A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NYTo hear the sermon preached, click below.
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Pentecost • June 10, 2018
I grew up when the world was falling apart. Someone commented on Facebook recently that the 1950’s had a moral consensus. They failed to mention that the moral consensus included segregation for people of color, sexual harassment for women and blindness to poverty. But I know what they meant and I grew up in a white suburb surrounded by that consensus, that culture. Our fathers had won the great crusade against fascism and we played at being soldiers beating the bad Nazis. My mother had loaded artillery shells but the contribution of women was seldom mentioned. It was a world with threats—periodically we had disaster drills, sometimes in case of tornadoes, sometimes in case of atomic bombs. But it felt safe.
Then things changed. By the time I was beginning to look around for myself, the world was falling apart. When I signed a petition for nuclear disarmament, my mother was horrified; she told me I could be arrested. Our President was shot and killed and the whole country mourned. And more and more we watched as people were beaten in Alabama and Mississippi. A rising level of dissent said that our military, always the moral center, was wrong in Vietnam. I began to float on that tide and then to swim on it. My first speech when I was 14 was about why we should stop bombing North Vietnam; by the time I was 16, I was being called into the vice principal’s office for putting up anti-war posters in school. At church, I learned the songs of the Freedom Riders, “Aint a-scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom” and “We shall overcome”. More and more, the consensus, the culture, began to feel like an enemy, an enemy I was fighting, an enemy that was dangerous.
My family fought back. I think this is why this text has made me want to tell you this story because listening to Jesus’ family coming to claim him back from his craziness reminds me of my own family and how they tried to reclaim me. Mark tells us a series of stories in which Jesus, again and again, is in conflict with his culture and consensus. He comes back to Capernaum; people gather and the crowd is so packed that when some people try to bring a man to him for healing, they have to lower him through the roof. Jesus forgives the man his sins and heals him and is accused of blasphemy. He eats with sinners and tax collectors; the good opinion leaders, the enforcers of cultural order are horrified; he simply says, these are the people who need grace. His followers break the Sabbath rules and then he does himself, asking whether it’s good to do good even on the Sabbath and suggesting he is himself in charge of the Sabbath, Lord of the Sabbath, a messianic title.
Now he’s home again and the crowds are even bigger. It’s a diverse crowd. Some are from the local area, Galilee, some from Judea, a whole different state to the south. There are gentiles there: the text mentions “the region around Tyre and Sidon.” It’s like saying there are people from Tennessee and New Jersey, from Canada and Ohio, from all over.” In fact, the crowd is so dense he has his followers arrange for a boat so he can speak from offshore and the final blow is that the crowd is so dense “they couldn’t even eat.” Think of a subway at rush hour; think of a packed party, where you can’t get to the food or the bar. Jesus’ healing of hearts and bodies is calling people to him. Surely some are there questioning, some are believers, some are followers and some are already opposing him. Even before this moment, Mark tells us the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to destroy him, the same word used when he is crucified.
Now we read that his family is trying to restrain him. “He’s gone out of his mind!”, they say. The smart guys from Jerusalem, the scribes, have another explanation: “He has Beelzebul”. Once when I was in college, I was asked to speak to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches as one of four students about what had become a moral crisis in our nation. As I spoke, as I offered a Christian critique of the moral horror in Vietnam, one man stood up and walked down the center aisle yelling, “You’re nothing but a damn communist!” I don’t want to leave the impression I was Jesus-like in any way. I want to say the opposite, in fact, that what happens to Jesus here is a common cultural reaction when the moral consensus of any moment feels threatened. Our fathers and mothers in the faith left England for Massachusetts partly to escape being accused of heresy. less than 50 years later, they hung three Quakers for precisely that crime.
Jesus laughs at the scribes and points out the obvious: if he was casting out demons by the prince of demons, it would mean the Satan was divided and weakened. Instead, as he knew, Satan was strong and waiting, for what is called in Luke “an opportune time” So we come back to the family. “..his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.” A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” We’ve seen Jesus deal with opponents; how will he deal with these family members who just want him to be quiet, be the nice boy they remember from his bar mitzvah? Does his family matter to him at all?
Now we’ve already been told it was a standing room only crowd: but there are people who have sat down around him, who are listening to him. We’re being shown the signature act of Jesus, the thing for which the healings and demon casting are just a prelude. Jesus creates a community. Jesus makes a family. This business of sitting down around him occurs over and over; it’s what he commands the crowd when he means to feed them.
Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. [Mark 8:6]
See how he’s gathering them? See how he is creating a new consensus, a new culture, a new kingdom? It isn’t a large one; just before this section, Mark lists the 12 disciples he selects to train to take his message to the world.
But just now, he is doing what we often miss: he is making a family.
And he replied, “Who are my mother and my 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.” [Mark 3:33-35]
In a culture where blood ties are everything, Jesus is creating a new basis for a relationship. In a place where family matters, Jesus is making a family out of a common vision of God’s love.
I know about this not only because Mark tells the story but because it’s my story as well. Just when my world was falling apart, when even my family was telling me I was crazy, I went to church. I started with youth group, Pilgrim Fellowship, but it was more than a little meeting once a week. There was camp, there were retreats. There were the nights when my friends and I hung out at our minister’s family home. We were always welcome. There was talk and most of all, it was just like Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners. Whatever we were, whoever we were, we knew we were loved and wanted. Family matters and that became my family and it still is, all these years later.
Now I’ve talked about how much family matters to Jesus and a bit about my own story of family. What about you? What about us? Today is our Annual Meeting and it’s always a day to ask about what we’re doing, what we have done, what we hope to do.
We do a lot of things. We house endless groups; I don’t know about you, but there are times I come into this building and have to look up on the list to see who else is here. We provide coats to the cold, food to the hungry, funds to the Southend community center, gifts for parents to give children at Christmas and Easter. We’re a place where when a gay couple calls and says they want a wedding, we say, “Congratulations! great! Happy to be the place.” We’re a church where sometimes people come who have a hard time being in church because their issues make it hard for them to sit or listen; we try to welcome everyone. We are a church of everyone else: people who in many cases got injured in a church along the way.
We do these things. We should do these things. But it’s family that matters here. What I mean is: it’s not what we do, it’s who we are together. It’s the mutual care; it’s the blessing we are to each other. There is a poem that says a family is where when you go, they have to take you in. For me, the church was a place where they took me in even when my family didn’t want me. Here I am, fifty years later, trying to perform that same miracle.
The Blues Brothers is a funny movie about Jake and Elwood, two bumbling guys in black suits, who become convinced God wants them to raise money to save an orphanage. They put their band together; they make people mad for various reason all along the way. But over and over they say one thing: “We’re on a mission from God.” This story about Jesus invites us to the live the same way, to be a part of his family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Family matters: we are invited here every day to be a part of this family, a part o the caring, a part of this mission of God’s family.