Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
June 6, 2021 Worship Sermon - "A House Divided"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13--5:1; Mark 3:20-35
One Sunday morning when I was on vacation and didn’t have to preach, I visited a church in my neighborhood. I love visiting other churches and discovering how different communities worship. This particular church, while known for its good preaching, is on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum… not quite fundamentalist, but - to give you an idea - they don’t allow women to preach or lead worship. Even the ushers were all men. It’s certainly not a church I would be a member of, but it was in the neighborhood, and they have good music, and maybe I could learn a thing or two just by observing.
I walked into the sanctuary and found a seat in one of the pews toward the back. A few minutes later, a woman sat down in the pew in front of me. I could tell just by looking at her that I didn’t like her. The bun in her hair seemed like it was wrapped too tight, and she seemed all prim and proper and full of self-righteousness… the kind of woman who complained about kids wearing sneakers to church… the kind of person who would attend a church like this, a congregation of people who believed they were the only true Christians and everyone else was destined for hell.
After I had given myself over to a few minutes of fantasizing about how much I didn’t like this person, the service began, and I turned my attention to the worship leader. He made some announcements and then invited the people in the congregation to greet each other. I shook the hand of the person on my right; then I said hello to the person on my left; but out of the corner of my eye, I could see the self-righteous woman facing me with her hand extended. How surprising that she would even deign to acknowledge the presence of an unworthy sinner like me! I couldn’t ignore her any longer, so I turned toward her and reluctantly put my hand out to shake hands with her. Then I looked up into her face and she had the most beautiful smile. She didn’t look cold and nasty at all, but warm and friendly as she looked into my eyes and said with apparent sincerity, “Welcome! It’s so good to have you with us today.”
As I received her greeting and discovered that she was not at all the kind of person I had assumed she was, I discovered something about myself in the process. I was the self-righteous one. I had come into that church all judgy, prepared to write off everyone who worshipped there as a hypocrite; but in fact, I was the hypocrite. I needed to repent… I needed to repent of the bias I had toward people who belonged to certain kinds of churches.
What happened to me in that church on that Sunday morning is one of the blessings of Christian community. At its best, the church brings us into relationship with people with whom we may not have a lot in common… people we would not necessarily choose as friends. I was reading a blog recently about how different faith communities have been forming and re-forming during the pandemic. One person posted how she didn’t miss church at all because she found sharing the Lord’s Supper to be so much more meaningful when she celebrated it with just her small group of friends. I understood what she was saying, but truly the transforming power of the Lord’s Supper is not that it reinforces our cozy little clique. The transforming power of the Lord’s Supper is that it puts me in relationship with people who might be outside of my comfort zone… people I don’t understand… and maybe even people I don’t like.
Our Gospel reading this morning is about community, and this passage might challenge how we think about the various networks of relationships in which we participate. There are three kinds of community mentioned in this story: the community of biological kinship, or what we normally think of as family; the community formed around religious institutions; and the community formed around the work of God.
Families and religious communities are, for the most part, communities of people with whom we share a lot in common. Families are the people with whom we share DNA as well as our earliest experiences. Often this is the most tight-knit group of relationships we have. Religious communities are the people with whom we share values and culture. They are the other people who’ve read the same sacred texts and know the secret handshake.
But in our Gospel reading, family and religion are not the basis for what Jesus thinks of as true community. Jesus’ biological family thinks he’s insane. They go to restrain him because he is getting himself in trouble with some very important people. Jesus’ religious family is also problematic. It is represented by the scribes who come down from Jerusalem, the center of the religious community. The scribes think Jesus is possessed by a demon because he is breaking the rules of the religion. He’s healing people on the sabbath. He doesn’t know the secret handshake. So, the scribes come down from Jerusalem to either straighten Jesus out or to kick him out of the religious community.
Over and against the biological family or the religious family, Jesus lifts up a different kind of community as the one that matters the most: the community of those who do the will of God. And what is the will of God? It’s to save people. All throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is saving people by casting out the demons that oppress them, by healing their diseases, by feeding them when they are hungry, by forgiving their sins. Jesus saves people, people like us; and then he invites us to participate in a community that is formed not around biology, or even around culture, but around the mission to save others who are perishing.
Over the last fifteen months of the pandemic, the way we participate in communities has changed dramatically. This has been especially challenging for religious communities that are usually formed around a group of people gathering in a common space. Now in some ways, what this Gospel passage is telling us should be reassuring. Our belonging to the family of God does not depend on our gathering in a church every Sunday morning for an hour or so. But that doesn’t mean that gathering isn’t important. The people that Jesus called his true family in the Gospel reading: they were, in fact, gathered with Jesus in a house. Jesus gathered with his disciples and wherever they went a crowd gathered around them. Gathering matters.
What a blessing it has been that during the pandemic the church has found new ways to gather. People who live far from the church or who are ill can still gather as a community. Even during the pandemic, we could still gather to remind each other of what God has done for us and to encourage each other in the work that God has given us. But let’s not forget the importance physically gathering when it is possible to do so. I continue to remember the transforming experience of walking into that church on that Sunday morning when I was on vacation and having my biases checked. It was in gathering that I discovered my need of salvation. Gathering helped me to see that the family of God is much broader than I had imagined.
Jesus gathered you and me into the family of God in order to save us. Now Jesus invites us to go and gather others into this family.