Thursday, June 11, 2015

Construction Season

Sermon preached  June 7, 2015

Texts: Mark 3:19b-35

            Last weekend my brother-in-law was in the hospital.  On Monday, he was released and he called and asked if I could give him a ride home from Miller-Dwan.  I was at home eating lunch at the time, so I had to think about how I might best get there.  Third Street heading west is closed at 10th Ave. East.  I thought I could take First Street heading west and drive up Third Ave. E. and get to Miller Dwan.  It seemed to work pretty well until I turned on Third Ave. E.  Potholes were being filled and the traffic was backed up for much of the block.  There was little alternative but to wait.  After dropping my brother-in-law off at home, I came back down Central Entrance, and found that one lane heading toward the church was closed due to construction.
            That’s just how it is this time of year.  Potholes are being filled, roads are being redone, building projects affecting traffic are in fully swing.  It is construction season, and while I am glad that potholes are being tended to, there are times when I am less pleased that it slows everything down.  Construction season is a bit of a mixed blessing.
            As confusing and frustrating as traffic may be, our reading for this morning from the Gospel of Mark can be equally confusing and a bit frustrating.  What are we supposed to get out of this chaotic scene of gathered crowds, concerned family members, and hostile teachers?  It can be helpful to recognize that what we have in this passage is two stories sandwiched together, a very common technique used by the writer of Mark’s gospel.  There is the story of Jesus’ family and the story about the confrontation with the scribes.  Mark brings them together in a way that they shed light on each other.  We had a rich discussion of this passage on Wednesday evening and I appreciated that opportunity to listen again to this reading.  Our Wednesday Bible studies are going to use a Scripture that will be the basis for the following Sunday sermon.
            Anyway, one way to think about this passage, merging with the sermon title, is that it is, at least in part, about roadblocks in our journey of faith.  I want to talk about three such roadblocks this morning.  These are identified in the bulletin insert that we will use for our Faith Forum After Hours discussion.  These are not the only roadblocks to our faith, but they are ones I see in today’s Scripture reading.
            The first roadblock is our tendency to think in either/or terms rather than both/and, or to over-simplify when we need to deepen our ability to see complexity and nuance.  Jesus was perhaps acting in ways that might have been considered unusual.  He was certainly attracting a crowd, so large they could not even eat.  Rumors began to spread that perhaps he had gone out of his mind.  Either/or.  The scribes could not fathom that someone like Jesus could really be helping people with their demons.  He must be using “demonic” powers himself.  Either/or.  Things are more complex.  Perhaps, Jesus tells the scribes, I am binding the strong man to topple his house, that is, challenging the demonic with another kind of power.  Perhaps, Jesus tells his concerned family, I am creating new kinds of relationships, new kinds of family.
            Here is one way this issues plays out in my life.  As a pastor, I talk a lot about God.  It is my job, but much more than my job, it is my life.  There is a lot of God-talk, though, that makes me uncomfortable.  Someone finds a parking place near when they need to be.  She attributes it all to God, God blessing her with that particular parking spot at that particular time.  A football player catches a game winning pass and attributes it all to God, God blessing him with that catch at that time.  Here’s my problem.  With so many in the world suffering – going hungry, living in fear of violence, suffering abuse or oppression, is God really all that concerned about whether or not a particular team wins a game or a particular person gets their hoped-for parking spot?
            But is it either/or?  Either God arranges everything that happens or God is not involved at all?  I believe God cares about everything in our lives and in our world.  God is not indifferent to our joy, even the joy of getting a needed parking space.  I also believe that God is not the sole cause of all that happens in the world.  There are choices.  I decide at what time I leave the house and that may have something to do with an open parking space.  Someone else gets a phone call and leaves a parking space.  A football player works hard so he can make game winning catches.  There is freedom and there is serendipity.  God is one important part of the causal nexus of what happens in the world, but not the only part.  It is ok to thank God for the parking space, but it may go too far to claim that God opened up that space just for you, rather than for the person behind you who may also have wanted that space.  My faith is enriched and deepened when I can dive into complexity and nuance.  Avoiding that can be a roadblock to growth in faith.  I appreciate Patrick Henry’s reflections on being “an ironic Christian.”  “The ironic Christian who knows an “as if” world and the God who made it… [insists] that few answers are given in advance, and even those that are may not be easy to understand” (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8)
