Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

The Ugly Side of the Spirit


            * Note: For those who pay close attention to sermon titles, the direction of this sermon                              changed after sermon titles had been printed for the series. This title does not                                             correlate with the sermon written for and preached on June 10, 2018.


This gospel passage is a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?


It starts with Jesus going home. We might assume that would be a place for Jesus to catch his breath; to escape the crowds and let down his guard—but it’s not. People start gathering all around him even there, so much so that it interrupts family dinner. The next thing we hear, the crowds are yelling that Jesus is out of his mind, and his family—his own family, for heaven’s sake—is restraining him. There’s some talk about Satan and demons. And it ends with Jesus scoffing at the traditional idea of family—ignoring his actual mother and brothers and claiming the people currently gathered closest around him as his real mother and brothers.


It’s not exactly the family reunion we expect for Jesus. Our families might act like this sometimes. We might act like this sometimes. But Jesus? And Mary? And James?


More than a few biblical scholars have said this text is a bitter pill to swallow. No one in this holy family seems to be on their best behavior, so it’s not entirely clear what we’re supposed to take from this story.


Theologian Bill Placher was entirely serious when he suggested that maybe Mark included this story to offer the comforting thought that even Jesus struggled with his family. When the Early Christians were joining the church, they often did so at the expense of family disapproval—a house divided, so to speak.


John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist church, found in it no comfort at all. “How immense is the number in every nation throughout the entire Christian world,” he said, “of those who have been utterly distressed on account of this scripture!” That’s why I can’t stop thinking about my friend Tom. You’ve heard me talk about him before. Tom is the senior pastor of Village Church. I don’t remember what precipitated this, but one day during a staff meeting, he looked up at all of us and said, “I want you to know that, unless proven otherwise, I will always assume you meant nothing but the very best with your actions, that with whatever information you had available at the time, you believed your choices and decisions were for our common good.”


In other words, he always assumed the best about us, and encouraged us to always assume the best about each other, as well. He meant it as colleagues, but it’s really a lesson for all of life, I think. I think it even works as a guiding principle for biblical interpretation, especially with passages that are “utterly distressing.” It also fits well with one of our Presbyterian practices of interpreting scripture through the law of love. If the interpretation does not ultimately result in revealing the love of God, it’s a faulty interpretation. That isn’t to say scripture might not still be fraught with difficulty, but it is to say that love always gets the final word, because love is always God’s final move.


No less a theologian than Ched Myers, one of the pre-eminent scholars of Mark’s gospel, encourages us to extend some grace toward Jesus’ family. Yes, they restrain him early on. Yes, they are trying to silence him. Yes, perhaps this means they don’t entirely understand him. But maybe also yes, they understood he was courting disaster, and they were trying to protect him.


Mark’s gospel is marked by urgency, remember, so by chapter three, Jesus has already healed people, cast out demons, and recruited followers, and everywhere he goes, people crowd around him. The highest authorities in the land absolutely would have been aware of this, and they absolutely would have been unhappy about it. That’s part of the reason every time Jesus performs some sort of miracle, he tells those who witness it, “Say nothing to no one.” He knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s stopped. He tries to buy more time with their silence. What if Jesus’ family was trying to buy him more time with his own silence? If that’s the case, their actions are ultimately misguided, but their motivation is nothing less than love and loyalty.


I think the same thing is true when it comes to Jesus’ response about family toward the end of this text, as well. I think it’s less about words intended to dismiss his biological family, and more about his desire to refine and expand the idea of family entirely. But we’ll get back to that.


Because first, a word about all the demon talk. I believe there is evil in the world. Now, sometimes the evil seems to be especially cunning, as if it were a person at work, but its force often seems beyond that of any human person in the situation. So, there do seem to be non-human agents of evil in the world. And perhaps we should leave it there, because, as Barth warned, “It has never been good to look too frequently or lengthily or systemically at demons. It does not threaten them if we do. In fact, the very thing they are waiting for, especially in theology, is that we should find them dreadfully interesting.”


The truth is, well, you already know the truth—I can’t tell you exactly what is going on in this story or how we are supposed to understand it. I can only tell you how I understand it today. And I can tell you what I understand about the world today. It is absolutely overflowing with cynicism. Go home today and Google “cynicism is the new black” and you will discover than not only are there endless amounts of such references, we’ve been saying that since at least 2009, so while cynicism may be as ubiquitous as the color black, it’s certainly not new.


