Between Good and Evil (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 3:20-35


At an interfaith gathering last Sunday night that Linda and I attended, one of the speakers wondered: If the great prophets of our religions (including Jesus) were to be present in our time, would they meet the same rejection and persecution that they met in their own times? Many of us who were present nodded our heads. Yes, they probably would meet with rejection and persecution.

In the scripture from the gospel of Mark, from which we just heard, Jesus is running into trouble with his own family. The stories are circulating about him teaching with authority, healing the sick, casting out demons; and this just doesn’t seem to them like their sweet, little Jesus boy. And, when folks begin to say that this bizarre behavior of Jesus is a sign that he is out of his mind, his family—his mother and brothers, and perhaps sisters—spring into action. They go to the house where a crowd of people have come together—looking for help, looking for healing, looking for deliverance—and they seek to restrain him. They are looking to have a family intervention with Jesus.

Then the religious authorities from Jerusalem arrive on the scene, and they are concerned too. Their concern is that not only is Jesus crazy; he is evil. He is casting out demons from the lives of people? Yes, no doubt. But he is doing it because he has a demon himself. “He has Beelzebul,” they say, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” So they look at Jesus—surrounded by hurting people seeking help, surrounded by people who are yearning to hear a word from God that will heal and offer hope—and they see evil at work.

So Jesus can’t seem to win for losing. There’s his family that looks at him and sees crazy. And there are the religious leaders who look at him and see evil. If Jesus were to come to us in the flesh in our time would we see crazy? Or perhaps even evil?

Maybe. Some of you will recall me talking about one of my childhood pastors, Arleigh Matlock. Arleigh was a good man. He was a man in whom the gospel of Jesus took root. And so, when he looked around at what was happening in our Memphis community and what was going on not far from our church, he couldn’t keep quiet. He couldn’t keep quiet about racism. He couldn’t keep quiet about the Jim Crow laws that kept the races separate, and the members of one race treated as inferior.

So he spoke up. He proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ in our church. He proclaimed that black people and white people were meant to be brothers and sisters. And it got him into trouble with a lot of people in our church. It made them mad. They said he was wrong. They said he needed to stick with the gospel and not talk about “social issues.”

I learned at an early age from Arleigh Matlock, and other courageous people like him, that you can get into trouble for preaching the gospel. People will call you wrong. They may say your views are crazy. They may even call you evil.

I rode to a meeting this last week with Diann. She is an ordained minister who serves as the Intercultural Ministry Coordinator for our presbytery, working with churches that are primarily made up of immigrants—Hispanic or Korean. That’s a ministry that requires a lot of compassion. Many of the people with whom she has a ministry are undocumented and poor, which means they are subject to arrest and deportation at any time.

But of course once the compassion, centered in Jesus, gets a hold of you there is no limiting or restraining it. So at our March meeting of presbytery when some were talking about limiting the ministry of the church, of preventing people with a sexual orientation different from heterosexuality from serving in leadership roles in the church, she spoke up. And what she said was not well received by some. In fact, she was to learn later that another minister was seeking to prevent her, because of her views, from preaching in one of the churches she seeks to serve.

So, yes, seeking to preach or live the gospel of Jesus in our time can get you into trouble. In fact, in Jesus’ time some said he had taken leave of his senses, and his own family believed them. Others—respected religious leaders, even—said that he had become a tool of evil, that the very good things he was doing to heal the broken and free the possessed were a sign that he was working for Satan.

But, when Jesus comes to us in the likes of his dedicated servants or in the likes of his gospel, my hope is that we will be more open. That when he talks to us about loving our enemies, we won’t say, “Crazy!” or “Evil!” That when he calls us to forgive those who have wronged us, we won’t say, “Impossible!” or “Nuts!” That when he he calls us to have compassion for the very forgotten ones that he loved and called to his side, we won’t say, “Foolish”! or “Wrong!”

This past week, as I was listening to one of the candidates for the ministry in our presbytery talk about how he believes in the authority of scripture, I found myself responding, “Yes, but are you ever disturbed by what’s in scripture? Do you find the gospel of Jesus Christ difficult, at least sometimes?”

