Sermons & Blogs
Bethany Lutheran Church
Pastor Cheryl Walenta Gorvie
Sermon June 10, 2012
Second Sunday After Pentecost
It would be so easy to look at this gospel lesson and point out where there is clearly evil. It would be easy to make the Jewish establishment, such as the scribes from Jerusalem who are mentioned in this story, the bad guys.
Jesus can be a lot of things—healer, teacher, hero, brother and son. Jesus is given many titles: rabbi, Son of God, King. But for today, I want to look at this story a little differently. Let’s consider that all of the people mentioned in this gospel lesson—Jesus, the disciples, the Jewish establishment, the scribes from Jerusalem, Jesus’s family, the massive crowds—let’s consider that all of these people make up one body.
We know that bodies are complex, but they want to work toward health. Human bodies have the capacity for tremendous growth and regeneration, and this is going on all the time. Every week, the lining of the stomach is renewed; skin cells are regenerated every month; every six weeks, the liver is renewed. We don’t even have to think about it because it happens automatically in a healthy body. A healthy body doesn’t need an outside force, like a doctor or a specialist, to fix everything. Even when doctors or specialists are called in to care for a body, the doctor can’t force healing to happen—the power to heal is already there in the body itself.
The way healing works is for all of the parts to work together, and it’s a complex system that shares power to enhance health. Peter Steinke, a pastor and therapist who consults with congregations, says that “Health is a power-sharing arrangement between physiology, pathology, psychology, emotional history, social context, doctors and nurses, and medicine. Emotions can trigger potent bodily secretions that affect blood chemistry, heart rate, and the activity of the immune system.” Steinke says that the immune system is a team player, connecting to the neurological, endocrine, and nervous systems, constantly exchanging information.
If we look at all the characters in the gospel story, how are they like a body? It seems the religious establishment in Jerusalem clearly sees itself as the head, and the job of the head is to make sure all of the other body parts work in submission to it. This false head sees Satan as a virus who has become lodged in the body through the person of Jesus. They see Jesus as a threat and undermine his power by spreading rumors that he has an unclean spirit. Even Jesus’s own family thinks he has gone out of his mind. There are groups forming, the emotions are running high, and they’re not really communicating with each other. This body is going to get sick.
Part of the problem is misunderstanding their roles as parts of the body. The power of healing, the power of the head of the body, is actually in Jesus. The other part of the problem is misunderstanding what is the actual problem. A body has a problem if it harbors viruses or attacks healthy cells. The religious establishment sees Jesus as a disease that must be eradicated. Steinke says “We need not view disease as something that should not happen nor interpret it as a sign of weakness. …If the body’s balance were never tested by disease, it would never develop the immune system, the built-in biochemical defense against infection and disease in the body.” The religious establishment could have seen Jesus as an ally in the work of healing, but instead they felt threatened. Jesus likens them to a house divided against itself, and they may also be like a body that is against itself, attacking healthy cells. They think Jesus is the virus, and they focus their energy on expelling that virus from the body. But the real virus is anxiety because they don’t understand what Jesus is doing.
No virus, no pathogen, can make sickness happen. A pathogen needs a host cell, and depending how the host responds is what determines if that person gets sick. Steinke says, “Strengthening the resistance of the host cells is paramount in treatment, rather than simply focusing on disease agents and counteracting them. In life together, when there is an effect people do not like, they become anxious. They normally focus on a single cause or culprit. But as in an organism, ‘bugs’ alone do not cause disease in organizations. All anxiety needs a host cell, a co-contributor.” The scribes make themselves host cells for the virus of anxiety, because they are worried that their power or their leadership is threatened by Jesus. Instead of locating the source of their power, they have given their power away to anxiety. They are like host cells letting the anxiety virus take them over and run the show.
This is the same as what Jesus talks about when he says that no one can enter a strong man’s house and take his property without first tying up the strong man. Anxiety ties us up. Some of us are so open to anxiety that we practically welcome it, which is like allowing ourselves to be tied up. We give away our peace and allow our community to be compromised, just because the anxiety virus has taken over. Viruses that find host cells are able to replicate themselves. Steinke identifies the kinds of viruses that harm organizations like church congregations. He says the viruses are secrets, accusations, lies, and triangulations, which means shifting the burden elsewhere. Do we see these at work in the gospel story? The scribes are accusing Jesus of working with Satan. You can almost hear the whispered questions which turn into rumors, “Where does his power come from? Is he trying to trick us somehow, healing people and appearing to do good things…but is he really going to destroy us? Maybe he’s possessed by an evil spirit; maybe he’s the devil himself.” Before long, the rumor is spreading: Jesus has an unclean spirit. Jesus calls this what it is: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Words are not irrelevant. Words matter. And Jesus says that some words spoken against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; that’s how serious this is. Has anyone here ever been hurt by something that has been said to them, or hurt by a rumor that has been spread about them behind their back? It is distracting, it is hurtful, and it is detrimental to the body. Jesus, however, is able to see the rumors and accusations for what they are. He doesn’t respond out of his emotion. We don’t hear Jesus saying, “How can you say such a thing about me? I haven’t done anything to hurt you!” Instead, Jesus meets the scribes on an intellectual level, pointing out that it doesn’t even make sense that a person possessed by Satan would be able to cast demons out of other people, because why would Satan cast out Satan? That’s just bad strategy. Jesus keeps a cool head under pressure, proving that he is in fact the head of the body, instructing the scribes that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be tolerated. And if Jesus is healing people and casting out demons, he is doing so with the power of the Holy Spirit, and speaking against that is going to get them into trouble.
