Prays Well With Others
But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first binding the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered —Mark 3:27
One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century wrote prolifically for over 50 years, appearing daily in newsprint, influencing generation after generation of readers, across all faith traditions. His insights into life and love, and belief and ethics have endured from the honesty and clarity contained in four frames and brief lines.
Before I risk frustrating with confusing rather than rousing your curiosity, the theologian I so admire is Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts cartoon, known through beloved Charlie Brown and Snoopy. I was raised on A Charlie Brown Christmas and Linus’ love of the Great Pumpkin as TV specials. Peanuts’ syndication began in 1950 and the comic has been republished for the fifteen years since Schulz’ death in 2000.
Over the decades we have come to understand Linus’ attachment to his security blanket, Charlie Brown’s heartache over the Little Red-Haired Girl, Schroeder’s devotion to Beethoven, Peppermint Patty’s prowess in sports and failure in the classroom, kite-eating trees, lonely baseball mounds and Lucy’s knowledge of everything. I never get bored reading. If the New York Times had this comic, I would not need the Tribune.
Above my desk at home is a bulletin board littered with these comics I’ve clipped over the years. One in particular captures our scripture for today.
Frame 1: Lucy yells at Snoopy, “You know why your doghouse burned down? Because you SINNED. That’s why.”
Frame 2: Lucy’s scolding continues, “You’re being punished for something you did wrong. That’s the way these things always work.”
Frame 3: Snoopy has a one-word comeback that transcends canine and human understanding and which blows Lucy away: “Bleah!”
Frame 4: Snoopy stands alone with the caption letting the reader know his thoughts: “Her kind deserved to be bleahed.”
(Thankfully, this is the only time this sermon will be preached at Kenilworth Union so my mimicking a beagle’s “bleah” will not be captured on video and house for eternity on the internet.)
In 1965, a 28 year-old pastor named Robert Short turned a popular slide show he’d been presenting while working his way through seminary into a book called The Gospel According to Peanuts using Schulz’s characters to explain the Christian faith. A small Presbyterian publishing house (John Knox) published it in hopes of inspiring some Sunday-school teachers to think outside the box.
Over 10 million copies were sold. Thirty-five years later the publisher has issued an anniversary edition in which the esteemed theologian Martin Marty penned the introduction. This simple gospel, aimed at children, hypothesizes Lucy, in her headstrong impulsiveness, often represents original sin and in the chapter, “Hound of Heaven,” the author shows Snoopy oft stood for Christ or ideal Christians. Seems far-fetched until we remember the comic strip? Lucy claims authority over a lowly beagle, professing knowledge of God’s mind, but Snoopy will not stand for such self-righteousness.
Our gospel lesson, appearing early in Mark’s gospel, has Jesus’ neighbors and family wondering if he “has gone out of his mind” by his ability to heal and his willingness to dispense it indiscriminately to people regardless of their religion, ethnicity or social standing. Not only were Jesus’ healings performed without a litmus test of faith or a penance leveled for piety, he also healed some diseases others believed were a direct result of being possessed by Satan. No Jewish man, in their right mind, would do such work for outsiders and those who were unclean in first century Palestine. The scribes were sure Jesus had to be possessed by a demon, to work against the establishment and to be able to command demons.
Of course that does not make sense. Jesus offers three short images, of varying orders of magnitude, to demonstrate their error: a kingdom divided against itself will not stand, a house will be destroyed if members of it oppose each other, and a person — even Satan — cannot exist if he or she lives amidst internal contradictions. Jesus exposes the flaw in their logic. Why would Satan cast out his own handiwork of possessing and tormenting people? The only way evil can be cast out is through good. The only way kingdoms, families and persons can thrive is through devotion to one ideal.
Fountain Hills, Arizona has been making the news, or at least the religious news recently. It is a town of about 23,000, located half an hour outside of Phoenix with fifteen Protestant churches. Eight churches—including Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and non-denominational congregations—in Fountain Hills began to cooperate in ways previously unknown. Usually churches from these denominations divide over sacrament and clergy hierarchy, precluding unity. But, their cooperation was toxic as they campaigned to discredit and ostracize a neighboring United Methodist church.
A collaborative sermon series, “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?,” was launched with an op-ed and half-page advertisement in the local newspaper and wide banners on church lawns throughout the town. These eight churches are attacking the United Methodist church, which they labeled “progressive,” for its willingness to engage in dialogue and mission with a local Muslim community. They condemn their theology for welcoming gays and lesbians and for proclaiming, although scripture does not demand a literal reading, it can still be a guide for faithful living. Subsequent op-ed’s and news reports from the ministers of these churches sling words such as “heresy”, “apostate”, and “hypocrisy” and both sides claim grace is on their side.
All this reminds me of author Anne Lamott who wrote “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
It boils my blood to think a community and a universal church is being divided with one faction claiming certainty, accusing another of sin, all in the name of God. I imagine God’s heart is broken at their inability to pray well with each other.
