Notice how early this passage is, in Mark’s Gospel. It’s the second half of chapter 3. We are not very far into the story, here. Jesus has done some healing and teaching. He’s drawn some crowds, gathered some followers. He’s scandalized religious leaders by holding the Sabbath lightly. And done some exorcisms, driving evil spirits out of people – important context for this passage.
Some religious scholars from Jerusalem have come to Capernaum, the city where Jesus lives in Mark’s Gospel, to check out this new rabbi. And this is their assessment: He is possessed by Beelzebul, and he exorcises demons by the power of the ruler of the demons.
Beelzebul is a great demon name, right? It’s probably adapted from the name of a Philistine god. Sometimes it meant a particular major demon; sometimes it’s just another name for Satan, the Accuser, understood in this time to be the ultimate ruler of the forces of evil.
So, people are accusing Jesus of using demonic power to cast out demons, and Jesus says: That doesn’t even make sense. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. And then he offers some hints about who and what he really is: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.” Satan, or Beelzebul, is the strong man here – and Jesus is the one plundering his house, freeing people from their bondage to evil spirits.
And then Jesus says this: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
This saying has perplexed and alarmed people for a long time. Dorothy Sayers, mystery novelist and theologian, wrote a satirical piece in 1939 about shallow Christian teaching, including this line: “There is a sin against [the Holy Spirit] which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.” No-one wants to commit an unforgivable sin – but what does it mean to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, and how is one to avoid it??
Thankfully, when you read the whole passage, it’s pretty clear what the sin is. Blasphemy is a fine old-fashioned chewy church word; it means to speak falsely, with ill intent, about God or holy things. The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit here is that people see Jesus healing and casting out demons by the Holy Spirit’s power, and call it evil. They see God at work and cry out, “Satan!” – failing to recognize God doing what God does: mending, liberating and restoring.
Biblical scholar Richard Swanson writes, “Their claim is sinful because it imagines that they understand God so thoroughly that anyone who disagrees with them must be animated by a foreign force. Their principle is simple: if I don’t understand it, it must be evil…. In the face of the complexity of real life, [such] certainty is blasphemy… a blasphemy that we mistake for faithfulness.”
I’d like to turn to our passage from First Samuel, for a bit. This is one of my favorite texts in the Old Testament. I love it because Samuel is spot on, here, anthropologically speaking.
It’s absolutely true that in human prehistory and history, increases in centralized power have usually come with an increase in inequality, and loss of autonomy and increased extraction of wealth from ordinary people. There are benefits too – but there are real tradeoffs in becoming a more complex and hierarchical society. Samuel names that, in this eloquent warning.
With this passage, we begin our walk through the books of Samuel and Kings this summer. The narrative here is building on the book of Judges, which precedes it, as the chronicle of how God’s people lived during the first few generations in the promised land. Their leaders were judges who spoke and acted on behalf of God. The judges didn’t have a lot of power – people came to them with disputes, and looked to them in times of war. And the judges were a real mixed bag. We’ve encountered Deborah and Gideon in our Scripture dramas, and you may remember Samson from Sunday school stories. From the standpoint of the Biblical text: Deborah was pretty good, Gideon had his ups and downs, and Samson was not great. There are others whose stories are not fit for Sunday sharing. Samuel is a pivotal figure. He’s the last judge of Israel, and the first great prophet since Moses, who anoints Israel’s first and second kings.
God’s people should have learned from the time of the judges that human power is profoundly imperfect. Leaders will not always be wise or good or effective. Yet now they’re asking for a human leader with MORE power, MORE ways to make their lives difficult. And they insist on it. They really want it. They want a king to govern them and fight for them, and to be like the other nations,
So Samuel, and God, give them a king. And then another king, and more kings after them. It’s a wonderful, complicated, ambiguous saga, which we’ll explore in the months ahead.
There is, I think, a thread that connects this text with our Gospel. Let me try to put words around it. It has to do with our human resistance to new understandings, especially when they complicate things that we want to be simple.
We often resist and struggle with new understandings and ideas, especially when they complicate things that we want to be simple.
But God is often at work in the new, the strange, the complicated. As God tells the prophet Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways.
Samuel is trying to help God’s people think more broadly and deeply about this big change – but they will not listen. Their idea of what a king is and does is fixed and clear. Our king will be exactly the kind of king we want. Hush with your nuances and ambiguities.
Jesus is trying to help this crowd understand that something big is happening here – that the goodness at work in the world is wilder and stranger and stronger than they think. But many of the things Jesus does and says fall outside the bounds of expected religious behavior. So he must be evil and/or mentally ill – “beside himself,” in the language of the text. Anything that doesn’t fit in our boxes can’t possibly be good.
