060621 Pentecost 2 How to Face New Moments

The service begins at minute 1:00 and the sermon at minute 16:15 of the video

I Samuel 8:4-11; Mark 3:20-35

        As I’ve shared in emails recently , I’m facing a challenge in my life right now that I never thought I would have to face. It’s not my story to tell, so I’m not sharing details. But it calls on me to make decisions about things I’ve never dealt with so close to home. I have sought counsel from wise friends and their friends. I still don’t know how it will turn out, but following their wisdom seems like the best way to avoid making bad decisions.

      Think of all the bad decisions we could avoid by reflecting before making them, and consulting wise guides who may see things we don’t: companies that drill for oil without thinking of the consequences; nuclear energy, only 50 years old, is already rejected for its dangers; governments that do things that end up costing more than they give; individuals, who do things they know are wrong but do them because provide some short-term benefit or pleasure, even though their whole lives are destroyed or diminished by it.

      Our country faces dual challenges we never thought we would have to face: the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. George Floyd awakened many of us to the fact that our democracy doesn’t just need to be restored; it must be recreated. We need wisdom to find the path forward. Last week, 100 scholars signed a document that says, Our entire democracy is now at risk. History will judge what we do at this moment. Getting even more specific, they write, We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards. When academics, who usually refuse to take stands on specific action, decide to clarify the issues, propose specific policy actions, things are getting serious.

       Some of you may have heard an interview with Ben Rhodes, a former Obama advisor who just published a book entitled After the Fall. The interview included a comparison between what is happening in the United States and what happened in Hungary under Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Rhodes spoke about a conversation he had with a Hungarian anticorruption activist. He asked, “How did your country become a dictatorship so quickly?” Here is the reply: It’s simple. Victor Orban got elected on a right wing populism platform against the backdrop of a financial crisis; he packed the courts with right wing judges; he changed the voting laws to make it easier for his supporters to vote and harder for others; he enriched some cronies who then bought up media outlets; buoyed up Orban’s politics, they created a right wing propaganda machine, and created a nationalist message – a blood and soil message that said, “we are the true Hungarians, it’s us versus them”. Rhodes paused, and then said, he could be describing my lived experience in this country.

       As we face challenges at both the personal and the public levels, I found today’s Scriptures speak to them directly. Things hadn’t gone well for Israel in the Promised Land. Some early victories were followed by a series of wars. Eli and Samuel had been good leaders, but their sons weren’t worthy to inherit the mantle from their fathers. This made people feel insecure, so they looked around to see what others were doing. That’s not always a bad idea. It’s only bad when conformity stifles creativity, and stops us from listening to God’s voice calling forth our uniqueness. God called Israel to be unique, but their insecurity made them want to be like everyone else. So Israel said, Give us a king to govern us like other nations. Samuel showed them how misguided that was; but they chose that path anyway. God made sure that Samuel knew they were free to make their own mistakes. 

       Following misguided paths by looking around rather than inward is a common human foible. The student who was raised never to cheat notices that other kids cheat on exams and copy others’ work; so he starts to cheat too. The new employee who starts out working hard notices that she is outpacing everyone else, and that they resent the pace of her work; so she stops working so hard. The schoolteacher, who uses unorthodox methods that are successful with students, is warned by the principal to use more traditional methods, stops being so creative.

       We see a similar dynamic in today’s Gospel. In the first few chapters of Mark, people had been telling Jesus that their religion was not working for them. A demon possessed man interrupted the Shabbat service because he knew he wasn’t accepted there. A leper, who wasn’t supposed to leave his compound risked begging Jesus to heal him, since the priests couldn’t. People asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t practice the ritual of fasting, and Jesus spoke of needing new wineskins. A man who saw the sabbath as his only chance to have Jesus heal him was reproached for seeking healing on the sabbath; Jesus healed him anyway.

       None of these people were thinking of leaving their religion. They still went to synagogue on Saturdays; they still believed in rituals like fasting and Sabbath practice. But they saw in Jesus someone who, while upholding their religion, showed them a way to make it work for them. Jesus showed these Galileans that the parts of their religion that weren’t working for them were corruptions of true faith in God.

     When word of Jesus’ dangerous teaching and practice reached the home office in Jerusalem, the authorities weren’t happy, and sent a delegation of leaders to put things in order. When they saw what Jesus was doing and teaching, they knew they couldn’t question what people were seeing. There was too much evidence, and it was too popular. So, they challenged his authority on spiritual grounds, which they considered their turf. They said, He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons. It was the perfect accusation; no one could disprove it. A person’s source of power was invisible, so it could neither be proven nor disproven. But it cast aspersions. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

       We’ve seen a lot of aspersions cast in the last five years. Name-calling, labeling, and false accusations became key strategies of political warfare in the last administration. And now the power structure aligned with that administration is working feverishly to make sure that the forces trying to make the system work for those on the margins get labeled demonic, so they can’t get re-elected. The political and spiritual heirs of those who opposed Jesus are hard at work to assure their dominance long after their numbers warrant it. The changes in voting laws in Republican-led states are modern examples of what the Jerusalem scribes did with Jesus: resist any teaching or practice that allows newcomers to have a say in the way things are run.

       How did Jesus respond to these threats? First, he pointed out how illogical they were. How can Satan cast out Satan? If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. Then he introduced the figure of the strong man: 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. Jesus spoke metaphorically here, but everyone knew to whom he was referring. Jesus is the strong man in the house, protecting those who were marginalized by the hierarchical systems that oppressed them. Do you hear that? Those who had been kept outside the house are now inside, and those who tried to control everything from inside are now outside. He even confronted family systems by questioning the way his own family decided who’s in and who’s out.

       Jesus, the strong man, is one of the wise ones we must consult to determine the path forward in our lives and in this country. May we find our way, and remember that the Strong and Wise one is also the savior, who can save us from authoritarianism, and create a democracy like we have never seen.