It’s a Man’s World

For over a month we have been riveted by the unfolding stories from the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel. Samuel comprises one book, later divided into two – and forms part of the Deuteronomic history, a history focused on the ups and downs in the relationship between Isreal and Yahweh. The storyline in Samuel covers the period of transition Ancient Israel from a confederation of tribes towards becoming a unified nation ruled by a king.

As we heard last week, this was a chaotic and tension-filled transition. Samuel, the last of the Judges is now the king-maker and without telling Saul he secretly anoints David as king in his place. Saul becomes increasingly suspicious of David and is jealous of David’s growing popularity.

Last week’s reading also introduced the relationship between David and Jonathan, who at their first meeting experience love at first sight!

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

In today’s installment, we skip forward to listen as David learns of Saul and Jonathan’s death; father and son together having taken the last stand in battle against the Philistines. David’s response to the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is to compose one of the great love eulogies of all time. He cries out in anguish –

see how the mighty have fallen ……I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women, How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!


Issues of gender and sexual identity continue to fuel our current culture wars making for an interesting answer to the question: were David and Jonathan in a homosexual relationship, or were they just platonic, Oxbridge-style soul-friends; the kind of tortured attraction between men characterized in the novels of E. M Forster and Evelyn Waugh; men desiring one another while keeping it in their pants so to speak, or in David and Jonathan’s case, under their kilts?

Biblical commentators under the influence of a traditional homophobic reading of this story have over the centuries gone to considerable lengths to deny any homosexual inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan. The difficulty that has confronted such commentators is how to interpret this love poem in fraternal terms that avoid its clear homophilic (love between men) or even homoerotic (sex between men) content.

Contemporary liberal commentators no longer directly deny the homophylic or homoerotic content of this text. However, many take refuge in their concern to avoid the danger of anachronism. Anachronism is where we project back into history our current attitudes, values, and ideas. There is, however, a growing body of commentators committed to a queer reading of this text (Bruce Gerig) who openly embrace the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan.

                                                     David and Jonathan are clearly an emotionally bonded couple. From their first meeting, Jonathan places his love for David above his loyalty to his own father- a very big statement in a patriarchal society. On a number of occasions, Jonathan protects David from the dangers of Saul’s murderous paranoia.

On the face of it, by declaring that Jonathan’s love is love beyond that of a woman, David, the inveterate womanizer, makes it clear that there is a homoerotic component to the love between them.

I share the view that the love between David and Jonathan appears to be certainly homophilic if not homoerotic in nature. So some ask, were these great historical figures gay?


Gayness is the recognition of homosexuality as a stable emotional, developmental state existing along a continuum of sexual identification and gender attraction.

It is, therefore, a completely modern concept. The Bible, whether here or elsewhere has no concept other than that all men are ‘heterosexual’.

I place the term ‘heterosexual’ in inverted commas, Like homosexual, it’s a term that conceives a variety of possibilities along a developmental continuum. Biblical writers had no conception of a continuum of different possibilities.

In the Biblical worldview, normative sexual identity was capable of distinguishing between the duties of procreation and the pursuit of pleasure; the latter holding the potential for what today we recognize as homosexual as well as heterosexual object choices.

The term homosexual comes from the Greek homos meaning the same, rather than the Latin homo meaning man and was first coined in mid-19th-century Germany. Thus, to read a modern concept of homosexuality – gayness or heterosexuality back into the relationship between David and Jonathan is anachronistic.  The terms homosexual and heterosexual, and the distinctions they imply are products of the modern age.

David and Jonathan were not gay in the sense that I am, for instance, gay. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures, evidenced in such cultures as diverse as those of Classical Greece and Samurai Japan. In these tribal-warrior cultures, the social and emotional inferiority of women was so great that while suitable as the bearers of children, women could not be considered as emotional partners with men.

These were in the general sense homophilic societies where the primary emotional identification for men could only be other men – a man’s men’s world. In such a world there is a discrete tolerance for men having sex with men, usually involving age difference relationships between older and younger men. Our social concept of homosexuality as a stable emotional developmental state, existing along a continuum of identity and gender fluidity has little relevance when reflecting on men’s sexual arrangements in such societies.


Therefore, is there value in this story for us as 21st-century readers? I think it warns us to be careful in our assumptions of the Biblical past. We need to question the assumption that in the patriarchal past, same-sex relationships were always forbidden. The predominant Jewish anxiety about homosexuality, evidenced in the early texts of the Torah, is rooted in a tribal society’s concern about diverting sexual energy away from procreation; babies meant survival. Yet, in societies where the primary emotional identification is between men and not between men and women, erotic expression was clearly tolerated. Thus, the Bible itself is a very unreliable witness to call in the attempt to use it to prohibit modern same-sex relationships.

The Anglican tradition of interpreting Scripture understands that interpretation shifts as each generation encounters the text from within the challenges of their own time and place. Anglican tradition accepts that meaning emerges in the dynamic of an encounter between interpreter, community, and text. As we encounter this ancient story, what are the questions we might bring to bear on this text?

Although there will always be dissenters, the prevailing Western view in the 21st-century is of sexual development in as a psychologically and environmentally driven, developmental process. Along the continuum of possibilities of sexual and gender identity, no one position is preordained for every person. Even biological gender is no longer considered the sole determinant of gender identity because as we are increasingly coming to accept, identity is a psycho-spiritual issue and not simply a matter of chromosomes.

So much for psychology and environment, but what about theology.

The story of David and Jonathan reminds us that the theology of human relationships rests not upon issues of gender but on the experience and expression of love.

Love as emotional commitment and ethical fidelity is the theology that underpins the experience of a love relationship between significant others.

   We may be biologically gendered for the purposes of reproduction, yet, this cannot be the final statement on either the purpose of sex or what it means to be made in the image of God.

God, despite the frequent use of the male pronoun, is non-gendered. Male and female are not terms we can ascribe to God. Yet, animus and anima are. These principles of masculine and feminine energy are central characteristics of the divine. When thought about in these terms the masculine element of creating comingles with the feminine elements of receiving and sharing – as God the lover beholds God the beloved, and God the love sharer.

For 21st-century Christians, it is no longer the gendered identity of the object of our desires that matters, but the integrity of the love that comes to bind two persons in a relationship that is of primary significance for both. The longing that characterizes such relational love- the giving, the receiving, and the sharing of love is a direct reflection of the divine nature and is the keenest indicator we have of our longing for God, and the longing God has for us.

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.

may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.

may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

John O’Donohue

Tyranny: one short memory loss away

Old Testament Lessons

For the last month, we have listened to a broad historical outline sketched out in the first book of Samuel. I and II Samuel are the first two books of a larger corpus of Old Testament histories covering the period that charts the rise and fall of monarchical tyranny in ancient Israel.  More particularly, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, cover the same period but from different editorial sources. The books of Samuel and the Kings are the product of the D or Deuteronomy source as are the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and Jeremiah.

D source

The Deuteronomic narrative emphasizes the themes of obedience and disobedience to the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Although drawing from older oral traditions brought south after the fall of the Northern kingdom in 721 BC, the books as written documents emerge between the 7th and 6th-centuries BC and are particularly associated with the discovery of the long-forgotten Book of the Law, uncovered in the wall of the temple during renovations, which launched the Josiah Reform in 622 BC.

The Deuteronomic history was further edited and re-cast by the scribes of the P or priestly source after 582 BC during the period of the Babylonian Exile in search of an answer to why God had abandoned Judah in 581.

Period of transition

I Samuel covers the period of political transition during which the Hebrew tribes emerge from a loose confederation ruled by charismatic judges, into the beginnings of a unified state that reaches its zenith under the kingship of David in the 10th-century BC.

With the advent of monarchy, the tension is set up between two competing theologies of government. Although Israel’s kings start out as agents of Yahweh, they are increasingly influenced by concepts of divine kingship that prevailed in the Middle East at that time. In resistance to this trend, the prophetic movement arose as a very necessary check on the notions of divine kingship, calling the nation back to its obedience to the Covenant with God.


The person Samuel is the last of the great Judges in the line stretching back to Joshua son of Nun, the successor to Moses. Samuel now in his twilight years, is presented with the increasing demand of the people to give them a king so that they could be like the other nations. It’s clear that the loose tribal confederation is not efficient enough to marshal the necessary resources to resist the military incursions of the Canaanite kingdoms. Tired of being defeated in battle by their neighbors, the Israelites too, now want a king who would lead them to victory.

