June 13

Extraordinary Time

By Marsh Chapel

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Good morning! We are at the beginning of that season that I never really understood as a child which extends all the way through the summer until we reach Advent: Ordinary Time. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I always thought of this season simply as “the time after Pentecost.” I legitimately did not know that it went by another name. So, imagine my surprise when in my first year of seminary I stumbled across the terminology of “Ordinary Time” when learning the church calendar. How ridiculous, I thought. Who calls it “Ordinary Time”? Well, apparently a lot of people, including the Catholic Church, the Anglican and Episcopal churches, the United Methodist Church, and even my own beloved Lutheran Church. Ordinary time as a moniker just seems so…ordinary. I don’t think it accurately encompasses the journey we travel with Jesus and the disciples, learning about his ministry, his healing, his conflicts, and his connection to the world. The celebration of Pentecost shows us the dramatic effect of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. This season is not one to merely proclaim as “ordinary”, but it continues to highlight the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit through the life and ministry of Jesus.

One of the things today’s gospel lesson teaches us about is the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. We learn about family, conflict, and the important role the Holy Spirit plays in joining us together and transforming us to form strong bonds rooted in God’s power. But to be fair, this story is a little all over the place – Jesus is trying to eat, people say he’s gone out of his mind, the Pharisees accuse him of being in league with demons, Jesus rebukes anyone who rejects the Holy Spirit, and he also emphasizes his relationship with his chosen family in the Holy Spirit over his family of origin. That’s a lot of ground to cover for a story that is only fifteen verses long and otherwise might be a simple story of an ordinary homecoming.

In any normal circumstance, a family would be excited to see their son or brother return after having departed on a journey. However, Jesus’ reputation precedes him. While on his journey he’s proclaimed new teachings about the good news of the Kingdom of God, casted out demons, healed people, invited disciples to follow him, hung out and eaten with the marginalized, broken Sabbath laws, and gained fame among other Galileans who do not know fully who he is but want to do God’s will. People in Galilee and the surrounding area are sharply divided on what Jesus’ words and actions mean in light of established customs and Jewish law. His own family does not understand what he is doing. Remember, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry in Mark does not begin with his birth but rather at his rebirth when he is baptized by John. Jesus’ supernatural actions and challenge to powers that be is not a known entity to his family before he heads out to do his ministry. No angelic announcement foretold who Jesus was and what he was meant to do. In fact, this is the only time that Mary is mentioned in Mark’s gospel – her role in Jesus’ life is greatly diminished in comparison to the other Synoptic writers. Jesus’ family, instead, think he’s gone out of his mind, not conforming with societal and religious norms as they have come to understand them.

I’m certain most of us can relate to that experience of young adulthood when you or your child left home for college or a job and came back home for the first time. I encounter this frequently in my role as a University Chaplain – that first Thanksgiving or winter break at home can be a challenge for many students. They have changed since they went to school – gaining more freedom, learning who they are and what they want to become in a new environment, encountering new people who have different backgrounds and experiences can shift attitudes and a sense of self. Parents may be surprised at this person who arrives home – students may have even done something to cause their parents question whether they have gone out of their mind. The instinct to protect a child is a strong feeling, as is the longing for the person who once was but now who has started to self-differentiate from their family. However, most of the time we adjust; we manage to keep our families together and accept that people grow and change as they get older, but not without some growing pains. These students may have even started to form their own “families” outside of their family of origin – those who support them through difficult times, celebrate in joyful times, and overall, just “get” them. The desire to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging is at the core of our being, and as we grow and develop into adults, our sense of self leads us to create new systems of support and care.

Returning back to the gospel, another group that has certain expectations of who and what Jesus should be also appears in the story at this point. The Pharisees from Jerusalem have also heard about Jesus’ actions around the Galilean countryside and have their own opinions of what is going on. While Jesus’ family might be trying to protect him in his perceived insanity, the Pharisees come with a much bolder accusation: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” To them, Jesus must be in league with evil forces because he is not following the religious laws they enforce. Jesus is not acting in expected or “ordinary” ways as a Jewish man or even teacher. Jesus rebuts their accusations by pointing out the logical fallacy of their argument – how can Satan cast out Satan? Truly it must take something or someone much stronger and different to “bind up” the strong man. Here, Jesus gives the Pharisees and the crowd an apocalyptic hint of his role in the world – to prevent the work of evil in the world and provide forgiveness.

We may be taken aback at what Jesus says next though. He draws a strict line between who is “in” and “out” in the kingdom of God. The good news is that most people are included in God’s kingdom – sins will be forgiven by a gracious and loving God. But, and this is a huge BUT, there is one sin that cannot be tolerated –blaspheming the Holy Spirit. God will not forgive those who commit this sin. It feels awfully weighty to us as the readers. We have come to expect that God forgives unconditionally. How can we reconcile these two claims? Also, how do we know if we are blaspheming the Holy Spirit if the work of the Holy Spirit is often a mystery to us? Perhaps the best way to think about this statement by Jesus is to place it in context of the Gospel of Mark. Presbyterian pastor James Ayers in his commentary on this passage urges that we see Jesus’ words here as a sort of tether that lets us know that the Holy Spirit is the force that can transform hopelessness into hope and can cause restoration in our lives. The only way that we truly be against God is to actively reject the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world. What we really must be aware of is that the power of the Holy Spirit continues to work on and with us to create our loving relationship with God. Jesus is laying the groundwork for what it means to be a part of God’s family.

