Year B, 3rd Sunday after the Pentecost, Proper 5 June 10, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God…”
Good morning everyone. Jesus is fired up! Binding the strong man! That’s Jesus Himself bodily struggling with evil. “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” That is as short and clear a parable as Jesus ever tells. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable? He’s all fired up. The righteous anger of Jesus Christ in the face of foolishness and injustice always gets me going.
Today’s Gospel pericope (pericope just means a short, coherent passage) is organized as a sandwich story. It starts with Jesus family. They heard that He had “gone out of his mind,” so they tried to restrain Him. It was a family intervention. That’s one slice of bread. Then the peanut butter and jelly is the scribes, their accusations that it is by demonic power that Jesus does the things he does, and Jesus’ harsh response, so harsh as to imply that the scribes had committed an unforgivable sin in doubting the source of His power. Then it finishes back with His family, that’s the second piece of bread. Jesus is harsh with them, too. “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” A little sandwich story (with a bit of a bitter aftertaste).
It was bitter. Here are two fundamental pillars of that society: family and religion, and both are very upset with Him because He is challenging some very basic assumptions. His family was worried for Him. They wanted to bring Him home before He got Himself thrown over a cliff or crucified or something. And what does Jesus do? Deny them. They aren’t my family, those who bore me, raised me, have and will love me forever; you, whom I choose, you here now are my family. Sort of cuts off family at the roots. That would be very upsetting to hear from a son.
The scribes, the religious authorities, were also upset with Him. He was doing acts of great power that didn’t jive with how they understood the world to be, or at least didn’t jive with how they understood how world was structured, which just so happens to have them in the driver’s seat. (It is almost that Jesus Christ is implying that challenges to the status quo are considered offensive and threatening in direct proportion to how comfortable one is in that status quo. Hmmmm). In any case, those scribes felt threatened, so they acted threatened. “He has Beelzabul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” That is a statement of a threatened power-holder. Why do they feel so threatened? Because Jesus is threatening them, like His family. He is threatening basic assumptions of two foundational categories of His society by changing them, by defining them in new ways.
Throughout His short life, in every conceivable way, from His immaculate conception to everything that happened in the wake of His Passion and death, Jesus turned everything upside down. Everything. The first will be last the last will be first. The mightiest will be the servant of all. God (Jesus) prefers the company of the universally rejected: sinners, shepherds, tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers, women! Truly, confronting as directly as He does here the idea of family and of religious authority, He threatened the stability of the whole society, because the basis of many societies, certainly Jesus’, started with family, followed closely by communal religious life. He questions and threatens both in this tidy little sandwich.
Now stable doesn’t necessarily mean good. I think that is at the heart of the lesson here. We crave the constant. The stable. The immutable. We crave stability. We want, we think we need things to be predictable, constant, static, regular. That is certainly the easiest. You get up each morning (well, I do) and the tea pot is where it is supposed to be, and the tea is in the cupboard where it belongs, and your favorite cup is where you put it away yesterday morning, and the morning before, and the one before that. I think we have the desire for much the same regularity in more parts of our lives than some of us might want to admit. We want it to be predictable. We want to be able to assume that things are as they seem, are as we are accustomed to, as we know them. Most of us, most of the time, want things to be ordinary.
I’ve never really understood why LGBTQ stuff gets everyone so upset, the marriage stuff in particular. If you are a man and you do not feel attracted to men, you probably shouldn’t marry one. That’s totally fine. But of you are, and you do, then maybe you should, that’s totally fine, too. I’ve known all sorts of gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks in all sorts of relationships, and for the longest time I really didn’t understand why everyone got so upset. How does that affect your marriage? I don’t know. Then some years ago awareness, my awareness anyhow, of gender stuff started growing. Trans and intersex, all the variety of non-binary, non-conforming gender identities. That was new to me. I am rather prideful of my liberal non-judgmentalism, and I must say, that sometimes I felt uncomfortable. Not threatened, but just didn’t know what to do, what to think. Like when I couldn’t readily identify the gender of someone because they didn’t conform to our society’s gender norms. It is a basic reference point we have, that I have, that I have relied on. It is the first question at a birth, “boy or girl?” Right? In the best sort of way, it doesn’t matter in the least what gender someone is or identifies as. How could that possibly be anyone’s business but that persons? But when something like that is different, when a basic category of society is changed, is foreign or new to us; if we are asked to look at the world in a way we never have or never considered we’d have to, heavens can we get thrown off. Everything can seem like it is falling apart. “If that is a marriage what does it say about my marriage?” (As I said, nothing, but we can’t underestimate the power of the fear, the irrational fear that can be there).
Or in church, think of the language we use for God. He… Him… Father… Lord… Besides praying in Spanish to an English speaking congregation, there is no surer way to get an inbox full of liturgical complaints that to refer to God as She. You can (usually) get away with non-male language, but “She” will bring some people’s houses down. I struggle with that mightily. In my own prayer and conversation, in my own words while preaching, I never use masculine pronouns or the word “Father” for God. But I have all sorts of reasonable, learned and defensible justifications for saying the Mass exactly as written in the BCP. “Because that is how it is. That is how we say it. That is how I was taught. St. Swithen once said…” If that is in question, EVERYTHING is in question. Where does it end? Heaven forbid.
