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January 2018

He’s Meddling Now

He's Meddling Now

Mark 3:7-35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

28 January 2018



    There's an old phrase used in the South when parishioners get uncomfortable with what the preacher is saying, "He's quit preachin' and gone to meddlin' now."

    And one is tempted to think that about Jesus at this point in the story, especially when he rebukes his own mother. We are so accustomed to the close affinities between family and faith that Jesus' rejection of family startles us, maybe even offends us a little. Is he really saying that we have to be willing to break with our families if we are to follow him?


    Jesus is building a new community. Today's reading opens with the multitudes following him. He is drawing disciples from all over the region. Displaced persons are coming to him. Scholar Ben Witherington even asks whether this multitude seeking healing are people who have been beaten by the authorities and are therefore fleeing for their own safety.

    Herman Waetjen, a professor in the San Francisco Theological Seminary, describes the social setting of this Gospel:


    [This is] a society in which the process of redemption has broken down. The use and the control of power by the ruling class are self-serving, oriented toward the preservation of the existing structures and institutions without regard for . . . mutuality . . . . The system has no integrity.


    And so Jesus makes it clear that he is forming a new community which will challenge all of this and provide a better world. Ched Myers calls Jesus' action both a "government in exile" and a "community of resistance." He goes up onto a mountain—always a symbolic site—and appoints the Twelve.

    Now, Jesus didn't have only twelve disciples. In fact Mark makes it seem like there are hundreds of followers. Nor is it clear that these Twelve are to be seen as the leaders, because as we continue to read through the Gospel of Mark, you'll discover that Mark is highly critical of the Twelve and their inability to understand what Jesus is doing. In the other Gospels and in later tradition they do take on more a leadership role, but not here in Mark. You'll also notice that the Four Gospels can't agree on who they were.

    So, many scholars believe that this is more a symbolic action. There had originally been twelve tribes of Israel, so Jesus is naming Twelve followers as his apostles to signify his formation of this new social order.

    Herman Waetjen explains this new role,


By endowing them with the same authority he bears as the New Human Being to preach the good news and to exorcise demons, Jesus establishes the egalitarian character of this new people of God. . . . They serve only as representatives of the community at large in which there are to be no vertical structures or hierarchical rankings. Related to Jesus, to the twelve, and to one another horizontally, all are to participate equally in the power, sovereignty, and freedom of the New Human Being.


To summarize—Jesus has received power and authority from God through the Holy Spirit and now Jesus is sharing that exact same power and authority with his followers, as symbolized by the twelve. This is not a hierarchy, but a table fellowship, a new family, built around full equality where every follower receives the power and authority of God.

    And then they go to a home. I have pointed out before that the home is a repeated theme in the Gospel of Mark. The home symbolizes that Jesus is not only forming a new social order but a new family. The community of followers, the church, will be a new family, not based upon kinship and blood times, but a common purpose and mission.

    And so it is in this context, with Jesus surrounded by his new family, that his family of origin appears. They think he's gone crazy. Maybe they are only worried for his safety. Maybe they know that the authorities are now out to get him and instead of lying low he continues to do provocative things. Or maybe they really do think he's gone insane.

    Remember, in the Gospel of Mark there is no birth story, no genealogy. Mark doesn't care about Jesus' family of origin for it is not important to the story that Mark is telling. Jesus' mother is never named in Mark and never appears as a character, which is very unlike the Gospel of Luke where she plays a prominent role. This reminds us that the different gospel writers had different goals in telling their stories.

    As if to manifest his family's fears, some investigators from the capital arrive accusing Jesus of being Satanic. Now, how often do the authorities use inaccurate, charged language to try to turn a crowd against a reformer? They are also propounding a wild conspiracy theory—Jesus only looks like he's fighting Satan, he's really in league with him. The themes of this story are universal and continue to speak good news to us in our contemporary context.

    This conversation is central to Jesus' conflict with his opponents. If they are right, then what he is saying and doing is wrong, even evil. And if he is right, then what they are doing is wrong. There is no "agreeing to disagree." Someone is right and someone is wrong. Reality, truth, goodness—these things exist. People may have a legal or constitutional right to believe whatever they want, but they are not entitled morally and intellectually to be wrong. Wrong ideas must be challenged through persuasion and refutation.

    And so Jesus gives us a model of argumentation. He is casting out demons, destroying the power of Satan, and setting people free. Why would Satan destroy his own power? He wouldn't. It's illogical, nonsensical.

    No, Jesus says he is like a thief, who has entered the strong man's house and bound him so that the house might be plundered. What a subversive metaphor to use! In essence Jesus confesses that he is a criminal, but his actions correspond to the will of God. It is his opponents who are in league with Satan, because their policies exclude and harm other people.