A lot of the people around Jesus can’t – won’t – really see what he’s doing or hear what he’s saying. But some of them DO. That’s crucial. Human short-sightedness and bias, lack of imagination and empathy, rigidity and fear of new ideas – those are big barriers. But sometimes our minds and hearts do open. Sometimes we’re able to come to grips with the complicated truth. Sometimes we manage to recognize the holy at work outside the expected boxes.
June is observed as Pride Month, around the world. It’s a time to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and pansexual, transgender, queer, non-binary people, and the full continuum of gender and sexual expression, in all its variety. It’s a time for people like me, heterosexual and cisgender, to listen, and learn, and strive to keep broadening and deepening our understanding and our allyship. It’s also a time when many communities hold memorial services – for those lost to AIDS, to hate crimes, to self-harm.
The lives and witnesses and friendships of LGBTQ+ people have been absolutely central in my own life of faith and ministry. My intention to be an ally is personal; it’s a commitment to stand with people I love. But it’s not just personal. It’s also theological. Sharing friendship and ministry and study with LGBTQ+ people has deepened my understanding of God and God’s work in human hearts and human history. As my friend Eric likes to say: God is bigger. Bigger than our boxes, our categories, our expectations.
Right now there’s a coordinated effort across the country to stigmatize transgender people and constrain their choices. There have already been over 100 bills introduced in state legislatures this year. Many prohibit transgender kids, youth and young adults from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity; others limit transgender youth from accessing appropriate medical care. So far, seventeen bills have become law.
What’s behind all this? For some people there’s a real sense of anxiety in the idea that something that seems natural and fixed – biological sex at birth – could turn out to be less clear-cut and more changeable. The existence of transgender people complicates something that they want to be simple. If you’ve studied humanity and the natural world, complexity and diversity are not surprises; but not everyone has that framework.
For others, there’s a misguided sense that broadening the space for transgender people to be on the outside who they are on the inside is somehow a threat to women and girls. And for still others, there’s a cynical calculation that those kinds of doubts and fears can be used to drum up anxiety and mobilize voters.
Our congregation includes the parents and grandparents of transgender people. I have transgender colleagues. Our kids have transgender friends. If you’re hearing my words right now, your extended family of faith includes transgender people and their families.
Today’s text from Mark is a powerful Gospel for Pride month. The LGBTQ+ community knows all about authority figures labeling what they don’t understand as evil. This text warns us in no uncertain terms against the kind of certainty that refuses to see God at work in people and places that don’t fit certain preconceptions. And Jesus shares the experience of many LGBTQ+ people of finding that the family that raised him can’t fully be his family anymore; that he needs to find and gather a new family, who can hear him, and love him, and walk with him.
The Episcopal Church has committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. But we still have work to do – plenty of it. I wonder what work we have here, at St. Dunstan’s? I wonder what steps, small or large, would help us live up to that rainbow sticker by our front door? Not because it’s trendy – not because it’s good marketing – but because we have seen and known God, healing and mending, liberating and restoring, in the lives and vocations and partnerships of LGBTQ+ people.
I had almost finished this sermon when I had a moment of doubt. I realized that, for some, this will feel like the second week in a row that my sermon has asked you to care about something that might not have fully been on your radar before.
It’s not something I would think twice about in another time, but we are deep in the awkward phase of re-emergence, friends. People’s needs and hopes and concerns are all over the map. People are bruised and fearful and yearning – people out there, and people in this church community. Your parish leaders are trying to listen well and wisely. Somebody said on Twitter, We all need gentleness, and we’re all too tired to be gentle. I keep thinking about that.
I read this sermon over and asked myself if I could make it say something else. Go a different direction. And I couldn’t. This is what was there for me to preach. But this is what I can offer.
I’m asking us to think about greater awareness and stronger allyship – for those of us who have the luxury to choose to be allies – as part of our re-emergence. Back when all this started, we said: You know, this is TERRIBLE – but normal was’t that great either. Back when all this started, we said: When we rebuild, after, let’s rebuild better. Back when all this started, I preached a sermon to our whole diocese about how surely, surely, we would come out of all this with a more profound and lasting understanding of our human interconnectedness.
So: This is rebuilding, better. This is following through. This is returning to community, to common life, with a broader sense of who community includes, and why community matters.
And like everything else about our re-emergence and rebuilding, it’s going to be slow and stepwise. Everyone will take it at their own pace. Everyone will participate and contribute as they can, when they can. And that’s OK.
Let our slow steps be guided by the kind of nation and community and church that we long for in our best and boldest moments.
Let our rebuilding be renovation, which literally means making new – a new “normal” that includes redress of past wrongs and care for the vulnerable and welcoming each as they are.
And let the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways, help us see and trust goodness at work in the world, wilder and stranger and stronger than we can imagine.
Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma Is the Drama” –
Richard Swanson on this Gospel:
On anti-transgender bills: