Every once in a while, television comes out with something worth watching. Last week, that was true. The History Channel ran a special mini-series on the Hatfields and McCoys - the greatest told fued in American History. It was perhaps the bloodiest fued any two families have found themselves in in this country, leaving some 11 people dead when all was said and done.
Nobody is real sure how it started. Rumors abound that it began over a dispute with a pig, although the History Channel’s version portrayed it as a result of the civil war. We may never know how it truly began. But isn’t that the case with many of the fueds we have today? Whether it be with an estranged sibling or someone outside of our immediate family, many of us hold grudges long past our memories of how they began. When that divisiveness creeps in, it can tear relationships apart.
In the case of the Hatfields and McCoys, it wasn’t as simple as two people who didn’t like each other. The hatred extended throughout the family lines. In the miniseries, the heads of each family, Randolph McCoy and William “Devil Anse” Hatfield, were shown to be honorable men, caught up in the trappings of disfunction from other members of their families. They both placed a high value on loyalty, even when that loyalty meant killing someone in vengeance for a wrong done to one of their own. Loyalty is not always such a good thing.
William “Devil Anse” Hatfield ... you know, he’s not the only one to have been called the prince of darkness. Throughout time, people have thrown that title around to discredit their enemies. Popes and presidents alike have been called the antichrist. But perhaps the most striking example comes in our Scripture reading - when Jesus himself was called Satan by other church leaders of his time.
This story is perhaps the strangest of all those found in the Gospels - and that’s saying a lot! Jesus is called Beelzebul, or the devil, by the pharisees. His family says he is crazy - literally ‘out of his mind’. And Jesus himself says that his mother and brothers are not his real family. It was as if he emancipated himself from his own mother - Mary - as well as the rest of the family. He then says, for the only time in his ministry, that some people are beyond forgiveness - namely the people that have just called him the devil.
If ever there was an example of Jesus caught in the midst of divisiveness and hatred, it is this one right here. What’s interesting is the way in which people have interpreted this passage over time, though. If you’ve ever heard someone preach on this story, the sermon probably focused on Jesus saying what an unforgivable sin is. Those sermons tend to go one of two ways. Either you or someone you know has committed the unforgiveable sin and there’s not much hope for you, or you’re free and clear by the very fact that you are in church, so no matter what you’ve done in your past, you are forgiven.
I tend to lean toward that second way, myself. But that’s not where I want to go with this sermon. Instead, I want you to think about what is going on in this story. Jesus has just finished performing some miraculous healings, and retreats to his house to get away from people. But the crowd finds him. It presses in on him, demanding to see more. In fact, they made such a commotion that the Bible says Jesus, and his family could not even eat their dinner.
It’s then that his family goes outside and tells Jesus he has gone crazy. They try to restrain him. They are embarassed for him. And the scribes, the religious leaders, call him satan. If nothing else, this is a story of extremes. The God of the Universe is called the ruler of all that is evil.
If there was a word to describe the scene, it would have been pandemonium. Things were starting to spiral out of control, and Jesus had to make a decision. He had to decide how to respond.
We don’t find ourselves in that kind of situation very often. But it does happen. No, we won’t ever experience quite the negativity that must have been felt when Jesus - God - was called the devil. But we all occasionally find ourselves in situations of utter chaos - when people are calling each other names, when tensions rise, when hate takes root.
In fact, we don’t have to look very far. This is 2012 - which means one thing - it’s an election year. Soon the ads and tv spots will start ramping up, and negativity will come forth. And we know, it’s not limited to what politicians and lobbyist groups post on tv. Many of us get caught up in the conversation. Whether you have a strong political view or not, you can bet some of your friends and family do. And when the political attacks come, so do the religious ones.
We are living in the midst of a very polarized society. That’s nothing new. But it has gotten worse. In fact, Pew Research - the premiere research firm on national trends and attitudes - came out with a new study this week. It showed that Americans are more polarized today than they have been in the last 25 years - and the only reason it doesn’t go back further is because 25 years ago is when they started doing the studies. In fact, it showed that we have nearly doubled the gap between the left and the right, and the trend is only going up.
