Out of Our Minds

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What do you think — does preaching have to be a little crazy to be gospel preaching? Or, to put it only slightly differently: do you have to be a little crazy to preach the gospel? Both of these questions leapt to mind while reading today’s gospel.

Consider: Jesus has been on a pretty successful preaching tour. Thus far in Mark’s account, he’s not only proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is coming but also signaled — no, really enacted — what that kingdom will look like by driving out demons and healing all kinds of people who have been ill. Moreover, he’s become so popular with the crowds that it’s hard for him to enter the towns and, by today’s passage, even to find time to grab a bite to eat. Let’s face it: Jesus is a rock star.

But is he also a little crazy? Has all this success gone to his head? Is he, as his family fears, out of his mind? These are some of the questions that are being asked by those around him.

And, of course, those are the nice questions — you know, the ones being asked by the folks who actually like Jesus. The religious crew down from Jerusalem to make an official visit — or is it inspection — are no longer asking questions but have come to their own conclusions: he’s not just crazy, he’s possessed. This is why he can cast out demons: because he’s got a demon — indeed, one of the chief demons — inside him.

So what’s going on? How has Jesus’ ministry of preaching and teaching and healing created such controversy and accusation?

I think the answer is actually fairly simple: Jesus is so totally what the religious authorities don’t expect that they have absolutely no idea what to make of him. He doesn’t fit their categories, and what doesn’t fit our categories we typically label abnormal, or deviant, or crazy, or possessed. We assume that what we know, have experienced, and hold to be true is normal, natural, and God-ordained, and that becomes the standard by which we measure — and judge — the thoughts and actions of others. And I think that’s what going on here.

Jesus’ whole ministry thus far has been about announcing both a new vision of God and a new way of relating to God. And at the heart of that vision and way is the conviction that God is love, that God desires the health and healing of all God’s creation, that God stands both with us and for us, that God is determined to love and redeem us no matter what the cost, and that this God chooses to be accessible to us, to all of us — indeed, to anyone and everyone.

This is why Jesus sets himself against all the powers that would rob humanity and creation of the abundant life God intends — whether those powers be unclean spirits; disease that ravages the mind, body or spirit; illness that isolates and separates those who suffer from community; or whatever. Jesus introduces a new vision of God and a new way to relate to God…and it’s not what any of those — okay, make that any of us — religious folk would expect.

Why? Because at heart religion is designed to regulate our relationship with God. The root of the word itself comes from the Latin ligare, to bind, which supplies the roots of the words “ligament” (tissue that binds together) and “obligation” (the duties to which one is bound). Religion, then, most often serves to connect us again to God by specifying what actions, duties, and obligations we should undertake out of reverence to God.

On one level there’s something absolutely right about this. Religion offers us a way to structure our thinking about God and relationship with God. It gives us forms by which to express our grateful response to all of God’s activity.

The trouble arises, however, when we allow our religion to become a substitute for a genuine, living relationship with God. We do this when we use religion not just to offer structures that facilitate our relationship, but actually to manage and control that relationship or, worse, to manage and control God.

Perhaps this is the predicament in which the Scribes find themselves in today’s story. It’s not that their way of relating to God is wrong — they are part of a long and proud tradition of faithful service to God and the people of God. It is just that Jesus doesn’t conform to their structures. Jesus declares that the law, finally, isn’t about regulating our relationship with God but was given by God to help us get more out of life. And so he heals whenever and wherever there is need, even on the Sabbath. And he welcomes all, even those normally excluded by certain religious restrictions or customs. And, let’s face it, he does manage to banish all those unclean spirits. In all these ways Jesus points back to the wildly merciful and unpredictably (and uncontrollably) gracious God who is always doing a new thing.

No wonder he sounds crazy, even possessed.

As my friend Anna Carter Florence once said in one of my favorite “Preaching Moments” videos, the Christian Gospel always sounds like that. She was referring to one of the post-resurrection scenes in Luke, where the men take the women’s testimony as “an idle tale.” But the word in Greek — leros (which forms the root of our word “delirious”) would be better translated as “out of their minds.” You know, crazy, insane, possessed.

And I agree. I mean, think about it — week in and week out we confess that the God who created everything not only knows about us but loves us, loves us enough to send his Son to demonstrate that love by word and deed even if it meant being killed. You’d have to be a little crazy to believe that message, maybe even possessed.

But finally, I think that’s what we confess, too. That we are possessed by the Spirit of God and in this way drawn into God’s family, a family founded neither through blood nor the law but through faith and the water of Baptism that simultaneously bears and is created by God’s Holy Spirit.

And here’s the really wild thing, Working Preacher — you’re just crazy enough not only to believe this delirious message but to preach it. And for that I’m immensely, even insanely, grateful. Keep up the crazy work!

Yours in Christ,

PS: I wrote a little more on the “impossible possibility” of the gospel at my blog. You can read it here if you’re interested.