“Insiders and Outsiders in a House Divided”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, June 10, 2018
The Gospel of Mark gets off to a roaring start. This author is on a mission and has no time to tell us the story of Jesus’ birth or about his childhood or youth. Instead, Mark starts his gospel with a quick glimpse of John the Baptist and then immediately turns to Jesus doing ministry as an adult.
Mark tells the story of Jesus’ temptations in just two Bible verses. By the time we reach the portion of today’s gospel reading from chapter three, Jesus has healed countless persons, called his twelve apostles, his reputation has spread and people are eager to meet him.
So, Jesus heads to the hill country of Galilee seeking solitude and hoping to get far from the maddening crowds. Instead of finding quiet and rest, large numbers of people seek to get a glimpse of him or to be healed or to bring someone to him so that he can restore their health.
This morning’s story is as ordinary and mundane as we can imagine. It begins in a house, which is always a metaphor for a “church” in Mark’s Gospel, and they are waiting to enjoy a meal, which is always a metaphor for the Eucharist in Mark. Jesus is in someone’s home hoping to rest and savor a dinner after a long day. We’ve all been there.
Unfortunately, a large number of people are seeking to see the man who apparently has power over the demons and the ability to cure any sickness. They crowd into the house. Likewise, the religious authorities have come from Jerusalem armed with accusations that Jesus is in league with Satan, calling on Beelzebub, which means “lord of the flies,” and using demons to cast out demons.
These words seem strange to our modern ears. Beelzebub? Satan? Demons? They sound like characters from Star Wars or the Harry Potter series. We are more inclined to believe in angels and auras than in demonic forces, yet we have only to read the news headlines to know that humans have unleashed much evil in this world that God designed to be a paradise.
Did Jesus believe that Satan actually existed? He probably did, which can make this passage even more challenging for those of us who are more inclined to believe in heaven than in hell or in angels rather than demons. Christianity does not ask us to believe in a devil with horns and a red tail, but only to acknowledge that evil exists and exercises destructive impact within families, communities and throughout the world, if we are not careful and vigilant.
Further complicating things in this episode is the account a family intervention. Jesus’ family apparently thought that he was unstable or perhaps even demon possessed. We read, “for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” The original words in Greek literally mean, “He has stood outside.” Yet, Jesus is inside while his accusers remain outside.
The question arises throughout Mark’s Gospel, throughout history and throughout our world today as to who is inside and who is outside. We read about immigrants fleeing from murderous regimes in Central America longing for safety. We hear about LGBTQ members being denied full inclusion. We know various groups feel ostracized, penalized or invisible. Conservatives feel threatened that the world that they once knew is disappearing. Who is inside and who is outside? It is an important and ongoing question.
Jesus’ opponents accuse him of using demons to cast out demons. Jesus replies, “How can Satan cast out Satan? …if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” Eighteen centuries later in June of 1858, Abraham Lincoln spoke in the Springfield, Illinois statehouse as he accepted the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln quoted Jesus and told the more than 1,000 delegates, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”
People remember Lincoln’s words “A house divided against itself cannot stand” as if Lincoln had penned these very words. We still feel their power, and their truth endures. Yet, Lincoln was quoting Jesus. His law partner, William Herndon, considered Lincoln morally courageous but politically naive. Lincoln read the speech to him before delivering it. He told Herndon, “I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language… that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.” Lincoln’s words spoke to a divided nation.
Back to Jesus. Accusations about him were swirling around in public, leading Jesus’ family to search for him and get him under control, if not for his sake, perhaps for fear of their own sake. No one likes an embarrassing family member. Jesus’ family comes and stands outside the house where he is and sends someone to tell Jesus that his family wants to speak to him. When the messenger tells Jesus, he replies, “Who are my mother and brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Yet, Jesus’ family will remain outside “the house” or the Church until after Jesus has died and been resurrected. Only then do they enter the Church. At first, Jesus’ words seem cold, harsh and out of character to the image we harbor of the pious leader. But what Jesus is stating is that in God’s kingdom insiders and outsiders and even family are not defined by flesh and blood but by love and by commitment to doing God’s will.
Hence, this passage turns our view of family on its head. In many ways, our modern world has transformed the family into an idol that overrides everything else, including God, whereas for Jesus family consists of those who follow God. The answer to Jesus’s question, “Who are my mother and brothers?” is found in the statement “whoever does the will of God.”
Regretfully, our churches are all too often divided houses of worship, subject to petty theological arguments and differing practices. Our politics are full of recrimination and enmity across differing ideological lines. In times like these we need compassionate leaders who
Fifty years ago this past week, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Two months before he died, he gave a speech on the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. Kennedy said,
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in in the
United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not
violence or lawlessness but love and wisdom, and compassion toward
one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within
our country, whether they be white or they be black.
How we can as a nation come together as one and weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice? Jesus’ message constantly endeavors to separate us from our own self-absorption, our me first, my family first, my religion first or my country first attitude, which is always a way of seeking dominance over others. Instead, Jesus calls us to open ourselves to a wider humanity whereby we see ourselves in solidarity with all of God’s family.
The amazing thing about Jesus’ ministry is that he is open to everybody – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, Jews and Gentiles, sexual outcasts and tax collectors. Jesus appears open to everybody except those who would seek to limit God’s love. If we can embrace this, then the love of God will indeed prove stronger than the forces of tyranny, corruption and the death-dealing ways through which much of the world operates. We will see that God’s love and truth are always stronger than any human evil and deception.
To transpose this text into our own time, we might see caring for an international student who is living thousands of miles from home and inviting him or her to spend time with our family and find a second home in our home. We might reach out as a church to a family who fleeing a murderous regime in Central America and help them make a new life in our community. We might take extra steps to welcome a family with an autistic child to worship and feel at home in our church. We might encourage people who attend the twelve-step programs in our Parish House join us for worship and let everyone know that they are truly welcomed here.
The world that Jesus shows us today is a world where grace pervades. It is not marked by the perfect family or being a member of all the right clubs or groups. The Holy Spirit is wild and disturbing. It comes in unexpected ways and challenges us to expand the circle of love, to tear down rather than erect walls, to be open to all that God is doing in our midst. In the fourth century, the Bishop of Alexandria, a man named Athanasius, argued the truth of Christianity by pointing to the indisputable fact that the Church was able to appeal to and transcend a variety of cultures, so that Christians could make up a single people in spite of their differences. If we let love lead us and heal us and unite us, then our future will be bright indeed. Amen.