Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 10 • 7 June 2015

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Rev. Chris Udy

Family is a complicated blessing.
Over the last few weeks
ABC TV has been screening a series
by British artist Grayson Perry.
The series is called ‘Who are you?’,
and in last week’s episode
the artist worked with three ‘Modern Families’
to explore how those we live with,
and maybe belong to,
influence identity - who we think we are.
These were unusual families:
one was a Christian collective that seems modelled on
what we know of the earliest Christian communities.
They specialise in adopting waifs and strays
and are very warmly supportive of each other –
but they’re also very conservative and controlling.
The second was a couple – Jack and John –
who have adopted Shea, a mixed-race child,
into what they call their queer family
and are trying to work out what that might mean
for all of them.
And in the third family, Christopher,
who was a magistrate and successful business man
is daily losing memories and the identity they bring.
His wife, Veronica, is holding on to what she can,
but because a significant part of who she is
is locked up in Christopher’s fading mind,
their family is disintegrating,
and both of them will spend
the rest of their lives grieving.
Family is a complicated blessing
and every family has issues:
memories of conflict and betrayal,
too little money - or too much,
jealousies and genetics,
aspirations and delusions of grandeur,
skeletons in closets
and all kinds of dysfunction and disconnection.
Our issues hang around.
They look like they’re over and done,
but they resurface time and again,
pulling us back into habits and patterns
we long to leave behind.
We can readily identify
the roles that define our place in the family:
the prodigal and the black sheep,
the favourite and the golden child,
the awkward uncle and the unfortunate aunt -
and we know how difficult it is
for the members of our family to change
and to be something different.
Families are ‘sticky’ -
they resist reform -
and because they can also give us
what we most need and long for - love and loyalty,
identity, affirmation and approval -
family can be wonderful, weird and woeful,
all at the same time.
So it’s reassuring to discover
that even Jesus had some problems with his family.
Our gospel reading for today
describes an attempted intervention
where members of Jesus’ family
arrived at a place Mark describes as his ‘home’,
wanting to ‘restrain him’.
Mark says they’d heard people saying
‘He’s gone out of his mind’ -
the Greek words mean ‘he’s beside himself’ -
so they came to pull him back
into and under their control and protection.
Mark doesn’t tell us
whether they were angry at Jesus,
or frightened for him -
but they certainly did
what families often do:
they tried to keep things
as they had always been;
they reacted against change,
they used shame to pressure their wayward child
back to the role and place they’d defined for him.
The story of this family intervention
is only found in Mark.
Although their gospels are based on Mark,
Luke and Matthew leave this story out -
because it was embarrassing;
it was shameful,
both for Jesus and his family.
Mark also tells this story
with a technique that he uses often,
dividing it in two
and setting another story in between.
The second story - the one in the middle -
adds another dimension
to the story about family -
and in this case it reveals
just how serious, and how powerful,
the politics of a family can be.
Jesus’ family left Nazareth - presumably -
to travel to the house where Jesus was -
probably in Capernaum.
But while they were still on their way,
some scribes - lawyers - from Jerusalem arrived
and announced that Jesus wasn’t just mad,
he was also evil.
‘He has Beelzebul,’ they said,
‘and by the ruler of the demons
he casts out demons.’
No-one’s really sure who Beelzebul is.
The name could mean ‘Lord of the home’
like some kind of idol
or god of the household or family
but according to the scholars
it could also mean ‘Lord of dung’ -
so we really don’t know,
but he’s clearly meant to be
a powerful dangerous spirit -
the ruler of demons.
What the scribes were referring back to
was the time on a Sabbath not long before
when Jesus healed a man
with an “impure spirit” - as Mark describes it -
a man possessed by a demon,
in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Their charge was that Jesus had healed the man,
not because he was holy or good,
but because he was, himself,
possessed by a powerful evil.
Not only families, but societies and cultures
are strongly resistant to change -
and when change comes,
as it always will,
those who hold places of power,
who know what’s going on
and who want to maintain their control,
will often criticise and condemn
something they don’t understand
and can’t control.
Socrates, for example,
is said to have thought writing
was an unhelpful
and unnecessary skill to learn at school
because it meant people didn’t need
to commit things to memory
and then think about them.
The way things are -
or maybe more correctly,
the way things were a few years ago -
feels right to us.
We finally understand that world;
we know where we stood within it;
it’s now clear who was calling the shots
and now we know the consequences of our actions -
but new things, strange things,
don’t feel right - they feel wrong -
and if changes threaten our influence,
or have the potential to undermine
our plans for a secure and comfortable future,
they may not only feel wrong to us,
we may also want to reject
and condemn them as evil.
