June 28 Sermon by Susan E. Thomas

Genesis 17:15-17; 18:13-15
Mark 3:19b-21, 31-35

“He has gone out of his mind!” The Gospel writer known to us as Mark records in his Gospel that Jesus’ own family, probably his mother, says this about him. Now I ask you, is this any way to talk about the Son of God, the Messiah? Can you imagine how scandalous it would be today for any one of us to go on record saying such a thing about Jesus? But there it is, plain as day, smack dab in the middle of the Greatest Story Ever Told. Does it seem odd to you—as it does to me—that such a story about Jesus was kept in the Bible? And what about the funny, intimate moments shared between God and Abraham and Sarah, where the news of a baby at their age causes them to fall on their knees because they are laughing so hard. How on earth or in Heaven do such stories like these get to stay in the Bible? One would think that the early church priests, who debated long and hard about what books got to be a part of what is now our Bible, that surely they would have exorcised such stories from what is otherwise a very serious book for us Christians.

The writer and playwright Lillian Hellman wrote this preface to her own autobiography called Pentimento. I’d like to read it to you as a way of getting us to think about Jesus’ own story as well as the stories we have in our Bible handed down to us from the faithful writers of ancient times, and how these connect to our own story. Hellman wrote,

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes become transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is what is called pentimento because the painter has “repented,” changed their mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see that was there for me once, what is there for me now.”

For me, seeing and then seeing again means the Bible as our book has a great deal more laughter and openness behind it than all the double columns and strange footnotes and black leather bindings would have us believe there is. Who among us would deny that there was a smile on the ancient narrator’s face when he wrote about Abraham and Sarah’s baby news and their reaction to it? And I doubt that Jesus himself could keep an entirely straight face when he heard his family shouting, “Get that boy back in this house, for he is he out of his mind?” What strikes me most as I reacquaint myself with these somewhat embarrassing stories in our Bible is both their power to make me feel somehow more alive and faith-filled for knowing that they exist there in the Bible. And by the way, I’m told by most New Testament scholars that such stories are most likely to be true because they got left in the biblical witness. That is, because they were rather embarrassing stories for the ancient, fledgling Christian church, the fact that they were left in the Bible means they must have been really happened otherwise why leave such a story in the Gospel account? Well, my hope is that you too have or will explore the Bible for such stories and see across all the years which ones still have the power to bring tears to your eyes, or put a smile on your face, or even send shivers up and down your spine.

Instead of a historical or theological reading of the Scriptures, what if we looked at the stories themselves and the characters in the stories? Why would one early Christian follower known as Mark tell such stories about Mary, the mother of Jesus, this way? And ask yourself and the church community—what does these stories reveal about the faith and life of the early church? After all they are the ones who kept such stories in what became our Bible. Maybe you will come to understand Mary and Jesus’ family in a new light—for they embody Mark’s conviction that Jesus has brought in the new age of God’s kingdom on earth and that meant, in part, new ways of being a family.

If you look again then maybe you too will notice that there’s no place in the Gospels where Jesus speaks some special, loving word to his family nor does some especially loving thing for his own mother. Perhaps you will get the idea that he felt he couldn’t belong to anybody unless he truly belonged to everybody. They were all his mother and his brothers and his sisters, and there’ no place in the Bible where Jesus offers his family of origin anything more than he offered everybody else. Jesus embraces as “kin” those who are interested in his message of God’s kingdom here on earth and are willing to have their lives changed by this Good News.

Especially in this time when everyone has their opinion on what “family values” should mean—it’s important to see again this particular story about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Many commentators try to soften the rough edges of this particular story. Perhaps they don’t want us to feel as if we must cover our ears so we don’t hear Jesus’ family, particularly, his mother think that Jesus is possessed by a demon or that Jesus is delusional. Some commentators prevail on someone else to say, “He is out of his mind,” like his friends, or the people, or the crowd but not his family who says this. There can be no denying in this story about the life of Jesus that his mother here has misunderstands Jesus’ ministry and attempts to stop him. As for Jesus he let his family know that his “family” is that wide circle of followers who have come to be with him and support him. In this new circle of family, in this new household of faith, any one who wants to follow Jesus is “kin” to him.

