Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
June 7, 2015
Proper 5B, Mark 3:20-35
¦whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”for [the scribes] had said, He has an unclean spirit. (Mark 3:29-30)
A couple weeks ago Lucy and I were still in Austin, Texas packing up our little seminary apartment getting ready to move back home to the Diocese of Alabama. We reached an unspoken agreement about the different tasks each would be responsible for. Lucy would wrap the breakables and take everything off the walls; put everything into a box that could go into a box; and begin the pre-move cleaning process. I would pack up our study carrels in the library, procure a Uhaul truck, and be responsible for taking our belongings from our 3rd floor apartment down the stairs and loading them securely into the truck, taking great care to make the most efficient use of our limited space.
Things began well. It’s hot in Texas, so I made sure to be hydrated. I purchased bungee cords and tie-down rope to keep our belongings secure. I had my pocketknife at the ready. I stretched my back and legs before beginning the first of a hundred trips up and down the stairs, and most important, I had devised a mental plan for how which pieces of furniture would fit into each part of the truck. In a matter of minutes I had carried the coffee table and a stack of three identical, cube-shaped boxes down the stairs and tied them securely and efficiently in the farthest corner of the moving truck. I stood for a moment admiring my handiwork as the beads of sweat on my forehead testified to all of Texas that I am a man, I am a husband, I am a recently graduated master of divinity.
However, I soon realized that Lucy and I own lots of things that are not shaped like our perfectly rectangular coffee table, and that the majority of our possessions would not be travelling to Alabama in identical cube-shaped boxes. I began to second guess my packing plan, and so instead of loading things directly onto the truck, I just set them down in the parking lot right next to this cavernous Uhaul. The more trips up and down the stairs I made, the more our stuff accumulated on the pavement. The more the stuff accumulated, the more impossible my task seemed and the more frustrated I got.
I began to criticize our belongings as I carried them down the stairs and set them on the pavement, as though this were all their fault. Lamp, why do we own you? Living Room Chairs, you can be soft and lumpy, or you can be angular and flat, but you have to pick one. Vacuum Cleaner, I’m leaving you in the closet. Maybe the next family will want you. And you, Mysterious Vaguely Cylindrical Thing Wrapped in Brown Paper, what necessary item could you possibly contain?
After a while I stopped even going up the stairs to retrieve things from our apartment. I just stood behind the truck, sweating and swearing, surrounded by the trappings of failure in what must have looked like the world’s saddest yard sale.
Then, all of a sudden, something blocks out the Texas sun, and I am standing in the shade. The massive shape of my friend Ashley has walked up to stand beside me. Brother Ashley is from Fairhope, Alabama, and he played offensive line in college. Needless to say, Brother Ashley is good at moving heavy things around. But what’s more important, Brother Ashley is also really good at anything to do with moving trucks. I remember the day Ashley and his family moved into the seminary house down the block. He backed a full-sized moving truck up to the house so close than when he pulled the loading ramp out from the truck bed he set it down inside the front door. Their moving truck was packed so tightly that from floor to ceiling you couldn’t have fit so much as a coffee cup in there if you had wanted to.
You may be wondering why I didn’t just ask Brother Ashley for his help in the first place. The answer is simple: I am a man, a husband, a recently graduated Master of Divinity.
Brother Ashley stood beside me for a moment, surveying the clutter of our belongings piled up in the parking lot by the truck and said, Well this is screwed up like a Christmas chicken.
This is screwed up like a Christmas chicken. I don’t know what that means, I only knew that it was true. He pointed to the one corner of the moving truck I had confidence about, the corner where I had tied the coffee table and the three identical cube-shaped boxes and said, You know those knots are going to come untied, right?
I muttered something about how the knots were just a precaution, and that I was going to pack other stuff around the boxes so tight that they wouldn’t move. Brother Ashley put one of his ham-sized forearms on my shoulder and pulled me real close beside him and”not quite laughing at me”said, You know I’d probably say yes if you were to ask me to help.
In my mind, I was thinking: Yes, Brother Ashley. I want you to help. I want you to be in charge of this, and let me help you. I will follow all of your directions. All I want is for us to get back to Alabama safely and with our stuff more or less in tact. Please help make that happen. Because the truth is that I am stressed out and I am afraid. I am afraid that we’re going to run out of money, afraid that our car is going to fall off the trailer on the way to Alabama, afraid that I am going to break the picnic table my grandfather made by packing it incorrectly.
