Proper 5B Sermon (2024)

Proper 5 (June 5-11)
Texts: Mark 3:20-35;
1 Sam 8:4-20; 2 Cor 4:13–5:1

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 26:45):


I’m particularly interested this morning if anyone else had the reaction I’ve had to this morning’s First Reading. Sometimes, when we pluck a passage out of context for Sunday morning worship, it’s hard to catch the full impact. So let me rehearse some of the context to see if it hits you like a ton of bricks like it did for me.

It takes place in about the year 1025 BCE, at a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. They are about to transition from being a liberated enslaved people to try to become like the stronger nations who enslave others. Last week (Proper 4B), we talked about the Jewish people as primarily being an indigenous people under other people’s empires. At 1025 BCE, this is their history so far: They first grew in numbers as an enslaved people in Egypt. Led by Moses, Yahweh their God had freed them from slavery. When they had entered the Promised land, they had spent many generations under a loose tribal arrangement, sometimes led by “judges.” This time of the judges had been a time to enjoy a more egalitarian life as freed slaves, but it had also been a somewhat chaotic existence among other smaller groups of people who lived in Palestine. None of these other Palestinian groups had achieved the status of empire yet, but some of them had chosen kings to better organize themselves and perhaps move up in power — meaning military power, of course, the power to make your neighboring peoples do things your way.

In our reading today, the Twelve Tribes of Israel go to Samuel seeking imitation of their neighbors. They want a king. God’s response to them through Samuel left me gobsmacked, when I read it earlier this week. It had never quite struck me in this way before. Think about their situation. They had been an indigenous enslaved people in Egypt, but now they are a freed people leading somewhat egalitarian lives. No one person is controlling what they do with their lives. Is it somewhat of a struggle? Yes. But they are free and can struggle together with their tribal neighbors as more or less equals. But then think about God’s response to their request. Talk about being honest! God warns them what they are to give up if they choose an authoritarian government under a king. Oh, how God warns them! He details to them how kings first place a large portion of their own nation under forced labor in order to support the war machine. He then describes how kings basically steal a substantial portion of the wealth of the nation — frankly, one-tenth was usually just for starters — again, in order to feed the war machine. But the reality is that a good portion of the wealth will be ‘borrowed’ for the king himself and his officers and courtiers to live a rather lavish lifestyle. In today’s categories, it reminds me of the billionaires and oligarchs in a place like Russia hoarding much of the nation’s wealth for themselves. God honestly warns them of what their choice means. And what is their answer? Yes! Still, yes! They insist on having a king so that “he may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

Now, let me wonder out-loud again if this story strikes any of you like a ton of bricks like it does me. Let me give you a hint. It feels to me a lot like the choices we’re faced with in this nation of ours right now. Do you see what I mean? 248 years ago our nation gave up the king business for good . . . hopefully. We built a three-branch government on all levels — local, state, and federal — designed to not let any one person, or even a small group of people, gain too power. Our ancestors had known the pitfalls of authoritarian government for far too long and sought another way. So all of us have embarked on this journey toward an ever-increasing egalitarian rule for more than two centuries now. Yea! We celebrate that again in a couple of weeks.

But many of our fellow citizens seem to want to go back to life under authoritarian rule again. A good portion of them call themselves Christian Nationalists and fly so-called Pine Tree flag with the words, “An Appeal to Heaven” on it. They are willing to back an authoritarian leadership under the belief that they will help them do battle with and defeat their enemies. On November 5 this year we may be facing a choice, like the people of Israel in today’s First Reading, of giving up our experiment with egalitarian governance in favor of authoritarian rule, the rule of a so-called strong man, like Putin in Russia or Xi Jinping in China or Kim Jong Un of North Korea. That’s why this week’s First Reading has left me gobsmacked.

Today’s Gospel Reading, then, builds on this response even more, if anything. Jesus tells a parable about a binding the “strong man,” whom he connects with Satan. Before we unpack that further, let’s briefly rehearse Jesus’ place in Israel’s history — more than a thousand years later. We said that 1 Samuel 8 takes place in about 1025 BCE, when they are transitioning from being a freed enslaved people to having a monarchy like all their neighbors. Their first attempt at a king, King Saul, was a faltering one. But then when King David takes the throne in the year 1000, and his son Solomon 40 years later, they actually build a small empire in that part of the Middle East, which lasts for about 100 years. But things unravel quickly after that. The kingdom splits in two, and within another 100 years they begin to be conquered by other large empires around them. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians. Alexander the Great comes after that, conquering the whole know world. He dies young and his kingdom is split into three for several hundred years. But then along comes the Romans conquering it all once again. Jesus finally comes onto the scene after eight centuries of the Jewish people being doormats in other people’s empires. As we said last week (Proper 4B), he is truly an indigenous man among a people who had been indigenous in other people’s kingdoms for a very long time.

