In the Midst of Anxiety

Sermon Given June 6, 2021

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I saw the lessons for today. I wanted something celebratory, something joyful and jubilant. This is the first Eucharist for many of you in a long while.  If we could have another Easter this Sunday or even just do Pentecost again, I’d be in. I want to share much of the excitement that I and hopefully many of you feel about this moment. This is a big day. 

But our readings today are not particularly festive or joyous. Instead I find in them a lot of anxiety and questioning. 

Our reading from Genesis starts us off in a really odd place in the story of Adam and Eve, smack dab in their confrontation with God after eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Before they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve had been naked and had no concerns. But now, when they hear the sound of God, they hide themselves because they feel vulnerable and exposed. They are ashamed. They don’t know how to explain their actions to God.

Don’t we all have those moments? How many times has someone tricked us into doing something that turned out to be bad, and we’ve taken our loved ones along for the ride? It’s hard to come clean, to fess up, and to seek forgiveness. I know I at least have a very hard time saying, “I made a mistake and I don’t know how to fix it.” It’s scary, it makes me feel vulnerable and alone. I want to hide, just like Adam and Eve did. 

But God doesn’t just smite them right there and then. There are consequences to their actions, just like there are consequences to our actions, but God also loves them. God doesn’t just take things away from them, creating mortality. Several verses after our passage today, we find God making leather clothes for Adam and Eve, dressing them. God sees their vulnerability, their anxiety, their nakedness, and God respects where they are at. Instead of telling them to tough it out, God gives them something to make them feel more comfortable. They are given a way to move through the world feeling more secure and at ease in themselves. God created them naked, but God also gave them clothing. 

And so, humanity grew and as humanity grew, people built traditions and practices to deal with shame, stigma, and anxiety. It has been a part of our human existence since Adam and Eve ate that fruit. Ironically the feeling that you are all alone, that there is no one who will love you or understand you, is a universal feeling that everyone has felt at some point in their lives. It’s part of being human. If you’re in that boat right now, you’re not alone.

But sometimes our traditions and practices, our cultural ways of dealing with shame, stigma, and anxiety make the problem worse, not better. Rules are great until they begin to butt heads with people’s lived experiences, creating people on the outskirts of society whom those on the inside consider to be inferior. Society strips them naked and then makes it difficult, if not impossible, to give them the clothing they need to feel safe and secure, to prosper. It happened in Jesus’ day and it happens today. 

But Jesus flips the narrative. Our Gospel lesson today comes from the Gospel of Mark, which is a fast paced, relatively compact narrative of Jesus’ ministry. It starts with Jesus’ baptism, then boom, boom, boom, we have exorcisms and healings, and meals with sinners. One after the other, a whole string of them. He doesn’t stop for long conversations. He is a man on the move. Jesus takes a quick breather to call twelve disciples, and then immediately here we are, in our passage today. 

Jesus is in a house that is packed to the gills. There isn’t even enough room for them to prepare a meal and eat. He’s completely walled in with people who want to be healed, who want to be made whole. These are the people on the outskirts of society. These are the people longing for metaphorical and sometimes literal clothing. They need connection. They need security. They need to feel like they belong in a world where they so often feel alone. 

But they also aren’t the kind of people nice boys are supposed to hang out with. His mother is concerned about the crowd he’s gotten mixed up with. This is the first time Jesus’ family shows up in Mark. Mark doesn’t have Mary singing the Magnificat, a song of praise exulting Jesus’ mission and work. He doesn’t include stories of angels visiting Jesus’ parents. Mark just has a concerned family show up, standing outside this house packed with all the wrong sorts of people, fearing that their beloved, their son, their brother, has gone mad and is in serious trouble. How can their Jesus, the one they’ve known since he was just a twinkle in his mother’s eye, heal these people? How could he do anything for them? Was he becoming one of those people on the outskirts, someone who might end up like the Gerasene demoniac, tied and fettered in a graveyard, surrounded by death? They didn’t want that for him. They wanted to help. 