Back in the time of the ancient Greeks, cynicism was considered a mark of intelligence. But, that’s because it was a school of thought that asked big questions about why humanity acts the way it does. We’ve distorted that in our modern and postmodern times, however. It’s no longer a school of thought. It’s a way of being in the world that seeks out the worst possible assumption about any one person’s or any group of people’s actions and motivations. Taken to the extreme, cynicism can be one of the ways evil takes root in the world. And, I do not say this lightly or easily, nor do I say it without a bit of chagrin, because I have more than my share of cynical days, too, but cynicism these days is far too easy. Cynicism these days is weak. Cynicism these days is not of faith. To be a person of faith is to be a person who chooses to look out at the entire world with eyes that are filled with compassion.


To be a person of faith is to be more like my friend Tom, who chooses to assume the best about people, and makes sure people know that is how he’s seeing them.


It’s been a hard week. We have been reminded, once again, of the fragility of human life and the shattering realities of depression and other mental illness. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both known for being happy and accomplished and beloved by millions both died by suicide. Let me be clear: this is a tragedy. And let me be even clearer about this: If you, or anyone you care about, is in a place like that; if you, or anyone you care about, is caught in a pattern of dangerous thinking, I hope and pray you will make a different decision, and I hope and pray you know that this church is here to help you however we can. But, what would make any death by suicide even more tragic is to look at it with anything less than compassion.

It is common, and a bit natural, I think, to wonder—"Why didn’t they get help?” or “Didn’t they know they were loved?”—or to criticize—“How could they cause that much pain to the their friends and families?” But, just because it is common or natural to think this way doesn’t make it right or faithful to think this way. Depression is a dangerous and terribly effective liar. It is an illness of the brain, an imbalance of chemicals, every bit as real and as serious as heart disease and cancer. And just like heart disease and cancer, sometimes every possible treatment and every possible intervention, simply isn’t enough. I don’t know how to explain why. All I know is that bad things happen.


In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It has become a classic. But do you know what most people think that book is called? “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” That makes perfect sense to me, because that’s the question we all want answered. It’s just not an answer we’ll receive this side of the grave. We don’t know why bad things happen, just that they do. I think that’s why Jesus says what he says about his family. Because he is living with us in this world where bad things happen, and he wants desperately to bring the kingdom of heaven a little bit closer.


You may remember this isn’t the first time Jesus has distorted or challenged traditional family values. Early on, he calls his disciples to leave their families and follow him. In society at that time, they were the providers. They held down the jobs, they brought in the money, they kept the family together…and Jesus asks them to walk away from this. And then he seems to turn away from his own family. And here is my best, most compassionate understanding of why. If I understand it, Jesus takes the old ideas of family and recycles them into a new idea of family. For him, family isn’t about rest or reflection or rehashing the past. Family reunions aren’t parties or picnics or conversations about who we were and who we are. To Jesus, family reunions are an opportunity to forge new possibilities.


In the words of Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary and my instructor in the gospel of Mark, “Jesus is about the business of creating the kind of family he believes God wants. So, he shakes up the family that is, until he shakes out the kind of family that ought to be. No longer are families about warm hugs and cute kisses, but about dangerous discipleship and terrible, tremendous transformation. Family units become change units, family love becomes love for justice and hope, family time together becomes the time of gathering to plot the strategy for changing the world around them.”


That’s why families are called to unite and reunite, but also to shift and change and recalibrate for Jesus. So, we can gather collective strength and support one another, love one another, empower one another so that wherever, whenever, and however that Strong Man rears his ugly, vicious, venomous head in this world, we will have the collective power and inclination to bind him up and tear him down, until that time when his evil forces are no more, and the world is exactly as God always intended. Until there is a world where depression and despair are no more. Where pain and sorrow and suffering are no more. Where cancer and congestive heart failure are no more. Where doors and arms are open wide to all who come asking for shelter and safety. Where hands are held and hungers are filled and fears are silenced.


Jesus says what he says about his family because he knows that, individually, our immediate families are too small to get the job done. The change God wishes for the world takes all of us. In refining his family, Jesus was looking at his family, and at the whole world, with eyes full of compassion and love. He always has. He has always erred on the side of grace. He has always assumed the best but still made space for the worst. He invited tax collectors to join him for lunch. He sat down with the excluded, forgave the unforgivable, and loved the unlovable. Hanging on the cross, he looked at his mother, and made sure she would be cared for. And, in his final moments, he looked at a criminal, also hanging on a cross, broken in body and broken in spirit, and said, “‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’”


From his beginning until his end, he was always about love, even when love didn’t look exactly like we expected it to. And he is still about love, love for each of us, but even more so, love for all of us.


I don’t know about you, but traditional or not, that’s the kind of family I’d like very much to be a part of.

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