Harold Camping, a Christian Radio personality, predicted that the world would end with a global cataclysm, and that faithful christians would be raptured on May 21, 2011. 

When the day came and passed, Mr. Camping was so distraught that he ran away from his home and camped out in a motel for the night, because he didn’t want to deal with the questions from his followers. Later on, he apologized for not having the dates – and I quote – “worked out as accurately as I could have.” After some conversations with friends over this difficult weekend of failure, Camping had the sudden realization that May 21 was just supposed to be a “Spiritual Judgement Day” and not the actual rapture. He had miscalculated, you see, and the real end of the world would be happening on October 21, 2011.

What are we all still doing here, I wonder?

Something happened though, in those 5 months between May 21, and October 21. Rather than admitting that he was wrong, Camping held on to his belief that he could figure out the day and time that Christ would return. Despite being so terribly wrong, he maintained this deeply held belief that he could calculate his way into knowing God’s return. He didn’t quit believing, he just made up more excuses and expanded the set of ideas that would allow him to keep believing a lie.

There has been a long history of documenting this sort of behavior in Cults as well. Cults often find their way with people who feel lonely, inadequate, unloved, or unappreciated in some way; people who feel the world is against them, and that they have no chance to correct the wrongs without some outside help. The cults then play up the notions of acceptance, adequacy, and appreciation of everyone’s gifts as a way of enticing the members to come and join in. During the indoctrination phase, members begin to realize that some of what they are now doing or saying does not match up to their deeply held beliefs – beliefs they held before joining this new group in their lives. And this moment where the person realizes that they are behaving or speaking differently from what they have always believed, this moment causes them a great amount of stress and emotional conflict.

And what do people do when they encounter stress? They attempt to get rid of the stress in the easiest possible way. Most who go through a cult experience distance themselves from friends, family, and other people who are telling them the truth. In order to accept the new belief system the cult is offering them, they need to quiet the voices that disagree with the cult and reframe their previously held beliefs. They change their definition of words to align more closely with what their new family is teaching them, they redefine what good and bad behavior is; they redefine what is criminal, and what is ethical, what is lawful, and what is just.

This state of flux is called “Cognitive Dissonance,” which is a mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. And while my examples are things you and I are unlikely to encounter, what we need to realize is that we all experience this repeatedly – we also choose to reframe our viewpoints and worldviews to allow us to believe things that are in direct conflict with another deeply held belief. 

Why? Because it softens the realization that we are living contrary to what we say we believe. We learn to justify things so that we can reduce our stress, because when we have two conflicting beliefs, then one of them needs to go, and that means we will lose something. Reshaping definitions of words, and changing our viewpoints allows us to maintain both beliefs more easily.

Now, I know some of you are wondering why I’m talking about Doomsday predictions and cult members, when our Gospel message is all about Jesus casting out demons.

It’s because this tendency to redefine and realign our worldview is far older than the psychology that explains it.

You see, the leaders of the people, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the temple priests, had a long standing belief that they were the only ones who had it all right. That they were the ones who had the direct line to God, and that they were the ones who were allowed to act on behalf of God and speak in God’s name.

And then, here comes a carpenter from Nazareth. He is performing miracles and casting out demons, and healing people, and sharing the Good News of God to all who will listen. And these leaders look at each other and say, “Well, this can’t be right. We’re the ones who are allowed to speak and act for God, not this guy.”

So what do they do?

They redefine miracles. And realign their beliefs that what they are seeing is not the full story, but that there is something shady going on behind the scenes. They reframe reality with a new theory that allows them to keep believing their own lie about their own importance.

This man – this Jesus – is casting out demons by the power of Satan!

If Jesus were acting on behalf of God, then they would lose their long held belief that they were in charge, that they were God’s chosen, that they were the ones who could speak and act for God. 

They could clearly see that people were being healed, that miracles were being performed, that people were turning to God. But, because it conflicted with their belief that they were the only authorized servants of God, they needed to reframe reality with a lie.

And Jesus’ response is that if he were indeed casting out demons by the power of Satan, then Satan would be fighting against himself, and a house divided cannot stand.

The central theme of this passage, based on its structure, is: a house divided. It serves us best to ask ourselves if our house is divided. Are we divided within ourselves? Are we simultaneously holding one belief in one hand, and redefining words, and realigning our minds with falsehoods so that we can maintain a belief we don’t want to give up?

The Pharisees and other leaders of the people tried to redefine Jesus as being demon possessed because they feared a loss of power, prestige, and reputation that came with their positions. They didn’t want to let go of that power, so they had to redefine and realign themselves with a lie, in order to continue believing a falsehood. And Jesus tells them that those who blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit would be unforgiven. That is, those who attribute the work of God to the work of Satan, those who reject the work of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ family was more worried about protecting him from the crowds than they were worried about Jesus doing what the Father had commanded him to do. And Jesus told them that his real family was those who listen to God, and do the will of the Father. That is, those who are Christ’s siblings are those who put the work of God before all other concerns.

The first is a matter of fear, and hardness of heart. The second is a matter of priorities. And both of those things have to do with what we believe to be true, have to do with us simultaneously trying to reconcile two or more things we believe to be true. And when that happens, we choose anything but the will of the Father.

And what is the will of the Father? To love god, love neighbor. To love mercy and to do justice. To show kindness where others show hate, and to be patient and wait upon the Lord.

The church, of course, in her infinite wisdom, has prepared for the eventuality that we will be confronted with two belief systems. The church has prepared for the fact that we will choose the path that redefines our desires and realigns our minds to believe the lies. It’s called The Reconciliation of a Penitent. Confession, for short. It is in the act of confession that we can reconcile our conflicting beliefs, and realign ourselves to the Truth. It is in the act of confession that we can take our divided house and become whole again..

And that is really what this passage is all about. You see, when Jesus is talking about A House Divided, he is talking about sin. He is talking about hardness of heart, he is talking about giving something else in our lives more priority than standing in God’s presence. He is talking about our own hearts and minds divided by conflicting beliefs, and choosing the one more aligned with our own desires rather than God’s. 

This is why Jesus brings up the unforgivable sin, and then talks about how his real siblings are those that do the will of the Father. It’s to remind us that it is not just the grievous errors that can draw us away from God, but the simple ones; the ones that seem so inconsequential on the surface and yet can eventually lead to grievous error.

The Apostle Paul was himself a Pharisee. He had such pride in his stature that he called himself A Pharisee among Pharisees. That is, The Best of the Best. After his conversion, he called himself Chief among Sinners, and we can certainly understand why he might say that. Just like the other Pharisees of Jesus’ time, Paul seems to have believed that the work that Jesus’s followers were doing was from anything other than the power of God – that is, blaspheming God and the Holy Spirit. And for this false belief, he persecuted and murdered these early Christians. His heart was hardened, and his mind harbored murderous intent.

And yet. God stopped him on the road to Damascus, and gave him the opportunity to soften his heart and be reconciled to God, making his mind and his heart whole again. … And from there, he became one of the greatest evangelists the world has ever known.

The unforgivable sin, according to many scholars, is the continued and repeated rejection of the Holy Spirit’s prompting to soften our hearts. It is not recognizing that we need to be forgiven, or even desiring to be forgiven. It is a permanent dividing of our hearts, our minds, our inner houses, and shutting the door to God.

It took a literal act of God for Paul’s heart to be softened, and he turned around and walked away from the path that would have led to his eternal separation from God.

Most cult members eventually realize that they’ve been duped, and are able to walk away from their indoctrination, and find their way back to truth and are reconciled with their true families.  After the October 21, 2011 cataclysm failed to materialize, Camping finally came to realize, in April of the following year, that he had made a grievous mistake, and begged forgiveness from those who had believed him, and begged forgiveness from God. And he too, was reconciled with God and his own followers.

Our job as Christians is to recognize when our house – our mind – has been divided, and we have chosen to act upon a belief contrary to God’s will. And then, to return to God, to confess our folly, to ascribe to God the honor due God’s name, and to be reconciled to the Truth.

This is the way to lasting peace.  This is the way to lasting joy. This is the way to wholeness. Because a house divided cannot stand.

[This sermon was delivered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ on June 9, 2024.]

About Michael

Mike was called to be the Vicar of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ, and started this call on February 1, 2024. Before taking a call as clergy, Mike worked in IT for almost 25 years, variously working as a back- and front-end web developer, database developer and manager, and as a business analyst. If he's not engaged in the work of the church, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride, or training for an upcoming BikeMS ride. Mike holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classical History from Seattle Pacific University, and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023. Mike was ordained as a Transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona on January 20th, 2024, and will be ordained to the priesthood on July 27, 2024.

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