Sermon for June 7, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Mark 3:20-35

                                    All in the Family

         We human beings love to make fun of the family. It provides a rich source of comedy and those who choose nightly television have found relief from the stresses of daily life through family comedy for generations. Some of us remember the bigoted Archie Bunker and his daft wife Edith whose beautiful and petulant daughter Gloria married, to the utter dismay of her parents, a man Archie called Meathead. That name stuck on a generous day. Other times he was the pinko, commie son. One of the more tender moments in the show came after Gloria and Michael had a baby that they declined to have baptized. An outraged Archie sneaked out of the house with his grandchild and went to church to have a chat with God and to do the deed himself.

         Standing by the baptismal font, Archie offers a humble and bumbling prayer to God, something like: “Lord, this here’s my grandson Joey, and we’re gonna baptize this here baby.” He gestures towards the office of the priest, saying “I gotta do this on my own cause Charlie Chan in there won’t help me. You may not recognize me Lord, because I haven’t been to church lately, but I’m still me, Archie Bunker, but I have faith in thee, thoo?” And then he looks confused for a moment. Please take care a this baby God, he can’t help it that his old man is a dopey atheist.” He holds up the baby as if introducing him to God, and says, “This here’s Joseph Michael Sterik, a Christian, and I’m gonna baptism him so he’ll grow up with religion in this rotten world a yours. No intense offended. You done the best you could in 6days.”

Turning then to the baby, Archie said, “Don’t worry Joey, this ain’t gonna make you holler like that other thing they did to ya.” And then Archie baptizes this beloved child in the name of the Father and the son and the Holy Spirit. He tenderly kisses him on the forehead. Turning again heavenward, he prays one last time. “There, I hope that took Lord, cause they’re gonna kill me when I get home.”

We laugh at Archie, even as we want to kill him too: for his prejudices, for his treatment of his wife Edith, for his disrespect of daughter Gloria, and for his insistence on his own way that exasperates everyone around him. In the end, we also can’t help loving him, because we know that God loves him, in all his ignorant, cantankerous ravings. It gives us hope that God loves us, and our meathead family members too.

The teaching of Jesus today is a hard lesson for the church, one seldom preached and one people have always been reluctant to hear. A house divided cannot stand. When the people of God got all caught up asking the wrong questions, Jesus created a new family. He redefined the people of God. No longer were God’s people guaranteed to come from within the Synagogue who had for centuries followed the law and the prophets. They had become hard heated and rigid. The example he used was the healing of a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The scribes were more concerned with how and when he did it than with whether or not the man was made well. They missed the point, and Jesus issued a warning that they needed to repent of their behavior, or their way of practicing faith would die.

No longer were God’s people guaranteed to be those who were born into the family, part of the genetic gene pool, Jews by birth. When his family came to see him, he used the occasion to drive home this point another way. When told, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you,” he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, both insiders and outsiders, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.”

         Jesus said, “A house divided cannot stand.” A home united follows Jesus. Jesus redefined God’s family as those wherever gathered, who align their lives with the will of God. We can’t see behind the scenes at the trouble brewing within the Synagogue but something stinks. We can smell it from here. Everybody present in the story knows that something foul is brewing and they don’t quite know what to do about it. Jesus was the master at teaching indirectly, at pointing towards other things to help people understand the gap between the choices they were making, and the intention God had for their full and abundant life. Changing behavior is hard, if not impossible. Jesus keenly understood that the faith of his people was about to splinter under pressure from within the Synagogue and without in the Roman Empire. Knowing that a house divided cannot stand, he gave his life to invite people into a new relationship with God and one another.

Here in Matthew 3 he sets up this conversation in three ways: first, he points towards the damage that a demon possessed person has caused in the community. The family was disrupted by the rantings of a member of the community. The people were so disturbed that they could not even eat. And so they went out to restrain the man. This must have taken courage. You can almost hear them saying, “You do it Uncle Eddie. No you go cousin George, he’s your father.” At first we think Jesus is going to cast out the demon and therefore heal the community, and then on second reading we see that the one they have come to restrain is Jesus himself. The one they accuse of disrupting the community is Jesus.

“When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” What’s wrong with him? He healed a man on the Sabbath. And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem and held a committee meeting and said, “He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

Jesus knows that some of the religious leaders are critical of him. The text says that they were watching what he was doing in order to accuse him. Notice that this isn’t at the end of his ministry. This story comes only in chapter 3, near the start of it all. Jesus speaks strongly here, fiercely so that they’ll have a chance to stop what they are doing before its too late, because he loves them. He wants them to be part of God’s family, the beloved community. God was in their midst then as God is in the midst of every people gathered in his name, calling them home into a new, radically inclusive creation of family.

Jesus keenly sees what will happen if the family turns on itself. We see examples of this wherever creatures live together. I once observed a house divided, of all places, at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. This spectacular zoo is home to all manner of creatures, beautifully cared for in habitat as close to their native countries as possible. One of the popular exhibits is the Louisiana Swamp, home to all creepy and crawly things, with moss hanging above and steam rising from the humid pools of dank water. At the heart of the exhibit are the crocodiles, two six footers moving lazily in and out of their pond, sunning themselves in the dim light of a bank along their river.

The docent pointed out sadly that there should be three. It seems that on the other side of the log, a third crocodile occupies a much smaller space. He explains that the three crocodiles are sisters, triplets. For no reason that the zookeepers have been able to discern, the two crocodiles in the larger front section, won’t give the third sister any room to move. Every time she tries to come around the corner to join them, they go to battle and try to tear her apart. The consequences are clear, both the two in the front and the one in the back have to live in a much smaller world in order to protect this boundary. Their hostility hurts them as much as it alienates her. It will mean that as they grow, they will all three have to be replaced sooner with smaller crocodiles that can live in smaller, more tightly constrained space. Their house divided will not stand.

