Every good book has a strong narrative through-line. A recent example is the 2012 memoir, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. In Wild, the through-line is the story of the author’s solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River. Along the way, things happen to her, and she tells those stories. Also along the way, she dives deeply into memory and grief. By the end, she is changed, and her sense of herself in the world is changed.
The book’s many pieces all hang on the narrative through-line of the Pacific Crest Trail. (You could think of this through-line as a clothesline, or a necklace, but I like a long hike even better.)
Jesus’ through-line in the Gospel of Mark is liberation from oppression. On this through-line hang parables, conversations, sermons, healings, and comissionings. As we move through Mark over the next six weeks, and again in the fall, remember this. The Gospel of Mark is the story of God’s work of liberation, work that continues today.
This morning’s gospel has several elements which, although each are multi-layered stories in themselves, hang from this through-line of liberating mission.
The scribes’ accusation that Jesus through Beelzebul heals demonstrates to all with ears to hear that the scribes are threatened by what Jesus is doing. Who is this prophet and healer attracting such a crowd? What makes him think he can heal on the Sabbath, let alone appoint apostles and give them authority to cast out demons? In healing the most marginalized—the crowds who seek out Jesus and recognize him as the Son of God—Jesus frees them from what binds them. Much of what binds them are oppressive social and economic structures that benefit the temple hierarchy, taxes that keep them poor, and purity laws that keep them separate. No wonder the scribes are threatened.
I’m not sure how many of you are following the national Poor People’s Campaign, forty days of moral revival in the form of weekly non-violent protests against racism and poverty. These protests are happening at 40 state capitols around the country, including ours. Each week has a different theme: last Monday it was the just and equal access to healthcare; tomorrow it is about the justice of a living wage for all.
Protesters hold hands, sing songs, and lie down on government property to claim their message and their space. Some of them get arrested. Even well- meaning folk might say to themselves: “they’re crazy.” The Poor People’s Campaign is fighting an uphill battle for a complete recasting and liberation of rich and poor, black and white, able and disabled. People participating in the campaign experience a foretaste of liberation just by being there together, being part of the crowd. If this full-scale liberation of the poor in our country ever becomes reality, even well-meaning, like-minded folk will have to give something up. When we say: “that can never happen!” or “that’s crazy!” we come close to the scribes who say: “he has a demon!”
Jesus responds to the scribes’ accusation with a series of short parables all of which turn those accusations back on themselves. He is essentially saying to the scribes: “I’m crazy? I’m guilty of blasphemy?? You’re the ones committing blasphemy if you think my work is anything other than the work of God.”
Jesuit theologian Juan Luis Segundo has written that “the real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.”
Where do we see God’s liberating through-line before our very eyes today? I’m a huge fan of Colin Kaepernick. (I’m also a pretty big fan of Lebron James, but we’re not going to talk about that today.) In 2016, Kaepernick began the practice of protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem at the start of NFL games. Kaepernick’s taking a stand, or taking a knee, for liberation is a story that made headlines for a while. Most of us aren’t going to make headlines. But we can take a stand, or a knee by turning, over and over again, away from the ties that bind us and toward liberation and justice.
To bind the strong man and to plunder his property is to dismantle the structures that allow poverty and disease to go unchecked. To bind the strong man is to liberate the weak and to make them strong.
And what of Jesus’ poor family? They, like the scribes, are on the outside, separated from Jesus by the crowd. The crowd, this growing gathered community of disciples, find their identity in following Jesus above all else. When Jesus reciprocates by saying “here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters,” he redefines the alliances that identify us. I hope we hear this as Good News. I hope we identify ourselves as part of Jesus’ community first, and then as wives and fathers, mothers, brothers, daughters, Americans, Seattleites, teachers, artists, doctors, or baristas. I don’t know whether Colin Kaepernick is a follower of Jesus. But I do know that he was—and is—very clear about who his brothers are. His allegiance was not to his employer or his country but to the cause of healing and liberation for the people he saw brutalized and oppressed.
Aligning our identity with Jesus’ liberating work unbinds us from the social and economic structures of our time. Sure, we need to buy food and pay rent and most of us, for better or worse, belong to families. But if our hearts are set on the liberating Kingdom of God, then our day-to-day work can become God’s work.
A few minutes ago I asked: where do we see God’s liberating throughline before our eyes today? I like to think we live into that through-line here and now.
Last week, we heard about Sabbath, which is about resisting those ties that bind us, plundering, if you will, the world’s norms and expectations. Sabbath is also about identity, about reminding ourselves and the world, as I said several weeks ago, that we answer to a higher authority.
Around here we often say that our identity is first and foremost as a worshiping community, specifically, a progressive Anglo-Catholic parish renewing its people through worship. Does our worship save lives? Can practices like Sabbath and praying the Daily Office change the world? The answer is yes if these practices liberate us from the world’s economy that says we don’t have time for such things, an economy that says there is no place for mystery and ritual. The answer is yes if praying the psalms with all of their crazy mix of praise and pain, anger and exaltation liberates us to recognize God’s saving action in the most desperate of circumstances. Does beauty and silence save lives? Yes, if that beauty and silence liberates us to bring beauty and silence into a broken and noisy world God loves.
Can a piece of broken bread and a sip of wine liberate us? Can what we do in this place strengthen us and propel us to do our own casting out of demons and unbinding the oppressed? Yes. Let this be our through-line.