Crazy Enough to Hope – a sermon

It feels really good to be back in Mark’s Gospel.  After spending Easter season in John, I’m glad to be settling back into Mark.  Reading John reminds me of the rides my parents would make us take on Sunday afternoons.  We would load into the family sedan and drive out into the country, not really going anywhere, in search of I don’t know what.  Depending on which direction we were headed, either my sister or I would spend most of the time complaining about the sun baking us in the back seat, while we argued over what color the sky was.  Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, is more like my trip back from the Gulf Coast of Alabama yesterday.  We pointed the car north and, with only a few traffic slowdowns and the Clanton, Alabama Whataburger trying to feed 5,000, we headed home just as fast as we could.

Mark’s Gospel moves very quickly.  You’ll recall that the author’s favorite word is “immediately.”  We hear it more than forty times, as Jesus immediately moves from this thing to that thing and on to the next thing.  In this morning’s lesson, we find ourselves only in the third chapter, and yet so much has already happened.  Jesus has been baptized by John, tempted in the wilderness, and called his first disciples from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  He’s healed Simon Peter’s mother, cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and that’s only in chapter one.  By chapter two, Jesus has already gotten under the skin of the religious powers that be.  His disciples don’t fast like the Pharisees think they should.  Worse yet, they plucked a few heads of grain on the sabbath.  Clearly this man was not from God.

After what must have felt like a whirlwind couple of weeks, Jesus and his disciples returned to his hometown, presumably for a bit of rest and refreshment.  Instead, as our Gospel lesson opens this morning, we hear that the crowds that surrounded him were so thick and so desperate to hear his preaching and receive his healing that Jesus couldn’t even get a bite to eat.  His family feared for his life.  They had heard what the religious authorities were saying about him.  They could see the rabid crowd surrounding him.  They knew what he was saying and doing.  Despite the NRSV’s translation that says, “people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind,’” the Greek really seems to say that the people who thought he had gone mad weren’t strangers in the crowd, but his very own family.[1]  Having seen with their own eyes what was happening around Jesus, it was his mother Mary, his brother James, and his other siblings who were concerned that he had lost his mind.  They were fully convinced that he had gone crazy, and the only way to save him from himself, was to try to get him back under control.

Six years ago, next month, I was in Indianapolis with more than a thousand other Episcopalians worshipping in a convention center ballroom.  It was the third day of General Convention, and the then Bishop of North Carolina, Michael Curry, was preaching.  In a sermon that was later expanded into a book, Bishop Curry invited us to ponder the response of Jesus’ family to his ministry.  He asked us to look at the lives of the saints of the Church, focusing especially on the first Apostle, Mary Magdalene, and abolitionist and author, Harriett Beecher Stowe.  Bishop Curry called on us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Mary, and Harriett by becoming Crazy Christians.[2]  It has been six years since that sermon.  Michael Curry is now our Presiding Bishop, leading the church out into the world to be Crazy Christians.  He was elected for many reasons, not least of which is his ability to preach the truth of God’s love to the masses, but what struck me in the profile for the Presiding Bishop candidates was his desire to serve the Episcopal Church as CEO, Chief Evangelism Officer.  Not only does Michael Curry ask us to live as Crazy Christians, but he expects us to invite others to join in the fun.

The Good News of Jesus Christ that each of us are called to proclaim seems crazy to a world that is in love with power, privilege, and violence.  Jesus’ family thought he was crazy because he was challenging the status quo.  The status quo, whom Mark collectively calls the Scribes, went a step further, claiming that he was possessed by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, precisely because he was a direct threat to their power, privilege, and comfort.  Jesus, however, knew that the only thing that was truly evil in this world was an inability to see God’s hand at work.  Jesus was, and is, seen a crazy because he showed the world what it looks like to have hope in the face of hopelessness.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy because he believed that love was stronger than hate, that peace was stronger than violence, and that God’s grace was sufficient for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy because he lived his life to show us that the power of God’s love could keep the plundering power of evil at bay.

The promise of God’s loving grace frees us to be Crazy Christians.  It frees us to claim that hope is stronger than despair, that love is stronger than hate, and that God’s grace is open to everyone.  In that same sermon, Bishop Curry called on the Episcopal Church, gathered in General Convention, to embrace the craziness of Jesus.  “We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord,” he admonished the fairly staid congregation, “Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God — like Jesus.  Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it.”[3]

Here at Christ Church, we call that crazy way of living “radiating God’s love to all.”  We show the world God’s crazy love through our Wednesday Community Lunch, by opening our doors to the homeless, by helping our neighbors keep their lights on, and by bringing fresh water hours into the Amazon River delta.  We live out the crazy love of God when we care for the sick among us, when the grace we share at this table goes forth to be a blessing to others, and we engage our children, youth, and young adults.  We empower the craziness of God’s grace when we take the time to support these ministries and so many others, by giving generously so that our collective ministry can continue to flourish, and by sharing our gifts and talents for the building up of the church and the restoration of the world.  We share the craziness of God’s love when we tell the story of how Jesus has changed our own lives.

