Sunday, June 6, 2021

Sermon: "Out of Our Minds", Mark 3 (June 6, 2021)


We throw the term “crazy” around pretty lightly these days. If someone does something risky or daring, we exclaim, “That’s crazy!” If someone makes an unusual or unexpected choice, we protest, “That’s crazy!” If someone tends to behave in ways that are flamboyant or bombastic, we explain it by saying, “They’re crazy!” We usually mean it benignly or even admiringly, using the term to describe something outside of the norm in one way or another. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, the primary function of this term is to disassociate the speaker from the subject; to say, “I’d NEVER do something like that!” “Crazy” is a word that has, intentionally or not, come to represent severed connections.

But we didn’t invent this subtle technique. The same thing happened to Jesus. In this reading from Mark, the people around Jesus (including his own family) have been watching his ministry up to this point, and it’s made them nervous. They’ve seen him choose his friends from among the uncouth fishermen in town. They’ve observed him assume authority that by all rights doesn’t belong to him when teaching and casting out demons. They’ve watched him eating with sinners; they’ve heard him forgive sins. They know that he’s unapologetically broken the Sabbath. And that’s just been in the first two chapters of the gospel! By the time we get to chapter 3, Jesus is blatantly provoking the authorities and doing little to conceal his anger towards them.

None of this makes any sense to Jesus’ family. Through his actions, Jesus is putting himself at risk and, even worse, making them guilty by association. Why would he do that? Why would he buck cultural norms, challenge the establishment, put himself in the authorities’ crosshairs? What possible reason could he have for stirring the pot in this way?

They could ask him. Frankly, they don’t even need to; Jesus is pretty forthcoming about the reasons for all of his actions. But if they still don’t understand, they could pull him aside, not to “get him under control”, but to ask him whether he realizes how unusual and dangerous his choices are. To figure out the nuances of what’s really going on so that they can decide the best way forward for themselves. But they don’t do that. Instead, they take the easiest and quickest route they can think of to make the problem go away: they label him “crazy”. They announce, “He’s out of his mind!”

With this simple proclamation, they neatly tie up their loose ends and let themselves off the hook. With this short sentence—a single word in Greek—they accomplish an astonishing amount: they justify their attempt to remove his autonomy of action, they distance themselves from the consequences of his actions, and they designate his behavior as deviant and unacceptable, all while implying that their own is completely reasonable; admirable, even. Most importantly, they absolve themselves of any responsibility to think critically about what Jesus is saying and doing—after all, he’s out of his mind! This leaves them free to continue the patterns of behavior that are familiar and comfortable (and SAFE) for them. One word is all it takes to protect their own interests.

We do this ALL. THE. TIME. If anything, it’s gotten worse in recent months. We use the accusation of mental illness—sometimes in jest; other times, not so much—to invalidate another person’s perspective, behavior, or even identity and to excuse ourselves from any further responsibility. “He perpetrated a mass shooting; he must be mentally ill.” “She’s a white supremacist; she’s crazy.” “He votes for the other political party; he’s insane.” “She’s in love with another woman; she’s deranged.” “He wants his college debt forgiven; he’s nuts.” As someone with an actual mental illness (albeit, a fairly manageable one) this is insulting, unhelpful, and frankly, very problematic. This sort of flippant characterization recklessly adds to the stigma of mental illness while preventing us from dealing with the real problems that plague our society.

Mass shooters AREN’T crazy; they’ve been conditioned to believe that violence is an acceptable expression of their anger. White supremacists AREN’T crazy; they have a deadly (and inaccurate) sense of superiority and entitlement. People who vote for “the other side” AREN’T crazy; they have a different perspective and different priorities. Gay people AREN’T crazy; they have a different experience of romantic attraction than a heterosexual person does. Students seeking debt relief AREN’T crazy; they’re desperately trying to figure out how to survive when their education doesn’t pay for itself as they’d been promised it would. Heck, even people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia aren’t “crazy” the way the term has come to be used; they’re people who deserve compassion and treatment for their illnesses. Every time we use an accusation of mental illness to write off behavior that makes us uncomfortable, we miss another opportunity for the honest personal and social reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

Jesus wasn’t crazy. Jesus was assertive. Jesus was convicted. Jesus was unafraid. None of this made him crazy. He wasn’t “out of his mind”. In fact, he was very much IN his mind—he knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it with calculated intention. He was not mentally ill, nor was he acting irrationally. But his family claimed that he was, and the legal experts took it a step further, saying that he was possessed by demons—another charge commonly levied in order to discredit someone—all because his actions were distasteful and threatening to them.

