Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
Chapel Hill, NC
Mark 3: 20-35
Sunday June 6, 2021
Good evening. It is such a pleasure to be with you tonight. For those of you I do not know, my name is Josh Richardson, I use he/him/his pronouns, and I’m the director of Brugmansia Ministries, which is an organization focused on helping faith communities prepare for climate change and climate migration. I’m currently living in what the US Government calls Nashville TN, which is on land that was inhabited by the Yuchi, Shawnee and Cherokee peoples before it was formally ceded to the US government.
I am going to be vulnerable with you tonight. I’m going to talk about something I don’t typically talk about. At age 29, I was diagnosed and treated for rectal cancer effectively ending a career in geology. And from that treatment, I am quite fragile in so many ways.
Before going through cancer treatment, I was employed as a geologist with the state of Illinois researching wetlands and doing wetland remediation. When I was studying to be a geologist, I learned to think in the abstractness of deep time and coldness of chemical models. Prior to cancer, solutions to environmental problems were solved through equations, and people or landscapes were collateral damage to the environmental greater good.
As a cancer patient, I learned about the value of an individual’s life. Sitting in a room full of people who are wasting away either from the chemotherapy drugs or from cancer itself, has a way of clarifying things.
Now, the suffering in a cancer ward wasn’t particularly enlightening. The beeping machines pumping poison into a grandmother’s veins. A nurse hurriedly injecting opiates into a young man’s arms as they cried out from the pain of a surgery. Those things didn’t illuminate my world.
But the love I experienced was truly altering. Watching families, friends, doctors, nurses, support staff, and sometimes even strangers exhibit profound and fierce love for fragile and often helpless people, myself included, changed me. There were days when I couldn’t tie my shoes, walk more than a few feet, or eat anything. And it was in those moments when I really couldn’t do anything that I began to see how loved I was and how innately valuable life is. And not just my life, but all life.
Now, I’m going to make a bit of a hard pivot.
In the time we have spent together today, another species has gone extinct because of how humans choose to interact with the world. By the time I finish this meditation, yet another species will be gone forever. If you are willing, I would like to ask you to do something that might be uncomfortable and may even seem a bit silly. I would like to ask you to join me in sitting with weight of knowing that those species are deeply loved by God just as I was when I was going through cancer treatment.
A type of bird will never fly again. A species of snake will never lay eggs. A spider won’t weave her web. The millions of years of evolution that have propelled generations upon generations to continue the great work of existing, glorifying God has been snuffed out because of humanity’s carelessness, selfishness, ignorance, and malice. And all those individual moments of hope, dreams, joys, sorrows, pains, will never again be felt on this planet. This slow death of a species will largely go unnoticed or unaccounted. No funerals, no vigils, no graveside services. No one singing “For All the Saints”. And all of the potential interactions that compose a life, unique and wonderful, will no longer be possible. Wiped away and unrecognized. A species that God has wonderfully created and resoundingly called good, is gone, never to live again.
And, if we’re being transparent, we won’t even know it happened.
Please pray with me.
Our Gospel reading tonight is structured like many Marcan stories with a sense of timeline discontinuity, a collapsing between two stories to increase the overall message. Mark juxtaposes two different groups challenging Jesus’ casting out demons, performing miracles, and teachings to suggest a larger picture.
The scribes represent socio-political power, the power of the state, and Jesus’ family are representing relational power, social bonds and interpersonal power. Both groups are attempting to subvert and discredit Jesus’ work of healing by using their unique type of influence and power.
The scribes make a legal charge against Jesus using the power of the empire. They are attempting to stop Jesus’ work by force. Accusing Jesus of being in line with an evil spirit and working against God is in direct violation of Mosaic law and would have been punishable by death. And, as we see later in the scriptures, Rome was willing to uphold local laws and customs to maintain stability within the empire. So, the scribes in making a formal accusation of being in allegiance with Beelzebub, which is a socio-political action, are leveraging the political power of the Roman empire against Jesus to try and stop his work.
On the other hand, Jesus is also being accused of being “out of his mind” by other folks. This is an interpersonal and relational attack on Jesus that undermines Jesus’ credibility and authority to act in the world. It’s an invalidation of Jesus’ personhood. And in response to these personal attacks, Jesus’ family tries to minimize the conflict by removing Jesus from the situation. Theologian Ched Myers argues that this was likely due to Jesus’ family’s attempts to save face and maintain social status. But, independent of the reasoning behind Jesus’ family’s actions, there is an implicit condemnation of Jesus’ actions on behalf of his family which acts as a subverting force to Jesus’ work.
