“God urges us always to work for justice, but takes each one of us right where we are”
Some of you all, who follow along with the lectionary carefully, find this year (of our regular, repeating sequence of three years) rather hard to keep track of… In other years (the Matthew and Luke years), we read lots and lots of material from those Gospels, Sunday after Sunday. There’s a lot there! Mark, though, as many of you know, is quite different. Simply put, it is much shorter! Mark’s Gospel contains only 16 chapters; it has no “infancy narrative” (that is, no Christmas story) and only a few verses at the end tell us of Jesus’ Resurrection. As a result of Mark’s brevity, there’s not enough Markan material for us to cover the whole year, last Advent to next, with Mark’s words. In fact,we hear from Mark on only about half the Sundays, all year (27/52, to be exact!). On all the rest, we hear from Matthew or Luke or John. Before last week, we hadn’t heard from Mark’s Gospel since before Easter…
So it was a little startling for me, actually, to notice that we have begun rather a “streak” of Mark! We hear from him (or her, depending on who you think wrote this Gospel) eight weeks in a row. As you think of June and July, you might be thinking of lots of different things…the beach, the end of the program year, your garden, your vacation, people visiting on the 4th of July, and so on. But I encourage you, if you will, to set your minds on the community around Jesus that particularly inspired Mark, on these early summer days, this year. Set your minds on that community that inspired a writer to (very succinctly) tell the story of Jesus around 70 C.E., sharing stories in the first half of the Gospel that we’re reading from now, in that rural, sparsely-populated region called Galilee. Come with me, and our other summer preachers, to hear what the Gospel writer Mark wants us to learn about Jesus in the summer of 2018…
For some time, I’d say since that fall election in 2016, I have struggled to engage the news. I imagine (no, I know) that I’m not alone in having that experience. In the wake of the last presidential election, many people in progressive communities have engaged themselves either more deeply in the news cycles that are swirling around us, or, like me, they’ve struggled to meet the news head-on, or at all. I have been deeply troubled, as I know many of you have, by the chaos and lack of either compassion or consistency around our national immigration policies. I am troubled by the fact that we can’t get our minds and votes around the “handguns” issue, in our urban areas, particularly. I am troubled by the fact that man leaders in the Departments of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency appear to stand against public education and protection of the environment than for them. And so on…and so on…and so on. (I imagine that many of you are with me.)
Though I have tried to engage, over the last 18 months, I have found myself somewhat “frozen”; “stuck” in inaction was another way I have described myself. I haven’t been able to read or listen, debate or act. I’ve rarely been able to preach, even, about the justice issues that have been troubling me.
I have wondered what to make of this “stuckness” around engagement with the news and the political activism that has characterized most of my life. What did it mean, I wondered? Did the circumstances of my life this past year really just get to me and stop me in my tracks? Was my reticence here to stay? Was there something I could do to “get back” to my regular level of engagement? What did God want me to do?!
The words in Mark’s Gospel for today have spoken to my situation. In this very early section of the Gospel (chapter 3), the author offers, over and over again, demonstrations of Jesus’ power and authority: he heals those who are sick, raises those who have died, and casts out evil spirits. In the aftermath of one of these exorcisms, though, Jesus is challenged by the authorities, who are always trying to trap him with logic. “He has Beelzebul inside him,” they assert; “by this ruler of the demons, he casts out demons.” But Jesus resists their accusations, claiming that it is through the power of God, the Holy One, that these demons are fleeing. “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.”
As is often the case, Jesus’ words, in any of the Gospels, can seem harsh. In the cosmic battle between good and evil, though, Jesus often offers guidance with directness and clarity. The work, as I read this passage, is to stand with God, in the house of God, in the community of God, and “tie up” or “bind” that which stands against God, so that the “good” might be brought out. Put another way, the Jesus within us urges us, I believe, to engage with God, and against the powers of evil, as we go about the business of our lives.
