Sermon

“Behold my brothers and sisters . . .”
Homily preached at St. John the Evangelist
By the Rev. Neil Elliott

I
I’m very grateful for the invitation to share the pulpit this morning. I’m also grateful for the welcome you all have extended to Mary Ellen and me as we join your congregation. I realize it’s a bit presumptuous to stand up here and preach to you without knowing you better. Allow me simply to draw attention to some tensions in this Gospel reading and to ask what in those tensions might speak to us.

I want to be clear from the start that I have no professional insight into the topic of this morning’s text. I have never been involved in an exorcism, on either the giving or receiving end. There are churches—you see them on TV—where it’s routine for the minister to smack people in the forehead and shout at foul demons to Come out! But for Episcopalians, exorcism is foreign to our experience.

(It’s usually not covered by our health plans, perhaps because demon possession is considered a pre-existing condition; and of course it’s dangerous without insurance, because if you miss a payment, you run the risk of being repossessed.)

It’s interesting, then, that our authorized Book of Occasional Services makes provision for exorcism. I quote: “those who find themselves in need of such a ministry should make the fact known to the bishop, through their parish priest,” and the bishop decides what to do about it. I can’t help thinking of those pharmaceutical advertisements on late-night TV: “ask your priest or bishop if exorcism is right for you.”

It’s easy enough for us to joke about it. For most of us, it’s more comfortable to imagine exorcism as the bizarre practice of pre-modern peoples. —Like Jesus and the Galilean villagers around him; for there it is, again and again, at the heart of Mark’s Gospel.

II
I’m not going to try to sort out what demon possession “really is.” I’m more interested this morning in the different ways people around Jesus responded.

Whatever we might think was going on, pretty clearly Jesus himself perceived demon possession and practiced exorcism, like other people in his day. There were famous professional exorcists like Apollonius of Tyana, or like the sons of Skeva in the book of Acts. There were skeptics, like the Syrian Lucian, who went about exposing the special effects gimmicks some exorcists used—like using flash powder and puffs of black smoke to make it appear that demons were leaving their patients.

But there are no skeptics in the New Testament. In this morning’s Gospel, some hostile Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. They don’t say he’s a fraud: they accept that he’s performing real exorcisms. So Jesus responds with sarcasm, “then how do your exorcists do it?”

So demon possession and exorcism could be looked on askance by some in Jesus’ day; that seems even to include—and here I want to focus on one of the tensions at the heart of this morning’s Gospel—his own family.

His mother and sisters and brothers come out to rein Jesus in because some in the crowd are The crowd around him seems divided. Apparently some people have been brought to Jesus in the conviction that he could heal them or alleviate their suffering. But the accusation quickly arises that he is “raving” like a madman. Do they mean he is showing bad form as an exorcist? Is he crazy because he’s ascribing everyone’s malady to unclean spirits? We don’t know.

I want especially to focus on a particular response: that of Jesus’ family.

His mother and sisters and brothers come out to rein Jesus in. Note, they don’t say to the crowd, “oh, don’t get the wrong idea”; they don’t say, “be careful, Jesus, you might give people the wrong impression.” They simply try to call him out, away from his work, perhaps because of what’s being said about him also casts them in a shameful light.

Do his brothers and sisters believe in demons? We don’t know. Do they believe Jesus has the power to cast out demons? Apparently not. And note: despite all the Hollywood portrayals of faithful, devout Mary, is his mother on Jesus’ side? No, not in this story. She seems simply alarmed, embarrassed, perhaps ashamed by his actions.
That’s strange.

III
I invite you, after our worship, to look at the stained glass windows in the back of our church. On either side are pictures of Jesus as a child—being held by his mother as the wise men bring gifts, discussing Torah with the elders in the Temple—or drawing children to him. These are wholesome pictures of happy families, and the implied message might be, “this is what Christianity is about—cheerful, well-groomed, well-behaved families,” with all the children above average. (Like St. John’s.)

But that’s not what we hear in the Gospel this morning. You won’t find this scene in any stained glass window in any church.

We hear a lot of rhetoric today—in church and in other parts of public life—about the “biblical ideal” of marriage and family. We hear that, especially as we approach a vote in this state in November on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage in a very particular way.

It’s not my job as a guest preacher, of course, to tell you how to vote. I am aware that the vestry of St. John’s has voted to approve the blessing in church of all “covenanted unions.” And I think it is part of my calling as a priest to recall that at our Diocesan Convention, the Episcopal church in Minnesota stated our clear opposition to what one of my colleagues has called the “marriage denial” amendment.

