If you wish, you can hear this sermon as it was preached in the pulpit of the United Church of Jaffrey. Simply click to the play button below.
Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey.
June 10th, 2018
Mark 3:20-27 / Excerpt from a speech by Abraham Lincoln
A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
— Abraham Lincoln
In this morning’s lesson from the Mark’s Gospel, Jesus Christ confronts a group of “scribes” who, the text says, “came down from Jerusalem.”
These scribes are clearly threatened by the momentum that is gathering behind the young upstart from Nazareth, because, no sooner do they witness Jesus casting out demons, than they start passing around the ugly rumor that his power to do this comes not from God, but from the Devil — Beelzebub.
Jesus, who gets wind of all this, dismisses at the suggestion.
“How can Satan cast out Satan? He asks. If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.
I’ve given this passage some thought over the last week, and I admit to being less then convinced by Jesus’ comeback.
In the first place, it seems to me that no one is more qualified to cast out Satan than Satan.
If you apply the “It takes one to know one” logic, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that evil people are good at casting out evil people.
Evil knows evil, and, by this logic if two evil people fight, the more evil person is likely to win, because the winner is, presumably, the one who is more adept at wielding nefarious stratagems.
Human history is replete with examples of cruel dictators being toppled, only to be replaced by tyrants that are still more cruel.
But I’m speculating here, because, while I’m not exactly a saint, I’m definitely not in the business of nefarious stratagems.
I am in the enviable position of being the spiritual guide for a community who has agreed to form around the notion that we can“Grow our Christian faith through acts of Love toward all”
For this reason, you don’t hear Satan mentioned very often from this pulpit.
That is intentional.
The existence of Satan is a question that I give very little thought — but I suppose, since I find evidence of God’s existence in the irrefutable reality of love — I ought to give Satan the same benefit, since the reality of evil seems equally irrefutable.
If Satan exists — and if there is a board room in some subterranean furnace where Beelzebub and his cronies squint their eyes and scheme, I imagine them brainstorming a mission statement that would go something like this:
To diminish love through acts of evil toward all.
Is it self serving of me to suggest that the mission of our church is the opposite of Satan’s mission?
I don’t think so.
It’s not wrong to have a mission that is too lofty to ever accomplish.
And, in a community like this, that focuses on the value of love as a real and powerful force in the world, if Satan has any value at all, it is not as a threat, but as the symbol of something to push up against.
My idea of ministry has no interest in threats of eternal fire.
But it is interested in challenging you to resist injustice.
My idea of ministry is not interested in coercing you to repent by conjuring images goat headed demons wielding pitchforks.
But I am interested in causing your soul to reach out in concern.
Burt enough about the Prince of Darkness.
If Satan is a useful symbol to help us understand the motives of evil that are at work in our world, than perhaps I will accept him as a necessary evil.
But I’m not inviting him in.
The next thing that Jesus says is:
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
As soon as I read this part of the passage, I thought — there is my sermon.
This sentiment, to be sure, is about as relevant to our day as any words that came out of Jesus’ mouth.
About the only time in our nation’s history that seems as politically and culturally divided as today, is the 1860’s, when the issue of chattel slavery threatened to tear our nation apart.
Abraham Lincoln famously quoted this exact chapter and verse in a famous speech (which Dax read a portion of). Lincoln’s speech predicted both the Civil War, and the United States that would emerge from that conflict.
Today too, it often seems like we unity is altogether beyond us.
We argue about guns, we wonder about class mobility;
we’re irked by taxation, confused by corporate regulation.
We’re kept up at night about climate change,
and we wish everybody would just just get over race relations, LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.
We fight about Immigration,
have a nagging suspicion about Sexism;
we are challenged by Black Lives Matter,
Because we respect the cops, but are frightened by police brutality.
We abhor mass incarceration, but are scared of crime.
Terrorism fuels concern about National Security but
military spending seems outrageous;
there are never enough jobs, Healthcare is always mess,
and education gets the short end of the stick —
which says nothing of higher education, which is getting higher and higher cost, every year.
And about all this, everyone has a different opinion.
And now, wonder of wonders we have this little thing called the Internet, and its crazy spin-off, social media, that gives everyone their soap box to mouth off against each other…
And of course, we have a Twitter-in-chief to show us all how its done.
If, as Jesus says, a kingdom is divided against itself cannot stand.
How is that we are still standing?
My son Amos asked me a question, this week, that is relevant.
I had just picked him up and we were driving home listening to the news on the radio, when he said:
“Why do we have two parties? Wouldn’t it be better if we just had one?”
My ears perked up cause I was had been thinking about this quote from Jesus about a kingdom divided against itself and Amos’ charmingly naive question had a similar ring to it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “That might be more dangerous than what we have. That’s what they have in Russia, and its not working very well for them.”
“Oh,” Amos said, “I guess you’re right.”
Division — and we have plenty of it — is incredibly frustrating, totally outrageous, and often outright dangerous — but it is the expression of a freedom that we, in this country hold dear.
The freedom to disagree.
It reminds me of the bumper sticker that was popular during Bush the Younger that proclaimed: “Dissent is patriotic.”
I once interviewed a newspaper editor from Liberia who was thrown into a hole in the ground that was filled to his chest with water and left there for two weeks — all because he published ideas that were critical of the government.
I am proud to say that this country is not like that.
it looks like I — a Christian minister — have managed to come up with the opposite conclusion as Jesus. That a kingdom divided can stand.
How am I going to get myself out of this pickle?
Before I do — try to get myself out of this pickle, that is — I want to go on record as saying that I think its OK to disagree with Jesus.
Since one of the core beliefs of Christian faith is that Jesus was Divine, we don’t like to disagree with Jesus.
But since the other core belief of Christian faith is that Jesus was human, I believe we are given the grace, now and then, to disagree.
Having faith in Jesus, does not mean automatically agreeing with everything Jesus said.
It means listening carefully to him, and weighing his words with care.
As Huston Smith, the great scholar of religions said — we “listen expectantly” to Jesus — knowing that what we will hear will be filled with meaning.
Listening, expectantly, we hear Jesus go on to say:
And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.
I want you to notice that, in these few sentences, Jesus’ attention has moved from…
Satan — who has a kind of universal role,
to a Kingdom — which is a political state…
to a house — which is a dwelling where a family lives.
The movement is from large to small
From grand, to intimate.
Jesus often did this.
and your neighbor.
And while the freedom to disagree is as important in a family as it is in a nation state,
The notion of unity is also important.
It all depends on what principle guides your claim to unity.
For Jesus, love was the claim to unity.
And love is the singular claim to unity that is at work in a house.
Our church community, when it is at its best, is an experiment in trying to keep love as the governing principle of our unity.
When we succeed, it is a beautiful thing.
I would like, in conclusion, to affirm the wisdom of Jesus Christ’s insistence that we unify around love…
while at the same time affirming, that we may, at times disagree about how best to show it.
Its not easy.
It can be frustrating.
But its our wealth.
A crazy wealth of different kinds of love that, when put together, help us to grow our Christian faith.