Samuel dislikes the people’s demand. He explains to the people that having a king will mean giving up their tribal independence and submitting to authoritarian, centralized rule, in which the king would have the first claim on their land, their labor, and their wealth. Samuel experiences the people’s demand as a personal rejection, about which he complains to God. God tells him not to get above himself, reminding Samuel that the people’s demand is not a rejection of Samuel, but a rejection of God.  God effectively tells Samuel to give the people what they want in the spirit of the proviso – be careful what you ask for.


images-1Samuel’s choice was very predictable. Swayed by Saul’s appearances – tall, dark and handsome, Samuel anoints him king. Like many seemingly strong leaders, Saul’s narcissism is on the surface at least, attractive and impressive. He cuts a large swagger, is a big presence, and the people mistake this for real strength. Yet, like all narcissists, he’s a big man with a fragile ego. He is quick to take offense, has poor anger management control, and increasingly becomes more paranoid and vindictive. Despite initial successes, it works out badly for Israel under Saul, and it works out very badly for Saul himself.

Nepotism, ambition, and theology

There is an interesting subtheme in the book of Samuel. Four weeks ago, we listened to the call of the boy Samuel. In calling Samuel, God repudiates the priestly succession of Eli because Eli’s sons were corrupt grifters who exploited their position of power and privilege to the detriment of the people. We next jump ahead in the story to where after many years of wise leadership the people complain that they need a king because Samuel is now old, and they fear being left at the mercy of his own sons, who they complain do not walk in the ways of their father but have turned aside and taken bribes.

Rulers are one thing, but ruling families where the members exploit the privileges of power for their own interests, are quite another.

Samuel’s dislike of the demand for a king is both theological and personal. Samuel had already appointed his sons as Judges to succeed him. As God thwarted Eli’s dynasty, so God seems to now thwart Samuel’s dynastic pretensions. What goes around come around.

However, the more important point is Samuel’s theological objection to kingship. The focus of the Deuteronomic history is faithfulness to the covenant between God and Israel. Yahweh is Israel’s only king. If Israel has a king like the other nations, Samuel rightly foresees that the prevailing regional models of divine kingship will cause Israel to reject Yahweh as their only king.

Samuel’s fears are well-founded. For the rest of the Deuteronomic history is the sorry tale of how Israel’s kings, again and again, placed themselves above obedience to the Covenant Law under which they ruled as God’s agent, not as God’s replacement.

Last week, we listened in the Samuel narrative to the anointing of the shepherd boy David to be king in Saul’s place. This time, God is leaving nothing to Samuel’s weakness for narcissistically handsome, warrior-like men with good legs. To Samuel’s imagesurprise, God passes over all the virile sons of Jesse until it seems he has run out of options. But there is one son remaining and when he is summoned he appears to be a boy with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes.

Samuel pours the oil of anointing over David in secret. No one tells Saul he is no longer king. But as David notches up military victory one after another, in today’s installment it seems something is beginning to dawn on Saul. Despite David’s successes and his ability to charm the increasingly paranoid king, Saul suspects something is up:

So Saul eyed David from that day on. The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.


David goes on to become the exception to the rule concerning kingship in Israel. Though hardly a paragon according to contemporary evangelical ideals of virtue, he nevertheless ruled over a golden age never to be repeated. David ruled 7 years in Hebron before conquering Jerusalem and making it his capital from where he ruled a further 33 years.

By the standard of the times, his was a long reign during which Israel morphs into a unified and powerful kingdom, rivaling those of the states around it. But David’s monarchy is a blip in the long trajectory of good governance in Ancient Israel. Although David faced the pervasive tendencies to concentrate power absolutely, what saved him and the nation time and again was his love of God and his willingness to be faithful to the covenant ideal that Israel had only one king, and Yahweh was his name.

When the prophet Nathan accuses David of engineering the death of Uriah so he could take the man’s wife, David presented with his crime, repents. David’s greatness lay in his ability to recognize the limitations of his power when it came to obedience to Israel’s covenant with God. A man of his time, nevertheless David is rare among the Israelite kings in his desire to love and honor Yahweh.