So the scribes called Jesus both mad and bad -
driven out of his mind by the ruler of demons.
And, in response, Jesus gathered
his friends and disciples around him
and made two observations.
‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’ he said.
‘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.’
Jesus wasn’t speaking about religion -
this wasn’t just a sermon -
he was talking about the nation.
Israel was divided against itself.
Those who were wealthy,
who’d found a place
among King Herod’s supporters
and in the Roman Governor’s administration -
the people who controlled
Jerusalem and the Temple -
the people who had sent the scribes
to condemn Jesus as evil -
were greedy and corrupt.
They were exploiting the rest of the people,
especially those who were already poor -
‘the people of the land’ as they were called -
and it was those poor people,
people who’d been taxed into dispossession,
driven from their farms and villages and homes
by crippling debt and judgemental religion
who had joined Jesus in his mission
and would soon be going with him to Jerusalem.
‘If Satan has risen up against himself
and is divided,’ Jesus went on,
‘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.’
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.
He was leading his rag-tag army
of people who had been dispossessed and rejected -
but who had now been given courage and hope
because Jesus had inspired them
with stories of God’s reign of peace with justice,
and welcomed them to a place at his table.
He was on his way to the Temple -
the place that was meant to be the house of God,
but had been taken over by scoundrels and thieves.
The temple was still powerful -
it was the strong man’s house in Jesus’ parable -
but Jesus was on his way
to bind the strong man -
to render his power useless -
and take back the goods
he had taken from others by force.
Ched Myers is a Quaker and a Biblical scholar,
who published his commentary on Mark’s Gospel
in 1988 - so nearly 30 years ago -
but it’s still seen
as one of the most significant
and helpful books on the Bible ever written.
The title Ched Myers chose for his commentary
was ‘Binding the Strong Man’ -
because he understands the passage we read today
as critical to an understanding of Mark
and so of Jesus.
Despite many hundreds of years
of Jesus, and the Bible, and the Church
being enlisted and interpreted in ways
that established and legitimised and maintained
the existing authorities and structures of the world -
including families dominated by violent men,
states that punished people
for being poor, or sick, or disabled,
or even simply female,
and empires that used soldiers and guns
to make sure missionaries
preaching gentleness, patience,
peace and forgiveness were given a hearing …
despite Jesus, the Bible and the Church
being used to promote and defend
the powers that be, and the way things are,
that’s not who Jesus is.
Jesus always was, and has always been,
a revolutionary man.
He was subversive.
He wanted things to change.
He also understood that there would be some
who would bitterly and strenuously resist
the changes he was bringing.
Those who benefit from the way things are;
those whose lives are secure and comfortable
because their affluence depends
on the poverty or exploitation of others
will do everything they can
to keep what they have
and maintain their control and power.
They will even attack and condemn
ideas and people and movements
that they know are leading to justice
and to healing -
ideas and people and movements
that they know reflect the will of God
and the values of God’s kingdom -
and they’ll call them wrong, and evil, and Satanic.
They will see people that they know are good;
ideas and movements that they know will lead
to justice and peace for God’s children,
and they will call them evil -
and that, Jesus says,
is utterly and uniquely unforgivable.
Every other frailty and failure can be repented -
but ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ -
as Jesus described it -
describing God’s purpose and presence as evil,
cannot be forgiven -
because, after all, if we so thoroughly reject God,
who else is left in the cosmos
with the love and grace to offer us forgiveness?
Jesus finished speaking
to his disciples and his friends,
and a message came from outside,
where his mother and brothers were waiting
insisting that he come back to them
and assume the place they wanted him to take.
But Jesus looked around
at his disciples and his friends
and said "Here are my mother
and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother."
Jesus was - and is - subversive.
He doesn’t want things to remain as they are,
either in our families, or in our communities,
or in the world.
He has an agenda,
and that is to affirm and see
all human lives as worthy of value and respect.
So when our families use shame, or lies, or violence,
to enforce the loyalty or obedience of their members,
Jesus will subvert them.
When communities exclude and alienate people
because we find their needs disturbing
or their differences uncomfortable,
Jesus will challenge our prejudice,
and when nations legislate,
and use police and military power
in ways that maintain the wealth and power of a few
while many miss out on the basic freedoms
that make our lives worth living,
Jesus will mobilise
his rag-tag civilian army
to confront the powers,
to bind the strong man in his fortified house,
and to lead his movement closer to God’s reign
of love in grace,
and peace with justice. Amen.