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 Lunatic. Possessed. 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.