06/06/21 – Read the Warning Labels


June 6, 2021
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
1 Sam. 8:4-20; Ps.138; 2 Cor. 4:13 – 5:1; Mk. 3:20-35
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Years ago, when I was in seminary, I heard a pastor declare: “The most dangerous thing you can do to your child is to baptize them. Her daughter had volunteered to be a missionary in Central America in the 1980’s, a decade of intense violence. Political leaders and drug lords alike saw the Christian message of peace and justice as a threat to their power and prosperity. When we baptize our precious infant children, do we think about the consequences of them actually following Christ? Following Christ, not just talking the talk, is not the path to wealth, power or popularity. When we welcome our children into our families, we wish for them to be happy, healthy, and successful. We don’t want to think about their experiencing pain or hardship. But that isn’t what baptism promises.

During the Easter season, we read from John’s gospel and, instead of an Old Testament reading, we read from the book of Acts. We read about the glory of the Resurrection and the start of the Christian Church. Now, after Pentecost, we are back to Mark, who plunges us into the trials and travails of Jesus’ public ministry and his inevitable conflict with worldly powers, social conventions, and even his own family. And we return to the Old Testament saga of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, which prepared Jesus from childhood to be the incarnation of God’s Word in the world.

Today we drop in on the time when God’s chosen people were ruled by judges. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had fulfilled her promise to God that if she, a barren woman, could have a son she would give him back to God. At age five, Hannah left Samuel with Eli the priest to be trained to serve God. Still a boy, Samuel answered God’s call to be a prophet and, eventually came to lead the people of Israel. Samuel was faithful to God and a great leader for his people. Without using military force, he had kept peace with Israel’s archenemy the Philistines. Now we see Samuel toward the end of his tenure as Israel’s leader. Samuel’s two sons were not worthy of taking on the mantle of leadership. With Samuel growing old and his sons corrupt, the people decided it was time for a change.

What had made Israel unique was faithfulness to God, who had chosen them to lead all the nations of the world into God’s kingdom by their example. God had made this special covenant with their ancestor Abraham that he and his many descendants would be a blessing to all nations by bringing them into God’s loving family. But now, with an uncertain future, God’s people looked to their neighboring nations, each ruled by a king with a strong military as their source of security. The Israelites wanted a king.

God was not pleased that the Israelites put their trust in worldly powers. The people were warned of the dangers of a human autocrat. Samuel warned them that their sons would be taken from the family farms to become the king’s army. With the men in military servitude, their daughters would be put to work in service to the king. The people would be taxed to pay for weapons and for the king’s grand lifestyle. The resources of the land would be disproportionally given over to the king and the king’s friends. But dreams of nationalistic power and glory danced in their heads and the people persisted in their demand for a king.

The people should have realized from their history to read God’s warning labels, but immediate gratification won out over long-term gains. God had saved the Israelites from slavery to an autocrat once before. The Pharaoh of Egypt, driven by the desire to boast, worked the Hebrew slaves mercilessly to keep up productions, which were monuments to his power and wealth. Duly warned that leadership by anyone other than God would lead the people away from God with tragic consequences. God would not save them from themselves. God told Samuel to anoint Saul, whose only asset for leadership was being tall and handsome. Saul did not even want to be king. He held no aspirations to lead or serve the people. The pursuit of wealth and power would lead to their downfall. As their ancestors had constructed a Golden Calf to worship, the Israelites pledged their allegiance to what they could see – an army with powerful weapons and a king decked out in regal finery rather than God, who they could not see.

In our gospel reading, Jesus is also working toward change – changing the status quo of society to bring his people back to God. In Mark’s fast-paced, succinct gospel, Jesus has chalked up an impressive list of healings and exorcisms in a few short, action-packed chapters. He amazes the people but angers the religious authorities and engenders suspicion from political authorities.

Mark describes a scene in which those that would be expected to be insiders, his biological family, and religious leaders, were outsiders. Jesus’ disciples, and the people who wanted to hear Jesus speak, were inside the building with him, but his family and scribes from Jerusalem were outside. The society in which Jesus lived held that the family was the central social and economic unit. The Jewish people understood salvation began by birth into a Jewish family. His audience would have been shocked to hear Jesus’ proclaiming a new definition of family – those that do God’s will.

On the other hand, the times were changing. With the rise of trades and commerce, the population was moving from the family farm to the city, thereby removing people from the support of their families and communities. A new concept of family would have been good news for many who felt lonely and isolated. Paul took this idea and made it a reality by starting Christian fellowships whose life together centered around worship and discipleship.

The religious leaders were concerned that a call to change the status quo would leave them out in the cold. Jesus’ family was worried that he was shaming the family, which would bring dishonor to them in their community. The religious leaders used the common ploy of discrediting and name-calling. They claimed his power to heal came from the prince of evil, Satan or Beelzebub. Jesus deftly destroyed their argument. If his power came from evil, how could he destroy – “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Now here’s Jesus’ line that I had to chew on a bit. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you; people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

No forgiveness… ever? Jesus has presented himself as being all about forgiveness, but then he draws a line. How does one blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? Evidently, that is just what the religious leaders had done when they accused Jesus’ healing with the work of Satan. The way I interpret this verse is; when we claim something good is evil or what is evil good, we have sinned big time! Or to be more specific when we interchange the work of Satan with the mission of Christ, and vice versa, we have stepped on a banana peel on the way down that treacherous slippery slope that sends us away from God. When national politics and social conflicts threaten our own power and privilege, we risk the errors of the Israelites in choosing to trust in a king rather than God. We risk becoming outsiders in God’s kingdom. We risk becoming like the de-churched in Corinth who fell back into the ways of the world when being faithful required more of a commitment than they wanted to make.

Ched Myers in “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” warns: “When we clean up Jesus to the point that his mission is no longer disruptive and offensive, we commit the unforgivable sin. We render Jesus so innocuous that instead of binding up the strong man and freeing the captives, we use him to bolster the status quo when that status quo benefits us. We conflate our wants, biases, and beliefs with Jesus’ words and mission and that is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”

Imagine if we lived into Jesus’ vision of family in our churches, in our communities, in our nation and the world. Jesus imagined that world when he commanded his disciples to share themselves with others as he shared himself with them. He enacted a meal to be a vision of God’s heavenly banquet. Because Christ commanded it, we celebrate what the early church called the Eucharist, as a sacrament. Likewise, we baptize because Christ commanded his disciples to do so. As St. Augustine described: “visible signs of God’s invisible grace.” Or as Paul put it: “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4: 18)

Today Matthew and Paula will formally accept for their son, Lucas, the gift that God has already given. From his birth, Lucas has been claimed as a child of God. By having him baptized, they pledge to teach him what that means. They pledge to demonstrate for him how to live in the world as Christ taught – to love God and all God’s other children, to discern what is evil and what is good, to find joy in serving as Christ served. As a congregation, we will pledge to support them and Lucas with prayer, presence, encouragement and service. In this way, we celebrate our own baptisms.

Amen, may it be so!






© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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