This last week, more than a hundred Minnesota clergy pledged their efforts to oppose the amendment, and when a journalist asked “but aren’t your congregations terribly divided over this issue?” Rabbi Melissa Simon answered, “no; we represent hundreds of congregations in different denominations—United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Lutheran—as well as the rabbinic association of Minnesota—that have taken clear and forceful stands against the amendment.”

My point this morning is to notice what this Gospel suggests about families.

When people talk about “the Holy Family,” they mean the family in this morning’s Gospel. But this is a family turning against Jesus, saying “we’ve got to stop him.” Note, we don’t hear Jesus say, “Sorry, Mom; sorry, Sisters; sorry, Brothers, I never meant to upset our Holy Family.” Instead, Jesus turns to the people around him: “these are my mother and sisters and brothers.”

I find it ironic that Jesus is invoked today over a very particular understanding of “biblical marriage” and “biblical family values.” Jesus himself managed to avoid marriage—we don’t know how much that disappointed his mother—and the best our Episcopal marriage service can say is that Jesus showed up at a wedding in Cana. We’re not told that he even spoke to the bride and groom. At least he didn’t stop the wedding; he did turn water into wine, but that might seem a clearer endorsement of catering than of a particular form of marriage.

—Most likely the marriage in Cana had been arranged by the couple’s parents, while they were still children; if that’s “traditional marriage,” Bible-style, I don’t expect many of us would be interested in it.

The only time Jesus delivers an opinion about marriage, his point is that divorce is strictly prohibited (Mark 10:10-12). That turns the spotlight on people like me—people who have been divorced—but we don’t hear anyone today advocating constitutional amendments to prohibit divorce.

In another place Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Mt 10:34-37). Whatever “traditional” family ties mean, they clearly mean much less to Jesus than doing the will of God.

If there’s a single, “biblical” ideal of the family, Jesus apparently didn’t get the memo.

IV
Instead—at the moment his opponents accuse Jesus of working in league with Satan; as he seeks to defend his casting out of demons by insisting he is a burglar in the night, ransacking Satan’s house—at that moment his mother and sisters and brothers come out to restrain him. At the moment they put themselves on the wrong side of that argument, Jesus gives us a different biblical image of family. He turns to the crowd around him and says, “Here are my mother and sisters and brothers.”

I take that to mean: Here are people who acknowledge the needs in their community and take clear, direct action to meet those needs. —Even if meeting those needs scandalizes Jesus’ own relatives.

We know that conceptions of the family have changed over time, but always—always—the way a society understands “the family” shapes the ways life’s necessities are shared and distributed, or how they are withheld.

I wonder whether, sometimes, talk about the importance of family is a way of avoiding our shared responsibility to each other.

When a crisis happens and people are suddenly put in dire straits, often the deciding factor is not “what do these people need?” or “what resources are available in our community?” but “how much money does their family have? How much can the family afford?”

When children are doing poorly in school, we know the most important factors are adequate nutrition, a safe environment, adequate sleep; aspects of basic economic security. But somehow, when we ask “what can be done?” the answer is often to blame the teachers, and then to blame students’ families; somehow that’s easier than addressing the social and economic roots of the problem.

When someone is hospitalized, in perilous health, unable to communicate, will the hospital turn to the person closest to them, who loves them and shares their life? It all depends on how the hospital, or the community, or the state defines “family.”

What happens when children and their parents are evicted from their homes? Thanks to the hard work of members at St. John’s, we have the opportunity to get together with others and build houses for people who need them. Note that we don’t ask, “how big a home can your family afford?” “Why don’t you move in with some relatives?” or “What’s wrong with your family that you can’t afford your own home?” No: we simply build a home for people who need shelter.

“Behold,” said Jesus: “here are my mother and sisters and brothers.”

Building a few homes is, of course, a drop in the bucket of need in our communities. —But every drop in the bucket sends out ripples, agitates the water in that bucket. And every effort like that is, I think, in the spirit of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.

In our Baptismal Covenant we answer that we “renounce the evil powers of this world, that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” It’s not exactly an exorcism, but when we answer “yes,” and when we put our words into action by showing up, by building a house, by reaching out and doing the countless other things that connect us to people around us, and in places far away, in life-giving ways—then we are incorporated into that large, boisterous crowd around Jesus. “Here are my mother, and sisters, and brothers.” May we be part of such a family!

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