Sunday, June 10, 2018

No longer beside ourselves

"Sin, forgiveness, restoration"
Mark 3:20-35; Psalm 130

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If a church is out of their building for a summer,
and trying to keep their members’ spirits up,
and choosing worship themes
that will draw people in,
keep them excited and feeling good
about coming to worship every Sunday,
naturally, they would choose to focus a whole Sunday on sin,
because that’s what churches are known for.
And better yet, the unpardonable sin.

Isn’t that just perfect?
An eternally unforgivable sin?
A sin that gives Christians everywhere, young ones especially,
reason to worry every day about their soul
and keep them, out of fear, on the straight and narrow path.

Isn’t that a good pick-me-up sermon to preach,
to get us through the long, hot summer?

Maybe it’s good we can laugh a little about the unpardonable sin . . .
But it could be a nervous laugh.
Maybe it’s a little close for comfort.

I know it was something I worried about
when I was an impressionable Christian teen-ager.
It helped, but only a little, when the adults told me
if I was worried I’d committed the unpardonable,
and was worried that I’d blasphemed the Holy Spirit,
then that was proof I had not done so.
Because worry was the Spirit working in me,
so clearly, the Holy Spirit had not abandoned me forever.
But I wasn’t always so convinced.
What if it was not the Spirit convicting me,
but some internal human tendency to worry?
So I worried about that.

Well, a lot of water has gone over the dam in my life since then,
and I’ve not worried about the unpardonable sin,
probably since my high school days.

But this passage still intrigues me.
It makes me wonder how we ought to read it,
in light of our belief in the unconditional love of God?
It is in three of the Gospels, after all.

I wonder if our mistake all along
has been to read this verse out of its context.
When we isolate this verse, we see a dark moral lesson:
“Be sure not to commit this one dangerous sin—
blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—
because if you do, you will be condemned forever.”

But when I read this in its larger context,
and when I read it side-by-side
with the other lectionary readings for today,
and alongside other key biblical insights—
then I can see good news emerge.

Bottom line—
this scripture is not a dire warning to individuals
not to step on a spiritual landmine—the unforgivable sin.
Rather,
it is an invitation to followers of Jesus everywhere
to live a full life of wholeness and shalom,
where all the keys parts of our lives align with each other,
and align with the purposes of God.
_____________________

So let’s examine the context.
Fascinating story here in Mark 3 about Jesus and his disciples,
and his family.
If you read this story, just on the face of it,
the thread that runs all the way through it is not blasphemy,
but integrity—living life as a whole person.

Here is Jesus, early on in his ministry,
already stirring people up.
His message and his ministry are both provocative, in a good way.
They provoke strong responses.
They provoke love and adoration and loyalty
from those on the margins
who Jesus welcomes into his embrace—
women, sinners, lepers, Gentiles.
And they provoke anger and disillusionment
from those whose lives depend
on keeping things calm and stable—
Pharisees, religious lawyers, scribes, the priestly class
(that is, people like me).
And people like Jesus’ family.

Jesus was living out his calling as God’s anointed one
in a way that no one was really expecting.
Least of all, his family.
His mother and Joseph, and younger siblings, I’m sure,
all knew the narrative Jesus was supposed to live into.
It was given at birth,
and probably retold often at home.
He was to be the one to save his people.
That’s why he was named Jesus (or Yeshua, or Joshua).
Same name. Different forms.
They all meant the same thing—
“the one who would save.”
Every time they called Jesus by name,
his identity was reinforced.
He was destined, from birth,
to be the one to confront the foreign powers,
to depose the empire,
to save the people from their oppression
and restore the throne to Israel.

But that’s not how Jesus was acting, now that he had grown up.
Now that he had his first chance to live out his calling,
he ended making enemies out of the very people
he was born to save.
That made no sense to anyone, most of all his family.

It’s an age-old story, actually.
The parent knows their child is destined for great things.
But instead of accepting the full-ride scholarship
to study neurosurgery at Yale,
the child picks up a guitar and writes songs,
and plays for tips at the Little Grill.
Conclusion? He’s nuts!

Knowing the narrative Jesus lived with at home growing up,
it’s no big surprise that now,
as he’s raising the hackles of the Jewish leaders,
and gaining a cult following among the undesirables,
that his mother and brothers would show up outside the door,
and try to bring him back home and straighten him out.

Because after careful observation of what’s happening,
the studied and reasonable assessment of his family . . . is,
that Jesus is “beside himself,”
that he is “out of his mind.”

That’s a fascinating phrase, you know.
One we often use.
And it is spot on, in its meaning.

The original Greek “exístemi” (ὲξίστημι)
means to be displaced, literally, “to stand aside from.”
In other words,
where we are meant to be rooted, standing,
unified in one’s being,
we are instead knocked off our feet, so to speak,
and are displaced.
In fact, so much so that we appear to be “beside ourselves.”

Physically, that’s an impossibility, to stand beside yourself.
But spiritually, emotionally, psychologically,
it’s very possible, and very common.
We experience fragmentation within ourselves.
There is the being we think we are,
and the being that acts the way we do.
There is the self we claim as our primary identity,
but this other distorted self keeps showing up.

Depending on context, and severity,
and frame of reference, and worldview,
this phenomena gets described in different ways.
In its most extreme form,
there’s what we refer to as multiple personality syndrome,
or dissociative disorder.