When the king ruled as God’s agent and not in God’s place, the nation prospered because this covenant form of government offered a more effective set of checks and balances capable of successfully negotiating competing interests.

After David, monarchy brought disastrous consequences for Isreal, beginning with his son, Solomon, whose taxes and dalliances with foreign religions oppressed the people and set the scene for the division of the unified kingdom following his death.

The Deuteronomist’s repeated judgment on each reign was whether this king did or did not walk in the ways of David, whether this king was faithful or unfaithful to the covenant with Lord.

Lessons from history

The Covenant between Yahweh and Israel was intended to function as a constitution, setting out the system of checks and balances in the interests of good government. Like Samuel, the framers images-1of the American Constitution feared the people’s demand – give us a king, for there were many who at the time thought General Washington would make a fine king.

And so the Framers wrote into the Constitution the complex system of checks and balances to ensure governance capable of negotiating different interests, which when taken together represented effective governance, serving the interests of the people while not pandering to the rabble cries of the crowd.

Their vision was not of popularism – governance at the mercy of the crowd, but republicanism – government reliant upon a system of checks and balances in which power and the limits to the exercise of power are clearly set out.

I guess we are all wondering what the future holds, but one thing is clear, we are now in the midst of a constitutional crisis. What the Founding Fathers most feared, is the very thing that results when Congress, craven before the demands of the rabble, abdicates power to an increasingly authoritarian Executive.

What alarms me is the historical amnesia. Let the Deuteronomic history of the Biblical record of Israel’s struggles with itself and its God be a lesson for us.

As the prophets in Ancient Israel knew only too well, tyranny is but one short collective memory loss away.




A Holy Trinity: Bible, Kingdom, and Politics

St Martin’s first strategic priority is called embedding the Bible in community life. In addition to recently completing the year-long Bible Challenge, many of our ministry groups now routinely take some time for Bible reflection during their meetings. At the recent men’s beer and pizza evening, actually, it’s more pizza than beer, we devoted time in our two hours together to have a Biblical conversation.

Taking the gospel for Pentecost 4, I invited the men into a subjective encounter with the depiction of the farmer scattering his seed. I asked them to note the word or phrase that caught their attention. We then proceeded to explore each man’s free associations evoked by encountering the text. This is an ancient process, known as divine reading, and in its contemporary form raises the question: how might God be using my associations to this text to speak to me about what needs attention in the next 5-7 days?


download.jpgIn the E-News Epistle which came out on Thursday, I made a very bold statement indeed. I said:

Despite our current immigration debate’s political and social complexities, the Bible allows Christians to hold only one view on immigration – we are to welcome the stranger. 

Now I am aware that it’s always tricky, as Jeff Sessions is discovering, to appeal to the Bible’s text as literal evidence for any proposition we might wish to advance. For on almost any matter to do with how to act, what to believe, what is binding, what is not, the Bible is a collection of contradictory texts. You can use the Bible to argue for or against slavery, for or against the equality of women with men. It’s more difficult to use the Bible as evidence for God’s dislike of LGBTQ people because Biblical societies had no concept of an inherently natural and stable developmental state we recognize as homosexuality. However, the one matter on which the Bible is fairly consistent is the obligation to welcome the stranger. Hence my statement in the E-news is quite difficult to contradict.

If we ask who and what kind of God do we serve? Welcoming the stranger emerges at the heart of Biblical obligation because God’s word to Moses when he asked this very question; when they ask me who shall I say sent me? – was:I am the Lord your God who has heard your cry and brought you out of bondage in the land of Egypt.

The reason we are to welcome the stranger, God tells us, is because we were all strangers, once.


When it comes to engaging with the Bible, there is no such thing as a plain meaning for the words on the page. There is the text, with its own history and context. Then there is us, and the context in which we encounter the text. Meaning emerges in the tension of the space between text as written and text as received by the reader.


imagesMark offers us a rather uneventful story of the farmer who sows his seed by a rather careless method of scattering it, willy-nilly. He then forgets about it, getting on with his life, trusting in God’s goodness in creation to do the rest. The seeds sprout and fruit, though he knows not how. Unlike many of us, he seems OK with not needing to control the process. He knows well enough his real work will come when the harvest is ready.