With this knowledge about maintaining our relationship with the divine, we turn back to the conflicting realities of Jesus’ closest relationships. When Jesus’ family calls for him to come outside, he claims those he is inside sharing a meal with to be his mother and brothers. Is this a complete rejection of his biological family? Maybe. It is a definitive claim on the importance of the kind of relationship that Jesus calls us to cultivate in our lives. Jesus claims those who are doing the will of God as his siblings. In that moment, it excludes his family because they do not understand who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus wields his power in this narrative. It is not the kind of power that is most recognizable in Jesus’ time or even our own time – economic, political, or even physical – but is instead rooted in love, hope, justice, humility, servanthood, and restoration. In claiming outsiders from the rest of society to be literal insiders as members of God’s family, Jesus upends the expectations of what power should look like. In performing exorcisms and healing people, he restores right order and enables those who have been healed to be a part of society once again. He shows love to those who have been excluded, sees value in human life over the strictures of human laws, and identifies the humanity of those who have been deemed less-than because of their jobs, their status in society, or their physical or mental wellness. He is able to bind up the “strong man” because of his power of love and transformation rather than destruction. Jesus’ power is not rooted in fear or coercion, but in hope and love.

In this past year, many of us have spent a lot of time inside, especially in our homes. We’ve also probably gotten a great deal of quality time with our immediate families, or maybe with our chosen “bubble” of people. These are people that we trust. In the midst of a pandemic, there had to be a certain level of understanding about the appropriate behaviors and interactions for each of the members of our “immediate households” to maintain our health and wellbeing. We became vigilant about who was and wasn’t a close contact, redefining our physical relationship to others by only allowing certain people to share our spaces. Some of us have had time to reconnect with family members in new ways, while others have been physically separated from loved ones for extended periods of time.

Perhaps because we have had more time to think about or spend with our immediate households, we have come to recognize the importance of establishing and maintaining strong relationships with others. In this time of forced isolation from the outside world, we’ve also come to recognize the many ways in which our society is broken. COVID made us acutely aware of economic, racial, and other social inequalities that have been present for the majority of our country’s history, but which we have continually failed to address. In the early days of the pandemic, after our initial shock of having our lives upended, many of us vowed that we would never be able to go back to “normal” again in light of Black Lives Matter protests, socio-economic inequality, and growing divisions in our country. Some of us now had more time to really reflect on what was going on in the world around us and to decide how we were going to be more involved, less dismissive, and seek justice and restoration for others.

Now, in this new phase of the pandemic, where it is certainly not over but is at least on the decline in the United States, we are ready and eager to go back outside into the world. As mask restrictions lift and we begin to reunite with our friends (after, of course, we have been fully vaccinated) it might be easy to slip into our old ways of being. The busy-ness of life might return again and our care and concern for the greater socio-economic issues we were faced with during the pandemic may start fade into the background. We may slip into our own “ordinary” time where things go back to mostly “normal”. We may lose sight of the importance of the relationships we share not only with those in our “bubbles” but with the greater world. Certain aspects of the pandemic will leave their marks on us as we move forward, but how will we consider what this past year has meant to us in how we interact with our families of origin, our families of choice, and the surrounding world around us?

Many of us have a new clarity about the importance of relationships and not taking advantage of the time and opportunities to support and connect with others. Sometimes this kind of recognition can only come after we have lost something important. Dr. Don Saliers, American theologian and Professor Emeritus at the Candler School of Theology as well as father of Emily Saliers of the folk duo the Indigo Girls, summarizes our experience of the relationship of being a part of God’s family as this:

“Living out the form of discipleship Christ bids us follow means a new solidarity with all humanity.  It requires that we learn with him to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It asks us to live into the densities of human joy and suffering. It calls us to find ourselves precisely in our willingness to give up our self-absorption.  This is a demanding task, requiring a willingness to follow him into a new solidarity with God’s whole family.”

One may hear echoes of the great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim of the Cost of Discipleship in Dr. Salier’s statement. While God’s family welcomes all, it also calls on us to be willing to serve others with an open heart without letting ourselves and our egos get in the way of justice and righteousness. God’s will, while grounded in love, does not mean that it won’t come without its challenges in enacting it in the world. It means standing up to oppression. It means crying out with those in pain. It means recognizing and responding to the needs of others, even if those needs infringe upon our personal wants. To live authentically into God’s will means being mindful of how our faith informs our actions and allowing that deep inward voice to guide us along the way.

Jesus, in his ministry and his teachings, demonstrates what it means to follow God’s will. The Holy Spirit acts on us to create faith within us and then we continue to strengthen that faith through hearing the Word of God and sharing the sacraments with one another. The Holy Spirit moves in us to bear the good fruit of our faithfulness in service and care for others. It motivates us to seek justice for those who are marginalized, to create wholeness where brokenness haunts many, to acknowledge the humanity of others, and to see how we are inextricably tied together with them. Our faith is in the one who redeems and makes us whole, and thereby we are called to share the power of Christ through our own words and actions.

This is not an ordinary time. These weeks after Pentecost are an extraordinary time to hear the Word and works of God through the body of Christ. Let us live into these “Sundays after Pentecost” with a renewed sense of being siblings of Christ and God’s children. Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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