Whether it be around the water cooler at work, or in the midst of family dinners, most of us will find ourselves in the midst of people expressing their anger about politics and religion very soon. And when that happens, we will have a choice. We will have to choose how we respond.
When we look at the story of Jesus, at first it seems that he didn’t respond quite how we would expect him to. But seen from another light, his is the response we should all strive toward.
He begins by giving a small lesson on what divisiveness can do. Of course, this comes as a clever way to throw off those that call him satan. He says a house divided cannot stand, implying that if he is casting out demons then he cannot be satan. He then goes into the discussion about forgiveness and grace and who his real family is.
If you pay attention carefully, you can see the larger lesson going on here. The scribes aren’t just attacking Jesus when they call him satan. They’re attacking the crowd - the followers of Jesus. They are inciting hate and anger. They have moved beyond having a discussion based on reason - they no longer are trying to win a debate. Instead, they thrive on chaos.
And it works. The trap is set and Jesus family is taken in. They call Jesus crazy - they try to silence him. And in just a few short sentences, Jesus shows us how to bring back civility.
He begins by addressing the instigators. All people will be forgiven for whatever they say or do. Nobody is outside of God’s grace he says ... with one exception. Whoever blasphemies against the Holy Spirit will not have forgiveness. Of course, it was just a chapter before that Jesus was accused of blasphemy himself. In fact, he is the only one accused of such a sin in the gospel story. The commentators on this passage all seem to agree - Jesus here is talking about a continued rejection of God and calling God evil without ceasing. In other words, Jesus gives them a chance - offers them grace. But does so in a way that makes it clear - divisiveness and hatred have no place in the kingdom of God.
He then addresses the family. He never really excludes them from his family - instead he simply extends the definition of family - to whomever does the will of God. If you want to be part of the kingdom, you must work together. A house divided cannot stand.
Dr. Fred Craddock, who was by many accounts the voice of preaching in the 20th century, tells a story about a family that is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon.
It is a pleasant afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the highway. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back: "Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! There's a kitten back there on the side of the road!"
The father says, "So there's a kitten on the side of the road. We're having a drive."
"But Daddy, you must stop and pick it up."
"I don't have to stop and pick it up."
"But Daddy, if you don't, it will die"
“well then, it will have to die.We don't have room for another animal. We have a zoo already at the house. No more animals."
"But Daddy, are you going to just let it die?"
"lie quiet, children; we're trying to have a pleasant drive."
"We never thought our Daddy would he so mean and cruel as to let a kitten die."
Finally the mother turns to her husband and says, "Dear, you'll have to stop" He turns the car around, returns to the spot, and pulls off to the side of the road. "You kids stay in the car. I'll see about it" He goes out to pick up the little kitten, who is just skin and bones, sore-eyed, and full of fleas. When he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Hisss! He picks up the kitten by the loose skin at the neck, brings it over to the car, and says, "Don't touch it. It's probably got leprosy."
Back home they go.When they get to the house the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and intercede: "Can we let it stay in the house just tonight? Tomorrow we'll fix it a place in the garage
The father says,"Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a zoo" They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a pharaoh. Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and there is a cat. He reaches down toward the cat, carefully checking to see that no one is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? It couldn't be the same cat. It's not the same as that frightened, hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road. Of course not, and you know as well as I what makes the difference.
Not too long ago God reached out a hand to bless me and my family. When God did, I looked at that hand; it was covered with scratches. Such is the hand of love, extended to those who are bitter.
As we move into the Summer months, as the political and religious conversations heat up, and as groups lash out in anger and incite chaos, may we, as the people of God, be the voice of unity, peace, love and forgiveness. Rather than dig our trenches and plant ourselves firmly in the ground, may we reach out a hand of love and help heal the divisiveness that is so prevalent around us.