A House Divided

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Preface

            Driving west on Route 90 you may have seen the new billboard which honors Abraham Lincoln, and extols civility, and quotes today’s lesson, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’.  The billboard makes it seem that President Lincoln coined the phrase, but, as you know, he did not.  This is Jesus’ word, entering the world of conflict and tragedy, denying any part in Satan’s divided household, and claiming to have, like a wily  thief, entered that house, and trussed up the strong man Satan, and conquered him in apocalyptic fury.   Jesus’ family calls him crazy.  Jesus’ disciples discard his teaching.  Jesus opponents set religious rhetoric on fire to condemn him.  All within syllables of the disciples themselves being named.  His ministry begins in a whole heap of trouble, in this third chapter of St. Mark.

Mark

            We know not who wrote Mark, only his name.  He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown.  He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus(15:21).  The book is meant to help a community of Christians.  It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith.  While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus in 30AD, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later in 70AD. So it is not an evangelistic tract and it is not a diary and it is not a biography and it is emphatically not a history.

            You will want to know what we can say, then, about Mark’s community.  If the community gave birth to the gospel, and if the community is the primary focus of the gospel, and if the community is the gospel’s intended audience, you would like to know something about them. For one thing, the community is persecuted, or is dreading persecution, or both.  Jesus suffered and so do, or so will, you.  This is what Mark says.  This gospel prepares its hearers for persecution.  For another thing, the church may have been in or around Rome, or more probably somewhere in Syria.  It is likely that Mark was written between 69 and 73 ce.  For yet another thing, Mark’s fellow congregants, fellow Christians, are Gentiles, in the main, not Jews.  He is writing to this largelyGentilegroup.  He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract nor an ethereal piece of poetry.  His is rather a ‘message on target’.  It is the preaching of the gospel. Further, Mark’s composition, editing, comparisons, saying combinations, style and Christology all point to Mark as the earliest gospel (J Marcus).

            We have used the word gospel. You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’.  It is an old term.  You could compare it to ‘ghost’.  Gospel is to good news as ghost is to spirit, you might say.  Yet Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’.  He creates something new.  Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it.  It is not popular today any longer, no longer fashionable, to say this. It is however true.  Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle.  Examples of all these were to hand for him.  Mark might have written one of any one of them.  He did not.  He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new.  A gospel.  His is the first, but not the last.

           

Mark 3: 20

             In particular, we have entered a very strange gospel land this morning, in the reading of our gospel, Mark 3: 20.  Call it the landscape of apocalyptic.  Jesus is beside himself.  There is mention of a certain Beelzebub.   The teaching has recourse to a parlor debate about demons, and the prince of demons.  Jesus refers to their, the demons’, casting out. One wonders—don’t you?—about the binding up of a strong man.  We have frightening words about the end, about blasphemy, about forgivenessof all sins (hurray!), except for one, the sin against the Holy Spirit (not helpfully defined, and, by the way, (boo hoo!). Here is an unclean spirit.  There are family members disdained.  Jesus enters ministry in blistering conflict with his own followers, with his religious debating partners, and with his own family.  Friends, Scribes, and Family have this in common:  conflict with Jesus Himself.  That is, Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher, announcing the coming of the end, the turn of the ages.  We can be sure of very little about the historical Jesus, but we can be sure of this.

            In fact, the point of the oddly arranged set of sayings, is that Jesus has arrived to shift the world from the old age to the new age.  He has brought the end of the old and the start of the new.  He has set his standard on the field of battle, and having done so, as Divine Power, he has in effect already won the war.  Hence, disciples are to be disciplined.  Hence, family, when in revolt, is to be discredited and rejected.  Hence, and especially, the old religion is to be transformed.   All, that is every and all, sin is finally forgivable, with various modes of atonement.  But full on, flat out opposition to what is good in favor of what is not, to what is life in favor of what is death, to what is holy in favor of what is hellish, to what is spirit in favor of what is emptiness—this is by definition not forgivable, the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Forgiveness is yours as long as you do not deny the reality of forgiveness. If you do, by definition, you go unforgiven.  If there is no forgiveness, for anyone anywhere at any time, then, again, by definition, there is none for you.  There are none so thin as those who will not eat.