In truth, Jesus was the only one actually addressing any sort of real illness in this passage. And I’m not just talking about the man with the withered hand. The illness that Jesus was confronting was not physical or mental, but something more insidious. There was nothing wrong with the minds of the people around him. But he saw in them blind acceptance of the status quo and an unwillingness to engage cultural norms and the law beyond unquestioning obedience, and he perceived an illness of choice.

Unlike everyone else, Jesus refused to write these problems off as someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem. He made no effort to safely distance himself, but instead confronted them directly and brazenly. He called out the societal illness around him that bred artificial divisions between the powerful and the oppressed, the insider and the outcast, the righteous and the sinner…and he was labeled “crazy” for his efforts.

Rev. John Wurster speculates that when people say Jesus is out of his mind, what they’re really expressing is that he’s gone beyond THEIR minds. That he’s inhabiting a place that their minds aren’t willing to venture, and that, rather than admit the righteousness of the world he pursues, they prefer to strip him of credibility and relegate him to the outside. They may recognize the problems that he sees, but they prefer to place their hope in whatever requires the least alteration to their lives. Ideally, the problems would fix themselves, and we could all carry on right where we left off.

But Jesus knows that the sins infecting human society won’t go away without our confronting and taking responsibility for them. He tells those who follow him that they can’t walk into a house built by the “strong person” of religious legalism, Roman imperialism, and ritual purism and expect anything to change without first depriving the “strong person” of power. Why, then, do we think that we can walk into a house built by racism, classism, ableism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia and expect anything different?

These words may make you feel defensive, even angry. Your instinct may be to write ME off as crazy. But I challenge you—scripture challenges you—to meet this reaction inside yourself with brutal honesty. Am I out of my mind? Or am I speaking a truth over 2000 years old, one that God took on flesh in order to help us confront? That’s between you and the Holy Spirit to decide. But make sure you actually take the time to decide it. Don’t just react in anger to something that makes you uncomfortable. That’s a symptom of the deeper illness plaguing humanity—and we’re capable of more than that.

No one can cure an illness without first acknowledging that something’s wrong. And it doesn’t help your own body heal to point out the illness in someone else’s. We must go with Jesus beyond our own minds to envision a better world, one that doesn’t rely on ignorance and bigotry to function, one that doesn’t thrive on division. Jesus places no value on fidelity to any system that harms human beings…any of us. If we see something wrong, we’re obligated to fight against it, even when it seems hopeless, even when we’ve been complicit in it up to this point. If we claim to be members of the household of God, we simply CANNOT support institutions that undermine it in any way. When we do, we become the “house torn apart by divisions” that Jesus describes—and it will lead to our destruction.

Every single one of God’s beloved children is a treasure that should be celebrated and given a place of honor in God’s kingdom. Instead, we allow too many of these treasures to be locked away in the home of a strong person of our own making, one who gains strength through our indifference and inaction. Jesus grieves our unyielding hearts and longs for us to join him in binding all the systemic “strong people” that hold God’s treasures hostage. It’s no easy task, but all of us deserve to live in the radical peace, justice, and love that God intends for us. If that gets us labeled crazy, so be it. If we’re going to be written off, we might as well go all in. It we’re going to go out of our minds, let it be in service to Christ’s vision, for the sake of God’s kingdom. Amen.


(While I didn't intentionally borrow any phrases or ideas directly, this sermon is deeply indebted to Ched Meyers' “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.” If anything from his work found its way in, it's due to its deep impact on me rather than intentional plagiarism. )

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