He said he did. And I do too. But to the difficulty of the gospel I don’t won’t to respond like those religious leaders of old who came to Jesus, calling what is good evil, calling what is of the Spirit the devil’s work, calling what I do not understand crazy.

I want to be more open. I want us as a church and as individual Christians to be more open. I want us to be vulnerable to God, so that if God asks us to see what we have been resistant to see before or to do what we have not done before, we will say “yes” instead of looking for reasons to resist.

John Claypool told about a time when he was a young pastor, serving a church in Louisville in the 1960s. While there, he got involved with other religious leaders, black and white, in the civil rights movement. One of the religious leaders was an old rabbi, who became a close friend of Claypool. As he said, they were quite the odd couple. The rabbi was in his seventies and Claypool was a young minister of a Baptist Church. The rabbi’s family had been through the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and he had personal acquaintance with the dark side of life. At that point, Claypool had experienced little suffering in his life.

So, as Claypool tells it, at one meeting, which happened to be at the rabbi’s synagogue, things didn’t go well. The black ministers who were present “stormed out in a rage, accusing the whites of having no courage, and (from Claypool’s perspective) what began as a hopeful endeavor ended in total frustration. As he was leaving the meeting, Claypool remarked to the rabbi, “I think it is hopeless. This problem is so old, so deep, so many-faceted, there is simply no way out of it.” The rabbi responded by saying, “If you have a few minutes, I would like to talk to you about what you have just said.” After which, he ushered Claypool into his study where they both sat down.

The rabbi seemed to be in no hurry to say what he wanted to say. He calmly lit his pipe and seemed to disappear for a moment behind a cloud of smoke. Then he spoke to his young minister friend: “I need to tell you something, young man. To the Jew, there is only one unforgiveable sin, and that is the sin of despair.” He paused for a moment and then continued, “Humanly speaking, despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future that we have no right to say because we have not been there yet and do not know enough. Think of the times you have been surprised in the past as you looked at a certain situation and deemed it hopeless. Then, lo and behold, forces that you did not even realize existed broke in and changed everything. We do not know enough to embrace the absolutism of despair and, theologically speaking, despair is downright heretical. If God can create the things that are from the things that are not, and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency may yet do?”

Writes Claypool, “…and that is how I came to believe that humility before what we do not know and acceptance of what we do know from Scripture can lead us into ‘the promised land’ of hope.”

For Jesus the unforgiveable sin is to be in the presence of God and to call that presence evil, or perhaps even crazy. It is to see what Jesus was doing to restore the lives of hurting people, and say, “He has an unclean spirit.”

The gospel invites us to imagine what we may want to call crazy. It shows us broken people in need of healing. It pictures tormented people in need of being restored. It shows us belittled and discouraged people yearning for hope. And it says that God is there in Jesus. Call it crazy, if you will. Call it evil, if you dare. But God is there in Jesus. God is with those people in Jesus. God is with us when we find ourselves in such situations.

The gospel invites us to imagine what we want to call crazy. It invites us to see those who do the will of God. It invites us to see those who visit the sick and the bereaved with a prayer shawl blessed by the church to wrap around the shoulders of hurting people, reminding them that they are embraced by the love of God. It invites us to see those who care for children and youth and teach them the faith of their Lord. It invites us to see those who clean up after others out of love. It invites us to see people bringing cans of food to a church like ours to feed the hungry. It invites us to see those who feed and provide hospitality for the homeless. It invites us to see people like Arleigh and Diann standing up for what is right even if that means their own rejection. The gospel invites us to see such people and remember what Jesus said about them, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

And the challenge is, the challenge always is, that we are not so stuck in the way things are and the way things have always been, that we cannot be open to how Jesus is speaking and acting among us. Yes, what seems crazy and even what seems wrong, can sometimes be of God. It seems crazy because we are not used to it and it seems wrong because we have grown accustomed to the way things are.

So the challenge is for us to keep an open mind and heart—to listen for God in scripture, to watch for God to be present in the difficult realities of our world and of our lives, to be vulnerable enough to the workings of God that we can affirm that what some people call crazy and what even seems evil to them is God alive and at work among us through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, June 10, 2018

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