Sermon by Burton Cooper
1 Samuel 8; Mark 3:20-35
A crowd was sitting around Jesus; and they said to him,
“Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.”
And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And looking at those around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
When I thought of this story, this, really, when you think about it, shocking story, this public put-down on Jesus’ part of his mother, his brothers and sisters, this wasn’t nice of Jesus --- imagine, if you came into a room where your adult son was chairing a meeting of the local teacher’s union, and you called out to him, and those around your son said to him, “Your mother is calling you,” and your son, completely ignoring your presence, said to those sitting around him, “You are my mother and my brothers and my sisters; whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister” --- well, as I said, when I thought about it, what flew into my head, bear with me now, I know it will seem like a stretch, (what flew into my head) was a news story I had read that very morning in the New York Times about a baker who had refused, on religious grounds, to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, and the Supreme Court had just ruled in the baker’s favor. Happy baker.
It’s not hard to figure out the baker’s religious reasons. He considers himself a Christian, a man of biblical faith, a follower of Christ, so it may have been the declaration in the Book of Leviticus that it’s an “abomination” for a man to “lie with a man as with a woman,” but more likely it was two statements of Paul, the first in Romans 1, condemning men who were “consumed with passion for one another;” the second in the letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:9) declaring: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers --- none of these,” Paul says, “will inherit the kingdom of God.” “Do not even eat with such” as these, he adds (in 1 Cor 5). So I wonder if this biblically based baker, also, refuses to bake a wedding cake for fornicators, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers. And I wonder if this biblical baker has ever considered that in the whole of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, there are only one or two other statements which even mention what we call today, homosexuality, while there are hundreds of statements throughout scripture, condemning the rich and powerful who ignore the plight of the poor and trample on justice. So I wonder if our baker makes inquiry into a rich couple’s concern for the poor when they come into his bakery requesting a wedding cake? And I’d love to ask our baker if he ever considered that today we have a deeper, more complex, more sympathetic understanding of homosexual attraction than was available to Paul or the writers of the the Book of Leviticus. Be that as it may, we need also to remind our baker, and perhaps ourselves, that Jesus has nothing to say about homosexuality, not a word, nothing in all four gospels. Jesus, of course, has a lot to say about those who think only of their own welfare and not of others, and he has an unambiguous statement on the wrongfulness of divorce. So I wonder if our baker, a follower of Christ, refuses to bake a wedding cake for selfish people or for a couple who tell him that they were previously divorced.
Okay, enough of this. I’m beginning to feel like Rachel Meadow who repeats her point ten times over before moving on --- though I have to admit I love Rachel Meadow, as does almost anyone who stumbles upon her 9:00 PM news show on MSNBC.
Still, as I say, it’s time to move on, so let’s ask ourselves what guidance scripture, particularly this morning’s gospel story, can give this biblical baker regarding those who come before him, whether they be homosexuals, adulterers, fornicators, revilers, the greedy, the divorced, the selfish.
So, back to Jesus not being nice to his mother when he ignores her presence, even insulting her by calling others his mother; nor is he nice when he says that to be his disciple one must hate his father and mother, brother and sister; nor is he nice to the pharisees and sadducees when he calls them hypocrites; nor is he nice to that poor follower who wants to bury his father only to hear Jesus tell him that he should let the dead bury the dead; nor to that sad-sack wedding guest who gets thrown into outer darkness for not wearing the proper garments. No, the point of Jesus’ life is not its niceness, though there are of course times when he strikes us as nice: when he acts compassionately, when he’s forgiving, when he heals, when he shows respect to society’s outcasts, when he, in other words, bodies forth, in words and actions, God’s spirit of love and justice, for is it not precisely the spirit of God that we see in Jesus that leads us to worship him, to call him the Christ. So when we think about this morning’s gospel story, let us not be overwhelmed by Jesus’ put-down of his mother and brother and sister. That would be as misleading as interpreting the Isaac sacrifice story as a cruel God and an inhumane father. No, we should take the jarring character of these stories as a flash of lightening, a bolt out of the blue, something to break us out of our usual sense of understanding who we are in relation to a God of love, and who the other is. When Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers,” and, looking at the crowd around him, says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus may have been standing on the ground of ancient Palestine, addressing a crowd of Jewish people, but his words could have been as appropriately addressed to a crowd of ancient Chinese or ancient Indians, or a crowd at an old Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game in Ebbets Field. Paul was the first to understand that, going against the prevailing consensus, insisting that the gospel be taken beyond the Jewish community and out into the Roman world, for Paul knew that Jesus’ words invite all people into relation to God and to each other, invite all people into a new community, a community which gives us a new identity, an identity not based on the usual pattern of family, or nation, or race, or class, or tribe, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexual preference, or even particular religion. For Jesus’ words, his life, his spirit, is pressing us towards a larger vision of who we are, a larger vision of the community to which we belong, a vision of a universal community in which, again in Paul’s words, we are seen, deep down, neither as Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, and, may I add, neither as gay nor straight, but as brothers and sisters in Christ, for we are all children of God, all created in God’s image. I need hardly say that this is a vision which we have not realized, far from it, which we all too often ignore, even work against. Nevertheless, it remains our marching orders. We are always to think of Christ as pressing us to a future we have yet to grow into, and may even be resisting.
So, what are we to say to our baker who feels he will lose his religious integrity if he bakes a wedding cake for a homosexual couple. Well, we could appeal to his reason, to his sense of logic: if, despite Jesus’ and Paul’s words, he tells himself it’s okay to bake a cake for, say our current president, a previously divorced, adulterous person, and a reviler of others, to boot, then, logically, the baker should be willing to tell himself it’s okay to bake a cake for a homosexual couple, particularly since a homosexual couple have hurt nobody. Of course, we human beings are not simply driven by logic, we have our passions, our feelings, our impulses, our loyalties, and they, obviously, are stronger than the force of logic. Perhaps then we should appeal to the baker’s better angel, his faith in Christ as his Lord, reminding the baker that Christ ate with people socially labeled as sinners, even with tax collectors, a particularly despicable people, for tax collectors were Jews, employed by Rome, to collect money from their fellow Jews; reminding the baker that Jesus treated with respect both the despised Samaritan and the looked-down-upon foreign, Syro-Phoenician woman; and most pointedly of all, reminding the baker that Jesus allowed a sinful woman, a prostitute, to touch him, to pour oil on his feet, to wash his feet with her hair; and Jesus did all this because what mattered to him was not a person’s social status but their identity before God, their identity as a child of God. Brothers and sisters in Christ, to be a follower of Christ is to be caught up in this vision of Christ, even when we betray it, a vision that we human beings are not many people, eternally at odds with each other, but one people, living towards a universal community, where we are all children of God, brother and sister to each other. This is what we need to say to our baker, and to ourselves, and to the world. Would it make a difference to the baker? We don’t know the answer to that, no more than we can know whether the proclamation to the world of this vision, this gospel, will ultimately sway the future. But we can assuredly say that we are a people who live in hope, for our faith is in God, powerful in mercy and love, ever pressing, ever pressing, all life towards reconciliation, harmony, peace, justice.
Thanks be to God for this mercy, this hope.
Thanks be to Christ.