The Problem With Families Today – Sermon on Mark 3.20-30

Mark 3.20-30

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom id divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, 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. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

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What a strange story. Jesus has been going around healing people and listening to their stories, he has called the twelve disciples together and announced what their ministry will be, and now so many people have gathered together to see this incredible man, that they couldn’t even eat. And what happens? His family catches wind of the crowds gathering and they go out to stop Jesus because they thought he was going out of his mind.

But then the scribes from Jerusalem arrive and accuse him of having a demon. Does this passage sound bizarre to you? Beelzebub? Satan? Demons?

Jesus hears the accusations and then responds in parables, furthering the confusion of the crowds and modern readers: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If someone entered the house of a rich man, they would not be able to steal anything unless the man was first tied up. Truly, people will be forgiven their sins and doubts, but anyone who ignores what the Holy Spirit is doing will be guilty of an eternal sin.”

What? I don’t know about you, but when I come across passages like this I am often left scratching my head about what Jesus is saying. I read words like Beelzebub and Satan and I can’t help myself from questioning the text. I read about Jesus’ family appearing to restrain him and I can’t help but agree with them; maybe Jesus has lost his mind.

Who can blame them for trying to get him under control? If not out of fear for his life, at least to remove their own embarrassment for what he was doing and saying. We all have a need to uphold our reputations amidst the crowds of life and if a family member starts going out and proclaiming strange things, it might reflect poorly on us.

A few summers ago I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session in Michigan. For a few days, clergy and lay representatives gathered together to worship the Lord, pray for the renewal of the church, and vote on pertinent matters affecting the denomination.

When I arrived the assembly was debating whether or not secretaries should be allowed to keep handguns in the church offices to protect themselves. Later that afternoon they argued about the bishop sending a letter to the President Obama about whether or not unmanned drones should be allowed to fly over the Upper Peninsula.

When the evening rolled around, I was invited by a colleague to attend the “Young Adult” gathering. I thought that sounded splendid after spending what felt like eternity with a bunch of blue-haired Methodists, so I quickly made my way to the basement of a nearby building. I assumed the designation “Young Adult” meant that I would be spending time with people in their mid-twenties to early-thirties, but it was just a bunch of high-schoolers and myself. Nevertheless I had a wonderful time with the group as we talked and prayed together for the future of the church.

That night I had one of the most powerful conversations of my life with a 16 year old boy named Sam. After introducing ourselves to one another, Sam informed me that this was his 8th Annual Conference in a row. He came for the first time when he was 8 years old and had come back every summer. I immediately thought he was crazy! Annual Conference, for me, can be a life-giving endeavor while at the same time a constant reminder of the brokenness of our church. But he wasn’t crazy. He was faithful.

I saw in his eyes a sincerity about the value of conferencing so I asked him to explain what it meant to him. He said, “Going to church every week has done a lot to help me grow in faith, but being around the same people all the time just kind of felt boring. But when I come here, I encounter thousands of Methodist from all over Michigan who have given their lives to Jesus, I sing with the faithful remnant and our voices echo like the angels in heaven, I discover that I am part of something so much bigger than myself.”

I was stunned. While I felt apathetic and cynical about Annual Conference, this young man had discovered, and grabbed hold of, what it could be.

Our conversation continued and he told me that about a year prior he started wrestling with a call to ordained ministry. How perfect – here I was a young seminarian responding to the call of God on my life and I had the opportunity to share this moment with a faithful and clearly gifted young man.

But I’ll never become a pastor.” He said.

“What are you talking about?” I nearly shouted. “In just a few minutes you have articulated a deeper faith than many Christians I know. You have all the potential in the world to be a gifted pastor. Are you worried about how much it will cost? The conference can help you out. Are you worried about how much work it will take? God will give you the strength to make it through.”

No” he sighed. “I’m gay.

I’m gay and I’m open about it. I am not ashamed of who I am and how God made me. But I also know that if I’m openly gay I can never become a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

I was speechless. This young man felt so committed to the church that he had attended Annual Conference eight years in a row, and yet he knew that same church believed there was something wrong with him. I didn’t know what to say in return. How could he be sitting with me in the midst of all this denominational stuff knowing what the denomination believed?

In reaction to my silence he continued, “When I told my family, they disowned me, told me I was wrong and that I had lost my mind. But my church… they welcomed me just as I am. My church has become my new family. But that same church says I can never become a pastor and that who I am is incompatible with Christian teaching.

racism_sexism_homophobia

The story of Jesus with the crowds is a strange one. We hear about demons and Beelzebub and Satan and we immediately wonder what it means. But Satan does not necessarily mean a person with horns and a bifurcated tail, but the name does represent a demonic power that attempts to divide us from the Lord. Satan is anything that separates us from doing what is right, and good, and true.

The powers of Satan, demonic powers that capture our attention cause us to hurt ourselves, others, and our relationship with God.

There is the demonic power of Racism – which tells us to believe and act as if one group’s pigmentation or cultural values are superior to another.

There is the demonic power of Patriarchy – which tells us that men should dominate women.

There is the demonic power of Materialism – which tells us that the accumulation of wealth and goods will bring us everything we need to be happy.

And there is the demonic power of Homophobia – which tells us that anything outside of male-female relationships is an abomination.

Whether or not we believe that Satan is a real person acting in our midst is not as important as recognizing our captivity to powers of evil signified by Satan, powers that continue to affect our lives everyday.

Regrettably, churches are often the focal arena where these powers take hold: hostility, fear, and anger boil over between groups debating the value of human beings. Yet, through the story of Jesus with the crowds, we learn that the powers of Satan must be recognized and confronted if we are to truly experience the incredible love of God.

Jesus’s family tried to stop him. Just like a racist white mother tries to stop her daughter from going on a date with a black man. Just like a homophobic father berates his son for holding hands with another boy. Just like a liberal college student chastises his parents for being too conservative. Jesus’ family tried to stop him. Sam’s family tried to stop him too.

Living out our faith means discovering a new solidarity with ALL of God’s people; all of humanity. Jesus bids us to cry with those who are suffering and rejoice with those who feel free to live their lives as they are. Jesus asks us to look on the people around us who are different from us and love them because they are different from us.

peace-love-no-violence-no-homophobia-no-sexism-no-racism

Whether we admit it or not, we are products of our families and culture. We might believe in the idea of equality, but we grow hesitant because we were cultured into things like racism, and homophobia, and materialism, and sexism. We were taught by the people around us, not because they were evil, but because they were caught captive to the same evil powers that are desperately seeking our allegiances.

The problem with families today is that we don’t challenge ourselves enough to be better. Jesus was not against his family, but he saw them as a challenge to the kind of community and kingdom he was preparing. Today we still face the challenge of how our families prevent us from seeing one another the way God see us: equal.

Wrestling with the powers of the world is difficult. The story of Jesus being accused of having a demon is not easy to handle. Learning about a young man who loves the church in spite of it’s declaration about his identity is sad.

But they also remind us of the great possibilities for hope, love, and recreation in God’s kingdom. They help us to see the moments where we can become better, opportunities for us to dig deeper in our faith, and occasions to say “Yes” to the wonder of God’s kingdom while saying “No” to the backwards values of the past.

Jesus Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings, came into the world to turn it upside down, to show us the way the truth and the life, and to create a new family where ALL are welcome. And all means ALL. Amen.

no-homophobia

On Regretting My Vote

Psalm 13.1-2

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

psalm-13

Annual Conference always elicits an assortment of emotions for me. At one moment I can feel renewed spiritually and theologically as I listen to some of the great preachers from our conference/denomination as they proclaim the Word of the Lord. At other moments I can feel socially fulfilled as I rekindle friendships with other clergy and laity from Virginia. And still at other times I can feel elated and jovial as I did recently when I witnessed our bishop dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” after we voted to support “Imagine No Malaria.”

However, at other times I can feel deflated and frustrated with our church. Traditionally Annual Conference has been a time of Holy Conferencing when the leaders of the church gather together to have their faith reignited for the kingdom of God. In the beginning of our denomination’s history annual conferences were held to maintain the theological convictions of our connection as the circuit riders were spread other a vast geographical area. It also served to maintain the relationships with fellow disciples as well as a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God. As the decades passed, annual conferences began to focus more on the polity of our church while still providing avenues for spiritual growth. In our contemporary period annual conference is a time when we hear about the focus of the denomination, recommit ourselves to spiritual disciplines, and vote on resolutions that have been put forth for our consideration.