    Jesus then announced a blanket pardon—everyone will be forgiven, no matter what they have done. This is the most subversive idea in all of human history. Grace and mercy are given freely, without merit or condition. We do not earn it. It is our free gift from a loving God.

    The only thing, however, that can separate you from God's love is to do what Jesus' opponents have just done—to call God's liberating work evil.

    If you exclude and oppresses people, work against justice and liberation, and the egalitarian new social order, then you are unable to participate fully in God's free grace because of your own blindness, fear, and hardness of heart.

    And this is one reason I am so shocked by our contemporaries who call themselves Christians and yet actively work to exclude other people. They have somehow missed the most fundamental and basic teachings of the Gospel. They don't simply believe something different than we do, they are wrong in the way that Jesus' opponents were wrong.

    Jesus has refuted the argument of the investigators from the capital and called them the agents of Satan. And then he turns back to his family of origin and rejects them for they have rejected what he is teaching. He will form a new family, centered on a common mission and purpose.

    So, yes, this is one of the places where the Gospel can be very difficult for us. We enjoy comfortable religion, but the Gospel of Mark doesn't want to make us comfortable. Last year when I was at the Festival of Homiletics retired Methodist Bishop Will Willmon declared that preachers are not called to care for people, that if we want to care for people there are other professions that do that. Preachers are truth proclaimers and that often is discomforting.

    I confess that I like comfort food. I often wish things were easier. But 39 years ago I told Jesus I was going to follow him and sometimes that way is challenging and difficult.

    Jesus is saying that we must be willing to break with what is familiar in order to participate in God's new work. Sometimes we do have to break with family and friends and elements of our past.

    But here's the thing. God's new work is intended to include everyone. God is constantly working to bring those intransigent folk into the fold; it is their hardness of heart that separates them. They need only open their eyes to the truth, repent of their sin, and embrace the good news that is freely given to them.

    Here's Herman Waetjen again:


The community of the New Human Being encompasses all who attach themselves to it for the recovery of their freedom and autonomy, their health and integrity, without any ranking of class and achievement, without any permanent levels of power and privilege.


    God is creating a new family where all are welcome, all are empowered, all are free. If you get that, then you are part of the family. Why wouldn't everyone want to join?

How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

View all my reviews

Francis on Fake News & the Truth

Good remarks and a fine prayer yesterday from Pope Francis on "fake news" and our pursuit of truth.  An excerpt:

Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't read this last year when everyone else did because I had other fiction-reading goals at the time, so I'm late to the conversation.

I enjoyed the conceit and how the various sections allowed Whitehead to explore broader themes--What is freedom? What is America? He was also able to explore other periods of American history, such as the DuBois-Washington debate paralleled at the climax of the story.

What did puzzle me were some of the individual decisions of various characters, which seemed poorly motivated and therefore constructed to achieve some plot goal rather than authentic decisions of the characters.

View all my reviews

"Evangelical" Hypocrisy

Much ink has been spilled about "Evangelical" hypocrisy when it comes to Trump.  Of course these are not real Evangelicals but a version of Fundamentalism--I digress.  Here's a column from Michael Gerson contrasting Billy Graham's reaction to Nixon's scandals with Graham's son's open embrace of Trump.

But the best explanation I have yet read is this one which identifies the roots of this form of American religion in the slave-holding South and a break-away from actual Evangelicalism which was abolitionist.  Excerpt:

patriarchal amoralism, not the Bible, not Christian teachings,  is the foundation of this Evangelical sect.  After slavery, it justified the lynching of blacks, segregation, and the vile hatred that we see being fanned today in such churches.  Being patriarchal and authoritarian, it has never in America’s history supported nor nurtured the values of democracy.  Thus  Its “religious” leaders convey the theological values needed to prepare its communities for fascist rule.  This thread has always existed within American society.  It is not new. It is not superficial. It will not disappear. America made a moral compromise at the beginning of its existence. Every century or so, the reality of it gets thrown like acid into our faces. 

Upon a Bright Red Bench

Upon a Bright Red BenchUpon a Bright Red Bench by Pallavi Rebbapragada
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meeting Pallavi was one of the many delights of attending the Yale Writer's Conference in 2014. And I have enjoyed our on-going Facebook friendship since then. How cool in the 21st century to watch the daily lives of acquaintance around the globe.

And the delights of this series of short stories include richly descriptive writing, imaginatively conceived characters, compelling plots, and revelations of life in contemporary India.

Congrats on an enjoyable book.

View all my reviews

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

Mark 2:13-3:6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

21 January 2018



    In January 1963 a handful of Birmingham, Alabama's white, liberal Christian ministers wrote a public letter arguing against the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, in particular their open breaking of the law. King, while in jail that April, wrote a response—The Letter from Birmingham Jail—which I believe should be included in an expansion of our canon.