            A second roadblock in our journey of faith is that we tend to like things the way they are, even when they may not be working all that well.  Jesus’ family seemed to want the old Jesus they once knew to return.  The scribes did not want to have their religious boat rocked.  In the early pages of his book We Make the Road By Walking, Brian McLaren writes about his intent for his book, but writes in a way that illumines the idea I am wanting to convey.  If you’re a long-term Christian whose current form of Christianity has stopped working and may even be causing you and others harm, here you’ll find a reorientation from a fresh and healthy perspective (xxii).  What McLaren is saying is that sometimes we get stuck in our journey of faith and that our faith can stagnate.  Why do we hold on to it, then?  We like the familiar, even when it is a bit painful, even when it pinches, even when it is not working.
            I remember when I was a teenager watching a powerful film on the late show.  In those days, not every network had its Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman/Steven Colbert.  Often one network showed old movies.  The movie I am thinking about here was a film with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick called “Days of Wine and Roses.”  It was a harrowing portrayal of alcoholism made even more stark by the fact that the film was shot in black and white.  The film is a story about a man, an alcoholic, who marries a woman who had not been a drinker, but who also becomes an alcoholic.  He gets sober and she does not.  Towards the end of the movie there is a heartbreaking scene where the sober man talks to his wife about getting help so that she can return to their marriage and to their child.  She tells him that she doesn’t want to, that the world looks too dirty and ugly without the booze, even though her life is pretty dirty and ugly with the booze.
            It is a powerful example of the tendency we all carry within us to cling to the familiar, the known, even when it may no longer be working in our lives.  Sometimes God invites us to change, to new things, and we have to risk letting go of what we know to get to a better place.
            A final roadblock to discuss this morning is this – perhaps we expect too little from our faith.  Churches are often filled with relatively good people who want to become modestly better, and this is a good thing.  There is nothing wrong with that.  God rejoices in goodness and kindness, and in people taking time for prayer and worship.  The problem may be this, can we let our faith touch the demons in our lives and in our world, those deeply traumatic places that we may carry around or that are certainly part of our world.  If the church is only about being pretty good and getting a little better, what do we do when we have to work with really hard issues in our lives?  What do we do if we think we have done something unforgivable?
            So let’s tackle that one.  There is this ominous part of today’s reading about the unforgivable sin – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  What’s that about?  Begin with what precedes it.  “People will be forgiven for their sins, and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  Forgiveness here is pretty unequivocal.  What Jesus may be getting at is not that God refuses forgiveness for some class of sins, but that we have the ability to close ourselves off from receiving forgiveness.  Eugene Peterson renders part of this passage this way: “you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you are sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.”  Even then, God’s grace doesn’t go away.  Forgiveness is there, but it may mean digging deeper into our lives to experience it.
            We should expect from our faith that it will help us grapple with every deep issue in our lives and in our world.  We should expect from our faith the unexpected, that we might be brought to some “crazy” places if we follow this Jesus.  John Wesley, throughout his ministry, was concerned that people expected too little of and from their faith in Jesus Christ.  He wanted people to choose “the more excellent way.” (1787 sermon, “The More Excellent Way”).  Emily Dickinson reminds us wonderfully, Much madness is divinest sense/To a discerning eye/Much sense the starkest madness.  She is not talking about mental illness here, but about being willing to let our faith take us places that may seem a little unusual, a little beyond the pale.  In a world where cynicism often passes as conventional wisdom, it can seem a little crazy to be people of hope, people still caring about others and the world and trying to make things better.  In a world where politics seems nothing more than who wins, who loses and whose campaign has the most money, it can seem a little crazy to work for a politics that focuses on the common good, on doing justice, on creating peace.  In a world where church is becoming more marginalized, it can seem a little crazy to be investing ourselves in this place because we trust that God is still touching lives and sending us out into the world from here, and is still creating a new kind of family where all are welcome and all have a place.
            Maybe all these roadblocks are part of one huge roadblock, our tendency to forget that Jesus invites us to a life of adventure and discovery, that this is the more excellent way of God’s grace.  When we ignore complexity and nuance, when we are too comfortable with the familiar, when we come to expect too little of our faith, we lose our way.  Patrick Henry reminds us:  Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around….  Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity….  An ironic Christian knows new, knows fresh, knows surprise, but does not know it all.  (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8, 9, 10)

            More on surprise next week.  For now recognize the roadblocks.  Risk a little craziness in Jesus.  Amen.

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