So, this story can be understood as being of about rejection and condemnation on a socio-political level and on an interpersonal level. That reading is certainly accepted. And Jesus’ words and actions accommodate that reading.
But, for me, this is really more of a story about identifying the unseen harms in our actions and standing up for individuals who do not have a voice in the conversation. Nowhere in this narrative do the scribes or others gathered ask the individuals Jesus healed if Jesus is working on behalf of evil spirits or if Jesus is insane. Their lives, experiences, and voices are stunningly absent.
To be perfectly clear, the people who had the most to lose by either the stopping or subverting of Jesus’ work, arguably more so than Jesus himself, aren’t even mentioned in the story, let alone brought up in the conversations. We don’t even know if they were among the people present. The importance of their existence is not simply minimized, it is not even recognized.
This is where I feel the need to be both careful and honest. It’s really easy for me empathize with Jesus’ family and the scribes. In fact, not only is it easy to empathize with them, but it is also really important to not demonize them.
Jesus’ family doesn’t want conflict with their neighbors and they don’t want to be pariahs within their community. And the scribes are trying to maintain cultural unity and identity as an occupied and oppressed people under Roman rule. And in Rome, any occupied people that caused disturbances would be violently repressed. In many ways, both groups are trying to de-escalate what’s happening by controlling Jesus, on a relational and societal level. Their actions in our story are not extraordinarily malicious, but deeply human. They are looking out for themselves and, in many ways, their larger communities. They are attempting to maintain the comfort and safety of a status-quo that Jesus was disrupting.
But in looking to maintain that status quo, harm falls upon the most vulnerable, the people who are voiceless in our story. Imagine suffering of being a leper and ritually outcast from society and the joy of being healed and being able to rejoin your community. Imagine for possibly the first time your life having someone acknowledge your existence and proclaim that God loves you and your life matters to the being that created the cosmos. Repressing Jesus’ ministry would stop the healings, stop the calls for justice, stop the social transformations, stop the good news to the poor and outcast.
And that, my friends, is where Jesus draws the line.
And that delineation is an act of love. Jesus is not making some hate-filled speech or telling folks they are that they are going to hell if they don’t repent. He is making clear that the unforgivable sin is the sin repressing God’s work of redeeming and helping those that we have shunned and made helpless.
Foundationally, Jesus’ divisive statements are reflections about what or who we are prioritizing in the world and who or what we are called to prioritize. In the words of Dorothy Day, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor”, which Jesus makes clear in this passage. When maintaining the status quo is predicated on exploitation of the most vulnerable, it is unfaithful to maintain the status quo.
In our environmental movements within rich nations, both on a geopolitical and community levels, we rarely ask ourselves who is harmed by our actions or who is harmed by our solutions to environmental problems. And most of the solutions around climate change presented to us maintain systems that continue long legacies of racist and colonialist exploitation, systems that could be called evil. We focus on gigatons of CO2, kWh of green energy, and grid capacity, not the number of miners who are poisoned in El Salvador, children forced to pick through mountains of e-waste in Ghana, or communities left to die from cancers in Appalachia in what we politely call environmental sacrifice zones, but which could better be described as the physical manifestation of our collective sin. And those are only a few examples.
But the Kingdom of God is not built with solar panels, on the backs of slaves, or through the literal death of the poor, crucified at the altar of modernity. In fact, Jesus has made abundantly clear that the Kingdom is not built but found through love. And not abstract intellectual love, but the concrete solidarity love that compels us to act in this world on behalf of those that have been so disenfranchised that they are literally absent from our thoughts.
I wonder what it would look like if our churches abandoned our ideas of creation care and stewardship and began talking about love. Stewardship never grows or expands, it only shrinks because stewardship is about managing limited resources. Whereas, love can balloon and swell to topple empires.
We are all living through geologic scale environmental crises that are only going to get worse in our lifetimes. The hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods, crop failures accompanied by starvation, lack of access clean water, proliferation of tropical diseases, continued extinctions, and human migration are going to continue and become more devastating.
That’s not the question.
The question is how we will respond. Will we become insulated and block ourselves out from the suffering, trying to ignore what is happening? Will we pursue technological solutions that continue the same problems that brought us to this point, with no guarantee that they will even work?
Or will we recognize the suffering of the most vulnerable and love them deeply enough to change how we act in this world?
May it be so.