“In the Struggle and the Power”

On Easter weekend, NBC released a remake of the 1970s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. I appreciate many things about Superstar, including the way it brings to the forefront the political conflict that is essential for understanding and interpreting the Jesus story. The show makes it clear that the Jewish people were under Roman rule and that this was not a kind and gentle occupation. The vast majority of ordinary people were starving, sick, landless, literally enslaved because of debt. The Jewish leaders chose to collaborate with the occupying empire. Superstar portrays these leaders (the scribes and Pharisees, the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas) as grim and terrifying figures with deep voices and long, imposing robes. They are ruthless and violent, showing no compassion for Jesus or for their own people.

From the point of view of the Gospels, I’d say the reasons for their choices are a bit more complex. I think they believed they were making the best of a bad situation. They thought that by aligning themselves with the powers of their day, they could leverage their influence to protect the people.  In their mind, popular revolts against Rome would simply give the empire an excuse to commit mass murder. So these leaders put down the people’s hopes themselves. They managed, and if necessary, silenced, populists like Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel sets this conflict between Jesus and the religious elite at its very heart. In Mark, Jesus comes to tie up the strong man and plunder his house. The strong man, also referred to as Satan, as an unclean spirit or a demon, is a personification of the systems of oppression that hold God’s good creation hostage. Jesus’ mission is simple: unbinding us all to live freely, fully, and boldly. Unfortunately, Jesus does not find allies for his change-making agenda in the religious leaders of his day. Instead, the temple authorities become dangerous adversaries. In Mark, the confrontation begins immediately when Jesus enters a synagogue, in Chapter 1. “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’” This encounter reveals that the powers of the demonic have invaded the institution of the temple (a power structure we must carefully distinguish from Judaism itself).

The struggle between Jesus and the establishment continues to escalate in the chapters of Mark leading up to today’s reading. For example, Jesus declares that the sins of a paralyzed man are forgiven, and the religious leaders insist that he lacks the authority to do so. It is not the work of God, they say, for Jesus to unbind this man from his own guilt and shame, or from the stigma of the community that marginalizes him because of his disability. Today’s text makes it clear that the temple authorities recognize the power of Jesus’ ministry but they label this power as demonic. This mistaking of God’s Spirit with the ways of evil is an unforgiveable sin, Jesus says. It is blasphemy for the powerful to stand in the way of God’s liberating vision.

I believe that Jesus’ political struggle is also our struggle. I am convinced that we, too, are engaged in a life and death conflict to free God’s people and unbind God’s good creation. Last weekend, Mercedes Tuma-Hansen and myself were delegates to the state convention of one of the political parties. Specifically, we were faith delegates with the new organization called “Faith in Minnesota,” the political arm of ISAIAH. Now, I want to be clear that we went to the convention as individual citizens rooted in our faith, not as public representatives of First Church. As the church, we have an obligation to be non-partisan, to stay out of the business of endorsing particular candidates. We are; however, free to set forth a moral vision for our common life and build the power we need to make that vision real. That’s what Faith in MN is about. The goal of this work is nothing less than a total transformation of the way we conduct politics, and the way we govern, in Minnesota. We aim to end the reign of fear, scarcity, hatred and division. We’re leading the way by setting forth a bold, intersectional policy agenda. But what’s truly transformational about this path we’re on is that we’re claiming this new kind politics with our very presence, in the way that we choose show up. Amid the tumult, cynicism and nastiness of politics as usual, we are staying rooted in all that is sacred to us. We are embodying a politics of love and abundance and blessing. We are participating in our democracy as a people committed to a hopeful, joyful vision of what is possible.

            In today’s passage, Jesus’ conflict with the religious elite is coupled with a more personal struggle. As the story opens, the crowd follows Jesus into his own home, invading the life of his family. In Superstar, there is a similar scene in which needy people mob Jesus. Their bodies are symbolically draped gauze, stained with dirt and blood. They move with difficulty, nursing hurt limbs and bent backs. Their hands stretch out toward Jesus in desperation. Some are crawling to get to him. They attach themselves to his legs and drape their bodies over his shoulders, until he is gasping for breath, drowning under their weight. This is the kind of chaotic scene I imagine unfolding in Jesus’ own home. I can feel the press of the bodies, the jostling, the rapidly beating hearts of people longing to be seen, longing to be healed, longing to be free. I can hear the muttering about how the situation is out of hand and Jesus is out of his mind.

I can understand why Jesus’ family tried to restrain him. They were afraid. And I imagine Jesus was afraid too. Jesus responded to all that fear by taking a deep breath and staying grounded in God’s vision for a new kind of community, a different way of being human together.

            Doran Schrantz, Executive Director of Faith in Minnesota, tells the story of how we are birthing a new politics in Minnesota.

We held house meetings, trainings, built our teams, brought 3,000 with us to precinct caucuses, 1,800 to Senate District Conventions and a delegation of 176 delegates and alternates to the State Convention this past weekend. We knew that the conventional thinking about elections was woefully insufficient—conventional electoral politics takes votes from communities of color for granted and inadvertently creates a creeping cynicism that has eroded voter participation over time. At the same time, conventional electoral strategy has tried to attract white voters with an ineffective “centrist moderation” that no one buys. Worse still, this “safe” narrative creates a vacuum on the question of race, allowing the hate and dog-whistle politics of the far right to breed and fester, becoming far more potent than it should be in Minnesota.

Schrantz argues that

What is happening in Minnesota is a huge struggle about who “we” are. Who is the “we?” Who does the “we” include?” As we leave the State Convention floor, many pundits and some friends will say to us that we have to choose between the family farmer and the Muslim family facing hate speech. That we must choose between the Latina mother without papers and the unemployed father in Willmar. That we must choose between the laborer in the Iron Range and the black man who fears being killed by the police in North Minneapolis. This is wrong. It is a losing strategy where we cut off part of the body to placate the other part. The answer is not to craft a strategy while looking in the rearview mirror. Our challenge is to build a politics that energizes all of us no matter who we are, where we live or what we look like. In response to the fear we face from others, we need to continue to be . . . unafraid. Excited about our future. Grounded in our faith in us and our faith in the biggest “we” that can be imagined.

            “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” the crowd told Jesus. Jesus was not necessarily rejecting his family of origin when he refused to answer this summons, when he responded by proclaiming: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” He was expanding the “we” to include everyone. He was challenging his society’s views of kinship, their rigid boundaries around who belonged and who didn’t, whose well-being mattered and who was expendable. He was saying, we’re all relatives. No one is free until we’re all free. The good news of Jesus is that God’s vision for our politics, our common life is worth struggling for. The fight to unbind all creation to live freely, fully, and boldly is one that we can win. Today, and in the days to come, let us choose faith not fear.   Abundance instead of scarcity. Joy, hope, and possibility. And above all, love. Amen.