A House United

(sermon 6/10/18)

hand in hand

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

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Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he 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.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then 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.” 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.”

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What goes around, comes around. That must have been what Samuel was thinking as he sat considering what the people were demanding of him. God had first called him as a prophet when he was just a young child, to deliver the message to Eli, a chief leader of the people, that his time in power was coming to an end, as punishment for the misdeeds and corruption of his two sons. And now, all these years later, Samuel’s own two sons were ruling over two different regions that Samuel had put them in charge of, but they’d become corrupt, taking bribes and abusing their position in other ways, and the people were demanding an end to it. The irony couldn’t have been lost on Samuel.

Give us a king, they said. We want to be like all the other powerful kingdoms surrounding us. But Samuel understood the problem with what they were asking. Samuel understood that what was really underlying their demand was that they were actually turning away from trusting in God, and toward the conventional earthly understandings of power and the way to be a people. All the God-talk was OK when they went to the temple and offered sacrifices, but the rest of the time, they needed some kind of leadership that worked in the real world. After all, you have to be pragmatic about these kinds of things.

It boggled Samuel’s mind. So, you think there’s corruption now? he asked. Oh, just wait, if you want a king. A king will take your money, your property, your freedom, your rights, and even your children, and trample on them all, in the name of national security, national interest, national dignity, preserving the honor of the king, but really, for the most part, just to bolster the ego and provide luxurious perks for the king himself, at the expense of the people. Samuel knew this, and the history of the kings that followed showed him to be right. Even the two kings who have been held up as the best of them, David and Solomon, were deeply flawed and abusive and corrupt rulers, and the worst of the bunch were truly appalling.

And Samuel knew that the only way a king can get away with that kind of abuse of so many for any length of time without getting overthrown was to keep the people divided. Justifiably or otherwise, keep them afraid of the other kingdoms around them and see that they’re seen as a threat. And get them into nasty internal squabbles – this was a time when Jerusalem was still a Canaanite city, not an Israelite one, and there wouldn’t be a centralized temple there for many years. So where should they properly worship God – at the temple in Shiloh, or in Bethel, or Gilgal, or Mizpah, or Ramah? God could truly physically dwell in only one, so which one was it? Which one was the place for true followers of God to worship and sacrifice? And for that matter, there were countless prophets roaming around the countryside; who were the true prophets of God, and who were the false prophets? And on and on. Keeping the people arguing and fighting amongst themselves, creating artificial divisions and countless “us versus them” battles that would keep people from seeing the truth of the unity that God wanted for them, would keep them from focusing on the king’s abuses. There’s no doubt, and Samuel knew it well, that the easiest, most expedient, most self-serving way to keep ruling over the house, at least for the short term, is to keep the house divided.

But Jesus had something to say about this in today’s gospel text, when people accused him of being able to cast out demons because he was possessed by a demon himself. It was stupid, he said. What sense would that make? He asked. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

This as true today as it was then, and it’s just as true whether you’re talking about a literal household, a family, or a church congregation, or a community, or a country. And yet, everywhere we look, we see people working to create divisions, fractures, separations; to set one group of “us” against some supposedly dangerous, or immoral, or otherwise undesirable “them.” And it’s become such a natural part of our lives to constantly be at each other’s throat that we almost don’t even recognize it; we’ve been trained as well as Pavlov’s dog, as soon as a bell rings, we come out of our corners ready to fight tooth and nail over something, anything, as if our lives depended on it, and everything is reduced to black and white, no middle ground. I recently saw such a heated argument between two reasonably intelligent people online that I swear, if they’d really been in the same room together it really would have come to blows, just over whether they heard “Laurel” or “Yanny.” And of course, the divisions and brokenness that we allow ourselves to get sucked into, the things that divide our house, are often far more dangerous and harmful than that silly argument.

It’s an especially Reformed/Presbyterian thing to place a high level of belief in the idea that there is no aspect of our lives, no aspect of creation, that is outside of God’s scope or authority – that God is Ruler over all. It’s what we know as the doctrine of “the sovereignty of God.” It’s because of the sovereignty of God that Jesus always clearly, unambiguously taught his followers to work toward unity, not division, all areas of life. To mend, not to tear apart. To repair brokenness, not to create it, in our own lives, in our families, in our cities, in our world.

It’s because of the sovereignty of God, we can’t say “Oh, that all sounds good on Sunday, but that really doesn’t work come Monday morning. That just isn’t realistic. It’s naïve. You don’t understand the way things really work. You don’t understand how bad the situation is, how dangerous those people are, how immoral those people are, how different, how liberal, how conservative, blah, blah, blah. You just don’t understand how bad those other people are.

