Sylvania United Church of Christ
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The sermon for week June 10, 2012

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Family of Strangers, Strangers that are Family
1 Samuel 8:10-20 and Mark 3: 20-35

Today we heard two very difficult passages. They are about power and group dynamics. In the Samuel passage we hear the people yearning for Samuel to crown a king for the nation of Israel, and Samuel asks, “Why do you want a king? A king just gives you war, misery, and taxes.” And the people give a chilling response, “Because we want to be like everyone else.”

And in Mark’s gospel the religious leaders and Jesus’ own family call him crazy and demon-possessed. To make sense of these tough passages, let us take a moment to gather ourselves and pray:

Holy and Gracious Mystery be with us in the speaking and the hearing of these words. May this speaking and may this hearing be of salt and light to all. Amen.

I was raised in a family that did not encourage open and vigorous discussion. Thus anyone who can and will engage in open and vigorous discussion feels more like family than my own family. It was around 7th grade when I learned this fact.

My next door neighbor was the local high school quarterback, the big man on campus, so to speak. In our small town, this distinction made him royalty. And like the royalty in the Samuel passage, he gave us misery because I learned that he was saying some mean things about my cousin who was in the same grade. He called her names that I won’t mention here, but they were demeaning to her not only as a person but as a woman. So I confronted him. Here I am, a twerpy 7th grader speaking to a senior in high school.

I said something along the lines of, “I heard you have said some not nice things about my cousin. That’s not nice because you know that what you’re saying isn’t true. Please stop.” My voice was shaking and cracking due to nervousness and puberty.

And he asked mockingly in his deep manly voice, “And if I don’t, what will you do?”

I said, “Nothing. You’re a hero in this town and my neighbor. I expect better from you.” And I walked away, hoping that the words made some difference.

My family was shocked I had said something. Some of them said I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have known my place and stayed there. Be silent. Endure it. Those were the messages I received.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I felt orphaned at that moment. I felt alone and confused. I had no response.

I imagine this is how Jesus felt in today’s passage.

Mark's Gospel goes at a very quick pace. Jesus has just come out of his 40 days in the desert. Jesus has healed many, has been challenged about his eating with sinners and healing people on the Sabbath, and called his disciples. After all this, he seeks to retire to a house to eat dinner, but as he sits down to eat, there’s a crowd of frenzied Jews and Gentiles desperate to get close to the man who has power over sickness and demons. His family is on the way to his house because they are afraid that he has gone crazy. The scribes from Jerusalem, the religious leaders and experts of the day, are also after him, believing him to be in league with evil.

Here are the people who should know Jesus. Here are the ones who should know better. His family and the religious leaders. He has much in common with them, those who raised Jesus both bodily and spiritually, those who are most like him; dedicated to a life of piety and worshipping God. It is these people who are the furthest from him (Brainwave).

Jesus responds to their accusations with a series of short images. The first set shows that something divided against itself cannot stand: a kingdom, a house, Satan himself. A second image is about tying up a strong man in order to plunder his house. What do these statements mean?

I believe that this is Jesus’ mission statement for his ministry. He is about unity and holiness. He cannot be evil, for evil cannot cast out evil. He seeks to end all division and to plunder Satan’s house. Evil has been subdued, the strongman of this world has been tied up, and the kingdom of God’s love has begun.

Then Jesus makes a chilling rejection. Jesus’ mother and brothers are outside the house trying to get to Jesus. The scribes are upfront. Jesus looks upon the crowd in between, this motley crew of misfits, crazies, and his relentlessly clueless Disciples. And he says about the crowd, “This is my family.”

Jesus rejects family values, rejects bloodlines, rejects the very thing upon which his culture is founded upon--family. He also rejects the religious authorities. He states that both of these institutions are beyond the pale of his ministry.

“This is my family,” Jesus says. “These Gentiles and Jews, the poor, the demented, the sick, working class, women, tax collectors, and all those who have been historically oppressed and shunned by the institutions of family and religion. All are welcome."

Well, not all. Those who provoke Jesus’ intolerance are his family and the normal, law-abiding scribes. Those whom Jesus speaks the most harshly to in the gospels are those who can’t make the leap from dedication to religion, to the openhearted love of God for a disfigured and broken humanity. It’s a radical love that feels like falling off a cliff into chaos best labeled demonic or insane.

Each class at Lancaster Theological Seminary is required to go on a cross-cultural trip to experience Christianity in another culture. My class went to Egypt in 2009. Our tour guide Romani was awesome. He was a Coptic Christian. Coptic Christians make up less than 10% of Egypt’s population. When he told stories of the saints of his church, he would use the pronoun “we.” For example, he told the story of a gang of Muslims seeking to plunder the monastery that we were touring.

He stated, “We learned that they would be coming over the north ridge. So we decided to lay in wait just behind this rock. And the marauders came over the ridge and were trapped in this valley. We had them pinned, and we could have killed them all easily. And they knew this too, we saw it in their eyes. Instead we offered them water and food. We prayed with them, and we asked God’s blessing on their family. These marauders became our neighbors and friends and helped fend off other attackers.”

One classmate asked, “Wow, Romani, when was this?”

Romani answered, “Oh, it was around the year 800 or so.”

“The year 800?!” I said aghast. “But Romani, you tell the story like you were there.”

“I was,” he answered. “I was.”

This is the power of being in the Family of God. You have a family story. You share the faults and the successes of this family, and you can learn from their stories.

These are our family members. Those desert fathers who followed the Holy Spirit out in the desert wilds of Egypt and were called crazy for doing so.

These are our family members.

Those who were Christian when it was so unpopular that it could cost them their lives. And many lost their lives for their faith.

These are our family members.

