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Open To God's Surprises

Sermon - 9/06/09
LeRoy Hershiser
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 3:19b-30

I would like to express my appreciation for our new Associate Pastor, April.  She has jumped in this summer and lead our last 3 weeks in worship and preached our sermons, and I think has demonstrated we have found a treasure [applause from the congregation!].

Dan told me 4 weeks ago that since on this Sunday there are traditionally not many people in church, would I preach? J

We are living in a time when many ideas and programs are being presented
and demonized no matter what good they seek to accomplish. The political
opposition, often, simply to preserve or gain power, sometimes find
themselves calling good – evil.  No one seems immune from this tactic.

Well, cheer up, that is nothing new for us or our nation. In fact it
happened to Jesus Christ in his ministry. Jesus is casting out demons –
one of his acts of health care – and the opposition, in this case the
religious leaders, are accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzibub
– using Satan to cast out Satan. Jesus has just come from the mountain
where he has selected his Twelve and has returned home. Listen for the
Spirit in today’s lesson from Mark 3:19b-30.

Then he went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’


I considered titling our thoughts for today, “The Forgiveness of Sin.”
Then I remember that we do not spend much time talking about sin and
forgiveness.  Not because sin makes no difference, but because the fact
that we sin is a given, and that we are forgiven is the accepted promise.
For seven years after retirement as an ordained minister of the
Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, I was (and still am) and ordained
Elder of the Presbyterian Church, one of the roots from which the
Disciples came. I noted that they, like some others, have a line
somewhere in the liturgy that refers to a “Declaration of Pardon.”  It
always bothered me giving sin so much attention (regularly beating us
down) so that we could be raised again by that Declaration. Such
flagellation looked like a lonely trace of the days when a congregation
joined lustily in a confession of sins and received the words of absolution
with a relief-filled Gloria.

There was a time when, if I were preparing a sermon on the forgiveness
of sins, I should have said to myself this theme must announce the
limitless mercy of God who is willing to forgive all who call upon the
divine forgiveness, and then call attention to the insistence of Jesus
that our forgiveness is intimately linked to our willingness to forgive
others who have offended us. All true.

So that’s it – simple? At its heart, yes – but I would now find it
necessary to address some of the complications. In fact, forgiveness can
be a dangerous thing: Many mental health professionals urge forgiveness
as a way to move along, to get over past experiences, to live lightly in
the world without carrying the burden of unresolved events. But in light
of heinous actions, especially the domestic violence that seems epidemic
in our culture, knee-jerk forgiveness is no solution. To the contrary,
it adds to the problem by denying or confusing who was at fault, that
harm was done and that restitution is necessary.

Forgiveness which is confused with the need for repentance robs people
of faith that does justice, and offers only a faith that makes nice. It
masks the fact that some sins are so deeply intertwined in unjust
structures that they cannot be separated out and forgiven without
substantive changes taking place in those structures. For example, how
can one forgive another person for making a racist comment without also
requiring changes in a society that would tolerate such a thing? To do
less is implicitly to treat a symptom instead of a problem, and in so
doing to allow the problem to get worse.

What have we to say in such situations? We can point to the parable of
Jesus about the man who was forgiven a huge debt by his master and then
refused to forgive a trivial sum owed by another servant. This should
surely prevent our ever adopting a stance of self-congratulation about
our willingness to forgive.

In Matt. 18:15ff Jesus discusses quarrels within the church family and
commends the practice of raising the issues in the presence of
“witnesses” and, eventually the ”church”, presumably through its courts.
It seems as though Jesus recognizes that even a costly act of
forgiveness may need to be followed by another act of forgiveness for
the refusal to accept it.

Then comes this text in Mark 3. The homiletic history of these verses is
agonizing, since it came to be assumed that there was some mysterious
thing a Christian could say or do that might turn out to be
unforgivable.  Many serious people, including John Bunyan, were driven to
despair by the belief that they had indeed uttered this mysterious
blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It seems to me clear from the context
that this particular sin was not some form of words but an attitude – a
setting of the mind and heart in total rejection of the Spirit’s
presence and actions. As such if one has totally rejected the Spirit’s
presence and actions you would not even consider, worry, or care about it.
Coming from my Forth Generation Christian Church, Disciples of Christ
background, and perhaps for you, this text is troubling. It not only
raises the issue of sin but of a particular sin, and Unforgivable sin!
It raises the question: are some sins unforgivable? The refusal of
forgiveness flies in the face of much we have taught and been taught
about the God whom Jesus revealed. However we choose to interpret these
verses, we are struck with the intensity of the warning, “whoever
blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

The strong language has a context: the story of Jesus being accused of
casting out demons by Beelzebul. The problem: Jesus’ good works have
been labeled Satanic by scribes from Jerusalem. That which is holy has
been perceived as unholy. The Holy Spirit has been called an unclean
spirit. The conclusion: When we denounce the work of the Holy Spirit as
evil or unclean, we deny the working of God in the world we deprive
ourselves of the grace of transformation and forgiveness. The
consequences are eternal.