To the world, it makes a whole lot more sense to sleep in on Sunday mornings, to have whatever you give financially back in your monthly budget, and to not worry about the problems that exist outside your front door.  Many see all that we do as nothing more than a crazy pipe dream, but that puts us in good company.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy, and as his disciples, we too are called to be crazy: crazy enough to believe that God loves sinners, just like you and me, and that by God’s grace, we can change the world.  May God bless us with a willingness to be crazy enough to live in hope and love.  Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3675

[2] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/general-convention-july-7-sermon-bishop-michael-curry

[3] Better to hear it than to read it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abJMKeyCWoQ

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A House Divided?

Before Abraham Lincoln and license plates throughout SEC country made it famous, Jesus said that a house divided against itself will not be able to stand.  He reiterates that point in the context of the Church that will grow out of his ministry in the High Priestly Prayer at the end of John’s Gospel, but this Sunday, we will hear it in the context of Mark’s third chapter, as Jesus is being denounced as “out of his mind” and “Beelzebul.”  As Episcopalians, we will hear this text two weeks out from the opening of the 78th General Convention, which is always a time of great contention and consternation, and on the heels of a report (albeit one with an obvious agenda behind it) that The Episcopal Church is set to rack up more than $42 million in legal fees on litigation against former members.

A house divided against itself, indeed.

And yet, as I begin to research and write my thesis for a Doctor of Ministry degree at Sewanee, I came upon a short book, written by the Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington in 1891 called Popular Misconceptions of the Episcopal Church.  In that text, he devotes a whole chapter to the argument, prevalent even in 1891 it seems, that The Episcopal Church was a house divided.  In Dr. Huntington’s day and age, the issue was the ongoing debates between the High, Low, and Broad Church parties, but you could easily bring the conversation forward 120 years and exchange it for debates over human sexuality or church structure or whatever.  He argues, rather convincingly, I think, that it is precisely because of the place of warring groups within The Episcopal Church that we are not divided, but rather models of what it means to be in relationship despite disagreement.

“It is because of its having gradually acquired, during a long history, this inclusive character, that the Episcopal Church is able without immodesty to volunteer its good offices in that effort to come to a better understanding which so many souls in all the communions are earnestly desirous of seeing set on foot.  Such overture would be impertinent indeed if this Church were really ‘a house divided against itself;’ – but is it that?  Come and see.” (Popular Misconceptions, p. 87)

$42 million on lawsuits to the contrary, the hallmark of Anglicanism has been our ability to carry on alongside those with whom we disagree.  One of the great gifts of our Church has, at least historically, been that despite some strong theological disagreements, we can all come to the altar and share in the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord.  As we enter the usual period of anxiety around General Convention, my prayer is that we remember that we need not be a house divided, but rather we are a Church built on the foundation of unity, even in disagreement, that our Savior prayed and ultimately died for.

Brother, Sister, Chicken, Egg

Things get dicey as we enter the long season of “ordinary time.”  First off, there is the odd RCL practice of offering two different Old Testament reading tracks, which puts preachers in the position of choosing, presumably at the outset, whether to hear lessons based on an overarching weekly theme or to work through the story of the Hebrew people in some sort of logical order.  That’s hard enough, but here on Proper 5 we also stumble upon a very works righteousness Jesus in Mark 3.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, [Jesus] said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

So we become brothers and sisters of Jesus by doing the will of God?  That doesn’t sound quite right.  I thought it was all about faith and grace.  I thought that we couldn’t pull off good works outside of the grace of God.  Article XIII puts the fear of God in us quite elegantly, “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace…” (BCP, 870).  We seem to have a classic “chicken and the egg” theological scenario brewing in Sunday’s lesson.  Are we brothers and sisters because we do the will of God or can we do the will of God because we are brothers and sisters?

The “chicken and the egg” problem ends with a tasty farmer’s omelet and some spicy wing sauce, and this theological quandary follows a similar path.  The end result of works righteousness and sola fide is ultimately the same thing: adoption into the household of God and the pursuit of the Kingdom.  The question isn’t so much, “how’d we get here,” but “now what?”

In this brief interaction between Jesus, the crowd, and his family, we learn that the relationships of this world aren’t nearly as important as the relationships of the kingdom.  Following the will of God affords us the opportunity to build kingdom relationships no matter where we find ourselves: at work, at church, in the school yard, in the car, or serving at a soup kitchen.  When we treat others as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God, i.e. beloved children of God just like we are, we are following the will of God for our lives by loving our neighbors as ourselves.