After spending Saturday afternoon deeply entrenched in the reports from various agencies within the church (Report from the Common Table, Report of the Site Selection Committee, etc.) it was time to begin our holy conferencing around the resolutions. We were running behind schedule, as is typical at Annual Conference, and only began speaking about the resolutions at 4:30 pm (thirty minutes before a recess for dinner until the Service for the Ordering of Ministry at 7:30 pm).

It has been no secret that Resolution 1 was one of the most anticipated conversations to take place this year (as was also made evident via the conference hashtag #vaumc14 where many people were anxiously awaiting the resolutions). Resolution 1 was as follows:

 

Resolution 1: “Change Book of Discipline Reference to Homosexuality”

Whereas, as stated in the opening sentence of ¶161F in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Whereas we declare that the following statement found later in ¶161F in the Book of Discipline “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” is inconsistent with the first statement. Whereas medical science has established that homosexuality is a state of being and not a choice and therefore homosexuals are part of God’s creation. [See Amicus Brief filed by American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other related organizations, Hollingsworth vs Perry.] Whereas Scripture is not referring to the loving, consensual, victimless relationships we speak of today. Whereas the words used by Paul as applied to homosexuality are the result of translations and interpretations, these passages are therefore open to alternative interpretations. Whereas Christian marriage is offered to sinners, even when the sin is extreme, but we do not offer it to homosexuals who are living out their lives in love as created by God. Whereas the General Conference has failed to explain why a loving, monogamous relationship is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Whereas the current policies, laws, doctrine and practices of the United Methodist church as documented in the Book of Discipline relating to homosexual relationships creates a double standard thereby promoting discrimination and creating the circumstances that lead to the very behaviors among homosexuals that are abhorred in the Bible, both of which are in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. [“Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22: 37-40); and many other references.] Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and the attendant references to and penalties for homosexuality detailed in ¶¶341.6, 2702.1 and 304.4 from the Book of Discipline and all people be accepted into The United Methodist Church to truly embrace “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” as Christ would have us live.

 

When it came time to hear the resolution, a representative stood before the Annual Conference and explained their position in a way that accurately reflected the above written resolution. As is commonly practiced, the bishop then inquired if anyone would like to speak for or against the resolution. In response a leading elder from our conference offered a motion suspending conversation on Resolution 1 indefinitely so that we, as a conference, could gather in small groups over the next year to begin having conversations about how to move forward regarding this “issue.” Two people then spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke against it.

When the bishop called for us to vote on suspending the conversation, I raised my hand.

As I sat there listening to the murmuring of the crowds while various lay leaders and clergy spoke into the microphones I was overwhelmed by the vitriolic responses from the people both for and against the resolution. It frightened me to see and hear Christian disciples speak so harshly against one another publicly and privately as we gathered to be the body of Christ for the world. When it came time to vote on whether to suspend the conversation or not, I believed that the right and true and faithful thing to do was vote to have the conversation stop. In so voting, I was implicitly hoping and praying that over the next year we, as a church, can faithfully respond to this resolution in such a way that it represents the will of God, not just to be decided by the people gathered at conference (who, in my opinion, disproportionately represent the church).

However, over the last two days I have begun to regret the vote I cast. While reading from the lectionary texts this morning I was struck by the first two verses of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” It seems to me that, as a church, we have been having a conversation about homosexuality for a very long time. People have raised their opinion for the continued language in our Book of Discipline, and others have spoken against it. Moreover, Annual Conference is supposed to be the time that we gather for holy conferencing to experience the will of God and attempt to make it incarnate in the way we live our lives. I have begun to regret my vote because I now believe that I participated in a continual and perpetual denial of the value of the LGBTQ community by putting the language of homosexuality from our Book of Discipline on the back-burner.

This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/).

I regret my vote. I believe the time is now for the UMC to faithfully and finally address the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. But, as a conference, we voted to push the decision back, yet again.

It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit abides in us over the coming year as we continue to have holy conferences. And it is my deepest and sincerest prayer that soon, we, along with the LGBTQ community, will no longer have to cry out like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”