Only three chapters into the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is besieged by divided houses. He is surrounded by people seeking healing, scribes come down from Jerusalem to tell him everything he’s doing wrong, and then his family shows up outside his house to stage an intervention because they think he has lost his mind. Each of these groups represents a division, a divided house on some level.
Those who seek healing are asking Jesus to cure physical ailments or to cast out demons. We tend not to talk about casting out demons in this church, so here’s one way to understand that ailment: something is standing between the person and their relationship with God. Maybe it’s a physical or emotional or spiritual health issue. Maybe it’s an addiction. Something is broken within that person, and they seek to be made whole again. They seek to draw closer to God and to live as a whole and healthy person. They seek to set their personal house in order.
Then there’s “house” in the sense of family. When Jesus’ family shows up outside the house, you notice that he does not let them in. His house, or his family, is literally divided—them outside, him inside. His family comes because people tell them that Jesus is out of his mind. Yes, he has launched this new, strange, wonderful, dangerous ministry that no one quite understands. Yes, those seeking healing hound him like paparazzi. Yes, he is stirring up tensions with the scribes from Jerusalem.
This is all overwhelming and disturbing, no doubt, for his family. Maybe his mother wants to tell him, “Yes, dear, you can have your revolution and heal everybody, but could you do it without stirring up trouble? I’m concerned about you. And the neighbors are talking. Come along home now; things are getting a little out of hand here.” Maybe you can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes and saying, “Aw, Mom, you don’t understand. I’m not your little boy anymore.”
Perhaps you recall the first time you left home as a young adult. Maybe you were going off to college, or joining the military, or getting a new job and moving in with some friends. But you were gone for long enough, and had enough new adventures, and met enough new people, that when you came home for Christmas you felt like a different person. And your family, naturally enough, kind of expected you to fit into the mold of the person you used to be. Maybe you found yourself saying, “You don’t understand!” Or “It’s different now!” So there were some tensions.
In Jesus’ case, it’s more than just some tensions. What he’s doing is dangerous. Maybe his family sees that. Maybe he is bringing shame upon them. Maybe they just love him and are worried about him. Maybe, with all these people dogging his heels all the time, he is a little stressed and overwhelmed.
So there are people seeking to put their inner “house” in order through healing and wholeness. There are Jesus’ family members seeking to unite the family house. And then there are the scribes from Jerusalem, representing the Temple, the house of God. And here again, the house is divided. The scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul and casting out demons in his name. Jesus calls them on this nonsense and points out that it would not be in Beelzebul’s interest to cast out his own demons—a house divided cannot stand.
But he takes the discussion a step further. He says that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
What’s that about? Is there really an eternal, unforgivable sin?
I suggest what Jesus means is that the scribes are the ones dividing the house of God. They are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit by refusing to recognize it when they see it and by steering others away from it. Through their rules and power games, they are separating people from God and from their own healing and wholeness. That is what Jesus is naming as an eternal and unforgivable sin. Dividing the people from their God and their own wholeness.
Side bar for a moment: There is one more place where we see a house divided in today’s readings. In Samuel, the people have lived under a system of judges for many years, with Samuel being one of the great judges. But Samuel’s sons have become corrupt judges, and Samuel is growing old. Israel lives among nations that are prone to war, where kings bring their armies to invade and conquer. Samuel’s house is divided in its ability to lead, and the people are divided against Samuel and God. They want that political and military might to clobber their neighboring nations and to defend against all invaders.
God tells Samuel to warn the people what they are asking for: taxes—10% off the top of their harvest. Do you remember who used to get 10%? God. It’s called tithing. The people will also be required to send their own children off to work and become soldiers and perhaps even die for the king and court, putting themselves in essence back into slavery after God delivered them out of it. Choosing to have a king is a rejection of God as their ruler. It divides them from their own wholeness.
Okay, back to Jesus.
Notice what restores people. It is Spirit. Jesus casts out the demons, or bad spirits. His family and the scribes both think he may be out of his mind, or possessed by an unclean spirit. And of course he is possessed by a spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit. Steering people away from that Spirit is a sure way to create a divided house, whether at the personal, family, or community level. Steering people toward that spirit, through healing, preaching, teaching, worshiping—that’s what restores people.
Where do we see divisions—within ourselves, our families, our congregation, our community, our country? Surely we have divided political houses, which lead to a whole lot of nothing getting done, or the side in power ramming through legislation that serves only their side, or a few elites on their side.
Divisions between the haves and the have-nots are growing. The Poor People’s Campaign seeks to shine a light on this. Poor, people of color, disabled bear the brunt. If all these tariffs get put in place after the divisiveness of the G7 summit this week, we will all get to pay for them.
What do we do about these divisions? Put up walls to keep out The Other? Build bridges? Here’s what our government is doing:
Border wall with Mexico.
Shut out immigrants and refugees and Muslims.
Yank funding for social support programs.
And a million other examples.
Our government is picking fights around the world, refusing to help in refugee crises that are on a scale we have not seen (65 million and counting), denying climate change, plundering our national parks for fossil fuels, sending our young off to war in order to protect “our” fossil fuels under other countries’ land, etc. Our government has an agenda, and its aim is not the well-being of its citizens and residents. When Samuel warns the people what their lives will be like under a king, we might take note.
Am I proposing overthrow of the government? No. But there are things we can do to be proponents of Spirit, of healing and wholeness. There are ways in which we can seek our own healing and wholeness, our own connection with Spirit, that will impact our communities and the world.
The other day I met a man whom I will call Nate. When Nate’s brother came out to his family, Nate’s father, a Southern Baptist minister, rejected the brother. This led to tensions in the marriage, and Nate’s father and mother ultimately divorced. Nate was so angry with his father that he wanted nothing to do with him for years. The family completely fell apart—a house divided. Nate rarely spoke to his father or saw him, and when they did get together, Nate could feel his whole body go rigid.
Eventually, Nate realized that he was ready to stop hating his father, but he didn’t know how to begin, and he thought it would take a very long time. He decided to try calling his father once a week and just be curious about his father’s life. Stop judging, just be curious. He asked questions and then listened.
Within three weeks, their conversations had become so fruitful that his father got on an airplane and came out for a visit. The connection was reestablished, and a whole lot of healing took place. They’re going on a cruise soon, and in a couple of years they plan to do a mission trip together in Central America. (I don’t know the part of the story having to do with the relationship between the brother who came out and the father.)
Spirit is sometimes just looking for the door to open a crack. And sometimes we are the ones keeping it slammed shut. Nate was so full of judgment and hate toward his father that he couldn’t experience the love that was still there. They still don’t agree about a lot of things, but they have learned a new way to be together, and it is a loving and life-giving way. Nate became unstuck from a very stuck and hurtful place in his own spirit.
So that’s one example of uniting the house of self and family: working intentionally to build bridges, to heal wounded relationships, to allow Spirit into the picture in surprising ways. Stop judging, start loving, and see what happens. Easier said than done, and in Nate’s case it took years for him to be ready to begin.
Then there’s the house of God. I’ve spoken on multiple occasions about how some people use the Bible not to open people to God but to whap them upside the head and tell them God hates them. I think that’s what Jesus was referring to when he talked about unforgivable blasphemy: cutting people off from God’s love. So we get to spread the good news of a different message, a message of healing and wholeness, of love and forgiveness, of grace for everyone. This is truly a life-saving, life-giving message to those who have lived divided from God for too long.
Finally, there is the government level of divided house. When we see our government dividing this nation from the rest of the world, dividing parents and children at the border, dividing the haves from the have-nots and stripping away the social support systems that help people thrive, we need to speak out, because this is part of that eternal blasphemy as well. This is government of the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful, and that kind of divided house cannot stand. It is not just, it is not loving, and it will create more tensions and wars.
What does speaking out in love look like? Maybe it looks like showing up at rallies and marches, at Poor People’s Campaign events like the one I went to in Olympia on Monday. Maybe we’re turning up in kayaks, as one of our members did recently, to make a statement out on the waters of Puget Sound. Maybe we’re signing initiative petitions for clean air and water, as many of you have done in recent weeks. Or even gathering signatures on these petitions. Maybe it’s showing that another way is possible, as our film about green energy will do this coming Friday. Maybe it’s marching in the Pride Parade at the end of this month. There are endless ways to let Spirit guide us in the path of love, of a united household under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Isn’t that what we pledge to be about?
Poet Judy Chicago puts it this way:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
[Judy Chicago, http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/a-prayer-for-our-nation-judy-chicago]
That’s a vision of a united house I could live into. Maybe you could, too. May it be so. Amen.