Homeward Bound

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ of Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 16, 2024

Mark 3:20-35

Every journey has a moment when it turns back toward home. If the journey is fun and exciting, it may be a moment of disappointment; if the journey has been difficult and included missed loved ones, it can be hopeful and inspiring. There’s a Simon and Garfunkel song called home-ward bound that describes this feeling. And I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt at the beginning of the story we read today in Mark. As I said last week, one of the most important words for Mark is “Immediately!” That’s how the first few chapters run. Jesus is baptized, goes out into the wilderness, John his arrested and Jesus comes back to Galilee, preaching “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” He calls some disciples; others also follow him. He heals, he casts out demons, and he does something shocking for the time: he eats with sinners. Sinners is a big class: it includes Gentiles and people who don’t follow Torah and women. His practice of an open, forgiving, healing community shocks some; already he’s attracting opposition as well as people who believe in him and his message. 

“Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so they could not even eat.” That’s how today’s text begins. Jesus has come home and the whole passage takes place right there, in the place where he started. It’s a small place: some estimates put the population of Nazareth at about 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town? Everyone knows everyone; everyone watches everyone else’s kids grow up. So they all knew Jesus, knew him from when he was just a little guy. He’s been out preaching and healing and exorcising, but now he’s come home and I wonder what they thought. I used to live in a small town in northwestern Michigan, About 800 people lived there but in the summer there was an art festival that drew thousands. So when it says that the crowd was so big they couldn’t eat, I know just what that means. That’s the setting for this story: Jesus at home, crowds of people, lots of strangers, all in this little village.

Mark tells this story in a way that can be hard to understand. The beginning and end are about Jesus’ family, but in the middle there’s a different story about the scribes from Jerusalem. I want to talk about the scribes first, but it’s important to remember that this whole story is set off by Jesus’ family coming to restrain him because they think he’s acting crazy. So: crazy Jesus and the Jerusalem scribes.

Now, one thing I know about small towns is that they tend to be suspicious of the bit city. Big city people dress differently, they talk differently. I imagine everyone knows the scribes are in town. The scribes have already discovered there’s no decent inn and the food isn’t what they’re used to and on the whole they’d just like to get back to their comfortable villas in Jerusalem. But they’re apparently on a mission. These guys are religious authorities, not clergy exactly but lawyers whose job it is to find out and determine what’s going on out there in Galilee. We read a story two weeks ago where already some people were grumbling that Jesus violated some of the religious rules. But he’s attracting crowds. The scribes have done some investigating, heard about the healings and the exorcisms, and they’ve formed an opinion. They don’t discount the miracles, but they explain them by saying, “He’s doing black magic by the power of Satan.” That’s another name for Beelzebub. Some call this figure the devil, there are lots of names but in essence what they mean is personified evil. 

It’s a reasonable argument. We know that many people, especially elderly people, are victimized today by scams. Those scams always start with, “Let me help you.” In effect, the Jerusalem scribes are saying, “Look, this Jesus is doing things for an evil purpose.” But Jesus’ reply is simple: if I was doing things for an evil purpose, the power of evil would be divided. But what I’m doing frees people, brings them home to God. The image of restraining a strong man—remember we started with Jesus’ family wanting to restrain him?—is especially striking. Jesus is breaking the power of evil so those excluded can come home to God. What he says about his ministry is that it’s the turning point: the kingdom is near, respond appropriately. 

Every great struggle has a turning point. Just a few days ago, we remembered the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the enormous battle when the Allies from all over the world gathered together and fought onto the beaches of Normandy. At the end of those June days, the battle against fascism and the Nazis wasn’t over, it wouldn’t be over for almost a year. Yet clear eyed observers could see: the victory was a matter of time. It was being won. Jesus’ earthly ministry is a decisive time in making a new way to come home to God. The war isn’t over on this day in Nazareth, but his ministry, his life, is the decisive battle. The language of the time calls being at home with God a kingdom. That’s language people in the first century understood. But many are now calling it instead a kin-dom, an understanding we are all children of God. Remember what we heard Paul say last week?— he no longer regards anyone from an earthly point of view. 

God is acting in Jesus, acting just as the prophet Jeremiah said, to create a new covenant, a new opening, a new way home to God. In the middle of this, Jesus says that all sins will be forgiven, except blaspheming the Holy Spirit. That verse has sparked all kinds of guilt and judgement. What is blaspheming? Another translation is ‘insulting”. What is insulting the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the name for God acting in the world, so what Jesus seems to be saying is, if you don’t accept and believe in forgiveness, you can’t be forgiven.

The story doesn’t say what happened to the Jerusalem scribes. But it does bring us back to Jesus’ family: they’re standing outside the circle. Remember them? They came to restrain him for acting crazy. When he’s asked about them, he says simply, “Look, we are all family here.”

 Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Apparently, his family does come to understand this. All the disciples desert him at the cross, but his mother is there, and his brother James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church, the first congregation of his followers.

Jesus means to bring us to the kin-dom of God. Everyone is invited. Later, Paul will say, 

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:23]

So we know who is speaking the truth of Christ, those who bring all of us together. 

We haven’t always known this. Our history shows we’ve often given in to the world’s divisions. Jacquelyn can remember seeing water fountains marked “Colored” and “White” growing up in Texas. We all remember. Many in Congregational and UCC churches started preaching the full inclusion of gay and lesbian and transgender people and nine years ago our legal system caught up and allowed them to marry, something we celebrate during Pride Month. For years, we were told about all the awful things that would happen if gay folks married. Recently, a 20-year study of gay marriage found what many suspected all along: nothing bad has happened, it’s simply that many more people are now in loving, committed marriages.

Today is Father’s Day, an especially poignant day in our family. I don’t have any biological children. I always thought that meant I wasn’t a father. But along the way, I raised three children, my daughter Amy, my son Jason, my daughter May. It wasn’t always easy—on them or me! But we managed. They are legally what people call stepchildren. But long ago we all dropped the step part because it didn’t describe how we loved each other. In our own little way, without thinking it through, just doing what seemed right, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we learned to love each other. We stopped making decisions. In effect, we said, “Who are my parents? Who are my children? Who is my family?”—all of us who love each other. We learned to make a family; we learned it’s love that makes a family.

Jesus came proclaiming the kin-dom of God. Some couldn’t understand and thought he was crazy; some were inspired. Some insisted on all the usual divisions, gender, politics, class, race.
But Jesus came proclaiming the kin-dom of God: that all are God’s children. He’s still proclaiming it. All he asks is that we see each other as God sees us: as children of God.