Falling into God’s Grace

Sometimes as a preacher I have no idea where a text will take me. Parts of some texts are very familiar, and so there isn’t really anything new to say about them.  Or maybe we just focus in on the parts that we like that are familiar.

But today when we read Mark 3:20-35 I was caught by Jesus’ family and the scribes going after him.  It’s an interesting side note to the bigger stuff going on—Jesus’ line about a kingdom divided against itself.  But it’s pretty significant.  His family wanted to quiet him down.

And so I followed that trail downward and it got me to this sermon about the second half of life (from Richard Rohr) and other thoughts.

My sermon from today.

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In the denomination I grew up in—a church that believed heavily in a radical conversion experiences much like the Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus—would sometimes tell us that family members might not approve of our conversions and call us weirdoes or “Jesus freaks” or “Holy Rollers.”  If they did, we were to hold onto that as a badge of honor.  And maybe we needed to let go of those family members and their concerns in order to be more focused on Jesus anyway.  We’d be reminded of Jesus saying that to follow him you needed to leave mother and father and sister and brother.

Nowadays when something like that happens—when an individual finds a church and pushes away their family members because they don’t share the same beliefs—I might have serious doubts about the church or the individual.  Partly because I think the gospel has a lot to say about community and relationships and how we are to deepen those connections, and partly because I still carry some baggage from that time in my life.

But then I encounter a text like the one we read this morning, and I can’t help but remember those times.  Before the part we just read, Jesus had entered a boat to stop the crowd from crushing him, and he left them on the shore.  When he made landfall, he went into the hills to officially call the Twelve, and then he made his way to this house.  Mark tells us that the crowd has been tracking him and finds him again.   And, we’re informed, Jesus family is getting worried.  They hear about all the commotion he is causing, and they try to get control, because others are talking about him.  “He’s crazy!” they hear.  “He isn’t the same Jesus we remember when we were growing up.  He’s gone mad.”  I guess they say this because he’s been healing people, and a great deluge of folks from all over—as far away from Jerusalem—are making the journey up to Galilee to hear his teachings and to be healed by him.  His mother and brothers hear about this and try to make it go away.  Maybe they’ve been hearing snide comments at the marketplace, “Is it really true what I’ve heard about your Jesus?  Is he really pretending to be a rabbi?  It’s too bad; he was such a nice boy.”  So they want to put an end to it.

And then the scribes jump on Jesus too.  “He’s possessed!” they claim, trying to make Jesus look ridiculous or evil.  They want the people to stop following him.  A smear campaign seems the best chance to do away with this one that they don’t understand.  Jesus is getting too popular and pushing much too hard on the acceptable norms, so they resort to flinging mud.

This isn’t the comfy sort of Christianity that we like to promote, is it?  It’s easier to overlook this, to see these interactions as flukes in our Gospel stories.  But Jesus is coming into conflict with his family and the religious authorities, and he is our example and forerunner, the very one we base our life on.

A friend of mine encouraged me to read Richard Rohr’s outstanding book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  Rohr, a Franciscan priest and frequent retreat leader, argues that many in our westernized culture never make it out of the first half of their lives, the part focused on identity and vocation and building a healthy ego.  He goes further by saying that many churches and clergy never get beyond this much either; sermons focus on calling and identity and making people feel good about themselves.  Additionally, because we often do such a poor job in the first half of our lives—maybe we had parents who never experienced the second half of life themselves, or we didn’t even know it existed, or possibly the circumstances of our lives left us in a state of arrested development—we often try to do it over again later in life.

Rohr’s main premise is that the second half of life can only begin through a major falling, a significant life change like a death or divorce, or a traumatic experience or failure.  When this happens—and he reminds us that we cannot make it happen, it just does, and it will—we have the opportunity to see that all of our life experiences leading up to this point was just introduction, it was only background.  The journey of forming, identity, vocation and whatnot was simply to create a container for the real story we have yet to embark upon.  The first half was necessary, of course, we couldn’t journey into the second half of life otherwise, and it must be done well.  But if we want to discover our true calling, the stuff that we were really sent here for, then we must enter into the second half of life even though we won’t want to.

He writes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.  Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources.  … [Y]ou will and you must ‘lose’ at something.  This is the only way that Life-Fate-God-Grace-Mystery can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey.  I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute in the spiritual literature of the world.”[1]

These are hard words, but I know them to be true in my own life.  I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago the difficulty I experienced in Colorado at the church I served there.  I didn’t give specifics because on one level it is not entirely my own story to tell, and on another I am always suspicious of clergy or leaders who badmouth some other community or person in order to make themselves look good.  But I can say with certainty that in that place far from home, I faced and experienced tremendous loss.  Had I known now what was to happen, I would have not gone willingly.  But God had other things in mind, and in fact Melissa and I felt with utmost certainty that God wanted us to go.  The call to leave New England and move across the country was unmistakably clear.

I said to Melissa earlier this week that what I faced there was the most difficult experience of my life.  Even harder than burying both of my parents.

As a priest I hear stories from people when they experience the great falling that Rohr talks about.  An ending of a relationship, a traumatic encounter, a significant problem with a child or a debilitating illness.  My inclination is to wish them out of it, or take away their pain or try to make things better.  But I can’t, really.  I can pray, which I do, but I can’t do much else other than to say that I hope they know God can redeem this situation.  But it means them reaching their limits—recognizing that they don’t have power to get through on their own.   Eventually God can use this experience and help them move toward the deeper calling in life that God has always had for them.

Because that’s what is really going in in this passage from Mark.  Notice Jesus’ response to all of these attacks on his character: he talks about how he isn’t from Beelzebul at all.  Rather he came to tie up the strong man, Satan himself, so that he could plunder Satan’s home.  Jesus is telling those scribes and family members what he’s really called to do.  The beginning part there in Nazareth, well that was all introduction and first half of life stuff.  It was necessary, to be sure; Jesus needed a strong family home and strong sense of himself.  But he wasn’t called to be a carpenter.  He was called to something much, much bigger.  And he needed to leave home for that.  And have a major event like his 40 days of fasting and being tempted by the devil.

We are called to so much more too.  But you won’t often hear about that in our society that wants to keep us happy so we keep living our lives as consumers.  And it’s hard to explain to family members and those we love who knew us back in our youth, especially when we seem to change course, or experience a major fall.  They don’t know how to respond, so they try to restrain us and bring us back to our senses.

Yet Jesus gives us unexpected hope.  Mark tells us that he’s in that house, and his mother and brothers have finally arrived, supposedly to come and take him away.  They send word in to him to let them know that they are here for him.  “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks.  And then looking at those around him, the ones desperate enough to follow him and seek his touch and to hear his stories and press in on him, he says, “They’re right here.  These are my mother and my brothers.  Whenever anyone does God’s will, they are my mother and brother and sister.”

God’s will.  These folks are doing the will of God in leaving their own homes to follow Jesus.  They are participating in God’s desire for their lives when they strike out and chase and push forward and soak it all in.  They themselves are well on their way to the second half of the spiritual life.  We can be too, if only we see in our misgivings and uncertainty and loss and failing the abiding redemption of God who yearns to have us embark on the true calling of our lives.   Jesus wants this for us.  He wants for us to truly engage in God’s will for our lives.  Can we do it no matter the cost?  Can we be among those he called brothers and sisters and mothers? Will we trust that when we are at our utter end, that God will be with us and give us the strength to go forward?


[1] Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey Bass, 2011.  Pg 65-66.