess the audience for a paper like this would be rather small.” “So you think it’s boring?” was the next question (no—of course not) and followed by other questions that required a yes or a no.

To prove then that I was listening, I can tell you that the overall topic of “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll” is mutable ethnicity, and the extent to which a convert to Judaism in this period could be considered pure enough to participate in the rituals reserved for members of the Qumran community. In other words, there must be a way to be more than a convert, but a full-member of the community, and there must be marks of this conversion, such as the language used to describe them.

And this idea, oddly enough, takes us to the third chapter of Mark. There, before an astonished crowd, Jesus redefines the nature of family and kinship, asking the question “who are my mother and my brothers?” and saying “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” This is a revolution in thinking, and one that defines us down to today. But before we look at that, we should return to Galilee for a moment or two.

The title of this section, as assigned by the editors of your Bible, is “Jesus Accused by His Family and by Teachers of the Law.” It’s a good summary, even if not entirely accurate. For you see, there are two things happening in this passage at once: there is a rescue mission underway, and there is the beginning of a conflict that will follow Jesus all the way to the cross. So yes, these two things are linked, but not in the sense that his family and the teachers of the law are working together.

The rescue mission is a family-only affair. Three chapters in, and Jesus’ fame has spread throughout the region, healing, driving our demons, and drawing people to himself. He has called the twelve, and many more, and they have begun to share to good news of this prophet and healer. But the family is not among them, they are just worried.

And their worry is obvious in the words they share at the beginning of the passage, which I would transliterate to say “Have you lost your mind?” This could also be translated “do you know what you’re doing?” or “do you know the risk you’re taking” or “do you really need to do this?” These are all good family questions, the kinds of questions you might ask a son or a daughter intent of disrupting the status quo or challenging people in power. They are family, so their job is to assess the risk, to count the potential cost, and the ask the question “have you lost your mind?”

The teachers of the law take a very different approach, not really suggesting that he has lost his mind so much as suggesting that he has an unclean spirit. “He is possessed by the devil. By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” This is an extremely serious accusation, not in the same league as suggesting that he has taken leave of his senses. And so the case against God’s incarnation has begun, the light that some simply could not receive.

Back to his poor family, they simply want their son and brother back. They want an end all this and go back to the way it was before a life given to paralytics and sinners and tax collectors. So they set out to get him, and they suffer what some might see as a rejection: “who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers!”

But it’s not a rejection, it’s an expansion! Jesus has taken the love of kin and clan and dearest family and extended it to everyone who loves God and God’s way. Jesus has taken whatever we thought we knew about brothers and sisters and parents and forced us to look around. Look at your fellow travellers, look at the ones who love God and love their neighbours—they have become your kin and clan.

So today is all about applied scholarship. Jesus has expanded our notion of kinship, and forced us to rethink family, but he has also confronted us with his love. And for this latest confrontation, I will need words from another scholar I admire, William Countryman. Some time ago, he wrote a little book about some of the issues confronting his church, the Episcopal Church, and Anglican communion generally. And in the midst of this discussion, he seeks to redefine how we see Jesus. This is what he says:

Jesus, you see, is in love with you. If this makes you feel a little odd, it is not an occasion to worry. Jesus is the most patient and tactful of lovers. You can have time to get used to the idea. But don’t expect him to give up. He will not rest content until our lives are transformed and renewed by his love. (Calling, p. 35)

Interesting how we were encouraged to bask in this love when we were smaller: “Jesus, friend of little children” or “Jesus loves me, this I know.” And even after we graduated from the Church School, were were give permission to sing songs like Wesley’s “Jesus, lover of my soul/let me to thy bosom fly.” The language of intimacy was far from foreign to the church in an earlier age, when we could profess (again from Charles Wesley) “Thou O Christ art all I want/more than all in thee I find.”

So at the very least, we should let the knowledge of this passionate love settle on us, and return to the lesson of the day. Jesus looked out at the crowd around him, and didn’t see friends or acquaintances or friends-to-be but sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers—a new version of family based on love and shared commitment to the Kingdom. He didn’t see a collection of Galileans crowded in small space, he saw a church. And he didn’t see people on that day alone, he saw far into the future—he saw you and me.

Today, on the 93rd birthday of the United Church of Canada, we can confess that we don’t always have the same clear view of the future Jesus had. We don’t live with the same confidence that former generations lived, nor the same resources. But we have love. We have the love that is made known through care and mutual support, present this week as much as ever, and we have love that extends beyond these walls to the people the world often forgets. And in these simple and extravagant examples is our future.

Think on this: there is someone you know who needs to know that they are loved. They belong here. There is someone you know who loves what you love—the neighbourhood, the community, the planet itself. They belong here. There is someone who needs a new family, a new sense that love can be unconditional and ever-present. They belong here. All we have to do is tell them.

May God bless you and keep you, may Christ hold in a loving embrace, and my the Spirit speak through you, now and always, amen.