June 7, 2015
There’s often a reaction when a celebrity returns home. If you’re a basketball fan, you may be familiar with a particular celebrity who made a name for himself in Cleveland before going to Miami for 4 years and then returning to Cleveland…and NOT winning the game on Thursday night! LeBron James was a big name in his home town when he played basketball for the Cavaliers, a big name when he announced he was leaving to play for Miami, and a big name when he announced he was returning to the Cavs. People had opinions about whether it was a good idea for him to go back to Cleveland. So while LeBron’s basketball skills are fairly undisputed, there was definitely some reaction from his community when he announced he was going home. I don’t know the story well, but from what I’ve been able to gather, some fans threw quite the uproar.
LeBron admitted in an article in Sports Illustrated in 2014 that going to Miami for 4 years was like going to college for a lot of people. He grew up while he was away and it helped him become who he is. But when he goes on to talk about the challenge of owning his decision to go home, he says that, “to make the move, I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough…the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned…seeing that was tough for them.”
Most of us haven’t had the experience of a celebrity like LeBron, but if you’ve ever left a significant community, whether it’s where you grew up or where your family settled, you might know that sometimes coming home causes a reaction…and sometimes that reaction comes from those closest to you. When you make a decision to leave, and in your time away you grow and change, coming home can be initially unsettling, as people around you try to make sense of who you are now compared to who they knew you to be before. Several years after college I met up with a girl I knew from college. When we were in college, she was headed to become an ELCA pastor. When I was in college, I was fairly convinced I did NOT want to be Lutheran. So when we met up several years after college and she was an ELCA pastor and I was an ELCA Deaconess, her comment was, “I’m not surprised you’re working in the church…but Lutheran?!?”
I think that’s one of the dynamics going on in our gospel reading today. There are lots of things going on in this passage, and I wish we had time to talk through all of them… But one of the things that is going on in this section of Mark is that Jesus is returning home. Some translations begin this section with “Then Jesus went home,” and some say, “Then Jesus went into a house”—which some commentators understand to mean Peter and Andrew’s house. But we can see from the context that a crowd quickly gathers to hear what he has to say and that it doesn’t take long for his mother and brother and sisters to find him, so we can fairly certainly assume that if he’s not in his house, he’s in his home territory. People knew him, and had heard he was back in town, and so they go to see him.
And his reception from his family is not as positive as one would hope. They’ve seen the news clips about what he’s been doing, they’ve seen his picture in the tabloids. They’ve heard the rumors. And when they find out he’s home, they’re quick to encourage him to get out of the spotlight.
So maybe we need to understand a little bit about where Jesus has been and what he’s been doing that has led people to say that he’s out of his mind. The gospel of Mark gives us very little biographical information about Jesus. There’s no birth narrative, so the first time we encounter Jesus is in chapter 1 when we read, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.” Evidently Jesus left Nazareth to go hear John the Baptist, he’s baptized, and then driven into the wilderness. Then, after John is arrested, Jesus goes to Galilee and starts preaching: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent! Believe the good news.” And then we have several stories about Jesus travelling…calling people to follow him, healing people, engaging in discussion about the law and about the Kingdom, and generally stirring up controversy. Between chapters 2 and 3 of Mark, there are more than 5 stories about Jesus engaged in controversy. So the word gets out ahead of him that he’s coming home, and it’s no wonder his family’s reaction is to protect him from the rumors and opinions of the masses. The way these verses are translated, either his family wants to protect him because others think he’s out of his mind, or his family wants to protect him because his family thinks he’s out of his mind. Either way, Jesus was home, and his family wasn’t exactly sure it was a good thing.
Can you imagine? Like so many young adults, something compelled Jesus to leave his hometown and see what else is out there. He heard his cousin John had an interesting preaching ministry, so he decides to go hang out with him for a while. This led to an incredible spiritual experience of being baptized and driven into the wilderness. Then his cousin is arrested and Jesus decides to continue the preaching and teaching about God’s Kingdom. As he does that, he notices that when he says stuff, stuff happens, that people want to listen to him, that he’s got this power inside him to affect people in really important ways, and that he has a particular sympathy towards people like fishermen, tax collectors, and others who are on the margins. So he finds himself living this life that draws people’s attention and that puts him on the radar of the religious leaders. Maybe he wants to go home for a minute and check in with the family, and get his head around this life he’s discovering.