Well, besides living in a time where we are searching for the true meaning of “family,” we are also living in a time in which a good many church folks are searching for certainty about who and what Jesus was and is for us today. In other words—we are still looking for ways to talk about Jesus and to connect his story with our story. Was Jesus just a great teacher and liberator or a wise prophet? Or, was he indeed the long-promised Messiah to the Israelites? Or the long=awaited King of Righteousness? Is Jesus Lord and Savior of our lives and the only way to salvation for all people in all places and in all times? I admit these are huge questions that we have asked about our common faith. And, we all know they don’t get solved in one Sunday sermon—at least not by me. But they are questions for our Christian faith and they stay with us throughout our journey of faith—they are like that canvas of paint weathered over many years, wanting to show us its many layers.

All throughout the history of the church, followers of Jesus have tried to fill in the gaps of Jesus’ life. One such gospel that didn’t make it into our Bible is called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It was probably written about 150 years after the death of Jesus. This gospel tries to fill in the gaps of Jesus’ childhood—that part of his life that our four gospels says the least about. The account begins with the five year old Jesus and relates a number of incidents from his childhood—Thomas’s gospel shares a number of healing stories and also a number of stories where the boy Jesus is well, rather precocious. I wanted to share a couple of these stories with you…

Let’s fast-forward to the 1800s where I ran across what were very popular biographies of Jesus that tried to do the same thing. These were called the “Lives of Jesus” and I learned that hundreds upon hundreds of them were published during the 19th century. Now, typically, a Life of Jesus story would have one over-arching theme about some aspect of Jesus’ character, such as, Jesus was a social reformer or Jesus was a religious mystic. Then the author would include all the material they could find in the Gospels that would support their claim and exclude any material that didn’t. And finally, the author would write into the biography their own reflection about Jesus, attempting to fill in the gaps in the biblical record with the author’s own beliefs about Jesus’ motivations, goals, and sense of purpose about his life.

For example, David Strauss in 1835 published his biography of Jesus called “The Life of Jesus Critically Examined.” This work was over 1,400 pages in length. Now, basically Strauss concluded that most of the stories in the Gospels were myths like some of the ones found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Needless to say, Strauss’ work was very controversial in its day (and most likely in ours as well!)—in fact, after the book was published, he lost his job at the University of Zurich.

What lessons can be learned from these “Lives of Jesus” stories other than writing one can be dangerous to your career? I think we, like these authors, are wondering why the church has kept such stories like the ones about Abraham and Sarah and Jesus’ family and the like. What is it that our faith, our Bible is telling us? That God can and does support and lead us in a lifelong discernment about our faith and the stories we tell about our faith. What if these stories about the Life of Jesus revealed the truth of the whole Bible—that there is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you? That God loves each of us and finds us worthy of God’s grace. Wouldn’t that be a story worth writing and telling? Well, we already know our Bible is full of such stories and as faithful followers it is part of our journey to search them out, memorize them, and tell them to ourselves and to others—unafraid and unabashedly.

For the good news is just this—in Jesus, God revealed God’s self to us so that we as the body of Christ, the church, are made in Jesus’ likeness. This means, as individual Christians and as a church family we must search out the Scriptures for those stories of repentance, forgiveness, love, acceptance, and transformation. The apostle Paul urged the early Christians to do the same thing when he said to put on the mind of Christ. And we are to do the same—to be faithful disciples in our own lives and to offer the same love we have been graced to receive.

An Englishmen named Christopher Logue wrote this poem that  I think describes the leap of faith we are meant to take when Jesus’ life story touches our life story—
Come to the edge
We might fall
Come to the edge
It’s too high
And they came—
and he pushed—
and they flew…..

As we heard in this morning’s reading from Genesis, “God said, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord’” to accomplish? Whether these words bring a smile to your face or tears to your eyes, I encourage you to ponder that question throughout your lifetime and find out how your story connects with and keeps on connecting with the Life of Jesus’ story. And write and tell those stories about God’s miraculous accomplishment in you and God’s faithful love for you. To God be the glory! Amen.

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