The strongest one

Jesus exorcises voices of family, church and society. A metaphorical mix up of demons, dwellings, and healing. Note: Beelzebul is the demon king, and also the demon of the dwelling place. (Listen.)

When I first introduced the man who was to become my husband to my extended family, not one but two different people said to me, “Wow! We never thought you’d meet anyone, let alone a Collins Street lawyer.” Never mind that my husband’s office was on Queen Street; the message was clear. All my life I’d been told by family, church and society that no man wanted an outspoken wife. I was insightful, articulate, prophetic, forceful: great qualities in a man or, perhaps, a celibate single professional woman. But if I wanted to ‘catch’ a good husband, I would need to dumb down and shut up, because the person God had made me to be was unattractive and unlovable, and would make a dreadful wife and mother.

Obviously at some level I rejected that narrative, because here I am now, both parenting and preaching. And yet to say these voices had no effect on me would be to tell a lie. I can still feel anxious about my ‘wife-ing’ and mothering; and I can also still hear the voice which says I have no right to speak and nothing to say, and that I should just shut up. In other words, thanks to the narrative, both ‘wife and mother’ and ‘writer and preacher’ can feel like contested spaces; on bad days I feel like I should just disappear.

I am sure you carry troubling narratives of your own: stories which cause internal division and conflict; stories which make you want to cancel yourself. Perhaps they’re stories about what a ‘real’ man or woman looks like. Perhaps they’re stories about acceptable forms of desire. Perhaps they’re stories about your lovability or worth, or your right to have an opinion or speak out. Perhaps they’re stories about whether you can ever be enough or do enough or be good enough. Or perhaps there’s something else that you’ve internalized from the narratives which swirl around you.

They’re the stories which make a strong woman question whether she can raise a family and do a job, even when others have regularly affirmed her in those roles. They’re the stories which make another wonder if she can be gay and Christian (here), when she’s living breathing proof that the answer is a great big Yes! They’re the stories which tell a man he’ll never live up to his father or brothers, and he may as well move to a distant land and raise pigs. They’re the stories which turn us against ourselves, making us fearful and fractured; and which often in our fearfulness we turn outwards onto others.

Indeed, we all know what it is to be a house divided; and we know what it is to belong to families and communities which turn people against each other and tear people apart. Because turning fear and anxiety into rejection and blame is how humans have always lived: we create the illusion of social cohesion by scapegoating others.

It’s easy to see this pattern in politicians and media commentators, but we can also live like this. We unite by blaming the current COVID outbreak on South Australia, or the federal government, or anti-vaxxers, even as we participate in the highly mobile lifestyle that puts everyone at risk. Instead of cleaning up our own house, we point the finger at those right wing conservatives or abusive priests who slowly destroy the church. We shame the one who walks away and chooses a different path. We close our hearts to the Holy Spirit, cower inside our small shrivelled selves and refuse to grow: the act for which there is no forgiveness, since we cannot have that which we refuse to accept; and to reject the Holy Spirit is to reject forgiveness.

And we do this wearing a mask: the passive mask of helplessness, the calm mask of competence, the smiling mask of politeness, the rictus mask which pretends everything’s okay. Meanwhile, we clutch our fears and our failings tightly to our chest; we tell ourselves and the world we’re doing just fine, and if not it’s somebody else’s fault. But every now and then the mask slips and we crumble: for a house divided cannot stand.

But there is one who can bind Beelzebul, that demon of the dwelling place; and he can enter the house and make it sturdy, in the process stealing our heart. The demonic is simply that which tears people apart; and as Jesus reveals and expels the powers and stories which fracture bodies, minds and spirits in individuals and communities, he expels the demonic, builds us up, and makes us whole.

When he is in the house, I can be both mother and preacher without doubt or fear. She can be gay and he can be vulnerable and you can be loving and we can be formed into the compassionate crowd: that generous and open-hearted body which knows its own wounds and has tenderness for others and breathes forgiveness and healing towards everyone.

Of course, living wholeheartedly and expansively with Christ in our midst has consequences. Our families might think we’re crazy, and sideline or even reject us. Religious types might say we don’t know our Bible, that we’re not really Christian, that we’re possessed. And we must stay alert to our own fears and doubts, our familiar demons: those snarling voices and sneaking stories which seek to shame and silence, fracture and divide, scapegoat and accuse us all, and which erupt within us and between us and around us from time to time. Not once but many times does Christ throw out demons; and it always leads to more conflict.

Even so, take heart! For in this kingdom life of communion and challenge we are not alone. We have a new family centred around Jesus, which guides us and encourages us and pushes us to grow. It’s the family which doesn’t diminish you, but wants you to become the fullness of the person God has made you to be. It’s the family that cherishes you and delights in you and listens for your voice. It’s the family which teaches you more about forgiveness and generosity and grace, and which hopes you will teach them, too. So don’t hover in the doorway. Squeeze through, and come on in: for there are siblings aplenty all crowded around Jesus, filling heart and home with love. In the name of the strongest and most loving one, I welcome you: Amen. Ω

Reflect: What stories and experiences have torn you apart? What stories and experiences have led to integration and healing?

A reflection on Mark 3:20-35 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary 6 June 2021 (Proper 5 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Image shows The Storyteller by Julie Buffalohead.

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