This Sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church on Jan. 28, 2018. You can view it at http://www.bethanylive.org and look it up by the date.
The texts for the day were Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1: 21-28
Sometimes things are not always what they seem. The issue at hand is not really the issue at all. The toddler refusing to put a shirt is not about wearing a shirt, but about making their own choices. Or a teenager telling a parent that they don’t want them around, isn’t about overprotective or clingy parents, it’s wondering how much freedom their parents will allow. How much time do their parents really have for them, or how much do their parents really care? Or in a marriage relationship, we don’t really dig in our heels about what time dinner is, or who should do the dishes or laundry, we’re wondering if we are in true partnership, heard and cared for. We tend to spend an inordinate amount of energy worrying about the wrong things and the actual issue can never be addressed. Often, every conflict boils down to fear. Fear of losing control of personal or communal boundaries.
I’ve noticed quite a bit of conversation in the air about boundaries. We encounter the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements as well as conversations about who is allowed to cross boundaries of countries, neighborhoods, etc. Boundaries communicate expectations and safety, we have boundaries for healthy relationships, boundaries that protect futures. Boundaries mostly seem positive but sometimes the question must be asked, positive for whom? Boundaries or the illusion of boundaries can also be used to control people or situations and when boundaries are in the hands of those with the most power and the most to lose from boundaries changing, damage can be done. We know that when someone crosses boundaries of our human worth, dignity and agency that person is suspect and dangerous. Personal boundary crossing raises red flags in our consciousness and we can even feel it in our bodies.
Damaging boundary crossing might be when people offer unsolicited opinions about us, harsh critiques, or words of how we make them uncomfortable, and when this happens, especially under the cloak of anonymity, it’s a boundary that has been crossed to the detriment of all involved. Sometimes our very existence can cross a societal norm boundary, and this makes people question the truth about boundaries and our human need to keep people in certain categories.
Our Mark 1 and 1 Corinthians 8 texts are not what they seem. In Mark, we might say this passage is about Jesus teaching with authority, or about demons, or an exorcism. In 1 Corinthians we might say that passage is about food, meat, idols or culture. But both passages are actually about boundaries. Jesus first public act in the gospel of Mark, reveals what God thinks about boundaries. We got a foretaste of that from the baptism story when the heavens were torn open and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. God’s love couldn’t even be contained by the boundary of heaven! Jesus wrestles with Satan, calls some disciples and then goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, like any good Jewish person. But Jesus did something that the ordinary person entering synagogue did not do: he taught with authority. Boundary crossed. Only the rabbis and scribes had any religious authority-but the people were caught by the nature of Jesus’ teaching. It was different, it was authentic, it revealed something about God and God’s nature. It was so revealing that a man also in the synagogue with an unclean spirit called Jesus by his true identity: Holy One of God! An unclean spirit in the synagogue is indeed another boundary crossed, in case you are wondering! We don’t know if no one knew this man had an unclean spirit or if the man had been outside and came in when he heard Jesus, we just don’t know. What we do know about Jewish purity laws is that this would have been a cause for great concern. The man should have been cast out away from everyone else for safety, but Jesus didn’t do that, he crossed the boundary and went toward the conflict, the uncleanliness, he took the issue head on.
He saw the man not as a someone to keep boundaried, but as a beloved child of God needing to be freed from a harmful boundary. Jesus leapt over the human boundary of cleanliness to bring this man into community. Jesus does this. Jesus declares that boundaries that harm us and keep us from being all who God created us to be are no more.
Jesus call us out of our human boundaries for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. God says that nothing should separate us from God and so whatever cultural norms we do or do not adhere to are irrelevant. That might mean we have to let go of worrying about how other people think we should act or how we think people around us should act. I encounter this often in my day to day life. Society tells us that women are to be small, meek and quiet. Culture tells us that we can’t take up much room, we have to leave room for the men. My spiritual director calls that spiritual anorexia. We tend to think that anorexia is about food and body image, and while that is a piece of it, it’s actually about infantilism. Encouraging women and girls to look younger is more about control. Children are helpless, lack agency and voice, women can be boundaried in this way. It’s dangerous not just to bodies but to minds and souls of girls and women as well as boys and men. We know that God calls women to be equally bold, big and loud as our brothers for the sake of proclaiming the love of God. Society tells us that men are to be tough, non-emotional, or grandiose. Plus the pressure of soul wage earner. We know that God also calls men to be equally gentle, emotional, and true partners with their sisters in the proclamation of the gospel. It’s not an either/or it’s a both/and. There’s room for all and we have to shed the worry of fitting into a boundary that is human made and not God made.
In 1 Cor. Paul is not worried about who eats what food from idols but about the boundaries that have arisen in the community. Some in the Corinth church were elite, educated and thought mostly of their own needs. Paul recognized that some in the community were struggling to understand the freedom in this pure grace from God and were still tripped up by the gods and idols of their culture around them. The elite and educated didn’t see that their eating meat from idol worship was confusing for some and frankly, the elite didn’t care. They had what was making them comfortable and what they understood, so that’s all that matters. But the dichotomy of the haves and the have nots was straining the relationships within the community and Paul beautifully lays waste to this human made boundary: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” If a boundary isn’t about love, it’s not a real boundary. And not the kind of love where you might say to someone, “I’m lovingly telling you to stay in a boundary that makes me comfortable.” No, it’s a boundary of selflessness where you put your own comforts and needs aside for you neighbor. Boundaries, Jesus declares throughout the gospels, are always about your neighbor in need. Boundaries often do make us uncomfortable as they are almost rarely about us.
But boundaries help us to name fear and anxiety when we feel it and to know that poor boundaries are often the core of conflict. Jesus proclaims that we go towards the conflict, towards the fear and anxiety to walk together, to learn from one another, to peel back the outward layers where we can get stuck in useless debate and never get to the real issue. Jesus very existence erases human boundaries. God creates boundaries for healing, wholeness, community, and living as the beloved body of Christ. God draws us all into the boundary of unending, abiding and steadfast love in the kingdom of God. This is good news indeed, and not just for some, but for all people. Amen.