Oh we cloak that discomfort, that fear with all sorts of justifications. Be it words of the Mass or the rights of people to express their affections, or be of African descent, we have all sorts of ways to justify our discomfort and disapproval. We use words like sin, perversion, pathology, primitive, feminine, Beelzebub, out of his mind. But at the root, I think a lot of the hate of our LGBTQ neighbors, the opposition to marriage rights, the rejection of gender non-conformity, any difference in race, appearance, culture, language, custom, all the identity stuff is about our misplaced desire for everything to be static, nothing to be changing or challenging. You queer, so to speak, what a family looks like, you change it, or you allow God to manifest in the world in new way, both things Jesus does here, for some people it is like a foundation block being kicked out from under them. That is what is feels like to some. So many recoil from the existential confusion and resulting discomfort from when things seem unpredictable, not as we expect or can readily identify. That is terrifying for far too many of us, and too often it leads us down the long and often violent xenophobic paths of homophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, anything that is other or seems other. It is that need, that perceived need for immutability, predictability, that is what I think Jesus is challenging here.
Now there are so many threads that we could follow here. Talking like this can set off a maelstrom. The point I want to stick with, that I think Jesus is teaching us here, is that we too often grasp at stasis, rigid predictability, at what we are familiar with and are comfortable with. We desperately, sinfully, violently cling to what we know and understand, what we know by just knowing it, the way it has always been, how we were raised, and just as desperately, sinfully and violently reject that which challenges that expectation. But here, Jesus differentiates. Someone doesn’t get same sex marriage, it is foreign to them, that is a sin of ignorance. Jesus family, on good faith, wanted to stop His ministry. It was for his own good. The scribes, though, not only rejected difference, rejected that God could act in ways they were not used to, but they also obsessed about it, theologized on it, consciously fought against Him… that is a sin of a different order. The same one the scribes unforgivably committed. I don’t know if Jesus needed them to all become His followers, but when they actively clung to their old way of thinking, failed to consider that it might be different than they were used to, expected, approved of, and in that dissonance disparaged, discounted, dismissed the Holy Spirit behind His power and glory, they immediately and unforgivably tread on unholy ground. That would not, and will not do.
And at the same time, we need stability. We need things to hold on to. Like the Collect in Compline, “so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness.” We need reference points for what is ok, what is right and what is not. We need a rock on which to put our faith. That is a challenge for us liberals. We sometimes take so seriously the validity of other paths that we don’t take the path we are on ourselves seriously enough. That is a real moral hazard, the reticence to have faith, and is one of the biggest ones here among us at Resurrection. I know a lot of your struggles, and for many of you, the inability to claim your faith as yours because it might offend someone else’s, is real. That what you believe and what someone else believes differ doesn’t matter. It’s apples and skydiving; different categories, no comparison to be made, no conflict to have. But you need to believe, to have faith. Maybe not this morning you don’t need it. Maybe not this month or year, or this season of your life, but we will all face troubles that we can’t, shouldn’t, needn’t face on our own.
But at the same time we can’t be so unsteady that everything rides on the world conforming to our way of thinking, of confirming everything we want it to confirm. That just isn’t how it works. We need faith, but we need to hold our faith, our approach to the world, what we understand to be right and good and true firmly, confidently, but not grasp it with white-knuckles. We need a solid foundation, a tree to cling to in the hurricanes that will pass over us, but every day is not a hurricane. We can’t need to have something unmoving, unquestioned in life. That goes for most anything. Faith in God as we imagine God to be. (The unmoved mover changes and moves throughout our lives, or so it appears). Faith in the people we share this life with (I and most everyone you know will disappoint you. If we haven’t yet, just give us time). In the New York Times. In the virtues of education. Even in the understanding that you, any individual on their own, is ultimately the best judge of everything, which is the beating heart of liberalism.
We’ve got chainsaws going out in the front, working on those bushes, and soon enough in back working on the blackberries. I am decent with one, haven’t cut off anything important yet, and I think it is a good metaphor for how we need to hold our faith, not too tightly, but not too loosely, either. When you use a tool like a chainsaw, you need to hold it with some authority. If you are ginger with it, don’t have a good grip, it will not work out well for you. At the same time, you can’t have a death grip on it. Your hands will go numb. You’ll get tired too fast. You won’t be able to pay attention to the million other things going on around you like where the tree is falling. You need to hold the saw confidently, but not arrogantly. Be sure of yourself, but not blinded by certainty. Be secure in your faith, not a faith built on a foundation of fundamentalist formulas, but on the swaying branches of truth and the knowledge (and fear!) of God. Hold it all lightly. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and always remember that your opinion, any opinion, adds up to just about nothing in the eyes of God.
Because it might not always go well. Our primordial parents met Temptation in the form of a serpent and were thrown out of Eden! (That was a big change of trajectory. Remember God’s original plan was for us to be vegetarian nudists). But even with that most egregious loss, it was not all lost, not the love of God, not the love of each other. The story, our story does not end on the wrong side of the gates of Eden. Life persisted, good life even.
It is not always going to go well. Rare as a unicorn is the person, the family that tragedy does not visit. But it doesn’t have to all come crumbling down AND we don’t need to bring anyone one down, with us. As St. Paul writes to the folks in Corinth, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God…” Our faith is a tent, and it is fully human. God is the rock upon which it is pitched. There is a difference. AMEN