    In that Letter, King, among other things, gave a theological defense of the movement and judged the timidity and unchristian stance of the white ministers. King wrote, "There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.'"

    But how to determine the difference? "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." King references the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He then develops this idea, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

    Segregation laws did not pass the test, so, he could "urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong."

    In fact, the protestor has a greater respect for law than does the white supremacist or the even the white moderate, because the protestors are upholding the moral law not the particular laws of the state and nation. They are advocating for particular laws that correspond to the moral law.

    King wrote, "I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."

    And so, the nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement broke the law in order to bring injustice to attention and lead to social change. Elsewhere, King explained his goals:


The goal of our demonstrations . . . is to dramatize the existence of injustice and to bring about the presence of justice by methods of nonviolence. Long years of experience indicate to us that [we] can achieve this goal when four things occur:

  1. Nonviolent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights.
  2. Racists resist by unleashing violence against them.
  3. Americans of conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation.
  4. The administration, under mass pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and remedial legislation.

The working out of this process has never been simple or tranquil.


    What empowered the protestors to suffer violence inflicted upon their souls and bodies? Their faith. For instance, King spoke about the struggle against Bull Connor in Birmingham. The marchers would go forth singing "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round," and Connor would unleash dogs and firehoses. King recalled, "Bull Connor didn't know history. . . we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water."

    The waters of baptism, the sign and symbol of our call to follow Jesus and resist the forces of evil, empower us to struggle for justice and righteousness, especially when that means breaking unjust laws and defying the powers-that-be.


    Scholar Ched Myers writes that at this point in the Gospel of Mark, "The portrait now emerging is of a Jesus who is continually surrounded by the poor, who attends to their importune cries for healing and wholeness, and who acts not just to bind up their wounds but to attack the structures that perpetuate their oppression."

    Jesus isn't advocating charity, but a reordering of society. Herman Waetjen writes, "If the glory of God is to become incarnate in human beings created in God's image and likeness, the old order must be subverted." And Jesus is about to bring that about because God has named him "the New Human Being" to act on God's behalf.

    And so this series of stories is about how Jesus' action elicits confrontation from the various authorities and how Jesus works deliberately to subvert key themes of his opponents. For example, Jesus challenges core elements of the theology of the Pharisees around "the rules of table fellowship, public piety, and maintenance of the Sabbath" [Myers] in these episodes. The Pharisees are themselves a reform movement, but Jesus doesn't think they go far enough in overturning the old order, that their practice of holiness works to exclude people rather than create an inclusive, egalitarian order.

    And in this final episode, the one that really angers the authorities, compelling the reformist Pharisees to create an alliance with their opponents the Herodians, Jesus engages in what Myers calls "carefully staged political theater" to make his point that the law exists to help people, and so he openly breaks the law.

    Professor Ben Witherington III writes that "Mark presents Jesus as one who must cast the truth like a stone through a plate glass window."


    Jesus is the truth-teller who breaks the rules because it is the sick who need his help, not those for whom everything is okay. Jesus directly confronts the religious and political authorities through life-giving action on behalf of the people who need it, and invites us to do the same.

Loving Jesus

Sunday I preached a rousing sermon on the Gospel of Mark talking about Jesus' call to discipleship, and then the service ended with the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story," which reminded me of the good aspects of my childhood as a Baptist, and as the service concluded I felt the joy of loving Jesus and of having loved Jesus since I committed to follow him at the age of 5.

The Shape of Water


A few weeks ago Michael and I got the rare chance to go to a movie.  Rare, since we are parents of a young child.  Rare because we don't usually use babysitting money for a movie, since we hopefully will be able to stream it sometime in the future.

We went to see The Shape of Water.  And in the various reviews I've read of the film, none have commented on what to me seemed to be the primary theme--toxic masculinity.

Our current social moment is shaping how I interpret many things, so it clearly shaped watching this film (as it did the Opera earlier this year).  

The male characters in the film demonstrate multiple types of men, with implied questions--Who are the real men? Who is the best man?

Of course the best man isn't human, which subversively makes  a point, right?

The man who, like President Trump, thinks he is the best man, is the worst man, the one possessed by a toxic masculinity.  The film does a nice job of giving you a few glimpses into his life that cause you pity instead of overwhelming dread he normally compels.

The females are, of course, the central, vital characters, but you see how they must navigate all these male types in their effort to get along.  Fortunately, the women are the agents of the film and drive the action, which the good men embrace and the toxic ones  seem at first incapable of comprehending and later react violently toward.

I highly recommend the film, which is far more layered than its whimsical fairy tale reputation might suggest.