But they’re all God’s people. And everything is God’s kingdom. It’s all God’s house. And Christ calls us to be repairers, unifiers, of that house. To actively work to increase understanding, and unity, and to be peacemakers – and to just as actively work to oppose any thing, any one, any action, any policy, law, or regulation, any conventional wisdom, any stupid Facebook meme, that serves to divide and cause friction among us. Christ has taught us that we need to reach across these lines of separation, and even to work to eliminate the line to begin with, because they’re mostly artificial and meaningless anyway. And when we reach over those lines, we’ll discover the humanity in each other. And when we discover their humanity, we’ll also be able to see the  light of God dwelling within, and radiating from them. When we recognize their humanity, we’ll be able to see that they’ve been created in the divine image, the very image of God, every bit as much as we are, and are deserving of every bit as much dignity and respect, no matter how different we may seem. And we’ll be able to work together to erase those meaningless lines of separation and work for a house united.

What does that look like in practice, to be that kind of a voice of peace and unity in the world? Well, here are just a few very simple examples:

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Here are some faith leaders forming  a line against neo-nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville.

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Here’s a picture of some Christians forming a protective barrier around a group of Muslims at prayer.

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Here’s another example of the same thing.

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And here the roles are reversed, because it isn’t only Christians who understand that God wants us to be a house united. Here is a group of Muslims forming a human chain around a Christian church to protect it from attacks.

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And another example of the same thing.

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And another one, this time a group of Muslims standing in support of a synagogue in Norway.

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And the reverse, too, Jews standing in support of Muslims.

8-keisha thomas

And finally this last one. This is a fairly well-known picture; maybe you’ve seen it before. This is a photo of a young African-American woman named Keisha Thomas, taken in 1996.  That year, the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Keisha’s hometown, and as usually happens when the Klan stages a protest, there was a counterprotest to oppose them. Keisha was at that counterprotest, when someone noticed a Klan member there in the middle of the crowd. When people saw him, they started punching him, kicking him, knocking him to the ground and just beating on him. But Keisha saw what was happening, she used her own body as a barrier to protect him from any more beating as he lay on the ground, as she yelled at the people around her that this wasn’t right – you can’t beat badness out of someone; you can’t beat goodness into them. This wasn’t the way.

Those were examples of people working for unity in a larger group setting. Maybe most of us wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation like those. But maybe we’ll find ourselves somewhere when an immigrant, or a person of color, or an LGBTQ person, or whoever, is being harassed and bullied. Is there some way that you could intervene and let that person know that you’re there to be helpful and supportive to them? Is there someone in your neighborhood – someone who’s really different than you are; maybe not someone you’d usually invite to the backyard barbecue – but you find out that they’re suffering some family tragedy. Can you do some kindness for them? Christians are called People of the Book; I think it’s just as true that we’re the People of the Casserole. Stopping in for a brief visit, dropping off some food, maybe opening up a conversation – letting the person know that you care about them, and that you aren’t so different after all. That’s working to establish a house united.

Whether it’s in ways large or small, out of gratitude for the love that God has first shown us, Christ calls us to say Yes, we will follow Christ’s call to love. Yes, we will follow his call to be peacemakers. Yes, we will follow his call to unite.  And we will say No, we will not agree with those why try to separate and divide us. No, we will not accept any artificial, and meaningless, and harmful divisions among us, any more. No – not in our name. Because we know a better name, and a better way than that.

Christ called us to be a house united, because he knew, just as Samuel did before him, that a house united is what God had in mind all along.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Silence! (sermon 2/1/15)

capernaum synagogue

The ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, on a much sunnier day than when I visited it. This synagogue dates to the 4th century CE, after Jesus’ time, but is built on the foundations of the earlier synagogue, where Jesus would presumably have done what we read about in this gospel text.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. – Mark 1:21-28

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When I was in seminary, I had a class where I had to translate a fairly lengthy portion of an Old Testament passage – a pronouncement from one of the prophets; I don’t remember which one – where, at one point in the translation in which God calls out “Silence!” And as I translated that, I couldn’t help but laugh because it made me think of something else. A lot of you are probably familiar with the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, and his one character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist. If you are, you know that this particular ventriloquist dummy, this character, is just a comical-looking skeleton with wild eyes, a turban, and a beard. Achmed was supposedly a suicide bomber who ended up dying in an accident as he was building his bomb, and part of the routine is Achmed telling a number of pretty off-the-wall, politically incorrect jokes – and his one recurring, trademark bits is getting angry at the audience and yelling in his put-on accent, “Silence!…… I keel you!”

