Living Pride

June 09, 2024
Mark 3:20-35

Once Jesus’ ministry really gets going, like after the very first healing he performs, crowds of people constantly follow him, at least that’s the way Mark’s gospel tells it. Jesus heals one person of an “unclean spirit” in the synagogue and word spreads. But it is not only demons; he also heals people from fevers, leprosy,  paralysis.

The amazing wonders draw crowds which follow him everywhere. It is because of the crowds that a person who can’t walk must be lowered through a roof to reach Jesus. It is because of the crowds, coming from near and far, that Jesus has to escape by boat to avoid being trampled. see Chelsey Harmon’s thoughts  Among the crowds are the religious leaders – who we know are not big fans. The Scribes and the Pharisees follow Jesus as part of a reconnaissance mission, not because they are truly interested in who Jesus is or what he is about. The way Mark tells it, Jesus hasn’t even chosen all twelve of the disciples yet, and the religious leaders are already conspiring to get rid of him, to “destroy him.”

As Jesus commissions the twelve he instructs that they are to help spread the message and assist with his healing project – which includes casting out demons.

In today’s text, the crowd around Jesus’ home gets so big – again – that they wonder where their food will come from. Jesus’ family shows up because they are beginning to worry about him. “Is he getting enough to eat? Do we need to bring him back to our place, he seems to have gone off the deep end. Maybe he is possessed by one of the many demons that he has cast out. Have the demons entered him?” One of the Scribes who comes all the way from Jerusalem declares that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul (the head demon) and casts out demons.

Jesus says that is a preposterous idea, that he is possessed by a demon. How can Satan cast out Satan? A house divided against itself cannot stand. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If you want to invade the home of a strong man, you have to first deal with the strong man, tie him up. Then you can take what you want.

Tying someone up is anathema to the sanitized, peaceful Jesus that I have created in my mind. And Jesus would never plunder and steal. But Jesus is angry. He doesn’t like being told that he is evil when he is the living personification of love. He will bind Satan, the Evil One, when he encounters it.

It is in this context that Jesus talks about that “unforgivable” sin that I fretted over so much as a child. Jesus says, forgiveness is always available, but if you say that the Holy Spirit is not Holy, if you reject that which is holy, misnaming it as unclean, how can that ever be forgiven? If you deny the holiness within someone else, within yourself, how can you ever find your way back? Who will forgive you? How can you be forgiven?

The passage today starts with Jesus’ family coming to find Jesus; they are worried about him. And the passage ends with his family still worrying, still trying to save him from the crowds. His mother and his brothers come to gather him up but they can’t make it through the crowd. This time they send a message: Tell Jesus that his family is here. We want to see him.

But Jesus looks around at the crowd that surrounds him, and says “Here, these are my mother and brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

I love this Jesus story for Pride Sunday, with Jesus expanding what family means, just the way many in the queer community have done for generations. When their own families reject them, queer folx find “chosen family” that will stick with them, for holidays and birthdays, significant milestones and every day events, chosen family that will be with them in prayer and in pain. “These are my parents. These are my siblings.”

And I am uncomfortable with this text on Pride Sunday. On Pride Sunday, it feels dangerous to talk about casting out demons. It feels treacherous, inappropriate and wrong – maybe unforgivable – given the church’s historic treatment of the queer community. But can we reclaim this text for Pride, with Pride?

Two years ago, I was in Kansas City with some 500 other Mennonites, to make a decision about Mennonite Church documents: would we cling to the old or would we embrace something new? Would pastors continue to be under threat if we performed weddings for same sex couples or would the delegates dispense with the membership guidelines? Also to be discussed around tables: a resolution brought by the Inclusive Pastors leadership team (of which Michelle is one) calling the church to Repentance and Transformation in terms of its relationship to the LGBTQ+ community. Repentance and transformation seemed like a great dream to imagine but could that resolution ever pass a gathering of delegates?

Our congregation has been living into what it means to be an affirming, inclusive congregation for decades, but this conversation was threatening for parts of the gathered church. As often as I have been part of these conversations, even I found that sitting at a table, in a hotel ballroom full of tables, to talk about church policies and new possibilities, was not comfortable. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. It was not the first time I was among a church crowd like this, debating the worth of some of my favorite humans. But it was the first time to be part of this discussion while aware that I am blessed with a queer child.