And his family thinks he’s out of his mind…or at least they’re not ready to disagree with those who think he’s out of his mind. Not only do people think he’s out of his mind, the religious leaders have caught wind of his ministry, and the text makes sure to let us know that they came from Jerusalem to question him. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough movies to know that when a group of religious leaders show up on your door step with questions about what they’re hearing…the conversation is never comfortable. And unfortunately like so many people in leadership, instead of listening first to how this young adult is understanding himself, his life and his faith, they jump to an accusation, questioning his authority to heal and cast out evil spirits.
This happens a lot, I think. It happens when college kids leave and encounter new ideas and belief systems, and then come home and are not given space to reflect on these new ideas, but instead are expected to get right back in with they left off. It evidently happens when an NBA basketball players makes decision about which team they want to play on, and fans and the media create all kinds of stories about their motivations and intentions. It happens when somebody moves into the community from a different background, and is greeted with cynicism and assumptions rather than openness and interest. And it happens in the church (not Advent, of course), when new voices try to offer ideas about “how to do things,” or when an individual or group uses new language to describe or explore God’s activity in the world. Too often the system sees these new ideas, these new faces, these new understandings of God as a threat. We know how God works…we’ve been in church all our lives…and God definitely does not work like that! We don’t need anyone…maybe even Jesus(?)…telling us something new.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on in this passage, but all the controversy that follows—between Jesus and the scribes about Jesus’ authority over evil spirits, between Jesus and the scribes when Jesus tells a cryptic parable and makes a reference to an unforgivable sin, and between Jesus and his family—I think might be wrapped up in his community not being willing to hear a new message about how God is working in the world. Any questions you have about the unforgivable sin? Talk to Pastor Dave. He’ll be back at noon.
Because what exactly is Jesus doing that is so crazy? He’s healing on the Sabbath, he’s releasing people from the evil forces that has them bound, he’s challenging tradition, he’s recruiting tax collectors to be his followers. What Jesus is doing doesn’t seem so bad, we might think. And that’s part of what Jesus is saying when he pushes back on the scribes with the language about a house divided against itself. But it challenges the norms, which is what the scribes had a problem with. And it expands the boundaries around God and God’s people, and that is a threat to the religious system. It was then, and I think it still is today.
What if his family had received Jesus differently when they heard he was in town? What if they had encouraged and supported him, listened to these experiences he was having and marveled at the new way God was showing up in his life? They might have seen that Jesus was discovering what we today refer to as the call of our baptism…that call given to each of us when we really understand ourselves to be loved and chosen by God for work God is doing in and through us in the world. He was discovering who he was created to be, and was trying to boldly live in to that identity. He was gathering an unusual group of people around him and was pushing the boundaries of tradition so that MORE people could be included. If the scribes and religious leaders had been able…here and in other places in the Gospels…to expand their understanding of God, they would have seen that God was doing a new thing through this young adult from Nazareth! Sure, he didn’t have the experience they did. Sure, he didn’t have the religious education they did. But he was proclaiming forgiveness, repentance of sins, the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth…NOW. They may have found themselves actually surprised and blessed by this young man’s faith.
Two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, where we proclaim that the Holy Spirit is indeed among us, breathing life into us and calling us to listen to the gospel in new languages. Maybe for us it’s not the language of the Medes and the Persians. But maybe it’s the language of young people on social media, of immigrants with a different spiritual experience, of postmodern young adults who can easily hold more than on truth at a time. Maybe it’s the language of those who did or did not grow up in the church, but either way don’t take the importance of faith, religion…God, even…as a given. Whatever it is, the language they’re using to describe and understand God is new…and if you’re anything like me, new language…particularly new language about GOD…is initially uncomfortable and threatening. But the Festival of Pentecost and the season that follows is an invitation to listen to these new languages…and discover in them the presence of Jesus in ways we maybe haven’t recognized before. It’s an invitation to keep our eyes open for the new things Jesus is doing in our midst to call people to himself, to challenge tradition in order to increase hospitality and inclusion, to release people from the powers that keep them bound.