That’s what I thought. But because I am a man, a husband, a recently graduated master of divinity, what I said was, You can help if you want. If you don’t have anything better to do.
It’s funny how when God presents us with a response to our hearts’ deepest desires we get proud or anxious or scared, and then pretend like we don’t want it. We get suspicious and willfully refuse to accept that something so good could actually be happening. So, we settle for something less”usually something more familiar. We settle for more food, more drink, more safety, more religion, more control, more whatever. But when we settle for less than God’s goodness we are settling for hell. Rather settling for less than God’s goodness is hell even n this life. This is some of what Jesus means by eternal sin.
Jesus is not saying that if we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit in this life, then in the afterlife we will go to hell. Jesus is saying something much more difficult than that: he is saying that this life, the life you and I are living, this life will always be screwed up like Christmas chicken if we greet the saving help of God with suspicion. To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to look Brother Ashley in the face and say, I don’t need your help packing this truck. Get out of here. You’re just here to steal my things and make fun of me. This is an eternal sin because without Brother Ashley’s help, we will never make it home to Alabama again. Without Brother Ashley’s help, we are forever stuck in a sweltering parking lot in Texas, with an empty moving truck and all of our treasures piled up close at hand and under our control, but utterly useless and foreign without some kind of new home to belong in.
This is what’s going on with the scribes and Pharisees. Now we Christians have a long history of being really hard on the scribes and Pharisees. We like to paint them as stubborn and stuck-up know-it-alls filled with the evils of pride, ego, and vanity. But it’s important for us to keep two things in mind about the scribes and Pharisees. First, they are doing exactly what they’ve been taught to do their whole lives: everything they were taught in Sunday School and at Church and sitting around their dinner tables at home. Second, the scribes and Pharisees are leaders amongst thousands of 1st century Jews living under the oppression of an invading Roman army. Rome is the powerhouse of its day: Rome goes where it wants and takes what it wants. It conquers people left and right, and the only two rules of living as a people conquered by Rome are pay your taxes, and don’t start rebellions.
So when this Jesus comes from Nazareth doing deeds of power, gathering huge crowds of people, and proclaiming that Satan’s reign is at an end and the reign of God is beginning”the religious leaders are saying to themselves, This guy is going to start a rebellion and get us all killed. But make no mistake: the scribes and Pharisees want the reign of God. They want desperately to be free from Roman oppression, but they are afraid that it will cost them the lives they have always known, and maybe even get them and their people killed”so they accuse Jesus of having an unclean spirit to discredit him and keep everybody safe. The scribe and Pharisees are responsible for keeping their people alive. So they settle for less: they settle for Rome because even though their situation is tragic at least t is familiar.
Let that sink in. The scribes in our Gospel today are not just the legalistic, power-hungry literal-minded caricatures we usually paint them as. These are people with jobs and families and a whole way of life they are responsible for maintaining on behalf of their communities, and they feel that this Jesus man is going to bring the Roman army down around them. The scribes and Pharisees want God to come and tie up the Roman strong man, but they are so afraid of what it will cost.
So what do they do? They pile up all their treasured traditions around them in the parking lot outside of God’s big orange moving truck, and when Brother Ashley comes along and offers to help, they say, Get out of here. By the prince of demons you cast out demons. This is an eternal sin because they are refusing and calling evil the very thing they have prayed for. The only person who can transform the hell they live in into the Kingdom of God puts his ham-sized forearm around their shoulders, and they tell him to mind his own business.
When we live like that, we can never have forgiveness or comfort or friendship or mercy, simply because we are actively refusing them. Forgiveness, comfort, friendship, mercy”these are the things of God. To call them evil, to meet them with suspicion, is to reject them and refuse the very love which sustains us as human beings. Our vocation as God’s creatures is to receive God’s love in all its forms. So when we let ego or pride or despair refuse Brother Ashley’s help, we are becoming less human, we are becoming strangers in the house God has built for us. If we refuse to receive the Holy Spirit from an ordinary carpenter from Nazareth, or from our neighbor who used to play football and wants to help us move, if we can’t receive the presence of the Holy Spirit from each other, then yes: we are guilty of an eternal sin. We’ll never make it back to Alabama. We’ll never see pine trees again, or eat ice cream at Peach Park, or go to a Biscuits game, or finally figure out what a dragon boat race is. We’ll find no peace in Brother Ashley’s shade because we have told him to go away, and we will spend an eternity cursing ourselves on that Texas asphalt beneath that unrelenting sun, and that is not God’s will for us.