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Binding the Strong Man: The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

“Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus asks a simple, but difficult, question. Who is our family? What is the source of our identity? For a lot of people, it’s a simple and not difficult question: family’s just family. The people who taught us how to cook, or ride a bike. The people we eat with on a regular basis. The people who can annoy us the most, but more often than not we let them get away with it.

But I remember from high school, in grade 9 or 10 I took a drafting class. I was excited and proud to take that class because my brother was a master draftsman. He travelled to the States to take part in an international competition when he had been my age. And as a high school student he had a co-op placement as a draftsman for a company that he continued working for, and still works for, though now as an engineer.

So naturally I wanted to continue in that tradition (looking forward to the international conferences and awards). The teacher took a liking to me right away, because he, of course, remembered my brother. And just like at home with my parents, he often called me by the wrong name — my brother’s. And I must have really disappointed that teacher… Because it turns out that I can’t draft. (Which is funny, because I know what a line is, and I know how to draw them, but apparently that doesn’t cut it in the drafting world.) I barely squeaked by that class — and I only did because my drafting partner was a genius, and he never let me actually do anything. But the most lasting impression it made on me was by that, by chance, the drama classrooms were also down on the first floor of WCI, and there I found that, while I can’t draw lines, I can read lines. And I could act; something that my brother never did in his day.

So while I negatively expanded that drafting teacher’s understanding of how talents are divided up among family members, I also had my understanding of identity expanded. A few years later, on the very last day of high school, some friends and I went camping; we drove straight from school to Grand Bend. And this is funny because I don’t like camping, and I don’t like campfires, and I hate songs around the campfire, but I have this amazing and slightly embarrassing memory of being on the beach, surrounded by my high school friends. And one of them, Ben (a local musician) started playing the song “Lost Together” by Blue Rodeo. And I started to cry and cry… For some reason I was struck by the reality that the thing that brought us together and kept us together — school — that thing was done. We were past it. But the friendships remained. The structure, the framework — the schedule, the routine, the classes. But the essence, the core of our relationships was deeper than those things. Love, I guess. “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

In our Gospel story today we’re tasked with grappling with that question. But not just “who do we like or love enough” that they’re like family, but even deeper, we’re asked “where does our sense of ourselves and our purpose come from?” Because that’s what Jesus is facing in the story: where does he come from? And what is he there to do? While I’m sure Jesus was a better carpenter than I was a draftsman… but, his guiding purpose certainly wasn’t just that.

And today’s story comes just a few chapters into Mark’s Gospel, but Jesus has been busy. After his baptism and temptation he immediately gets to work in a travelling ministry: healing, exorcising, teaching, and eating with people — often the kind of people that community leaders didn’t eat with. And immediately people respond to his healing, exorcising, teaching, and compassionate table fellowship. They respond so much that he even has to tell the demons to stop shouting about how he’s Son of God, and he needs to jump into boats to get away from the rushing crowds.

But they keep coming, and we read, “the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.” Jesus has returned home, and he’s brought, I don’t know, a hundred, or a thousand, or more, of his friends with him. And the irony here is that this story that begins with that line, “they could not even eat” is the perfect example for what’s called a “Markan sandwich.” It’s a stylistic thing in the Gospel of Mark, where episodes are written in sandwich form. Like, someone comes to Jesus for healing; and then an entirely different person comes to Jesus for healing, which he does; and then after that, he goes back and heals the first person. Two separate stories put together in sandwich form. And maybe by putting the two stories together, a certain shared truth comes to the surface, as we digest the sandwich.

So today, the sandwich goes family — scribes —family. Jesus’s family hears that he’s being followed around by a huge crowd (or maybe they just hear that he’s so busy that he’s neglecting to eat), and so they went out to restrain him, for people were saying ‘He has gone out of his mind.’

And then the scribes come from Jerusalem: ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons…. He has an unclean spirit.

And after Jesus deals with the scribes, we come to the bottom piece of bread on the sandwich, “Then his mother and his brothers came,” and they can’t even get inside the house, for the crowds. Or, if not for the crowds, or, maybe out of a sense of shame. And then… and then Jesus, I think, Jesus breaks their hearts. I think, if we’re honest, and we strip away how we know the happy ending of the Gospel, and strip away our piety, and our flat, overly-religious reading of the story, we’d find a family heartbroken by Jesus’s seeming rejection of them.

It’s a tough story. Some might say an embarrassing story. It actually fulfills what New Testament scholars call ‘the criterion of embarrassment.’ Basically, if a story or line, or description, in the gospels would have been embarrassing to the Church, then it almost certainly is historical. In our case today, we know that Mary and Jesus’s brother James ended up being prominent figures in the early Church. So if we find today’s Gospel reading sad, we can find some comfort in that it seems that his family came around. But Jesus’s brother James was not just a leader in the Church, but he was martyred — a hero of the faith, probably something like just ten years before the Gospel of Mark was put to paper. So for Mark to preserve this story, it would have been so difficult, so embarrassing for the Church to read, that it must be true. That’s the logic.

And the remarkable thing is that Mark not only preserves this difficult story, but he sandwiches it together with the story about the scribes’ accusation against Jesus. Mark is comparing the reaction of Jesus’s family to his ministry to the reaction of the rival religious leaders. The Gospel-writer is likening the concerned family that wants to talk sense into Jesus, with the threatened establishment that says that Jesus is in league with Satan.

It’s admittedly, a tough reading. One that would have been moved further from our collective consciousness were it not for the powerful speech-writing of one Abraham Lincoln, and his “a house divided” allusion. But the story is more than that. It’s a tough one, but I’m going to say that it might be one of the most important parts of Mark’s Gospel. Important because it reveals so clearly a Jesus who has wrestled with that question: who are my mother and my brothers? A Jesus who understands where he comes from, and what his purpose is.

In the weeks that follow, with often less jarring stories, we’re going to see that Jesus’s purpose is to proclaim and usher in the Kingdom of God. And that’s what he does, by sacrificing the security of the family unit, and going up and down the land, healing, exorcising, teaching, and embracing those who were outcast. In all of those actions he’s bringing the Kingdom of God closer. In all of those interactions he’s bringing God closer to people who felt like God was far away. And so no wonder he’s incensed at the willful blindness of the comfortable people who see people being liberated, but refuse to recognize God’s grace in it. Unforgivable, apparently.

In all of his life and ministry Jesus is bringing in the Kingdom. He’s not just being nice; or in today’s case, he’s being the opposite of nice. But he is embodying the liberating power of God’s love in our world. He’s setting things in motion so that one day, God’s Reign really will be fully realized in our world so desperately in need of purpose, and justice.

And in his healing, and exorcising, and teaching, and feeding, Jesus is binding the strong man. Every interaction, every episode of God’s love and God’s Kingdom made present is an attack on the powers of evil. Each time Jesus heals or exorcises, he ties up the strong man, the devil. Each time he teaches, and plants seeds of wisdom and hope and compassion in someone’s heart, he’s tying up the strong man. And each time he embraces someone rejected by the rest of society, he’s tying up the strong man.

He binds the strong man to set the stage for God’s love and liberation, intended for all people. This is the situation that we live in and have been sent out into. A world still in need of healing, but presumably with the hardest work — the binding — done by Jesus. And Jesus has called us together, into one great family of disciples, or Communion of Saints. And though we come from different times, and places, and families, and we have different skills in different proportions, Jesus says that he can work with that. All that’s required as a starting point is the desire to be sitting amongst the crowd that Jesus looks out at. And to hear those words: Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.


© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter