“People stand up and say stupid and outrageous things all the time. Usually we ignore them, or poke fun at them, especially when they hold or are seeking public office. The people who upset us, are the ones who step outside the status quo, but who are correct. The ones we really hate are the ones who have reason or evidence on their side, and who show us that we are wrong. Those who challenge “the way things ought to be” are dangerous. They threaten to upset everything. It is not just the rich and powerful who are at risk from such a person. Those of us who are lackeys are sometimes very comfortable lackeys, thank you, and have nothing to gain from some malcontent who is crying for justice and freedom.”
We’ve just returned home from dealing with family. The death of Susan’s brother after almost seven years of extraordinary care by his wife and sons was the cause of grief. The gathering of family members from Ohio, Illinois, Maine, Indiana and even the state of Washington was an opportunity for support and caring, sharing our stories, getting caught up with each other and moments of happiness and great joy.
The recent mini series Hatfield and McCoys tells of the decades long family feud that began right after the Civil war in the Big Sandy river valley that brought West Virginia and Kentucky to the brink of war. Fascinating as a tale of Appalachian culture it demonstrates the power of family. We do well to acknowledge that power if for no other reason than to be free to make choices appropriate to our own selves.
On our trip I saw any number of church reader boards announcing that they were somehow ‘family focused’. One of the messages on my office phone was from an organization trying to enlist people to get others to sign a petition to establish in law a single definition of family.
It seemed a bit ironic that the suggested reading from the Gospels for this week is a story Mark tells of Jesus and his family.
Mark 3:20-21; 31-35
20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
So, what is a family to do? Jesus’ message had touched such a cord with the populace that crowds were clamoring after him to the point of making it difficult for him to even eat a meal. He not only proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is coming but demonstrated what that kingdom will look like. His healing is indiscriminate. It paid little attention to the accepted patterns of the law or custom. Women were healed. Healing occurred on the Sabbath. It was all highly visible; people are cutting holes in roofs to get to him! And it was provocative. People were saying: “He has gone out of his mind.” Well, maybe he had. They knew that what Jesus was saying wasn’t just rankling the authorities, it was seriously heretical. He was being accused of blasphemy – the penalty for which was death. And the folks have come from Jerusalem to see for themselves.
People stand up and say stupid and outrageous things all the time. Usually we ignore them, or poke fun at them, especially when they hold or are seeking public office. The people who upset us, are the ones who step outside the status quo, but who are correct. The ones we really hate are the ones who have reason or evidence on their side, and who show us that we are wrong. Those who challenge “the way things ought to be” are dangerous. They threaten to upset everything. It is not just the rich and powerful who are at risk from such a person. Those of us who are lackeys are sometimes very comfortable lackeys, thank you, and have nothing to gain from some malcontent who is crying for justice and freedom. In fact, we stand to lose a lot. We sang of the comfort, peace and assurance we find “In His Presence”. By the twentieth verse of the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark Jesus has arrived at the point of thoroughly upsetting “the way we know things ought to be.”
How is it that Jesus’ ministry of preaching and teaching and healing created such controversy and accusation? David Lose says that the answer is fairly simple: Jesus is so totally what the religious authorities don’t expect that they have absolutely no idea what to make of him. He doesn’t fit their categories, and what doesn’t fit our categories we typically label abnormal, or deviant, or crazy, or possessed. We assume that what we know, what we have experienced, and that which we hold to be true is normal, natural, and God-ordained, and that becomes the standard by which we measure — and judge — the thoughts and actions of others.
Jesus’ whole ministry has been a declaration of a new vision of God and a new way of relating to God. And at the heart of that vision is that God is love, that God desires the health and healing of all God’s creation, that God stands both with us and for us, that God is determined to love and redeem us, and that this God chooses to be accessible to us, to all of us — indeed, to anyone and everyone.
Jesus sets himself against all the powers that would rob humanity and creation of the abundant life God intends — whether those powers are unclean spirits; disease that ravages the mind, body or spirit; illnesses that isolate and prejudices which separate people from community. Jesus introduces a new vision of God and a new way to relate to God…and it’s not what any of them — okay, make that any of us — would expect.
Religion is designed to regulate our relationship with God. The root of the word for religion comes from the Latin ligare, to bind, which supplies the roots of the words “ligament” (tissue that binds together) and “obligation” (the duties to which one is bound). Religion, then, most often serves to connect us again to God by specifying what actions, duties, and obligations we should undertake out of reverence to God. On one level there’s something absolutely right about this. Religion offers us a way to structure our thinking about God and relationship with God. It gives us ways through which to express our grateful response to all of God’s activity.
The trouble arises, however, when we allow our religion to become a substitute for a genuine, living relationship with God. We do this when we use religion not just to offer structures that facilitate our relationship, but actually to manage and control that relationship or, worse still, to manage and control God.
Perhaps this is the predicament in which the Scribes found themselves. It’s not that their way of relating to God was wrong — they are part of a long and proud tradition of faithful service to God and the people of God. It is just that Jesus doesn’t conform to their notions. Jesus declares that the law, finally, isn’t about regulating our relationship with God but was given by God to help us get more out of life. And so he heals whenever and wherever there is need, even on the Sabbath. And he welcomes all, even those normally excluded by religious restrictions or customs. Jesus points back to the wildly merciful and unpredictably (and uncontrollably) gracious God who is always doing a new thing. No wonder he sounds crazy, even possessed.
Anna Carter Florence is quoted as saying that the Christian Gospel always sounds like that. She was referring to one of the post-resurrection scenes in Luke, where the men take the women’s testimony as “an idle tale.” But the word in Greek — leros (which forms the root of our word “delirious”) would be better translated as “out of their minds.” You know, crazy, insane, possessed.
And I agree. I mean, think about it — week in and week out we confess that the God who created everything not only knows about us but loves us, loves us enough to send his Son to demonstrate that love by word and deed even if it meant being killed. You’d have to be a little crazy to believe that message, maybe even possessed.
But finally, I think that’s what we confess, too. That we are possessed by and possessors of the Spirit of God and in this way drawn into God’s family, a family founded neither through blood nor the law but through a sense of owning and being owned by God’s Holy Spirit. This is a story about Jesus and his understanding of the meaning of family, quite apart from our notions of how family should be defined. It is also a story which asks me if I am a member of Jesus’ family. No longer privileged with observer status, Jesus makes his call upon me and my life. Who is my family? Jesus asks. And his answer: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”