But their concerns, their desire to help, was also steeped in privilege. They didn’t see the people in the house surrounding Jesus as equals. They saw them as safety concerns. And there is reason to be concerned about safety, it’s never wrong to have caution and to take measures to protect ourselves, but when caution turns to villainization, when it turns people into inferiors, when we can’t see the humanity through the cloud of ingrained culturalization of who is in and who is out, then our privilege blinds us. It makes it hard to see where God is calling us to work in the world. God was calling Jesus’ family into the house, but rather than face their privilege and ingrained fears, they remained outside. 

The scribes too came all the way from Jerusalem. They had deep concerns about this new healer in town, this man who didn’t follow their carefully tested and prescribed methods of caring for the poor and vulnerable, their traditional ways of getting things done. Rather, he went all around healing and the charity work of the temple was starting to pale in comparison to what Jesus was doing. They were mad. In their minds, Jesus didn’t even really respect the Sabbath, the Lord’s day! He’d openly heal on it and then tell them they were wrong for calling him out. 

Seeing Jesus surrounded by all the people on the outskirts, all the people who were supposed to be utilizing their carefully structured charities and operating in culturally prescribed ways, the scribes were furious. These people were all balking at society’s customs, customs that were built out of respect to God. Surely Jesus wasn’t working for God. He must be working for the devil! 

But Jesus quickly tells them how ridiculous they sound. Can the leader of the demons really cast out demons? Satan would have to tie himself up and then rob himself. It doesn’t work. No, Jesus isn’t the leader of demons. The Holy Spirit is simply doing a new thing, throwing off customs and traditions that no longer work, expediting the process of healing and forgiveness.If they can’t see the Holy Spirit at work, if they are so blind that they call the work of the Holy Spirit the work of the devil, then they have committed a great sin, one that carries eternal consequences. Because if you call Spirit work devil work, what work are you doing? Aren’t you then doing harm rather than good, creating more suffering rather than preventing it? The consequences are dire. 

In a turn, in a twist, those who were on the outskirts but always wanted in are inside and included, and those who were always on the inside are now outside and refuse to come in. The mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty. Connection, opportunity, and hope have been restored to a people who had nothing. God clothes them. Their shame is taken away. 

Later, we learn what happened to those on the outside. Jesus’ family repented. They recognized their privilege. They turned towards the work that God was doing. We know Mary was at the cross, we know that Jesus’ brother James was an evangelist. And the scribes? I’m certain some recognized the Spirit at work and followed Jesus. The Gospel of John tells the story of Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the night, whose heart was changed and who defended Jesus to his peers, becoming part of Jesus’ movement. But some never changed. They stayed outside, refused to come in.

Still, the difference between those whom society put on the outskirts and those who were outside Jesus’ movement is this:  those on the outskirts of society were forced to be there. Those outside Jesus’ movement chose to be there. Everyone was welcome. But no one was forced. God is not a God of compulsion, but of invitation. 

So what is God inviting us into today? Where is the Spirit at work disrupting our traditions, practices and culture, removing those things that actually make it worse for others, not better? Where is Jesus asking us to heal? Where is God asking us to clothe? Where does anxiety and shame lurk in our souls and how can we release that into the hands of the one who gives new life? 

The Holy Spirit is here, among us. The Holy Spirit will help us figure it all out. There are no easy, clear cut answers that I can give you today, but I do know these truths: 

We are in a moment of anxiety, of upheaval. We are also in a moment of hope and promise. We celebrate new beginnings right alongside grieving for our broken world. Always, in the joy as well as the sorrow, our guide is in our midst. The Holy Spirit dwells among us. We are empowered and chosen. We are called. 

Let us each find an entrance into the house, a way toward working to end suffering and despair, to ease anxiety and clothe the naked. Some of this we will do communally. Some we will do individually. Some will take great risks, doing radical acts of discipleship, serving others in incredible and beautiful ways. Some will do things that can appear rather ordinary but are actually extraordinary, things like teaching children, caring for elderly parents, serving the community, and loving the planet on which we all live.

Each step that we take faithfully in the Spirit will bring us further into Christ’s house, inviting us into healing and restoration. Each step will bring us closer to God. Let us move forward, even with our anxieties and fears, into the ministries God will have us do. Amen.