Even in our UCC tradition, those brothers and sisters who helped with the Amistad Incident. Through years of legal wrangling, they sent back Africans who would have been slaves. Those women suffragists who fought for the right to vote and for women to be viewed as people and not property.

These are our family members.

Recently I just read about Clarence and Florence Jordan who 70 years ago this week founded Koinonia Farm. And yes that is the same Clarence Jordan who was instrumental in founding Habitat for Humanity. I know about Habitat, but I did not know about Koinonia Farm which is a communal and inter-racial farming community based on the model of Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-36. In this community members eat and work together, sharing their property, their labor and their lives. They seek to live out the teachings of Jesus in daily life. And through their example, they hoped, they would convince people to live according to Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God where race does not divide. Think about that: an interracial farm, deep in Georgia, in 1942 (Carey). That’s crazy. But this is our family.

Yet there is fear that goes along with all of this. I learned it and experienced it from my own family when I spoke to the quarterback. And now that I am a parent, I am starting to understand it. It is becoming easier and easier to sympathize with Jesus’ family. I could have been beaten up by the senior! My mom cared about my personal safety, she thought that it was at stake! Jesus' mother and brothers were worried about his safety too. All who had gone up against the religious authorities didn’t have happy endings. John the Baptist was beheaded. And if you weren’t stoned or killed by the temple guards, games were played where outspoken people ended up on a cross surrounded by Roman soldiers. But safety is not always the right thing. Safety is not what Jesus was about.

I hear this concern in many of our churches today. It is the same fear we heard about in Samuel. The people want a leader, they want a king. They want a king because everyone else has one, and they want to be like everyone else. They don’t want to stick out, they don’t want to be called weird or crazy.

But what is crazy? If sanity means that we must lose our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their suffering, to recognize them not as others, but as people like us, to take in their pains as our own, then I don’t want sanity. I want to be crazy. Sanity is not calling the love of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit evil. Jesus states that a sin against the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin (Myers 32).

My family is those who do the will of God. That involves reaching out to the marginalized of our time, those lepers and demon-possessed people who crowded and yearned for Jesus’ touch. We might not see lepers like Jesus did, but we do see the strange bodies of the disabled. We see soldiers with three-fourths of their bodies burned from a firefight in Iraq or Afghanistan. We see maimed Afghan or Palestinian children. We see men and women reeking of cigarettes and coffee at an AA meeting. We see a gay couple and their adopted children being told that they should starve in some concentration camp. We see those out of work and struggling to make ends meet. We see the heterosexual couple whose marriage is on the rocks. We see the mistreatment and the callousness toward the elderly. We see the diverse mess of humanity, with all of its moral, physical, spiritual beauty and imperfection (Farley 120).

The only ones who we do not see pressing in at the doors and windows, desperate and aching to be near Jesus, are the ones who think they know what religion and family life is supposed to look like. Those whose minds are already made up and their hearts stone cold.

Every time I open worship I state, “No matter where you’ve come from, no matter where you’re going, right now, during this hour, you’re home. We are going to treat you like a member of the family, and here that is a really good thing.” The two UCC churches that Kate and I have been a part of opened with a similar message. It is what we know. We find not only a community, but we connect to our family story and find brothers and sisters in faith. And our family members are those who do God’s will of loving and worshipping God together, and to living the golden rule of loving our neighbors. All our neighbors, no exceptions.

Sylvania UCC is family as well. In our outreach and service. Each Sunday in worship. In our small group discussions and potlucks. Our meetings and chats at That Thing and at the Young Family events, we are indeed home. We are indeed among family. We are grateful and happy that we found you still. What that opening phrase says is that here in this community of faith you can bring your authentic self. You can speak to your woundedness and share your story and hear other stories. Maybe your own family can’t hear this, maybe these wounds came from your family. Whatever the case may be, you are invited into the whole realm of human joy and suffering.

For it is in my church family that I learned to talk to my own family. It is through the stories and traditions of those lunatics who had the courage to follow the wild and disturbing Holy Spirit that I can find my own story, and in finding my own story, I can bring my own family along. My mom and sister are more open about things. They no longer think it’s crazy to talk about their feelings or views on things. And that is such a blessing.

Last week, we had such a discussion in the forum after our 10 a.m. worship. We talked openly about our transition, our search process, and the Open and Affirming process. Many felt tense, many felt discouraged or frustrated for a variety of reasons. But we talked openly, we asked questions, we challenged, and above all we are seeking God’s will here at Sylvania and find out how it fits with the family history of our church. I am hopeful that such conversations will continue, that our family discussion will continue; all our sharing of anxieties and fears will be transformed into the sharing of hopes and dreams for our future. It is not only my hope, but I have faith that this will come to pass. And we will find our way together, as a family.

Let’s become a beloved community of certifiable insane people! What if we were irresistibly crazy in a sane world just like Jesus was? A craziness that drew hoards of people from all over to the door of the house where Jesus was staying. Let’s find our own stories in those nontraditional members of our Christian family who stood up and spoke out against injustice in their day and age. Those who brought women into leadership roles in church just as they were in the early church. Those who ordained LGBTQ people, who mixed with other races and shared their experiences, who drank coffee and shared meals with prostitutes, addicts, and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder from war.

Perhaps if we had compassion for our own wounds and the wounds of others, we might find ourselves in the crowd devoted to Jesus. And finding ourselves together, we can reach out to strangers and find family. And maybe, just maybe, that will lead us to heal our own family who are strangers. Amen.

Works Cited
Brainwave 238 - Lectionary Texts for June 10, 2012

Carey, Greg. Recalling Clarence Jordan, Radical Disciple.

Farley, Wendy. Theological Perspective on Mark 3: 20-35, Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3. Pages 116-120.

Meyer, Robin. The Underground Church: Reclaiming the subversive way of Jesus. Pages 30-37.

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