At previous conventions I had helped prepare a room for queer folx and allies to find respite when it all got to be too much or when they needed support. In years past, I had taken my turn as a pastoral presence when people wanted someone to talk with. Thank goodness there was a room like this again because this time I was the one that needed to go to that room, to cry with another parent, to lament how the church has wounded our families, so many families. My deeply held commitments to the queer community took on a new dimension –  as a parent – and I found that I carried a whole new pain – and some anger.

At lunch that day, I saw a friend across the courtyard, a friend who is the parent to a queer kid. Then I saw a queer seminarian, and I saw my cousin who is the parent of a trans child. Then there was another parent – and a sibling – and yet another parent. Here was my new family. I was overwhelmed once more – this time by how large my new family is. I connected with these new family members, making sure that we had each other’s backs and the backs of our beloveds. We pledged to make a fuss, cause a ruckus, if our dear ones were disrespected, condemned or slandered in the delegate session.

Over the next few days, a miracle occurred. We didn’t need to make an organized fuss. The preaching, the worship, the discussions, trended toward openness and grace, toward welcome and understanding. This was not unanimous by any means but it felt like a new kind of conversation. Brave youth stood to speak. Parents and grandparents spoke out. And when it came time to vote, not only did we get rid of the membership guidelines, we also voted yes to call the church to a commitment of repentance and transformation.

This parable that Jesus tells about binding the strong man so that the house can be plundered – has always puzzled me. My sweet Jesus wouldn’t tie someone up and then take things from the house. Who is this strong man? Isn’t strength good? We want people to find their inner strength.

This strong man has taken what is not his to take. Certainly, Jesus’ followers know what it is like to have the overpowering Romans come and indiscriminately take whatever they want. Jesus’ followers know what it is like to live with people who have had their spirits taken, overtaken by despair and confusion. They know what it is like to have their homes divided because of illness and unclean spirits. This is the strong man that must be countered. Jesus doesn’t say killed – but this strong man must be tied up, incapacitated.

I turn this short little parable around and around in my head, trying to make sense of it. When I can begin to understand the strong man as a powerful and damaging theology that tears the church apart, then I understand why it needs to be bound, tied up, why it needs to be held in check.

Did we tie up and cast out a demon that day in Kansas City? the unclean spirit of heteronormativity? This is not an interpretation of events that everyone would agree with and the decisions were not unanimous. Still, I believe we began to bind the strong man of hateful rhetoric and outdated, damaging theology that had been running rampant through the church for too long. And upon tying up that theology so that it could no longer create chaos in the church, we could begin the process of repentance. Jesus said that a house divided, a kingdom divided, cannot stand. Around those tables in a hotel in Kansas City, I think we began the process of uniting the house, healing the division.

Just like in Jesus’ time, there are people that are confused about who have the demons, and who are the exorcists. What we affirmed as we sat around tables listening to each other, is that the demon is not queer people. The demon is the arrogant idea that everyone must be the same. The demon is the imposition of a heterosexual norm on all of humanity. The demon is the presumption that people with loud voices, and loud money and loud power, can and should define what the church must be for all times and places.  That is the demon. Together we tied up that “strong man,” so that it will not have the same kind of destructive power it has had over the Mennonite Church.

As we listen to each other, as we listen to the voices of LGBTQ people among us, we know in our bones that we dare not call unholy that which is holy. The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is in the bodies and souls of queer people. It is blasphemy to believe and teach otherwise. Can the church ever be forgiven for the damage done to the spirits of queer folx in the name of God? Will we ever be forgiven for the deaths of queer people, young and grown, that were told by society, by politicians, by preachers that there is no room, no hope for them?

I am so proud that Mennonite Church USA is now affirming the queer community. Mennonite Church USA organizations even post on social media about Pride. I am so grateful that people can marry who they love and pastors can bless them. I am amazed that the number of queer Mennonite pastors has grown so quickly that is hard to keep track of how many there are. I am beyond grateful that children can grow up in congregations in Mennonite Church USA that affirm and love them however they understand their gender and identity.

It has taken some decades, but we can now look around the conference and the denomination and see that we have family. And there may still be some family, some blood relations, who look on and think we are unwell, that we harbor unclean spirits, that we need to be “brought home to a safe place.”

We are definitely a smaller group in the house now. And let’s not kid ourselves, we will not always agree on everything. But we are learning to work together, we are learning to see our newly formed family, see our siblings and parents and children, and love each other fully for who we are, for who each of us is. We can take Pride in that.

“Who are my parents and my siblings?

“Here are my parents and my siblings! Whoever does the will of God is part of my family.”