Monday, June 11, 2018

Divided Houses (6/10/18)

Kate Spade 

On Sunday, June 10th, I said farewell to the saints at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church. I served as their interim pastor for nearly two years and I will miss them greatly. I wanted my last sermon to be a grand message about healing the political divides in our communities and our nation. After the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I felt the need to go in a different direction.
Divided Houses (6/10/18)

          Good morning. This was one of those weeks when the sermon I thought I was going to write on Monday changed drastically by Thursday. Normally, I don’t get very worked up over celebrity deaths, but this week two celebrities died—the designer Kate Spade and the chef and writer Anthony Bourdain. Both committed suicide. Each of them had lives that many people envied; each one wrestled with the demon known as depression. In both cases, we are reminded that we never really know what’s going on in another person’s life. The mental and physical struggles are real—for celebrities and for the rest of us—but we rarely get to see them, unless the person who is struggling is someone close to us. And sometimes, even the people who are close to us won’t let us in.
          I didn’t know much about Kate Spade before she died, but I was a huge fan of Tony Bourdain. He visited a lot of places that most people will never visit, and he always had a keen eye and an open ear for the stories of ordinary people. In this country, he spent a lot of time listening to people whose politics were different from his own and he worked to show the dignity and humanity of everyone he interviewed.
Anthony Bourdain in Vietnam
          I watched Bourdain’s programs on the Travel Channel and on CNN. I watched regularly. I admired him for going to places that most travel programs wouldn’t go. Whether it was a bad neighborhood in Johannesburg or Soweto, in South Africa, or the municipal dump in Managua, Nicaragua, Bourdain was willing to tell stories that weren’t happy—stories that people didn’t want to hear, but stories that needed to be told, all the same. At the same time, he was very open about his own struggles with addiction; many of his scars were on display.
          I didn’t know about Bourdain’s struggles with depression, though I guess I’m not surprised. People who struggle with depression—whether they’re suicidal or not—are often very good at hiding their struggles from the rest of the world. Most of the time, suicide only makes sense to the person who takes his or her own life. It makes even less sense when it happens to someone who seems to have it all, like Kate Spade or Tony Bourdain.
          I wonder if maybe we should stop using the metaphor of demons when we talk about depression. Clinical depression is an illness of the mind and body; effective treatment often requires both medication to change the chemistry of the brain, as well as talk therapy to address the behaviors that are driven by chemical imbalances and personal traumas. Depression can’t be driven off as quickly as Jesus drives off unclean spirits.
          In fact, our Gospel lesson this morning begins after Jesus has driven off some unclean spirits. He’s being followed by crowds who have heard that Jesus drives off demons; they want to see the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Then Jesus’ family shows up. They say that Jesus is out of his mind. Presumably, they want to take him away before things get bad. Then the scribes show up:
Those scribes were theological heavyweights. They represent the authority and theological wisdom of the temple establishment—the same establishment whose leaders will ensure that Pilate crushes Jesus at the end of the book. We should understand those scribes’ credentials as impeccable. Their pronouncement, that Jesus is a satanic agent and not a divine one, recognizes power at work in him. He is no charlatan or illusionist. But they decide the power is perverse.[1]
In other words, the scribes can clearly see that Jesus has some sort of real power—these aren’t just rumors. But the scribes don’t understand why it is that Jesus has these powers, so they say the worst thing about Jesus that they can think of.
          Last Sunday I told a story about a pastor who drove away several members of the congregation she was serving. I don’t want to rehash that sermon, but the main point of that message is that the church has driven away a lot of people, and we all have work to do, because the church hasn’t always treated people with love and kindness. This story from the Gospel of Mark has been used to justify some bad teaching on the part of the Church.
          Jesus dismisses the scribes by poking some holes in their logic. He responds to them, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.” Jesus ends the argument by saying that people will be forgiven from all of their sins, even blasphemy—but there’s one sin that cannot be forgiven, and that’s blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But what doesn’t that mean?
          For generations, this part of the story has been mis-taught. In many traditions, it was said that suicide is the sin against the Holy Spirit. This is wrong. This is not what Jesus is saying in this section of Mark’s Gospel. There is nothing in this story that suggests that Jesus is talking about suicide. I don’t know where this interpretation comes from, but it persists.
          To be clear, Jesus is speaking about the scribes in this story—the scribes who have seen him cast out demons. They have seen the people whose lives have been restored by Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit:
Those scribes have dismissed the possibility of God’s restoration, for they write it off as a satanic deception. They show themselves devoid of hope and openly contemptuous of God’s work. Around them, people are being set free from their demons. People are experiencing wholeness and life. People’s dignity is acknowledged. Jesus promises that sins and “whatever blasphemies” may occur will prove no obstacle to people’s renewal! And yet the scribes scoff and denounce all of this as false or dangerous.[2]
The blasphemy is to say that all the healings, all the restoration, was not the work of God, but of some demonic agent, intent on misleading the people. The scribes could see what was happening, yet they denied it was from God. THAT is the blasphemy of which Jesus speaks!
          The grace that Jesus offers in this passage is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus tells the scribes that pretty much any sin can be forgiven. This makes sense! Think about it. If there were any particular sin that were unforgivable—categorically unforgivable—then it would give humans too much power. If there is a sin that I can commit that is truly unforgivable, then I have a power to commit sin that exceeds God’s grace. That doesn’t make sense. My power to sin cannot be greater than God’s power to forgive. That goes for all of you folks, too!
          I first started watching Anthony Bourdain about ten or eleven years ago. At the time, I was working a job that I hated. Sometimes I wished I had made different choices with my education. When I saw Bourdain on TV, I wanted his job. I thought that maybe, after I graduated from college, I should have gone to culinary school instead of grad school. I don’t think I would want to be a chef for the rest of my life. But if I had spent some time working in restaurant kitchens, I could have combined that with my ability to write, and then I could have had a job as a restaurant critic or a food writer or a travel writer. Anything would’ve been better than the job I had back then.
          Of course, I had no idea that Tony Bourdain was dealing with such severe depression. All I could see was a guy with a job that was way better than mine; a guy who did work that I really admired. I wondered what I could have done differently in the past to live that sort of life in the present, or even the near future.
          That sort of response is never healthy. There’s no way to change the past. But when you know someone who has committed suicide—whether it’s a close friend or a family member—the natural response is to think, “what could I have done to prevent this?” It’s natural, but we can neither change the past nor dwell in it today; time only moves in one direction.
          What we can do is live differently. We can live differently based on the decisions we’ve made, and also based on the new things we’ve learned. In this case, let’s throw out the old teachings about suicide and sin. Let’s live differently.
          It’s worth pointing out that lots and lots of people struggle with depression, but not every depressed person is suicidal. Depression is something that isolates a person, cuts that person off from friends and family. And this is where we come in.
          If there’s one thing that I want you to take away from this morning’s Gospel lesson, one bit of knowledge about the text that can help you live differently, it’s this: Jesus redefines family! This means that we can also redefine family. We can redefine family to include everyone here in this sanctuary. We can redefine family to include people in this congregation who are struggling with depression. We can redefine family to include people in the community who are struggling with depression. We can redefine family so that we break down the walls of isolation. We must work to do this together, as the Church. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 3:20-35,” retrieved from:
[2] Skinner.

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