No wonder the recent Pew Forum survey confirmed what has been happening in recent years in our country’s religious landscape. Their research reveals those who claim Christian beliefs declined by 8% from 2007 to 2014 while the “nones,” (n-o-n-e-s) those who claim “no affiliation” to any religious group, had the largest growth among all groups and stands at 15% of the population. These “nones” tend to be younger than any other group, comprised of what researchers call the Millennial generation. But, they are not rejecting spirituality and faith — they do not claim atheism — they merely reject institution and organizations.  Thinking about the battle waged in Fountain Hills and the extremes pontificating in the name of God in today’s political battlefield, if you have had no religious exposure or your parents had a bad experience or were excluded, why would you want to get involved?
The former consultant in me could continue with research findings about the beliefs and values of the Millennials, this younger generation, who are willing to give of their time, express a desire to make meaning in their lives, and more and more are rejecting staid institutions. But, we don’t need statistics to confirm what is evident today in human nature. It was also true two thousand years ago.
In Mark’s gospel, the religious establishment and the cultural institutions were offended by Jesus’ inclusion of all people and the willingness of crowds to flock to him — not them. Through the interaction between Jesus and these scribes, Mark raises the question, “who is Jesus and how does Jesus have authority?” In their worldview, authority came from religion and tradition, held by the temple and narrowed by family and tribe.
Jesus denied their charge that Satan possessed him by his parables. His authority was not from Satan; he opposed Satan. Satan was real then and needed to be cast out of kingdoms and houses and people. He was doing the will of God in his teaching, healing, and confronting evil.
The divided churches in Fountain Hills are but one example of Satan’s presence in our world today, inducing battles over who has cornered the truth and seeking to impair others.
Satan and demons exist, perhaps not as spirits or creatures with red horns. Satan and demons are present today and divide us in the demonic and opposing powers that threaten the compassionate and reconciling love of God. Satan and Beelzebul are present in the configurations of power that pursue us and cause us to hurt others and ourselves. There is the demon of racial discrimination, which tells us to believe skin color and country of origin can make one person superior to those who differ. There is the power of patriarchy that tells us men may dominate women. The power of materialism roars “money will give us life.” The power of militarism lures us to believe weapons and war bring security and peace. When we are torn between loving God and succumbing to these evil powers, it bears asking which of these will have authority. How do we hold on to God?
After Jesus dismisses the accusations he is Satan, the author of Mark then employs a cryptic and somewhat confusing statement from Jesus, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first binding the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (v. 27).
Some scholars believe Jesus is putting the religious leadership on notice—that he will “tie up” the establishment and usher in a whole new church. There is another perspective that has significant merit, especially in our day: the strong man represents faith in God. If this strong man neglects faith, it becomes withered and weak, by the demons, which call our attention day in and day out, then virtually any of them can sneak in, bind him, and plunder his life.
A strong faith in God will allow us to withstand all these diversions, because a strong faith is focused on praying to and praising God and will be fed and strengthened by God.
Snoopy might have blown away Lucy’s condemnation with a simple “bleah” but Snoopy’s confidence in God and God’s grace strengthens him to continue to live and play with her. Remember all the times Snoopy kisses Lucy, infecting her with dog germs, but maybe, also reminding her of love? A strong faith loves. Sometimes those that need our love the most are those that let us know in the most un-loving ways.
In Mark’s gospel — or any of the gospels — we learn only a clear and correct understanding of Jesus can produce a clear understanding of what it means to be one of his followers and how to feed our faith and share our faith.
As I was pondering this sermon with a friend, we had one of those conversations that unfolded in a way I thought we were in sync but later realized I was talking about one thing and he was talking about something else. I described the gospel passage, offered the title of the sermon “prays well with others” and rambled on about we will never be in a community of common belief, but we can still pray to God and live with each other peacefully. Internally, we may be challenged by all sorts of beliefs and persuaded to act and think and be in accordance with culture, but faith alone is all that God asks, and even when we stumble, that too can be forgiven — praying is a way to remain close to God. Praying with another person can bolster our faith when our faith feels too fragile. Praying does not depend upon the other person’s catechism or creed — just the sense of God’s sovereignty. Praying with others unites us, turns our focus to God and away from ourselves. We usually pray for what matters in life and death.
My friend asked why I did not include hymn and sacrament. Mission and education… that’s when I realized we were considering different acts. The verb I intended to use was “prays” well with others. He thought I said “praise” well with others.
In so many ways, it does not matter. A strong faith in God, known through Jesus, is what unites us in prayer and in praise. Neither demands a litmus test or questionnaire. That’s the radical inclusion continued throughout Mark’s gospel. Jew or Greek. Male or female. Family or non-family. When we shed our fear and pray well together, we are all made the strong person.