But we are most familiar with it in much more moderate forms,
when we are confused about who we really are, deep within.
when, for instance,
we have trouble seeing the image of God within ourselves,
the image we were created with.
And there are some fairly benign forms of fragmentation,
that happen when our lives experience stress and strain,
because we feel pulled in several different directions.
All of us, everyone of us,
have multiple commitments and multiple loyalties.
Sometimes these loyalties don’t line up with each other.
And it might appear that we are beside ourselves.

But I also might suggest . . .
that fragmentation is one way we can look at sin.
Sin can be described as a kind of fragmentation
in which how we are living,
is not in alignment with our God-given identity.

I’m not saying, by any means,
that all fragmentation is personally sinful.
Fragmentation can enter our lives in different ways,
often outside our control,
no moral judgement implied.

So . . . not all fragmentation is sin.
But maybe, all sin is a kind of fragmentation.
It’s a way of being beside ourselves,
of living out of alignment with ourselves,
and with who God created and called us to be.

And here is where this ties in again with the Gospel story
of Jesus, and how he was seen by his family,
and by others around him.

Jesus was faithfully living out his identity and calling.
He was whole and unified in his being.
But because that way of being did not line up
with the expectations of others,
others saw him as fragmented, as “beside himself.”

Perspective matters.
It matters who is defining what wholeness looks like.
It matters who we look to, in order to measure our wholeness.
What looks fragmented to others,
may actually be the unified whole that God designed for us.
That was the case with Jesus.

And the opposite can also be the case.
What looks whole to the outside world, as they observe us,
may actually be a deep, and even sinful
departure from God’s intention for us,
a displacement,
a “being beside ourselves.”
We may conform perfectly
to the expectations of the dominant culture.
We might be the model American citizen
living the American dream.

But we do not have shalom,
we do not experience wholeness and reconciliation,
until the identity given to us by the God who created us,
and who named us, and claimed us,
actually corresponds with the kind of life we are living.

We see this moral and spiritual fragmentation everywhere—
in the lives of athletes, entertainers, politicians,
and even, to our shame, in church leaders.
We’ve gotten jaded to the point that we are not surprised,
when one part of a person’s life
does not square with another part.
And if we happen to love their politics,
or their stand on the issues,
or their performance on the field and on the movie screen,
we more easily look the other way
when we learn their lives are fragmented,
when they are beside themselves.

Yes, recently, with the #METOO movement,
and other movements like it,
we are making some progress
in holding our heroes to account
for morally harmful behavior.
But we have a ways to go before we apply it consistently,
without regard to ideology or politics, and
without regard to how high their position in the system.

And, I would suggest we have a ways to go
before regular, honest, deep, and mutual moral examination
of the integrity of our own lives,
becomes commonplace in our walk together
as disciples of Jesus in community.
_____________________

If we look at sin as fragmentation,
we will face our sins, and our sinfulness,
in a more life-giving way, I believe.
And we will also look differently at this notion of the unpardonable sin.
If sin is fragmentation,
and forgiveness is bringing the pieces back together,
then the unforgivable sin
is that which cannot be brought back together.

Imagine, if you will, in your mind’s eye,
a person being “beside themselves” spiritually.
Notice, in your imagination,
the two different representations of the self,
side-by-side, but irreconcilable.
The one representation is the God-given,
and Holy Spirit-breathed identity given us at creation—
as a good and beloved child of God.
The other is one of human making, or is the work of evil
that is focused entirely on the self and its desires,
or on the destruction of all that is good and holy.

So if this one is Spirit-breathed and Spirit-breathing,
then blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
is this one denying the very existence or validity of the other.
It is one side cutting itself off from the other.
And since God is not coercive,
and only offers salvation as a gift,
then unforgiveness and unforgivability
is simply the natural outworking of this spiritual stand-off.
For as long as the self-destructive side
insists on maintaining the cutoff,
and denigrates the other in word and attitude and deed,
that state of sinful fragmentation will remain.

God will not impose restoration on those not open to receive it.

But there will always, and forever, be a pathway to reconciliation
for those who seek it.
That is the undeniable character of God,
reinforced in scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

A couple difficult verses in the Gospels,
that some people mis-read to mean that
God might cut off access to forgiveness to those who seek it,
does not undo the clear and repeated message
of the rest of scripture.

So, to worry about having committed the one sin God refuses to pardon,
or to suggest to impressionable young people
that they should worry about that,
is a dangerous misreading of scripture.

God’s love and mercy has no end.
And God’s desire for us to live in wholeness and integrity,
is also unchangeable.

That is the repeated message in all the scripture we heard today.

That’s what the poet was singing about in Psalm 130
“If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness . . .
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits . . .
[and] with the Lord is unfailing love.”
_____________________

Integrity.
Wholeness.
Restoration of internal unity.
That is the Gospel Jesus came to proclaim and to demonstrate.
And that is the gift of God
who will always offer forgiveness to those who seek it.
No matter our offense.
No matter the woundedness caused by others,
or the woundedness we ourselves have caused.
God’s purposes are ever and always,
redemption for the fallen,
restoration for the broken,
wholeness for the fragmented,
salvation for the lost.

The God of Shalom will not rest,
until all who seek shelter are safely home,
and are living the life they were created for.
Thanks be to God.

Even as we acknowledge that we are all, in varied ways,
fragmented, broken, fallen, lost, and in need of one who saves,
let us listen again to the psalmist,
as the poet declares the unfailing love
and full redemption that God extends to us.

4 But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

—Phil Kniss, June 10, 2018

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