choose! – a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on Mark 3.20-35 and Genesis 3.8-15, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on June 7, 2015.

Jesus inaugurates his ministry. Preaching, teaching, healing, miracle-working; exciting the crowds and inciting the animus of the authorities who consider him unobservant of the Sabbath, an unholy, ungodly lawbreaker.

Jesus goes home, his presence creating a ruckus, “the crowd (coming) together again” clamoring for his attention. I almost can hear them: “More preaching and teaching, Jesus, more healing and miracle-working!” The scribes, those knowledgeable, vigilant keepers of all things lawful, give voice to their equally raucous accusations, “He’s a spawn of Satan! Only by the devil’s power does he do what he does!” His family, Mary, his mother, and his siblings, alarmed, fearing for his safety, perhaps, too, his sanity, “(go) out to restrain him” (the Greek verb being the same to describe Jesus’ arrest before his trial and crucifixion), to force him into protective custody from those who would do him harm and from himself.

Amid this intense encounter, aflame with familial fealty and fear, we hear one of the hardest to understand or accept Jesus-sayings, on par with “Whoever does not hate (family), even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”[1] Jesus, when told, “Your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside asking for you,” replies, seemingly dismissively of them, “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?”

For all who assume Jesus always favors the family, perhaps recalling that poignant moment filled with eternal meaning when, dying on the cross, he lovingly commended his mother Mary into his beloved disciple’s care, “Woman, here is your son…(son) here is your mother”[2] and for all who preach “Christian family values” of whatever definition, this Jesus-saying ought give pause long enough to consider other gospel vignettes. Jesus, age twelve, gone missing, then found in the Jerusalem temple by his frantically searching parents, responds to their anxious concern with seeming indifference, “Why have you sought me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”[3] Jesus, at the Cana wedding feast, reacting to his mother’s request that he fix the problem of the lack of wine (though, yes, he did!), initially resisted, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”[4] Jesus, in response to a member of the crowd giving honor to his mother, “Blessed is the womb that bore you,” answered, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”[5]

Now, God forbid, I don’t believe Jesus hates his mother. Nor is he acting out some filial rebellion, which, given Adam and Eve’s disobedience to the Divine Parent in the Garden of Eden, seems to be the course of all maturation from the dawn of time! (Anyone who has raised, tutored, or mentored a child knows this!) But, no, something is deeper, greater at stake here. The call of God on one’s life. A call to a new life. A call that immediately, insistently challenges every other allegiance of one’s present life; even that fundamental, formative basis of all human social structure, the family. A call that one must choose; not necessarily once for all, once-and-done (as was true of the one Jesus called who answered, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father”, to which Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim God’s kingdom”[6]), but always and in all ways.

Jesus testified to God’s call to him in his inaugural preaching, the first words out of his mouth following his baptism and wilderness temptations: “God’s kingdom has come near”[7] – God’s nature, God’s life, who God is, the way God is has entered time and space. In another translation Jesus says, “God’s kingdom is at hand.” In Jesus, his words and deeds, his sacrificial life, his unconditional love, the kingdom, God is that close. This message, this gospel, so compelling, so all-consuming, is the life of Jesus, which, therefore, he cannot choose not to share. Verily, the sharing of this good news he must choose over all other allegiances.

So for Jesus, so for his first disciples. Responding to his call, “Follow me,” they came to learn a new life. At times, they fretted about the cost of that choice. When Jesus declared salvation solely within God’s providence and having nothing to do with human effort, Peter decried, “But we have left everything to follow you!”[8] Nevertheless, those disciples became apostles sent out to proclaim God’s kingdom.

So for the first disciples, so for us. We, in our baptisms, have answered his call, “Follow me.” We, in our continued profession as Christians, gather this day for communal, spiritual refreshment and, in that strength, to go out as present day apostles to proclaim God’s kingdom. Every Sunday we pray: “Gracious Father…Grant us growth in understanding and willingness to be your Body in this world…to preach, teach, heal and make disciples….shar(ing) you with everyone we meet…”[9] And before we depart this day, we will pray: “Eternal God, heavenly Father…you have fed us with spiritual food…Send us now into the world…to love and serve you with gladness and” (as this is our only allegiance, with) “singleness of heart…”[10]

We live in the twenty-first, not the first century. This, ostensibly, is a more complicated, confusing time; daily involving countless calls and commitments, many more choices than faced Jesus and those of his era. Still, one thing has not changed. We, with our forebears of two millennia ago, are human. All of us with points of view, preferences, prejudices; our lenses through which we perceive the world and make our choices. Therefore, I ask and I invite you, me to ponder this question in the coming week: To what do I, do you choose to give greater allegiance that restrains, restricts our sharing God with everyone we meet and, with singleness of heart, proclaiming to all in our words and deeds that God’s kingdom is at hand?

[1] Luke 14.26

[2] John 19.26-27

[3] See Luke 2.41-50

[4] John 2.4

[5] Luke 11.27-28

[6] Luke 9.59-60

[7] Mark 1.15

[8] Mark 10.28 (my emphases). See Mark 10.23-31

[9] From the Prayer for Spiritual Growth, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC. The prayer in its entirety: Gracious Father, we ask spiritual growth for ourselves, our families and friends, and especially for our family St. Matthew’s. Grant us growth in understanding and willingness to be your Body in this world. Empower us to live the mission of Christ: to preach, teach, heal and make disciples. In joyful thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in our lives, compel us to share you with everyone we meet.  May our numbers increase, our commitment deepen, our lives be joyfully yours. Make us a God-centered people. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

[10] From the Post-Communion Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer, page 365

2 thoughts on “choose! – a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Paul,

    Oh LORDY!!! What a sermon on this day before your Natal day!! I can’t believe I actually typed Natal Day, cause it’s just not a word I use. BUT in tribute to you I use it just this once!… But I digress!!

    So, to this sermon…. I was with you all the way until the end!! I loved the part about Jesus and his relationship with his family. I love family… Those whom I’m related to by birth (most of them anyway), and those I have chosen, including you and Pontheolla. So many family related choices we have to make in life, give us pause, and fret and worry and at times even anger.

    But what got me about this sermon was the end!! What a question for us to ponder!!!! Can we have more than just this week to think about this?? Seriously though, you’re right. We live in such a different time than Jesus did. Sooooooo many things get in our way. As you so clearly pointed out to us, WE MUST choose. But it’s so hard!!

    For me, my first answer is very self-serving…. It’s my work that prevents me from sharing the word of God. Like many other professions I’m sure, there are two things you don’t talk about given what I do for a living – politics and religion. The reason is easy. If you need to “back someone up” in a security situation, BUT you’ve just had a heated discussion about religion or politics, you could chose NOT to respond to help which could potentially have terrible consequences.

    That said, I had a very interesting situation last week at work. A colleague assigned to an office in CA, killed his 3 year old son and then himself in a domestic situation. Grief counselors arrived in the DC office to speak with employees (the colleague started his career in DC). Before the session started, the person asked if everyone could join hands in prayer. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was surprised by the request, BUT without missing a beat everyone held hands and prayed. Thankfully there was no discussion about it afterwards either. I guess a good case of what happens in the room stayed in that room.

    Your question really gives me pause Paul. I hope that the fact that I do talk about my faith, my LOVE of God and Jesus in my talks about my book helps me, but it is such a small percentage of time in my daily life. I can only hope to get better. That’s a great goal right??

    So I close with Much love to you, on this your birthday eve!! Thanks as always for causing me to reflect on your sermons. It’s just one of the things I love about you.


  2. As always, Loretta, I thank you for your comments, for you read and reflect and wrestle, no, not so much with what I’ve written/shared, but with yourself in response to what I’ve written/shared. As an author, you know that there is no greater compliment than that someone receives what you offer and internalizes it and seeks to make meaning of/out of it. Again, as always, I thank you for doing that with/for me. Your colleague’s murder/suicide is chilling to me. So sad. So very sad. Your account of the work of the grief counselors, ending with the invitation to pray is comforting to me. Yes, that request may have crossed some boundaries. Yet it strikes me as a recognition that in some instances, as in this case, of sudden, tragic death, we humans need call on powers greater than anything existentially at our worldly disposal. As for the sermon’s closing question, during the preaching of it, I made a point that I directed the inquiry first to/at me and that I would ponder it during the week. I do think many are the ways we can share our faith, our proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand, often without words. For when our actions of benevolence toward others arise from our hearts and souls filled with the Spirit, that is a witness to the good news. Many thanks, always and in all ways

    Liked by 1 person

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