Jesus’ gospel message is open your eyes and ears and see how the kingdom is in-breaking all around you. Its coming is not within our control, yet neither are we passive bystanders in its arrival.


We cannot hasten the coming of the kingdom. Neither can anyone frustrate its coming. We have work to do, work of scattering the seeds of faith, hope, and love – scattering ourselves and our energies in the world.

We have further work as harvesters of the kingdom’s fruits. Faith ripens into courage, hope into persistence, and love into justice.

The kingdom’s coming is always counterintuitive. Its inbreaking is not another version of the myth of progress; advancing step by step and evidenced by things getting better and better, over time.  Will the coming of the kingdom be further advanced ten years from now? Experience shows it does not work like this.

We scatter, and the kingdom comes, though we know not how. Yet, are not the kingdom’s expectations advanced in a world where slavery is abolished, where women are emancipated, where LGBTQ men and women are accepted, and where the vulnerable stranger is welcomed? The answer is, of course. Nevertheless, the scourge of racism persists and in periods like the present seems even to grow stronger. Sexist discrimination, sexual exploitation of women, and the often-invisible limitations imposed by the glass ceiling, still remain firmly in place. Homophobia is still nurtured in the bosom of evangelical and patriarchal religion, and despite the divine requirement to welcome the stranger we tolerate the inhumanity of this Administration’s approach to immigration enforcement.


This coming week is World Refugee Week when Christians are asked to address the difficult issues of migration and population displacement in the light of the coming of God’s kingdom. What is our response when children, even infants still nursing at the breast are separated from parents at the border; when unaccompanied children and adolescents are detained in Walmart megastores converted into prisons? How must we respond to the latest extrajudicial decree denying asylum claims to women escaping from domestic abuse, and women and children escaping from communities ravaged by drug and gang violence; violence fed and sustained by our epidemic addictions. And when we have the temerity to object to these inhumanities, the Attorney General manipulates Scripture in support of a policy that by any standards is as draconian as it is arbitrary. The primary purpose of our rule of law lies in it being a remedy against capricious and arbitrary exercise of executive government.

In the light of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, what should our response to immigration be?

Experience rather than prejudice and phobia should be the driver of policy. It is worth noting that communities across the country are benefiting from organized refugee resettlement programs, such as the one Dorcas International manages in RI. Economics dictate that if our economy is to grow to meet our national needs then migration is a principal source of the workforce growth necessary. For those escaping political and social chaos, compassion should temper suspicion.


Neither a fearful nor a soppy handwringing response is acceptable.

The kingdom demands from us a hard-headed commitment to hold our legislators accountable for the fashioning of sound policy grounded in principles of justice that protect the vulnerable from the arbitrary and capricious exercise of power.

In authoritarian forms of government ruling through the mechanisms of scapegoating, the vulnerable today will eventually become you and me, tomorrow.

[T]he reign of God does not carve out a separate sacred space; it claims all aspects of human existence. There is no such thing, not in Christianity at least, as an apolitical gospel. There is no economically neutral gospel. There is no gospel that dismisses the importance of embodied existence and interpersonal relationships. …however your church conducts its ministry, if it doesn’t provide sanctuary, hospitality, sustenance, and renewal to those who need it, …. then it isn’t the gospel. In short, there is no gospel in which Jesus remains buried in the ground like a dormant seed. Matthew Skinner

Gaslighting Jesus

This is my family- Mark 3-20-25


A sermon from the Red. Linda Mackie Griggs

people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul…”

In the past few weeks, the Episcopal Church seems to be having something of a moment.  Fourteen minutes in the pulpit at the latest royal wedding thrust Presiding Bishop Michael Curry into the spotlight. His energy alternately delighted and dismayed those present, and his message about the power of love actually became, briefly, a topic of discussion that shunted other matters to one side. You could actually hear people talking over coffee and on the radio about the Presiding Bishop’s message that the love he is talking about is not just the stuff of fairytale romance, but of justice, compassion, healing and wholeness. And to have us, the Episcopal Church, at the center of this Gospel message has been admittedly a breath of fresh air.