The final move Jesus makes to help the gathered scribes understand what he was sent by God to do, was to talk about the Synagogue, their church, as family.

We read: “31Then Jesus’ mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Here Jesus gives the scribes a way out of their quarreling and squabbling. He appeals to them, as he so often does, to look beyond their differences to the will of God. When they challenge him in other places about the will of God, they intend to trick him over theological issues like who owns their coins, and how to distribute bread to the hungry, and whether or not to open the urgent care clinic on the Sabbath. He invites them toward higher ground, teaching them that they do not need to agree on every merely important matter, theological or otherwise. They need only to agree in essential things, like their shared commitment to love God and neighbor. Those whom Jesus calls brothers and sisters in faith are those that mutually look to God beyond themselves, and prayerfully seek to discern and act on God’s will together.

And what is the will of God? Jesus makes this simple: “Love the Lord your God and with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Through the years, you have heard countless sermons on loving the Lord your God, and numerous messages on loving your neighbor, and more than a few on loving yourself. I’ve preached a few of them myself. Today, Jesus invites them to look deeper. The context for loving God, neighbor and self is the gathered people of faith. For Jesus’ followers, the beloved community included the Hebrew people of Moses’ law. For us, the beloved community includes the followers of the way of Jesus, the beloved body of Christ. As important as our individual and private devotion and acts of charity may be, Jesus calls us to account here. He presses us toward a communal commitment to align our will as a community of faith with the will of God. He implores us to quit squabbling with one another and commit our lives to building up the family, the body of Christ, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Thank God for this difficult message. In every generation, from the earliest gathered followers of the way, the church has always been at risk. No matter how long a community has stood, it can unravel in a decade and take generations to rebuild, if ever it does. This terrifies us. Like the disciples at the last supper when Jesus announces that there is a betrayer at the table, they immediately begin to point fingers at one another, and then finally, “Is it I Lord?”

Jesus stops the chatter. He rejects the violence of word and action, all the way to the garden when Peter turns his frustration toward violence, cutting off a soldier’s ear. Jesus heals the man, and once again invites the disciples to another way.

When churches don’t get it, they die. Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening to the church in America today. Every year more than 4000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1000 new church starts!

·        Every year, 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. This translates into the realization that people are leaving the church· From 1990 to 2000, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent), while the US population increased by 24 million (11 percent).

·        At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of this century (2000) where we have 11 churches per 10,000 people in America! What has happened?

Given the declining numbers and closures of Churches as compared to new church starts, there should have been over 38,000 new churches commissioned to keep up with the population growth.

The United States now ranks third (3rd) following China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians; in other words, the U.S. is becoming an ever increasing "un-reached people group." With the most common faith identifies on surveys as none.

Half of all churches in the US did not add any new members to their ranks in the last two years.

When churches observe a drop in participation, they quickly turn toward one another to point blame. What are we doing wrong? Why aren’t people giving more? Who messed up the Sunday School program? Why isn’t our preacher as good as my favorite one from year XYZ? What are our lay leaders thinking? I don’t trust them? She said too much? He said too little? You should do this, they should do that. There’s so much drama, I think I’ll just stay home. Or I could go someplace else until I know them well enough to feel the same way about them that I now feel about you. Does this sound familiar? We worry about the chatter in our own church, but should we really be surprised? If the leaders of the early church thought Jesus was the devil himself, in need of being bound and cast out, then who can stand? None, except by the grace of God.

I believe Jesus came into the world to show us a more excellent way. Jesus doesn’t criticize us, or shame, or blame us into different behavior. Instead he invites us into a new life as resurrection people. Jesus calls us brothers, and sisters, and welcomes us into a new kind of family. Jesus encourages our faith and asks us to bear witness together to what God is doing our world, and to participate together in it through our prayer, worship, learning together, and action in the world as the hands and feet of Christ. This common commitment we share as followers of Christ teaches us to ask different questions. Instead of asking “Who’s to blame? We ask, “what is God calling us to be as a church? Instead of asking, “what’s wrong with him or her,” we ask, “how can I participate in building up the church?” Instead of picking up our marbles and going home when we don’t get our way, we can put all our marbles in this one basket and play for keeps.

Not everyone will make this hard choice to stick with the family. The way is hard.

The church is now as it has always been made up of imperfect, sinful, broken people like you and like me, people who say the wrong things at the wrong time, who fail to show up when is seems important and to show up awkwardly when it is not. We hurt each other and disappoint one another. This sounds like family to me. In the end whether we stand or whether we fall will be determined not by who sits in this office or your pew in particular, but about our willingness to risk it all together through commitment to Christ, to open our lives to the movement of God’s spirit among us, and through mutual care and companionship to walk together into that future that God has in store for us as the beloved community.

This past week I gathered for a night of music and dancing here in York, with a gathering of neighbors from all our local churches and from no church at all. At the end of the night, our host leaned over and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we gathered here and had this much fun on a Sunday morning, singing, and laughing and telling everybody that they’re loved, and that they’re welcomed: Presbyterian, and Baptist and Catholic. While unapologetically Christian, we welcome all people: the atheist, Hindu, Moslem and Jew. What if what Jesus said is true? God is everybody’s father, and God is everybody’s mother. God loves everybody and invites all people to the family and to the table, even you.  Amen