There’s lots of articles circulating about the diminishing numbers in the church, and how youth and young adults aren’t choosing the church like generations before them. There are criticisms about things pockets of Christians are doing to expand boundaries to increase justice and inclusivity that are challenging to other pockets of Christians. There are concerns about the increasing busy-ness of families and that make church programs like Sunday School and Youth Group more difficult to sustain.
But what if these changes aren’t a result of Jesus leaving town, so to speak, but instead are witnesses to the new things the Spirit is doing? While young people aren’t choosing church the same they generations before them did, young adults are organizing in really creative ways around issues of justice and advocacy, equality, reconciliation, stewardship of creation, intentional living and service. While pockets of Christians are doing things differently when it comes to defining ‘who’s in,’ those who have previously been condemned or shamed are being welcomed into the grace and forgiveness of Christ. And while Sunday School and Youth Group programs are not as easy to build and run as they used to be, congregations are rediscovering a commitment to intergenerational faith formation, where children, youth and adults share life together in meaningful and intentional ways in all aspects of church life.
Could it be that Jesus is indeed very much around, but doing things differently than we’ve seen before? Are we ready to expand our understanding and dream in new ways to create space for this mysterious Trinity we talked about last week? Or are we so convinced that we know all there is to know about Jesus and how God works, that we maintain our walls, our systems, our structures…maybe so much so that when we hear rumors of Jesus-type activity in the community, we dismiss it as crazy-talk.
At the end of this passage, Jesus’ family seeks him out again, trying to get some face time with him, and we get this really disturbing verse that makes it sound like Jesus disowns them. I don’t think Jesus is rejecting his family. We know that his mother is among those who are at his feet when he is being crucified, and among the women who go to the tomb and find it empty. Christian tradition says that the book of James in the New Testament was possibly written by Jesus’ brother. So his family evidently finds a way to allow Jesus to be who he needs to be to do the work God has called him to do, even if it pushes him into the public line of fire, and even when it leads to his rejection, his trial, and his crucifixion at the too-young age of 33. So when Jesus reframes this understanding of mother, brothers and sisters to include ALL who do God’s will, he’s not rejecting his family, but he’s EXPANDING his understanding of family. And that’s what happens to us too, right? We grow up and are initially shaped by a specific group, location, and experiences. But if we limit ourselves to that box, and never open ourselves up to more than that, we miss the breadth and the joy of a much broader understanding of home and of family.
Jesus identifies his family as “all who do the will of God,” which leads to the logical question, “what is the will of God?” Answering that question could be a whole other topic, but I’m fairly confident in saying that the will of God has something to do with these instructions from Jesus: Love God. Love your neighbor. Follow me. What that looks like and how to do that…that’s the lifelong journey of discipleship. And that’s what we spend our lives of faith—through fellowship, worship, learning and service—unpacking and discovering. Love God. Love your neighbor. Follow Jesus. And the reality is that sometimes, REALLY doing that—really loving God, loving your neighbor and really following Jesus—will put you at odds with those around you…maybe even with your closest family and friends.
LeBron James made the decision to return to Cleveland and to play for the Cavs again. And my sense is that after some initial controversy he’s been received well and is once again popular…until the Cavs lose the first game of the finals. But he’s not exactly who he was when he left, and neither is his team. His home team had to adjust and find ways to continue to let LeBron be the amazing basketball player he has the capacity to be. Similarly, he had to adjust to being home again, but having new people on his team. He has new opportunity to be a player of influence, to come alongside other players and help them be great, and to create a new relationship with his fans.
LeBron James isn’t Jesus in any sense of the word. His career will come to an end and his story will join that of celebrities and athletes who went before him. But the good news of the gospel is that the Holy Spirit does not have a retirement date. God is constantly re-engaging humanity in relationship, breathing the Holy Spirit into individuals and communities who are invited to re-discover the call God has for them in the world. The Holy Spirit is here, in this community of Advent Lutheran Church, possibly doing new things and calling us to do new things. The question is…how are we going to respond?