Texts for Preaching: “Courage” by Anne Sexton and Mark 3:2–35
Scroll to the end for the link to a YouTube video of this sermon
This may seem like a strange sermon
to preach to a bunch of old people —
and by old, I mean over 40.
Churches are more often than not,
composed of older folks these days.
And older folks tend to think of themselves
a lot of the psychological and emotional
skirmishes of youth.
But that is more the delusion
of people who control their own households
than it is factual.
Many, if not all of the issues
we were born with
are the ones we are going to die with.
we get to learn some things —
and if we are lucky, we learn
how to manage those issues
in such a way that we control them
more than they control us.
But they are life-long issues
and never solved. Never just go away forever.
At least that is my take on the human dilemma.
I start there
because the story we just hear from Mark
is so dang human.
I mean really, the pain of family conflict
between Jesus and his mother, brothers, and sisters
is so present and available to us in this story.
There is nothing high highfalutin
in this story,
it is down in the mud of human experience. I love it.
And if it was not stinging enough
in its immediacy,
Anne Sexton codifies
those childhood moments
in her poem, “Courage” —
which by the way, is as much about dying
as it is about living:
”…It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien…”
Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters,
the story says,
think Jesus is out of his freak’n mind.
They call him crazy.
Sit with that for a moment.
Let it backwash with all the Mariology
and sentimentalized folk theology
that has been told to you.
The family shows up
at the door of Jesus’ house
the story says.
Did you know Jesus had a house?
I’m betting it was solar powered too!
But the fact that Jesus had a house,
in the same way that you and I have a place
we call home,
also strays from the usual story-line.
As Mark tells it,
they arrive in force —
his brothers, sisters, and mother.
Oh, wait, Mary wasn’t a perpetual virgin?
I don’t know about you,
but if my mother, three sisters, and brother
had all showed up on my doorstep unannounced
with something, but I didn’t know what, in mind,
I would have been deeply concerned.
It turns out, Mark tells us,
they were there because they thought
he was “beside himself.”
Jesus’ own family thinks he is not in his right mind
and so they arrive to take him home.
Not to HIS home, he is already there,
but to the family compound.
You know, get him out of the public eye.
This little story from Mark
puts a hurt on several planks of the party-line.
First, it abuses the notion
that Jesus didn’t have and brothers and sisters.
Then it undercuts the romanticized relationship
between Jesus’ and his mom.
If nothing else,
Mark’s story reminds us that Jesus is not
a mathematical equation
or chemical formula
we can prove in the laboratory.
He is not a fact
we can reconstruct with historical certainty.
When one Gospel contradicts another Gospel
or argues with later Church theology and doctrine
we should take it as an indication
of our freedom.
This story is juicy for us because
every one of us knows what it is like
to have our family think we are nuts,
or mixed up, or confused.
You know, at the very moment
we feel utterly clear in our thinking
our family dismisses or rejects our judgment.
When that happens
we have to decide
whether to trust ourselves
or remain in the confines of our family’s approval.
It is an open secret
that members of the helping professions —
social workers, teachers, ministers, counselors, nurses, psychologists, politicians –
are often big approval-seekers.
We have a deep need or desire
for love and approval.
But the truth is, all of us
yearn and may even be desperate
for love and approval.
Many of us feel as if we did not get enough
love and approval
from family and authority figures
when we were children.
And that may be true,
but there is another aspect to love and approval
we often don’t think about:
love and approval
is both a giving and a receiving.
The fact we feel as though
we didn’t get enough as children
may say as much about our ability to receive
as it does about our parent’s and family’s ability to give.
Our families may have heaped approval upon us
but maybe we had a chink in our receptor
that kept us from absorbing it.
OR maybe we just wanted more
than is humanly possible to absorb.
Whatever the reason,
many of us either
don’t know how
or don’t know where
to fill up the tank
when it comes to love and approval.
And here is the larger point: we do not lose our thirst.
I am not telling you anything you don’t know,
or at least, I hope not.
The yearning for love and approval is like fear.
Only a certain kind of psychopath does not have fear.
The question is not how to get rid of fear,
but how to live with
and act, in spite of it.
when it comes to love and approval
we never stop wanting
or hoping for it.
The question is not
how to jettison our need
but how to stay true to ourselves
even at the risk
of losing those things
we thirst for
we cannot live without?
In other words, it is a management issue.
We will never live without desiring the love
and appreciation of others who we care about,
any more than we will be able to live without fear.
But we can manage it, like pain.
Can we get down to a 4 instead of an 8,
a 2 instead of a 6?
When circumstances cause our yearning
to shoot sky high like blood-pressure,
we can learn to do things
that gradually lowers it — manages it.
If we allow ourselves to be led
by a desperate desire that is impossible to satiate,
we will self-medicate our pain,
and fall into all manner of tragic unhappiness.
But when we can live within such moments
while standing clearly within ourselves;
and remain clear that the veil between humans
cannot truly be breached —
any more than the veil between us and God —
then we can reside more fully within our own skin.
And whether our skin is fresh and smooth
or wrinkled and sagging,
the yearning lives within us,
and the challenge to know peace and centeredness
Here is the great paradox about us humans:
Love and approval
actually derives from the inside out
rather than the outside in.
We want it from others so badly
but it comes first and foremost,
from within ourselves.
We never get to know
how Jesus dealt with the hurt of family rejection.
As the story goes,
he seems kind of dismissive,
maybe even a little vengeful,
when he asks his friends,
“Who is my mother, and brothers, and sisters?”
But I like to think he figured out
how to move beyond any initial hurt
from his family thinking he was crazy.
I like to imagine
that as he went on to endure
people showering him with love on the one hand,
and angry, rageful blame on the other,
he was able to live
from the inside out.
Being in a spiritual community
is not unlike being in a family.
Those needs and conflicts and yearnings
swirl around and within us
as much as our prayers and songs do.
Living within ourselves
with a kind of centeredness and peace —
so that we can live among others
with the same equanimity —
is a learning curve.
A learning that you and I
are still learning — and one will be learning
until we put on those carpet slippers
and stride out.