Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 10 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam 8:4-11,16-20; Ps 138; 2 Cor 4:13-5:1; Mk 3:20-35

The lectionary was set a long time ago, and we do not control it, so it was none of my doing that the first reading today features the people of Israel – or, as it may be, about 40 per cent of 58 per cent of the people of Israel – insist that they are determined at all costs to have a king, despite assurances that a king will bring oppression and exploitation, because they think that this will make them more like the other nations around them. It is, I suppose, a reminder that the terrible human desire to feel powerful by identifying with the strong and disdaining the vulnerable, for the hollow imitations and shabby trappings of authority, has been with us for a very long time, doing the damage it always does. That is not a very comforting reflection, but then again, scripture is rarely comforting in any obvious way – it is too honest about human brokenness and the ways of the world.

I know, right now, that there is great fear, and not at all unjustifiably. For those most at risk – queer people, people with disabilities, those already struggling to hang on – and for those who love them, there are good reasons to be afraid. And I am not going to offer easy comfort or encouragement either; I too will try to be that honest. Nevertheless, as I’ve said before, our scriptures are stories from bad time, stories which understand bad time very clearly and do not shrink from it. For all this talk of “slight mometary affliction,” Paul acknowledges that many things will be destroyed, that we may lose very much. Yet our stories also go on telling us that there is a difficult hope which is not destroyed, and that there are things we can, and must, be doing on hope’s behalf.

On the surface, today’s Gospel reading seems more bizarre than helpful, particularly as it starts out with Jesus responding to accusations that he is insane or possessed by instructing the crowd as to how they might most effectively burgle a house, a style of speech which might well seem to confirm the accusations. But, while I don’t suppose that we are really meant to take this is a literal endorsement of home invasions, it is as well to be reminded that Jesus did typically choose metaphors of disruption, socially inappropriate and deliberately shocking – that the Good News is more like a break-in than a well-mannered visit, is a series of raids on power, of unwelcome incursions into the settled room of things as they are. Because the world keeps choosing darkness, God is a thief in the night; and the word of God breaks into this age in the invasions of resistance, in the prophetic voices which will not let power sleep undisturbed.

We are taught and trained to side with the strong man. For many people, this is the obvious, apparently the only, choice. The people of Israel want a strong man of their very own, even if he turns that strength against them. So, it would seem, do a substantial number of the people of Ontario. But this is not where Jesus asks us to be. Jesus is the unexpected sneak thief who binds the strong man. And the strong man cannot be bound simply by more of the same, by greater strength and power, but by cleverness and agility, and – in the end – by that most unexpected thing, love. Jesus is the disruptive compassion which exposes power’s divisions. Jesus is with those who have already been doing this work – the people running the overdose prevention site in Moss Park, the campaigners for a fair minimum wage, the Indigenous peoples defending their land and water, the LGBTQ people insisting on life and visibility and dignity, the gardeners all around the city reclaiming land – and he will be with all of those who have to do even harder work now.

It is exhausting, and it is often demoralizing, and we have to keep doing the same frustrating things again and again just to try to contain the damage. It is hard not to lose heart – as hard as it can possibly be. But we have been chosen in this time. We have been called to be the thieves who will try again and again to ransack the house of power, in the name of the living God of love. We have been chosen to care for the victims, to feed and comfort and heal what we can, breaking all the rules to do it if we must. We have been chosen to keep on believing in beauty and kindness and goodness, to keep on creating and and imagining, to keep on holding the vision of a better world. We have been chosen to resist, to call out power’s hollowness, to expose its divisions, to stand in the way of those who would do harm. We have been chosen to be as clever and agile and strategic as we can, to dodge the games and climb in the windows of the strong man’s house. We are called to go on believing in love, in the face of it all.

And to be able to do this, in this corrosive time, we need to look after each other.

Partway through today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’s mother and brothers show up, apparently trying to drag him back home and keep him from getting into deeper trouble. They mean well, I think. They’re worried about him. They want him to stay out of trouble, to find ways to accommodate to the powers of the day. They want him, at least at that moment, to deny his calling and his deepest identity – to let the strong man go on holding the goods and the power. In response, Jesus does something which was even more radical in the context of his time – he rips up the concept of family as a construct of blood and social convention, and declares himself part of a new family of vocation and loyalty.

There is a huge irony in the way that Christianity has often identified itself with “family values” centred around the biological, and especially the nuclear, family, because Jesus has nothing good at all to say about family as made by simple biological fact, or established institutions of marriage and inheritance. Instead, even on the cross, he is engaged in creating a different kind of family.

During a time of great affliction, at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the developed world, members of the queer community, often rejected by their own biological families, began to speak of “chosen family” — family as people who have come together voluntarily, lovers and colleagues and most of all friends, people who stay through the hardest times, who know and love each other in each other’s full human imperfection, the people who hold each other’s pain, who support and sustain and remember. It is a tremendously important concept, and has in it something of what Jesus was talking about, and even people whose own biological families happen to be solid and supportive need chosen families as well.

But we here, in the church, we are another kind of chosen family – for we did not, as such, choose each other. We are here because we have each chosen a particular kind of loyalty to the God of love and justice; and even more than that, we are here because we have been chosen by that God. This weird little gang here, says Jesus, this is my family. At that point, some of them probably hardly knew each other, and the fishermen and tax collectors and widows and sex workers of his inner circle may hardly have been able to talk to each other. But they have been declared a family, and a family they would have to become.

And we too have been made a family, a community of solidarity, a weird little gang who must learn to love each other, and be kind to each other, and support each other now and in the difficult times ahead. We must hear and learn and honour each other’s truths, and needs, and pains. We must do the small things, make the cups of tea, the meals, the safe spaces. We must be ready to hold each other up when the world would cut us down. Look after each other. Be gentle. When you cannot be strong or brave, let someone else do it for you. When you can, be there for someone else. Because only by caring for each other will we all be able to go on caring for this poor, beautiful, broken world.

For the Word of God, the child of humanity, has claimed us and loved us, is with us now and always. Each of you, know this – whatever the powers of the day might say, your lives are known and cherished, held in the heart of the Trinity. Weep if you need to – but don’t let go. For you must be, we must be, the chosen family of God, the place where the kingdom begins.