Now, there’s two choices, I think, when you are an indigenous people in someone else’s empire. You can continue to think along the same lines of authoritarian governance but hope a great leader rises up among your people to turn the tables on your overlords. Or you can begin to think in other terms, with a very different kind of politics. I believe Jesus to be making the latter choice. In fact, he amplified his thinking with both a more clear-eyed theology and anthropology. First, theology. He believed that the God of his people had always been a God of an indigenous people from the very beginning, basically becoming their God when they were enslaved in Egypt. And this God had always been trying to lead them in other directions, away from the kings of other nations — with the story of God’s relenting to their insistence on kings in our First Reading today. But even when the people of Israel had mistakenly chosen authoritarian rule, God began to send the prophets to keep them mindful of another way — a way which would follow God’s justice of becoming powerful by first attending to the least powerful among them, such as the widow and orphan and immigrant. This God, with a very different sense of justice and politics, is the God whom Jesus represents.

But in today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus also shows his brilliance in understanding our anthropology, our way of being human, how from the very beginning we have been a species that thinks the only way to stay together as a group is to unify ourselves against an enemy. Our scapegoats. And so we are drawn to leaders who help us to identify our enemies and promise to defeat them. We will seemingly follow leaders into hell who promise us things like, “I am your retribution.”

But after 800 years of being on the wrong end of that stick, Jesus is trying to get us to see that we are wrong both about God and ourselves. God is primarily a God of forgiveness, not retribution. And our best way forward as human beings is to live the same way: by forgiveness, not retribution. In today’s parable, I believe that Jesus is basically offering God’s and the Holy Spirit’s work as that of forgiveness, while naming the work of retribution, of “casting out,” as Satan’s work. How can Satan cast out Satan? That’s not just a rhetorical question which assumes a logical contradiction — that, of course, Satan can’t cast out Satan. No, Jesus offers this as a “parable,” as a riddle. How can Satan cast out Satan? All throughout human history, really, when well-meaning people think they are doing God’s work by accusing the enemy and casting them out.

That’s the key: thinking we are doing God’s work when casting out our enemies, when it’s really Satan’s work. A great example is in the action of the story itself. The scribes who Jesus is talking to are trying to do this “casting out” to Jesus and will succeed in the end. They accuse him of being Beelzebul, of being in league with Satan, as the justification for casting him out. They truly believe they’re doing God’s work by casting Jesus out. But Jesus names this as Satan’s work, so they truly are a prime example of how Satan can cast out Satan precisely by trying to cast Jesus out as in league with Satan — and they later succeed in doing so through the crucifixion. Jesus has come to help them understand that there is truly an alternative politics. God’s work is actually the work of forgiveness. He ends this parable by talking about being able to forgive any sin — except, that is, the sin of refusing forgiveness and continuing to live by retribution.

And so following the strong man who promises, “I am your retribution.” The Christian Nationalists see their mission as in league with God, symbolized by those flags “An Appeal to Heaven.” They identify their enemies: Socialists must be cast out. Abortionists must be cast out. Trans people and folks in a same-sex marriage must be cast out. Even if the majority of Americans don’t agree with them, then they will be right in choosing an authoritarian leadership to help them accomplish their goals of casting out what they see as the satanic element in our nation. The tragic irony, I believe, is that Christian Nationalists truly believe they are following God’s will by following the way of casting out enemies, when Jesus himself names this as the only sin which cannot be forgiven. The sin of insisting on retribution.

What is the unfortunate outcome of such an anthropology? Jesus tells us that, too. A house divided. The human household will always be divided against itself when it is based on retribution rather than on forgiveness and restoration. And that satanic way of building a kingdom, a nation, will always fail to stand and so collapse in the end.

I believe that this looks like the choice before us in November. There’s the choice of going back to kingship, to authoritarian rule in which one strong man determines for all of us who the enemy is and then casts them out. (The danger of this is highlighted in today’s Sermon Notes, like the stark warning of Martin Niemöller to Nazi Germany.) Or there is the way of binding the strong man by following the alternative of indigenous wisdom which seeks the path of ever-increasing equality among citizens through the nonviolent act of voting. The strong man is unexpectedly bound and tied up by the indigenous crucified man. Maybe we can why understand why even Jesus’s family think he might be going crazy. A strong man bound up by a crucified man? But the sought-after outcome is a united human household. As St. Paul proclaims the Good News in a text we will read next month:

For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. (Eph 2:14-15)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, in the perilous months ahead, let us seek to be agents of this peace. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, June 9, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 26:45):

Sermon Notes

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