Third Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 3: 20-35
Earlier this week I told a friend that I was preaching this week and really struggling with the text. To which they responded, “Scripture, or text message?” Which is a clue that I don’t have very “churchy” friends. But it did strike me that if the gospel Mark were composed today, it might read more accurately like a stream of tweets. Mark, the roughest gospel, a kind of live-action report, was clearly composed orally long before it was written down. I can imagine sitting around the campfire with a storyteller, as they build suspense:
Jesus family has heard he’s possessed and is on their way to restrain him… Meanwhile Jesus, surrounded by so many people that they barely fit in the house, denounces the rumors about him… And by the time his family gets there, he’s so worked up that he denies that he’s even related to them. Who are my mother and my brothers? he says.
This is not the compassionate shepherd we like to think about, certainly not the baby in a manger. Jesus is saucy, rude—a little nasty. Why is he so angry?
At least for me, it’s easy to miss the stakes of this story, because it’s not something that mainline North American Christians talk about very much. It’s about exorcism, and conflicting spiritual realities. The question at stake is: who has the power to cast out demons?
The first time I saw someone possessed by a spirit was in South Africa when I studied abroad. I was working for a theater company, and the a ritual dance was part of the play the company was producing. In rehearsal, one of the actors seemed to become very impassioned and very weak all at once, losing control of herself, and it took a few other actors to help her off stage before continuing the play. Only later did I have the faintest clue what had happened, when it was explained it to me.
Years later in my Baptist-influenced Missouri Synod church in Brooklyn, at our annual revival I saw spirits cast out as people were prayed over.
Spirits and demons are not part of my mental or physical experience of the world, but I have come to realize that doesn’t make them any less real. Whether possession is something that you are familiar with, or not, there is still another way to understand the demonic powers of our world—and by that I mean any power that consumes us, which is of something other than God. Yes, we have all been possessed by cultural and social forces outside of ourselves that govern our assumptions about the world—and our assumptions about each other:
The spirit of individualism, of consumerism, of capitalism, of scarcity.
Of racism, sexism, islamophobia, homophobia...
The attitudes that divide us are destructive, all-consuming, impossible to rid ourselves of — and yet as invisible as the air we breathe. These are the spirits of our age that contort our relationships to each other, and most importantly, our relationship to God.
A kingdom divided cannot stand, Jesus says, nor a nation divided, and he could have gone on, nor a people divided, nor a family divided, nor a person divided against themselves. What is presented as a kind of logic game in Mark— that if Jesus was from Satan, Satan would be divided—might better be understood as an observation about what demonic powers do.
They divide us.
At their core is the very human impulse to set up barriers between myself and the other. Between us over here, and them over there, Between me in this pulpit, and you in your seat, and the subsequent notion that there cannot be enough for everyone, and what’s better for you must be worse for me. It is inescapable, and it is far from God’s will for us.
There is another Spirit who infuses our lives, the Spirit who claimed us in baptism and washes over us this very morning. It is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Love. The question is not whether we can escape the demons who bombard and threaten us, who set the terms of our division. We cannot.
We are sinful until the day we die, steeped in the spirits that separate us from each other.
The question not whether you can get out of the game. The question is where your allegiances lie. And it’s this that seems to get Jesus so riled up.
I once heard a conflict mediator say that in every serious conflict someone’s identity is at stake. Clearly, the most important part of Jesus’ identity is in question. His divinity, and his unity with the Spirit, who is above all and in all and through all, the Spirit who drove him to the desert, the Spirit who drove him to the cross out of Love for all humankind. Out of love for you. Jesus is angry because the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, was being mistaken for the demons who pit us against each other.
I wish I could say, how could you possibly confuse the two? Except that religious leaders, and religious people, do the same thing today. We confuse the demons that divide us, the spirits that cause us to speak hate and do violence, with the Spirit of God.
It is in other words, doing terrible things in the name of religion.
It is a dreadful irony that this very text, I’m sure, has been used to do this very thing. To tell someone that they have been excluded from God’s beloved family, that they will never be forgiven, because of something they have done, or worse — because of who they were born to be.
For whatever reason, my social life in the past few months has tended toward meeting more queer and trans people, many of whom are spiritually hungry or at least open; some have experienced church and might go back if they found a place that felt right to them. And while I am one who has taken for granted that I can be who I am in the church, and that there are already gay and straight people in the church, what I have heard from these friends is the need for a sign—for overt gestures of welcome—that might allow the church to be more than a place of acceptance, but a place of healing for those who have experienced rejection and spiritual trauma.
It’s a question I pose to this community, with a full and open heart to the complexities and the stories we all bring to this Table. The question is not only about our welcome of queer people, but our welcome of young people, of people of different abilities and races and languages, of anyone from whom the world would divide us. How will a visitor know that this church is not governed by the demons of this world, but by the Spirit who makes us one in Christ, who draws us to God and to each other, above and beyond the divisions outside these walls?
Earlier this week the President of Ethiopia, along with many sweeping reforms since he has taken office, made a gesture toward peace with Eritrea, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. This news has large consequences for some of some of us here today. Without trying to capture the complexity of this political moment, still it seems that the question might be on our hearts and minds, how can peace and unity be possible, even amidst intense division, amidst the scars of trauma that remain?
Although division and violence are our every day realities, in a world roaming with demons, the Spirit of Life is already here, at work in the world. And like the Kingdom of God, our unity in the Spirit is already and not yet present; it is something we embody yet still hope for; tt is God’s promise that we lean into, only to find that it is already true.
This is the promise:
The Spirit of Love that is big enough and wide enough and deep enough and strong enough to overcome all the demonic forces of this world, to stretch to the widest reaches of the universe, way out beyond the empty stark,
And the Spirit of Love is particular and specific enough to count the hairs on your head, to heal you precisely where you are in pain, and to meet you—exactly who you are, and where you are, today.
This Love is for all of creation. And this Love is for you.
Friends, in the name of the Spirit who transcends all division, may we meet each other and our neighbors with the same Love today.