Proper 5B: Mark 2:20-35; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC 6/10/2018
Jim Melnyk: “Stand By Me”
There are some movie lines that are iconic – they’re so impactful they stick with you for years. The movie, Stand By Me, premiered in 1986. The film is a coming of age drama about the lives of four young boys. It’s the last line of the movie, narrated by one of the characters, Gordy LaChance, which captures the heart. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” The film ends with Ben E. King singing, Stand By Me, while the credits roll.
A few years later I learned a phrase that named those types of ageless friends for me. Family of Choice. Families one chooses to be a part of rather than being born into them. People we stumble upon – sometimes totally by accident – who become more than friends – who become family. Families based on something beyond the accident of birth – families based on matters of the heart rather than simply blood.
Today’s passage from Mark offers us challenges about choice. One of the challenges is about who might be inside Jesus’ circle of followers and who chooses to stand on the outside. Those who choose to follow Jesus understand what he’s teaching through his parables – or at least they get some remedial lessons. For those who close themselves off to the coming kingdom of God, the parables of Jesus sound like so many riddles in the dark.
All too often we’re quick to consign the crowds around Jesus to the outside – thinking they’re the ones who just don’t get it – the ones who can’t understand his parables. We think of his disciples, and perhaps his family – at least his mother, as those with an inside track – as the only ones who receive special teaching.
But it’s more complicated than that. In tail end of today’s passage it’s the crowds, along with the twelve, who are seated around Jesus. His mother, and his brothers and sisters are outside – seemingly trying to restrain him as we see in the opening verses. You see, Jesus had been doing things like hanging around with tax collectors and sinners. He had been challenging some of the religious leaders’ conventional wisdom about the Sabbath. People are wondering if Jesus has lost his marbles – and so Mary and his siblings try to pull him out of a potential maelstrom.
But Jesus will have none of it. When told his family was outside the gathering asking for him, Jesus asks his own question. “Who are the members of my family?” Jesus seems to be making a distinction between his blood family and what we might call his family of choice. Jesus makes it pretty clear that he considers those who do the will of God – those who welcome his teaching about the coming kingdom of God – those are the ones who are his family.
And so, surprisingly, through much of Mark’s gospel, the immediate family of Jesus seem to find themselves on the outside looking in – not so much antagonizing Jesus as getting in the way of his message in an attempt to protect him from harm. Even the disciples move in and out of the circle as they struggle to understand what Jesus is teaching – what Jesus is demanding of his followers – and what the coming kingdom of God will look like as it continues to unfold in their midst. “Jesus, we want to be top dogs with you in the kingdom!” “Jesus, don’t even think of going to Jerusalem!” “Jesus, we saw someone teaching in your name and casting out demons and we told him to stop!” Even Peter’s last appearance in the gospel is a denial of his place with Jesus: “I do not know the man!”
Martyr and modern-day saint, Oscar Romero once said, “The spiritual life does not remove us from the world, but [rather, it] leads us deeper into it” (Synthesis Today, 6/4/2018). Mark’s gospel is a prime illustration of that theological truth. Everything about today’s lesson has to do with various attempts to challenge the teachings of Jesus. Whether it’s those who discount his teachings because they think he’s lost his mind, or his family trying to insulate him from the consequences of his teaching, or those trying to tie the message and works of Jesus to Satan – it’s all about shutting down Jesus and disempowering his message of God’s love for all. And Jesus just won’t stand for it.
The easy response would be for Jesus to withdraw from the world and create a cloistered community of faith hidden away from the day-to-day struggles of this life. Rather than that, Jesus delves even more deeply into the world – challenging both the community’s lack of faith, and its lack of action on behalf of God’s people.
To that end Jesus tells another parable. “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.” “You say that it’s by the ruler of the demons that I cast out demons,” says Jesus, and he all but laughs at the ridiculousness of their logic. “How can Satan cast out Satan? I’ve come,” says Jesus, “I’ve come to bind up Satan and to plunder his house. You just don’t have eyes to see what’s happening here – you cannot see the kingdom of God breaking upon this world, and so you stand in defiance of God’s love.”
The teachings of Jesus will always confound those who close themselves off to his teachings. His parables will always sound like riddles to those for whom the in-breaking kingdom of God is a struggle. It has been said that “Living by Jesus' truth will not dissolve our family loyalty, but it will remind us that unless we first respond to the love of God reaching out to us, we will have nothing to offer others” – including our families (H. King Oehmig, Synthesis Today, 6/8/2018).
Illustrating the love of God reaching out to us, Jesus says elsewhere, “Let the little children come to me;” (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16) because in our children Jesus sees the face of God’s kingdom. But when we struggle to respond to the love of God reaching out to us, children and infants find themselves separated from their families and housed in what amounts to temporary detention centers. When people of faith stand up in defiance they get labeled as misguided – as people who have lost their minds.
Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” but when we struggle to respond to the love of God reaching out to us, we find ourselves wringing our hands and saying there’s nothing we can do to keep them safe in their schools. And those who stand up in defiance to our apathy are labeled as misguided – perhaps even as dangerous.
Whenever we take a stand for those who are helpless, or for those who are hurting, or for those who are lost, there will always be someone, or some group of people, who will be standing outside trying to restrain us saying that we’ve gone out of our minds. But Jesus comes among us proclaiming the unrelenting love of God for all people – and rather than standing back from the challenges to his sanity and his faithfulness to God, Jesus wades hip-deep into the mess – and by his sacrificial love he binds evil; and he gives us the power to wade into the mess with him, and overcome whatever stands in opposition to the kingdom of God in all its glory and love.
Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminds us, “We are very imperfect vehicles for the embodiment of Divine Grace. We're all driving around on at least one flat tire and with missing or malfunctioning parts. Broken as we are, the impulse is still there: Christ's desire to incarnate grace and truth” (Synthesis Today, 6/7/2018). We have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Indeed, we are the brother, we are the sister – we are the family of Christ.