Sunday, June 10, 2012

Homily: The Second Sunday after Pentecost [June 10, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            One of the arguments for regular, repeated reading of the Bible is the way you keep coming across sayings and phrases you’d swear you’d never heard or seen before.  This morning’s Gospel—Mark’s account of Jesus’s family’s attempts to restrain him and the ensuing uproar about where his power comes from—this is a passage I have preached on at least a dozen times over the course of my career.  As I sat down to work on today’s sermon, I thought I had read and talked about this bit of scripture as much as I could and would not be able to find anything new in it. 
            Then, as I read and reflected on it, I discovered this saying of Jesus that I had never really taken in before:
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.—Mark 3.27
When I began to think about this saying, it troubled me.  What does it have to do with anything that has come before it?  In these early chapters of Mark’s Gospel, the Jesus movement has really taken off.  As he goes around Galilee preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons, the crowds keep coming toward Jesus for more.  He appoints the 12 apostles to help him do his work.  Still the crowds keep coming.  In the Gospel for today, even more people have besieged him for help.  His family comes to restrain him, thinking that he is out of his mind.  The scribes come up from the Jerusalem home office and accuse Jesus of being in league with the Devil. They say, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."
What interests me today is the nugget he slips in here in the middle of all this, a little gem of a saying I had previously overlooked:
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.—Mark 3.27
Who is the strong man here?  And who is the one who can tie him up and plunder his house? What is going on?
As Jesus begins his ministry in Mark’s Gospel, the first words we hear from him are these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1.15] In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has really only one message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In this political season, we might call him a “one-issue candidate”. 
Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God” as a way to describe what was happening all around him.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a space or place or zone where all is as God intended it to be:  the sick become well, the poor are fed, the mighty are cast down, demons are cast out.  Wherever Jesus is, God’s kingdom is, too.  Normally, we live our lives in the kingdom of this world:  for Jesus that kingdom was ruled by Caesar, for the Jews it was ruled by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. The whole point of Jesus’s ministry is the proclamation of the kingdom of God.  It is at hand!  Caesar’s days, Beelzebul’s days, are numbered.  The kingdom of this world keeps us oppressed and depressed. The kingdom of God liberates us.  People are getting healthy, compassionate, and joyful. What’s beginning in Jesus will not be stopped until it frees and transforms the whole world.
Now that’s good or bad news depending on where you stand in relation to it.  If you’re poor, sick, oppressed, or lonely, the kingdom of God is good, freeing news.  But if you’re on Caesar’s or Beelzebul’s team, or if their name is on your paycheck, then it’s very bad news indeed.  You’ll have to find another gig.  Those in league with life’s oppressive forces might find the promise of liberation somewhat threatening.  Hence the resistance to Jesus from the establishment.  Hence the confusion about Jesus even in his own family.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The point, at least for me, is this:  those who live out and enact God’s kingdom are God’s true messengers.  Those who stand in opposition to God’s kingdom are, perhaps unknowingly, in the service of Caesar or Beelzebul.  Hence the saying about the strong man.  “No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.”  Caesar is the strong man.  Beelzebul is the strong man.  Jesus is the seemingly weak man who can confound the strong man.  He has knotted Caesar and Beelzebul up in chains of their own making.  By living a compassionate, joyful life, by spreading health and justice, by casting out demons, Jesus is using the powers of evil against themselves. 
As I’ve thought about this passage this past week, I’ve done so against the backdrop of what, for me, has been a pretty ugly story:  the attack the Vatican is making on a major group of American Catholic nuns, the Leadership Group of Women Religious.  Through a group of theological thought police, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican has charged American nuns with spending too much time on the issues of poverty and economic justice and not enough condemning abortion and same-sex marriage. This past week they condemned a book by an American nun who is also a world-class scholar.  The book is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, and the scholar is Sister Margaret Farley, a 77-year-old professor emerita at Yale Divinity School and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  The ironies in all this would be funny if they weren’t so tragic. As Maureen Dowd said in her column last week:
The denunciation of Sister Farley’s book is based on the fact that she deals with the modern world as it is. She refuses to fall in line with a Vatican rigidly clinging to an inbred, illusory world where men rule with no backtalk from women, gays are deviants, the divorced can’t remarry, men and women can’t use contraception, masturbation is a grave disorder and celibacy is enshrined, even as a global pedophilia scandal rages. [Maureen Dowd, “Is Pleasure a Sin?” NY Times 6/6/2012]
If I can name any group of people in the world who do Jesus’s work on earth, it is women religious, the nuns.  If I can name any group of people who both announce and enact the kingdom of God on earth, it is the nuns.  They give themselves sacrificially, they live joyfully, they bring healing and grace and hope to blighted areas that you and I would never dare even visit ourselves, let alone live in.  And for all that they find themselves upbraided by their hierarchy, just as Jesus was upbraided by the scribes.  The nuns of America are casting out demons in their own way here, among us, in the 21st century.  Jesus did that in his day and was misunderstood by his family and understood all too well by the religious and political elite.  He was the one binding the strong man in his day.  Nuns are doing that work in ours.
The poet William Blake said of the great John Milton regarding Paradise Lost that Milton “was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”.  Christianity is finally about announcing and enacting the kingdom of God.  Oppressive systems want to make Christianity into a set of ideas and then define a person’s orthodoxy by their assent to or refusal of those ideas. Imperial hierarchies tend to think the Christian’s job is to become the strong man.  From the Gospel point of view, from the nuns’ point of view, the Christian’s job is to help Jesus bind the strong man. Christianity is not about the exercise of power.  It is about how we treat people. Not strong or famous people.  It’s about how we treat weak and powerless people. Anyone can suck up to the strong man.  Only a real Christian can confound and bind him.
What’s true for the Roman Catholics, of course, is true for us.  A true Christian is someone who does today the work that Jesus did then.  A true Christian casts out the demons of hate and fear.  A true Christian is an agent of healing and blessing and hope.  A true Christian is compassionate and joyful.  There are many angry, judgmental, hateful people abroad today who call themselves Christians and presume to tell the rest of us what real Christians ought to think and believe.  I say, with Blake, that they are of the Devil’s party without knowing it.  I say, with Jesus, that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The strong man is being bound by all kinds of people—even and especially by faithful women religious who bring good news to the poor, and also by countless others who seek to make life better for all those with whom they come into contact.  Doing that, and perhaps only that, is the church’s real business. Don’t confuse what some people say they believe with how they actually behave.  And don’t forget that even Jesus’s relatives thought he was crazy.
Sometimes we don’t recognize Jesus, even when he is right there in front of us.  Look around you. Even now, the pains and griefs of the world are being borne by those who sense the breaking in upon us of a new and hopeful age. Let us support them, thank them, and strive to be like them.“ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.

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