There are those who see all of this as a flash in the pan, noting that a few weeks later the country is back to business as usual; painfully divided and agonizing over the steady drumbeat of stressful news. But there is a heartbeat that is just as steady as the drumbeat—we just need to listen for it–for the persistent voices proclaiming the Good News, and to attend to the tradition in which they are rooted.

What are those voices? Bishop Curry came off of his star turn at St. George’s Chapel, and on the following morning’s talk shows, and went straight to Washington, where he preached again and led a march and vigil outside the White House as part of the Reclaiming Jesus Initiative; a prophetic movement led by a broad coalition of church leaders who feel that, in this time of moral and political crisis, Christians must remember that they are followers of Jesus first—before party, race, gender, ethnicity, or geography.

The Reclaiming Jesus Initiative isn’t alone. The Rev. William Barber’s revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the evangelical-led Red Letter Christians are two other broadly based prophetic movements that are finding their voice in a difficult time. They are also calling those in power to account, as prophets have always done. They are calling those who benefit from and are complicit with unjust systems to rethink their values and priorities.

These modern-day prophets have come by it honestly. They are following the Old Testament prophetic tradition, and they are following in the footsteps of Jesus—footsteps that are firm, steadfast, uncompromising and even a bit disturbing, as we heard in today’s Gospel.

An overarching theme of Mark’s Gospel is the pure urgency of Jesus’ message—his call to the people to wake up, to repent, and to believe the good news of the inbreaking Kingdom of God. One of the ways that Mark does this is by layering his stories within each other in a sort of crosswise chiastic pattern, more endearingly known as a “Markan Sandwich.” He does this at least nine times, in each instance interrupting one story with another, and then returning to the original. And rather than distracting the reader, Mark has actually maximized the effect by intensifying his major points, sort of coming at them from more than one direction at once. Like any good sandwich, the idea is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Today’s story begins claustrophobically, with the hometown crowd pressing in on Jesus and the disciples, squeezing up so close that they can barely move their hands to bring food to their mouths. They are effectively entrapped by the crowd and its collective hunger for healing. And through the crush, Jesus gets word that his family thinks he has flown off the deep end. “He has gone out of his mind,“ they say. He’s crazy. Nuts. Bonkers. Come on Jesus, let’s get you home and put you to bed. And keep you quiet.

And then a shift, as the second layer is placed in the Markan Sandwich.  Our attention pivots to the scribes from Jerusalem who wish to pass judgment on Jesus because he is becoming a disruption—stirring up the people, supposedly casting out demons, performing healings (on the Sabbath!) and criticizing the Temple authorities. This man must be stopped. He’s–I know! He’s possessed by a demon—that’s it! Come on Jesus, let’s get you—quiet. Let’s get you–out of the way.

We have an undercurrent of worry in both layers. Jesus’ family is worried that he is about to make them the target of condemnation of the religious authorities. The religious authorities are worried a) that he will bring down the wrath of the Roman authorities, and b) that he is attacking their own authority and credibility. This is a tight spot for everyone.

Jesus first responds to the Scribes with pure logic. Of course, it makes no sense that, having cast out demons himself, he would be a demon.  A demon would not cast out demons—a house divided is doomed.  Then he intensifies his argument. He offers a parable comparing Satan with a strong man who thinks he is secure in his home. But in this parable Satan’s days are numbered because it is Jesus who is intent upon tying up the powers of evil; it is Jesus who is scoping out the property, aware that it will not fall without a fight. But he is ready to rumble.

These are powerful words and images. The vividness and even the darkness of them are disturbing. But the urgency is undeniable, and that is Mark’s intention; to communicate Jesus’ message that the Reign of God is near and that this is serious business. And those who would deny the evidence—the healings, the exorcisms—right in front of their eyes by declaring them to be the work of Satan are denying the Kingdom; denying its imminence and its potential—this is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit to which Jesus refers. This is refusing God’s invitation, God’s yearning for his children to be part of the dream. And this refusal grieves God deeply.

The final layer of the Markan Sandwich returns us to Jesus’ mother and brothers, standing outside of the crowd, begging him to come away from this place—this situation that threatens to become dangerous, not only for Jesus but for those associated with him. They feel the eyes of the Temple and Roman authorities upon them. They need to tame him. This is why they say he has lost his mind. It is a narrative similar to that of the Scribes. If they say he’s insane he can be restrained. He can be controlled. So they pass the word through the pressing crowd: “Jesus, come back home. Forget this crazy talk. Remember us. Remember your family.”

