Sermon from June 10: Hard Words

Hard Words

Pentecost III (O. T. 10); June 10, 2018

Mark 3:20-35

Roseanne Barr referred to her racist tweet against Valerie Jarrett as "unforgiveable" (@realrosanne tweeted on May 30, 2018). Then she deleted that tweet and replaced it with one appealing for forgiveness. Ms. Jarrett responded to her racist comment by saying, "I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment" (on MSNBC, May 29, 2018).[1] So let's take Jesus' hard words about the unforgiveable sin and about his family and find a teaching moment.

The idea in the first set of hard words is that God can forgive any sin, including blasphemy, but you will not receive forgiveness if you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy, of course, is speaking disrespectfully about God. People sometimes ask what it means to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit; decades ago I read in Billy Graham's newspaper column a question from someone who wanted to know what it meant because he was afraid he might have committed the unforgiveable sin. Dr. Graham's answer was very wise: If you're worried about it, then you haven't done it.

It's clear from the story what the sin is, what it means to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit: it is to see evidence of the Holy Spirit at work and to claim that it's really the Devil at work. You see the work God is doing in the world and you say that it is demonic: that is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And the way Jesus phrases it makes something else plain, too: it is not that God cannot forgive blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for there is nothing God will not forgive. The problem is that when you see pure good in the world and believe that it is evil, then you are so far gone that you cannot receive God's forgiveness.

What makes Jesus' question about his mother and brothers so hard is that we are so devoted to family that we think that family is more important than anything else. Our politics and frequently our religion reinforce that notion. But when Jesus' own family come looking for him, he dismisses them out of hand, doesn't even see them. Instead, he says that the people he is with are his true family. Now, we will sometimes go along with that notion when a person comes from an abusive family, but Jesus came from a good family, a family that worked hard and was devout. But he made a very hard point, something difficult for us to swallow: your family is not as important as the community of faith. As I like to say, water is thicker than blood: the bond of baptism is deeper than the bond of birth.

And this point is not found just here in this story, but permeates the entire Bible. The bond of family is so natural, is so strong, that for us to look beyond it to the bond of loyalty to God and to the ways of God takes a tremendous leap of faith. Moses had to look beyond his family to the calling of God; David to the well-being of Israel; Ruth to a larger picture of God's purposes; and all the disciples of Jesus left their families to follow him.

Something holds these two stories together and in that something is the good news for you and me today. The scribes who said that Jesus was possessed by a demon and Jesus' family who were troubled because he was getting the reputation of being out of his mind both tried to control Jesus, to explain him. "He has a demon," said the scribes. "He's out of his mind," said his family. So the scribes dismissed him and his family came to take him back to Nazareth.

Jesus is not to be explained and not to be controlled. So what can we do? We can take him as he is, as he takes us as we are, and follow him.

The scribes never give up their stubborn insistence that Jesus is evil, a threat, demon-possessed. Oh, there are those from time to time who are open-minded enough to consider taking him at his word, such as the scribe who asked him about the most important commandment (Mark 12:28-34), but for the most part the scribes never repent of their claim that Jesus has a demon.

But his family? They think he's crazy, they try to get him to give up this Messiah business and come home to the carpentry shop. And he snubs them when they do. But later on… they think better of it. Mary, his mother, becomes one of his disciples. She is near him when he dies. She is with the other disciples on the Day of Pentecost. I love the little reflection by the Presbyterian poet Thomas John Carlisle:

It may have been

more meaningful for Mary

to be her son's disciple

than to be his mother.[2]

Jesus' brother James becomes an important leader in the Church, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. It seems likely the rest of his family followed suit.

The scribes were deceived but insisted on their own righteousness; they would not give up their stubborn insistence. Jesus' family was misguided: they thought he was nuts, but they eventually worked it out. So the scribes could not be forgiven, but his family could not only be forgiven but welcomed into his true family, those who do the will of God.

What about you? Can you let go of your need to explain or control and let Jesus be your Messiah? We can call him "Lord" and "Master," but we can also call him "Brother" and "Son." "Whoever does the will of God," he says, "is my brother and sister and mother."

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska


[1] Source: The Huffington Post

[2] Thomas John Carlisle, "Mary the Disciple," in Beginning with Mary: Women of the Gospels in Portrait (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 13. 

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