That notion, alone, though, certainly did not give me the help I need to “get over the guilt of inaction,” that I described earlier. For me, this piece of our Gospel passage for today actually does rather the opposite! (“Good and evil are ever before you,” Jesus teaches. “Don’t bury your head in the sand,” I hear him say. “Work hard for the good!”) No, it took the other portion of our Gospel for today to give me the help I needed…
In Mark’s Gospel, there often is a “story within a story.” Here, in Mark 3, the passage begins and ends with a story about Jesus’ family. As the crowds press in on him, and he takes on an authoritative teaching voice that they do not recognize, they become worried for Jesus and they urge him to come away from the crowds. Then comes that central story I just spoke about. At the end of today’s passage, we return to this story about Jesus family; we hear some friends say to him, “Your family is calling for you…” But Jesus replies, “Who is my family? Who are my mother and my brothers? And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Ah, here are my mother an my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
I took comfort from this passage, which is a much accessible lesson for me to grab onto than Jesus’ hardcore engagement with the scribes. It is a reminder that I, that we, live in community. (Thank God!) I absolutely am called to do the will of God, to do justice. But I have all my brothers and sisters in community to do it with. The Friday prayer group at Good Shepherd has spoken a couple of times, recently, about how, when one of us feels down, or “unable,” for whatever reason, others of us are ready to “stand up and be and do.” That’s true in all of our various ministry committees. It’s also true, I realize, with justice work.
As I have felt “frozen” and “stuck,” whether due to my personal reaction to the news or to other things that are going on in my life, others–my brothers and sisters–absolutely have NOT been stuck or frozen. (I witness the protests on the Boston Common that took place out my office window, the thousands of high school students across the country who protested gun violence in the aftermath of Parkland, and those of you at Good Shepherd, who, week after week, announce your intention to stand for justice and invite others in the congregation to join you.)
Maybe, in times of quiet or “feeling stuck,” we simply have the energy to wait and pray, and support these, our brothers and sisters. Maybe that’s the answer to my question; maybe that’s what God wants in these times when we feel stuck. I have come, through recent reflection, to think so.
And, thanks be to God, I think my “stuck-ness” just might be changing. A few weeks ago, I saw, in the “New York Times,” an article entitled, “Find your Ferguson.” As you might imagine, it encouraged people to find that place in the world where they can make a difference. I stared at the headline for a long time. “Find your Ferguson,” I thought. Maybe I am just about ready to just do that… I think (maybe) I could preach on that… And, last week, I saw a short video clip of a diverse group of kids at a camp, getting ready to race for a hundred-dollar bill. Before we start, said the director, “Take two steps forward if you never had to worry about where a next meal was coming from…and two steps more if one of your parents went to college…and two steps more if…,” and on and on. Picture who was at the front of the pack. “Look around,” the director said, “None of you is standing where you are because of anything you did. Now race for the bill, and if you get it do something good with it. And try to remember what happened here.” I felt like I wanted to cry. I felt a real thaw, a real, renewed energy, a readiness to get going…again.
As you know, at the end of sermons, I usually ask the congregation to consider a question. Today, I invite you to locate yourself on the continuum of in-action to action, with regard to social justice. Are you able to watch the news? Take it in? Talk to folks? Do things? Then, wherever you are, take heart from Jesus’ reminder that we are all brothers and sisters together, some having an easier day, an easier season, and others “down” for whatever reason, and “just not ready to go, right now.” If you’re in a season of strength, by all means, “Go”! And if you’re not, pray and trust that God will bring you up and out of that space in God’s time…and that, meanwhile, praying and waiting and supporting others is good–good enough–maybe even just right.
In our lesson from 2nd Corinthians today, Paul says, “Do not lose heart.” We’re all in this together, brothers and sisters, and together, as Jesus says, we’ll do the will of God.
In the name of God, I pray, who urges us always to justice, but takes each one of us right where we are.” Amen.