Here is when we begin to see the cumulative effect of this Markan sandwich. It is driving home what Jesus is up against: a classic strategy. It is a strategy of renaming what cannot otherwise be controlled. Renaming or labeling can be an act of uncreation—of dismantling someone’s core identity by distorting it. It is a strategy of sowing doubt in the community. The strategy of Jesus’ family and the Scribes is that if they label Jesus, he becomes that label in the eyes of others. He becomes LunaticPossessed. And when, in the eyes of others, he becomes Lunatic—when he becomes Possessed, he becomes less than human. And thus easier to marginalize and control.

But what Jesus’ family and the Scribes fail to understand is that, while they may be able to distort Jesus’ identity in the eyes of some, they cannot sow doubt about Jesus in his own mind. They cannot, no matter how hard they try, gaslight Jesus.

And he makes that crystal clear; first with his parable about tying up the strong man, and then in response to his family’s pleas to remember them; he says, “ ‘Who are my mother and 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.’”

Jesus’ blunt words have turned the strategy of uncreating on its head. He has taken aim at a fundamental Jewish institution—the nuclear and extended family—and he renames it and extends it even further–drawing the circle wider, not more tightly. In response to others’ efforts to uncreate him, he refuses to be gaslighted, instead opening his arms in an embrace of the crowd and declaring the presence of the Kingdom; Here, THIS is my family. God’s family. The family created by the power of Love.

And here is what we need to understand about this family—what is so radical about this urgent passage: It’s something that necessarily follows from Jesus’ gesture of broadly redefining family. Think about that day on Golgotha, when he opened his arms wide on the Cross—what did he do? He included everyone in his loving and forgiving embrace. This family that he declares today includes everyone. Even those who want to marginalize and stigmatize him. Everyone who chooses to respond yes to God’s invitation is included, because that’s what God’s will is–an invitation to be part of the Family. The wonderful and challenging truth here is that, though anyone may refuse, everyone is invited. And that is the power of it—the power of love. Because if God welcomes both the marginalized and those who seek to tear them down, then that is what we must set as our goal as well. This is our work. The family is that big. To paraphrase the Presiding Bishop, Here is my family: conservative, liberal, anglo, black, white, latino, LGBTQ, heterosexual, citizen, immigrant, refugee,  parent, child—all are family. People we like and people we don’t—all are family. People we agree with and people we don’t—all are sisters and brothers. Family.

This is the urgent message, from the prophets, from the Gospels, and proclaimed even at a royal wedding. It has withstood the test of time, and it’s strong enough to withstand the vagaries of current events as long as we have ears to hear and eyes to see it. We cannot waste a second of our precious lives in fear, or in thrall to those who would divide us one from another. Rather, God challenges and invites us to follow the One who boldly declared himself ready to take on the strong one in his own house, and who wields his weapon of choice: the courageous, confounding and audacious power of love.

A Clear Litmus Test for the Church

There is a tension in organized religion between prophecy and culture.  In the playing out of this tension, organized religion runs the risk of accommodating itself to cultural expectations, bestowing a spiritual imprimatur upon them. When it resists this tendency and is faithful to its prophetic responsibility, organized religion poses a challenge to prevailing cultural assumptions that conflict with the gospel message of love and inclusion.

Prophetic religion can be likened to the unimpeded free-flowing movement of the Spirit, which like a natural spring of water gushes and spills out everywhere. Organized religion creates a walled reservoir collecting the gushing spiritual spring water of the Spirit, channeling it to become a flow of spiritual energy to irrigate civic and cultural life.

However, the fundamental weakness of organized religion lies in its tendency to reject its prophetic mission in order to compromise with the values of its surrounding culture, thus blurring the distinction between spiritual and cultural values. When this occurs, organized religion becomes cultural religion. Cultural religion not only suppresses prophecy but becomes its greatest opposition.

When religion puts on cultural blinkers, the journey from organized religion to cultural religion becomes a very short detour.