Mark’s text was not meant to help us identify those who have committed
an unpardonable sin. The text does point a finger at those who refused
to acknowledge the Holy Spirit at work in the young church. This text
also requires us in the church to reexamine our tendency to dismiss
those who differ from us. We are warned against the desire to demonize
those whose theology and actions do not fit our long-held assumptions
about the way God works.

Luke’s version in 11:14-23 avoids the topic of forgiveness and the
discussion of an eternal sin. Apparently Mark’s ending troubled Luke, as
it does many today. The Markan account (Mark 3:28a) affirms God as a
forgiving God: “Truly, I tell you, people will be forgiven for their
sins and whatever blasphemies they utter”.

At the same time the gospel writer reminds the reader that God
continually surprises us. Woe be to those who call the work of the Holy
Spirit evil. Mark declares the consequences are eternal.

Jacques Ellul, a French Reformed lay theologian, rather unexpectedly has
a passage about “The Sin against the Holy Spirit” in his book “Hope in a
Time of Abandonment.” He deals with hope as the answer to what he calls
“the silence of God” in our day. He writes:

“If hope is the response to God’s silence, if it finds its place and its reason in a despairing age, I still can ask myself whether in our day the sin against the Holy Spirit isn’t precisely the rejection of hope, or the inability to live by it (that is the requirement of wanting something else). I say “in our day” advisedly, for it seems to me that this sin against the Holy Spirit, which has caused so much ink to flow, and which has been interpreted in so many different ways, is not just a fixed category. It is not presented as a simple, single thing. In our
day…the sin against the Holy Spirit is pessimism and anguish. It is the theology of the death of God, and the gloomy, or the joyous acceptance of the fact that God has turned away. It is the stoicism of the Christian condition without God. It is the fatalism before the God who is silent.

The Holy Spirit is (the one) who leads us to this hope which challenges God’s decision, as well as to the discovery of the meaning which is given to all things by that very hope. To reject it is to go against the work of the Holy Spirit.”

What has happened to hope, our hope, our “Yes we can?”  It is in danger
of being drowned out by our fears, our “No we can’t” and even “No we
won’t.” If our “No’s” offer no alternatives, they are meaningless, full
of sound and fury. If our alternatives are just about me and mine then,
individually or corporately), they, as we have seen, will lead to
selfishness and greed. Where is our Hope? I think God has some really
good surprises in store, if vision is greater than fear, and resolve
open to God’s Spirit.

Things have not worked out as planned, individually or as a nation. We
are experiencing many detours, lost jobs, lost retirement income, ever
increasing health care costs if you can get it, and a widening gap
between the “haves” and the “have nots”, and to me one of the most
dangerous detours, the increasing loss of hope and trust.

Often “Detours” lead to new and greater possibilities. Some of the
world’s greatest scientific discoveries have occurred on the way to
somewhere else. A good researcher travels with a willingness to be detoured.
I can identify with W.H. Auden who said:

“When I look back at the three or four choices in my life which have been decisive, I find that, at the time I made them, I had very little sense of the seriousness of what I was doing, and only later did I discover what had seemed an unimportant brook was, in fact, a Rubicon."

A Church College professor tells of this experience:

"This young lady, a student, came by to see him saying: “I’ve got a
problem. He asked what it was, and she said: “Well, you see, I am an
economics major here. That’s what I always wanted to do. Well, this
spring I finally got around to actually looking for a job.

He asked her what happened: She said: “Well this phrase kept cropping up
in the conversations – ‘If you are going to work for us, then you must
be willing to give 150%. If you do that then in ten or twelve years,
you’ll be pulling down 75 or 80 thousand easy.’

He said, 75 to 80,000 dollars. Isn’t that enough? “No,” she said, “I
don’t want to be like them, I want more.” More, he asked. Yes, more.
It’s not enough to give everything I’ve got for the company. A year ago,
it was enough. Now it’s not.

By now the professor was really puzzled and asked, “So?” So do you know
where I can get a teaching job where the kids really need me, like at a
church mission school, (the Bronx,) or something?

The professor confessed he thought to himself: Now look here God, she
declared her major her Sophomore year and she should have stuck with it.
Don’t let her get out of line here. "

Some would say she was detoured. I think that is what is called faith.
The belief that God does put odd people, strange circumstances together
into an orderly whole, If we let Him, or yes, even if we are forced into
it by circumstances beyond our control.

As a pastor for many years I had a favorite saying: “Just the way we
planned it.” I still use it. With my staff we would carefully plan
something – a worship service, a church planning retreat, whatever.
Sometimes when things did not go as planned we would get down on
ourselves, wonder why we hadn’t done something differently – how somehow
it was all our fault, how we would be blamed. “Generally we would be
depressed – not because it did not all work out, but because it did not
work out as we had planned. Then, after some evaluation, we learned to
laugh about it – “Just the way we planned it!”

Everything, even the things you would not have planned that way, even
some sin, can be fuel for the imagination trained to be curious about
the unexpected-about the detours that come to all of us in life – about
God’s Surprises. Those surprises are not about sin and punishment. They
are about transforming lives – lives in this world, this nation, this
town – transforming your life!



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