            We are not the first age to hear and to see lived out the extremities of familial, religious, and cultural enmity.  Our house and our houses, across the lower 48 and beyond, may well be divided.  But division we did not invent.

 

A House Divided

            Across these years of division, a time of humiliation, and a time taste testing a sort of fascism, and so fully in need of Samuel’s warning about having a king (‘you want a king’, says Samuel, ‘then you shall have one, and with him much misery’) we too, like Jesus with his followers and Jesus with his sagacious opponents, and Jesus with his family, will enter conversation, discussion, discourse.  To do so with grace, with both honesty and kindness, is a grave but unavoidable challenge.   At least, so engaged, we might do well to be true to our own, actual experience.  If we can honor our own lived experience, with some authentic recollection, then we may have a better chance to engage that of others.   Here is one example.

            A few weeks ago a mildly conservative columnist, whose work otherwise one often appreciates, wrote broadly of ‘tens of millions of Americans’.   He was referring to middle America—red, smaller town, rural, fresh water, America, and trying to explain why we have the divisions we do.  He wrote, ‘tens of millions of Americans rightly feel that their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving, and their religious liberties are under threat’, and went on to encourage attention to social problems.  (David Brooks, NYT, 4/18).

            Our experience, across ten pulpits, and four decades in ministry, years of upbringing and happy experience in the areas he is trying to describe, is the opposite.   Most of our upbringing and of our ministry was invested in red, smaller town, rural, fresh water, America.  Here is an afternoon spent planning a stewardship campaign riding on the back of a tractor.  Memory carries the happiness of calling in the barns at milking time.  There is an evening spent listening to vocation and job choices at the kitchen table.  One morning visit offered the chance to learn the family history of a middle sized tool and die company, in a small city.  After the committee meeting there was time to hear the history of a once prosperous manufacturing and imaging company.  This was a life in ministry spent seeing the seasonal rhythms of seed time and harvest, of the first day of trout fishing season and the last day of deer hunting season.  Bluntly put, I hardly met a Democrat, before I went to college, and in the succeeding years our churches were largely colored red. 

            Our friend was right to encourage robust attention to social problems.  In the rest of this paragraph he is mistaken.  “Tens of millions” of Americans in red, smaller town, rural, fresh water America are not living as if under economic attack.  In our own lived multi-decade experience they are, rather, sturdily and steadily enduring the unstoppable shift to a fully global economy, with courage and creativity and long-suffering.  With some little exception, our current national divisions are not welling up out of the angers of licensed nurses, truck drivers, farmers, school teachers, plumbers and firefighters. Here is our experience, to the contrary.  Here is a north country farmer putting livestock and machinery to auction and becoming an electrician, with courage and grace.  Here is the grandson of a family company, suddenly globalized, becoming a photographer.  Here is a middle-manager in a down-sizing corporation taking retirement and doing what he always loved, being with children, and driving a school bus.   One hopes that their religious formation in the Methodist tradition that celebrates itineracy, moving about on the planet, gave some support, some wind beneath the wings.   Further, “tens of millions” of Americans are not whimpering about the loss of community. With some little exception, our house is not divided because den mothers and choir directors across the near mid-west think their communities are dissolving.  They do not and they are not.  They are busy and faithful in their service to neighbor and divine, as much as ever, and not dawdling around whining about ‘dissolving communities’.  Nor are “tens of millions’ of Americans hand wringing about religious liberty.  With some little exception, the people in our lived experience, in our five rural churches, our two college town churches, our two smaller city churches are not wailing and bemoaning that their religious liberties are under threat:  the Johnson Amendment has been used exactly ONCE since its 1954 inception (in a Binghamton NY case involving Operation Rescue of all places and groups).  No.  There is more religious liberty and religion in rural, small town, agricultural, America than there is pretty much anywhere else, and people know it, and people are glad for it.  There is not a lot of rural whooping about selling cakes or not for gay weddings.  No.  ReadHillbilly Elegy as often as you like:  it is still inaccurate as a broad brush description, as beautifully written and as true as it may be in the singular narrative, if our own lived experience in ministry is any guide. Not economic attack, not communal demise, not religion falling away.  These sorts of mis-descriptions caricature good people in false ways.  They wrongly and unnecessarily denigrate the faithfulness and courage of many of our siblings, cousins, compatriots, and fellow citizens.  If we are going to find a way toward common hope, we will need to do so, from red to blue and blue to red, unencumbered by and unshackled from, such falsehoods.  Across this summer, and into this autumn, we will need everything we can muster to speak a word of faith in pastoral voice, toward a common hope:  a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.  If we can honor our own lived experience, with some authentic recollection, then we may have a better chance to engage that of others.