In the pages of the Old Testament, we witness this age-old struggle between the divine vision for Israel expressed in its covenant with God and its own vision shaped by an adoption of the cultural values of the world around it. The history of ancient Israel is a rollercoaster ride, a record of the ups and downs in a struggle that finds no simple solution.


samuel-hearing-the-lordThe first lesson for this Sunday, the call of Samuel, is set in an age when: the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  This is a description of a society in which God’s voice is no longer heard or even expected to be heard. In Samuel’s call, we witness Hebrew society’s final attempt to form a true theocracy in which God would be the sole leader.

Samuel was that last of the great charismatic Judges who ruled in Israel before the age of monarchy. In his call, we see God repudiating the religion corrupted by cultural values; that turned a blind eye to the misuse of power identified with Ely, then priest at the hill shrine of Shiloh, and his corrupt sons.

The period of Samuel’s judgeship is a watershed between tribal confederacy led by a charismatic leader and the emergence of monarchy in Israel. Under pressure, Samuel will finally gives way to the people’s demand: give us a king like all the other nations around us  -and anoints first Saul and then David to be kings of Israel.

The advent of kingship in Israel ushered in a new phase in the struggle between culture and religion. With the advent of the monarchy, Hebrew religion becomes corrupted by the cult of divine kingship. As a result, the office of the prophet now arises to speak out against the cultural corruption of Israel’s covenant with God. Israel’s new cultural religion gave its blessing not to God, but to kings who acted as if they were God.

In the politics of ancient Israel, prophecy becomes the counterpoint to the royal prerogative.


The eternal truth is that political structures shift and change, nevertheless the need for prophecy remains. By the 1st-century, Israel’s period of monarchy is but a dim memory. In Jesus time an imperial Roman occupation worked uneasily hand in glove with Jewish cultural religion represented by the Jerusalem Temple establishment. Jerusalem and the Temple embodied a 1st-century equivalent to life within the Beltway. In his teaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus – the heir to the prophets -confronts the cultural religion of his day.


Mark tells us of an incident between Jesus and the Pharisees that took place on the Sabbath. In his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus shines the spotlight on the central issue of the cultural corruption of religion.

Chapters 2:1 – 3:6 record five clashes between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities. In this incident in the cornfield on the Sabbath Day, Jesus insists that God made the Sabbath for the benefit of human beings, not human beings for the benefit of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath observance harkens back to the Genesis story of God resting on the 7th day after 6 days of creation. Without regular rest and respite, our human capacity for the enjoyment of life is degraded. Thus God intends the Sabbath as an instrument of nurture and care. But the Pharisees had turned it into a religious instrument in the culture wars of the 1st-century; an instrument of social control enforced by punishment.


As in Jesus’ day, so also today. Organized religion when it turns it back on its prophetic responsibilities to speak the good news of the kingdom to society -degenerates, becoming a bulwark in defense of the hardness of the human heart. Every day, we are witnesses to the most strident defense of cultural values and political expediencies loudly trumpeted by religious groups that have become so identified with a particular version of American culture that they no longer bear any resemblance to the radical and revolutionary expectations of God’s kingdom articulated in the teaching of Jesus.

When confronted by prophetic witness, cultural religion becomes something lethal in its defense of cultural norms. In its practice of an extreme form of identity politics, culturally co-opted religion lashes out against everything that threatens its hold on power.


The Pharisees become so outraged by Jesus’ prophetic challenge that Marks tells us: they went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Between the pious Pharisees and the worldly Herodians – between the so-called religious faction and those who cared for nothing but privilege and power, -can we imagine a more unholy and self-serving alliance? Regrettably, I think we can!

In a New York Times Op-Ed this week, Ross Douthat speaking about recent ructions in the white, male-dominated and politically power hungry hierarchy of the Southern Baptist Convention, poses our wider dilemma:

So the question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

Douthat concludes that:

For ….. all of us, the direction of history …… will be determined not just by Providence’s challenge, but by our freely chosen answer.

For organized religion in today’s America, there is a clear litmus test to determine the vibrancy of its prophetic health. This litmus test is simple, it is clear, and it is uncompromising:

Justice is what love looks like in public; tenderness is what love feels like in private. Cornel West.

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