But the scribes are not the only source of sickness in this story. Jesus’s family is infected with a virus. They are anxious that Jesus has lost his mind. And this would seem to be an even more harmful attack on Jesus. Even though Jesus has been brought up in the Jewish faith and instructed by rabbis and scribes, it’s one thing if he disagrees with the religious establishment. But what happens when his own family turns against him? You can almost hear Mary saying, “My boy, he used to be so obedient, always following the rules. What happened?” You can almost hear Jesus’s brother saying, “You know, I was okay with Jesus teaching in the synagogue. We were proud to have a rabbi in the family. But healing people and causing scenes and being followed by these huge crowds? That’s too much. Our family just isn’t like that. We like to keep to ourselves and mind our own business. We love Jesus, but we just can’t let him do this to himself and to our family.”
We’ve seen what Jesus does when he is faced with accusations and lies against him; he is able to listen and calmly respond. He doesn’t fear their power, and he isn’t going to take on their anxiety. He doesn’t need to apologize to the scribes. But what about when Jesus is faced with the fears of his own family? He doesn’t mean to hurt them. Will he feel terrible for their pain? Will he go home with them, even if it would make them happy for a little while? Surely a few days off from traveling and healing and building the kingdom of God…well, it couldn’t be that bad, right? Jesus’s family means well. They care about him. They want what is best for him. Jesus knows that, doesn’t he?
Even faced with his family’s anxiety, Jesus maintains his focus. He can see clearly that his family—his mother and sisters and brothers—were not there to do the will of God. Jesus remains differentiated; he isn’t held captive by his family’s fears. He trusts his own power, he trusts the work God is doing. He has to speak up for himself. He doesn’t get into an argument with his family, neither does he cast himself out or cut off ties with them. But Jesus has his priorities in order. He’s not out to make friends and get popular based on his charm alone. He has a purpose, and that purpose is building up the kingdom of God.
Jesus doesn’t lose focus because he is differentiated. Being differentiated means being able to stay in contact with forces that want you to change, but maintaining integrity. Steinke identifies principles of differentiation as being able to take a stand, to function on the basis of values, principles and beliefs. A person who takes a stand can stay the course and commit to the process. A differentiated person focuses on self instead of trying to change others and recognizes their own anxiety and deals with that instead of being sucked in to someone else’s anxiety. A differentiated person remains connected to others and is able to see life in a larger view, living with a purpose in mind and always seeking clarity. Finally, a differentiated person accepts challenges, can move forward, can recognize that leadership sometimes means dealing with pain, but stays focused on conviction and direction.
Jesus may just be the very model of the differentiated person. At the end of the story, he focuses his attention on the family of the kingdom of God rather than only on his family of origin. That might be a risky move, but Jesus doesn’t waver. His place in the kingdom, and in the body, is secure. When we consider the gospel story from today and all the characters making up the body, we know that eventually all the parts of this body will not work together, and Jesus will finally be cast out and killed. But Jesus is not a virus to be eradicated, and his death is not permanent.
Instead, his death gives birth to a new kind of body: the body of Christ. This is the body to which we belong—we belong to God and we belong to one another. Even with Jesus as the head of this body, sometimes we still get sick. We are prone to anxiety, to operating out of fear, but we have powerful medicine available to us, because of God’s grace. Martin Luther called baptism ‘a priceless medicine’ and he called Holy Communion ‘a soothing medicine.’ These are God’s gifts to us, gifts of healing for our own lives and for our communities. Steinke says, “Our response of faith and compassion is one relationship in two dimensions. Our relationship to God is connected to our relationship to other people. To be sons and daughters of the Father, we are brothers and sisters to the other sons and daughters. …God, others, and I constitute a system. We form a whole.”
And wholeness within the system, within the body of Christ, is what it means to be healthy as a body. We care for one another, we listen to one another instead of judging, we seek to understand instead of taking aim, we respond with love instead of anxiety. This means taking personal responsibility for what we can do ourselves, but remaining in connection with the rest of the body. This is the beauty and the challenge of being one body, of being a family. Yesterday, I saw a family gathered mourn one of its own, Bruce Gellers. In his moments of sickness, when he could no longer care for himself, it was his family of faith that took care of him. I could see what beautiful things are possible when all the parts of the body work together on behalf of those who can no longer work.
With Christ as the head of this body, and all of us members of the body, great things are possible. St. Paul recognized that it isn’t always going to be easy. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away,” he writes, “our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” There is healing, there is growth, and there is unity in the body of Christ, family of one another. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And when we do get sick, we have the strongest medicine available, through God’s grace, in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. It’s possible to recover from sickness or injury and become even stronger. Here’s to our health!
Quotations come from Peter Steinke’s book, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach.
|Sermon Pentecost 2011||