            Speaking of common hope, and speaking of a pastoral voice, we conclude with a breakfast scene from fifty years ago.   

Bobby

            June 5 1968 began with the usual commotion in our Methodist parsonage.  Two younger sisters and one younger brother, arranging books, breakfast, the day’s plans.  Pancakes and argument and some humor.  One mother overseeing the relative chaos.  I, hoping to be ready, for once, when friends arrived to walk together to school.

            That spring I had gained a fervent connection, at age 13, to Robert F Kennedy.  For some reason I strongly and emotionally engaged with him, our Senator then in the Empire State, and with his campaign as it unfolded. For one thing, there was a common hope therein (yes, borrowed from G.B. Shaw):  some people see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say why not.  My father supported another candidate, but was willing to respect a different, my own, point of view. Earlier in the year I remember sitting with him, watching President Johnson, jowly and bespectacled, telling us through the grainy black and white TV that he would not run.  Just before Johnson said it, my Dad said, “he’s going to do it, he’s going to drop out…”  (He was after all a graduate of BUSTH, the school of the prophets.)  Less fully, I remember the announcement of Martin L King’s death, and only later heard RFK’s words from that night, words in eloquence and care of a heavenly sort.  No, I was busy with eighth grade. Eighth grade in a still new school system was all consuming.  I still had not finished raking the lawn across the street that I had contracted to do in the fall, the deal being with a member of our church,  a kindly, patient pediatrician.  There was a decision to make about a dance coming up—I remember feeling odd and uncertain about that.  I spent my time on homework, scouting, sports, and friends, to the extent I had located some.

            But there was also RFK. It was many years later until I heard the tape of his Indianapolis speech, late at night, bringing tragic tidings to hundreds gathered, black and white, on the night of King’s murder.  I use the tape in teaching.  Aeschylus, Scripture, his own loss, all rolled into a plea for calm.  To those of you who may be tempted to anger and vengeance tonight, I can say that I had a brother whom I lost… What we need in this country nowWhat we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

            My dad was in Chicago that week, June 5 1968, for some long forgotten denominational meetings.  It was 7am our time, so 6am his.  The phone rang, and after a brief word with mom, he asked to speak to me, which was a little odd for that hour.  He wanted me to know, and to tell me himself, that early that morning in California RFK too had been shot and killed.

            He sensed how much that news would grieve me, though we still have yet fully to  sense how much his loss cost us.  Maybe at an unconsidered, sixth sense level, dad wanted to prevent any unnecessary cynicism, on my part, or hardened bitterness, that might sprout up, and of which there already was plenty abroad.  Mostly, he was trying to be a good dad.  And he lived and worked without every forgetting the humble grace, the quiet power of a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

            Fifty years later. I partly appreciated the call, then. I really appreciate it now.  Fifty years later.

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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