And try as I might, I just couldn’t get that stupid line out of my head as I translated this passage from the Old Testament. When I did the translation work for the professor, I had even written that line into the translation as a joke, and it was only at the last moment that I deleted it, worried that the professor wouldn’t have as much of a sense of humor as I did, and realizing that things that seemed like a good idea at two in the morning don’t always look so good in the light of day.

I couldn’t help but remember that incident, and laugh all over again, when I read today’s gospel passage. I pictured Jesus, teaching there in the synagogue in Capernaum, and him calling out to the possessed man, “Silence!”…. and some smart alek calls out from a back pew in the synagogue, “… I keel you!” Well, not likely, I suppose. I need to say that I think it’s okay to allow ourselves to laugh about things like this; I believe that Jesus has a pretty well-developed sense of humor and I don’t think we’re going to be banished to hell for something in the Bible making us laugh, as long as we get through that layer and consider what’s really important, what’s really going on in this story and is there some significance for us in it?

This is the first story, the kickoff, of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel, and that makes it an important signal of where the gospel is going to go; what it’s primary point or message about Jesus is going to go. The people who wrote the gospels were telling a story and trying to convey a particular overarching message. Just like when I sit down to write a sermon, the first thing I determine is the one, single point that I want to make, and then I’ll try to shape everything I do in the sermon to illustrate that point, shaping the content and tone and the rhythm of the sermon all to best convey that message. I might weave around the point a bit to get there, but the idea is to never stray too far from that overarching point. The writers of the gospels worked in much the same way. They were all starting from the facts of Jesus’ life, but each one of the writers shaped the story in a particular way, to emphasize a particular point. They chose how to arrange the story, how to sequence it, how to pace it, what words to use or what stories to include or not include, or how to enhance or shorten the stories, all to help them in their goal. They were storytellers, in the best sense of that term, rather than historians or news anchors, each trying to convey a slightly different overarching point about Jesus and the importance of his life and teaching. That’s why we end up with places where the gospels disagree with one another, and sometimes in ways that can’t just be easily explained. When the early church fathers decided to include the four gospels we have as part of our scriptures, they weren’t idiots. They recognized the inconsistencies in the stories; but the point was that perfect historical accuracy wasn’t the important point – the point being emphasized in the particular gospel, about Jesus and his message and his significance was the important point.

So in that light, we can look at the first thing that each gospel writer focuses on at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and find a signal of where that writer is going to go with Jesus’ story; what their emphasis is going to be. In Matthew, the first major event is the Sermon on the Mount. In this gospel, Jesus is going to be portrayed as the Great Teacher. In Luke, the story of Jesus’ ministry starts with him preaching in his hometown synagogue, talking about how God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor and outcast. In John, the story starts with Jesus miraculously turning water into wine, and a lot of it, as a sign that Jesus is the eternal God in the flesh. In each of these cases, that becomes the main theme of the gospel, the main point the author is driving at. Teacher, Friend of the Outcast, Cosmic God as Attested to by Miraculous Signs. And here, in Mark, Jesus’ first act is one that showcases his authority and power – power that changes in the entire world, power that shows God is a boundary-breaking God. Time and time again in this gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the incarnate God who breaks through every barrier set up for him, barriers that to Mark’s readers would seem to be impenetrable. The preacher Karoline Lewis has pointed out that through Jesus, God breaks through political, social, religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and as we can see in this exorcism, even the cosmic forces of good and evil. A key message of Mark is that God is present in and beyond all of those barriers. That’s Mark’s way of understanding what the good news, the gospel, that Christ brings into the world is all about. Jesus is the barrier-breaker, showing people that God is present, God is here, even in all those places behind those supposed barriers, the places supposedly beyond God’s help and power, those places supposedly controlled by powers other than God. Through the authority and power that he shows over and over again in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is God’s “No!”, God’s “Silence!”, to those other powers.

The good news for us is that God is still yelling this “Silence!” to all the powers that would control our lives, too. Those things that we could say “possess” us, and prevent us from living that fullness, that contentedness and “at-peacedness” of life that our Jewish brothers and sisters simply call shalom. Powers like loss. Grief. Depression. Anxiety. Addiction. Illness. Disease. Mark’s message to us is that God is still here, with us, in the midst of all of those powers and more. God has not left us or forsaken us, and while sometimes it doesn’t seem true, we still can be reassured by Mark’s message that God is Here. God is Here. Walking with us, holding us up, and embracing us, through it all. And that God does have the power that some day, some way, all the pain and suffering that we all endure in our own ways will be wiped away, banished, exorcised by God. That was the hopeful way of explaining the gospel in this first gospel written, and it resonates to us even all these years later.

Thanks be to God.