A way inside the house

Jesus went into a house… his mother, brothers and sisters arrived and stood outside.

Good morning. Our gospel story is a challenging passage, rich with metaphors and possible paths for preaching. But this week, I was particularly intrigued by the interpersonal dynamics of Jesus’ family in this passage.

This week a news story that caught my attention involved the actress Ellie Kemper. You might remember her as Erin, the red-haired, sweet, and naïve receptionist in the TV Show, “The Office.” Or in the title role of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,”—a kind, trusting character who befriends a gay black man.

I was surprised to read the headline of clickbait article. “Actress Ellie Kemper was a KKK princess.”

The basis of this accusation is the revelation that in 1999, Ellie was crowned the queen of a debutante ball of the Veiled Prophet Organization.

The history of the Veiled Prophet Organization is steeped in secrecy, ritual, and white supremacy and class inequality. It was founded in the 19th century by the powerful and wealthy whites of St. Louis, MO. It was never affiliated with the KKK, but until 1979, it explicitly excluded the black and Jewish citizens of St. Louis.

Ellie Kemper herself acknowledges that despite her friendly girl-next-door persona, she had a very privileged upbringing. At the time of her crowning, she was 19 years old. Does that make her a racist? Was she even aware of the troubling connections of the organization? Who knows.

I know that when I was only 19 years old, I was still very much influenced by the values and actions of my own parents. I still am.

But families—even good, loving, kind, faithful families—can be blind to systems which perpetuate racism, elitism, and all the other “isms” which contradict the inclusive nature of the Gospel. Families can be unreliable pointers to boundless and inclusive love of God.

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Which brings me to the family of Jesus.

The question of the Jesus’ identity dominates the first half of the gospel. Jesus demonstrates his authority in word and deed, again and again. He never declares his own identity. He lets the people decide.

But the disciples struggle to understand. The religious authorities respond with hostility. And his own family cannot seem to grasp who Jesus is and why his ministry is significant. The demons and unclean spirits are the only ones who recognize him for who he is. They fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’

After climbing up a mountain and appointing the twelve disciples, Jesus and the disciples descend and find respite in someone’s home. But as usual, the crowd assembles and pesters them so relentlessly that they cannot even have a meal.

His family members hear this, and they decide that it’s time for a family intervention. They show up at the house to put a stop to this nonsense. They intend to seize him and forcefully hustle him out of there.

His family are the ones who label him as out of his mind. Were they concerned about his well-being? Sure. Were they embarrassed by his behavior? Most likely.

At this house, the crowd is pressing in. Everyone is trying to get close to Jesus. Everyone, that is, except his family. They remain outside the house and outside the truth.

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So do the scribes.

The accusations of the scribes only heighten the tension here. While his family says that Jesus is out of his mind, the scribes have a different story. He is possessed by a demon, they say. The work he does is the work of Satan.

All this talk in Mark’s gospel of Satan, demons, and unclean spirits—well, it seems antiquated and mythical to our modern ears. These words and concepts do not often appear in the course of our everyday conversations.

But are there not powers and principalities which demand our allegiance? Powers which divide us and steer us away from the goodness of God’s creation.

What about the power of materialism? The power of racism? The power of elitism? The powers of misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. The power of respectability?

What about all those institutions (including educational systems and even churches) which, despite good intentions, mislead us and draw us away from God’s reconciling intentions for the world?

Are there not powers which keep us standing outside the house, in which Jesus is found?

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When these powers collectively grab a hold of us, they not only keep us outside the metaphorical house of Jesus, they also open pathways to terrible, evil things.

This week saw the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. For two days in 1921, mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents, and burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Estimates of the dead range from 36 to 300. It remains one of the worst single incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

Now, I will admit to you that I have never heard of this tragic event until last year, when it was the backdrop for an HBO series that I watched. This event was never taught in my schools. My parents never told me about it, probably because they had never heard of it.

The kind of hatred that drives a person to take up arms and terrorize their neighbor doesn’t come from nowhere. It starts small and insidiously in the hearts of men and women. And from there it grows larger than the sum of the individuals who harbor racist beliefs. That is the nature of evil.

Was Ellie Kemper a “KKK Princess?” That seems like a pretty big stretch. I can’t possibly pass judgment on the Kemper family. I don’t know enough details about this odd St. Louis organization, and the personal values of this particular family. Besides, I know in my heart that I, too, have been blinded by biases of my own experiences and associations.

This gospel passage is a challenging text. In the gospel of inclusivity, it sets boundaries between insiders and outsiders. And I understand why Jesus suggests that his family might be part of the problem.

If anyone should understand who Jesus is, and what he has come to do, shouldn’t it be his mother, his brothers, and his sisters?

But if there is one thing this gospel passage tells us is that it is difficult to discern between good and evil, between right and wrong, between God’s ways and our ways.

It is important to note that Jesus does not reject his family. From the cross, he provided for his mother in John’s gospel. And his half-brother James became an important leader in the early Church in Jerusalem.

However, Jesus is telling us in this passage that we need to recognize the powers which take a hold on us in order to confront them.

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Which brings me to my mom and dad.

When I was a child growing up, all my neighborhood friends spent their summers at “the pool”—a private club with tennis courts and two pools. My family did not belong to the pool. I always assumed that maybe we couldn’t afford the membership fees, but that really didn’t make sense, since it seemed like all of our fathers were engineers for Westinghouse and we lived in nearly identical suburban houses. There was a great deal of ethnic and socioeconomic homogeny. But we didn’t belong to the pool.

We finally joined the pool when I was in my teens. One day, when I was in my 20s, I asked my mom and dad, “how come we didn’t belong to Andover Pool when we were younger?”

“Oh,” they told me matter-of-factly, “The board of the pool had a long-standing policy of refusing Jewish members, so we refused to join. Only when they changed their policy to admit Jewish members did we join the pool.”

I was stunned. I had never known this about them. As far as I know, Mom and Dad never vocally protested the policy, but they refused to be associated with a system that they believed was wrong.

Jesus offers all of us a way to step inside the house. Family in solidarity with Jesus is determined not by our blood, but by his. Learning about our own histories by listening to the experiences of others, binds us together. Confronting the powers which divide us, will free us. Through Jesus, divided kingdoms and households reunite. Through Jesus, revealed as the Son of God, we experience the boundless and inclusive love of God.