5 Epiphany B, 2018: Squeezed Between Mom & Mother-in-Law

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Sermons

Find the Gospel text from Mark at this link: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//texts.php?id=64

This sermon
is about the healing nature of tension.
Yes, you heard that correctly:
the healing nature of tension.

I begin with the small tension I had to navigate
between the ways of my mother-in-law
and those I was raised with, by my mom.

I was raised in a feminist household
even though my mother would never
have used that word,
and she exhibited the inner conflict
of a divided mind
when any of her three daughters
voiced overt feminism.

In our house,
unlike many of my friends and neighbors,
each child took a turn at every chore, the work
was mostly gender-neutral.
In spite of herself and her generation,
my mom was a natural feminist.
The boys cooked and washed dishes
along with the girls,
and the girls emptied garbage,
shoveled snow and cut grass
along with the boys.

When my parents got married,
sometime in the late 1930’s,
my mom instructed the Episcopal priest
to remove from the 1928 prayer book ceremony,
the words from the bride’s vow: “and obey.”
While she did not consider
editing the prayer book like that a feminist action,
she was a feminist by nature.
So, it is impossible for me
to read this story about Simon’s mother-in-law,
and not critique it
from the lens my mom helped give me.

I mean the poor woman is deathly ill
and up she jumps to start serving dinner!
Two thousand years of patriarchal preaching
has told us that Simon’s mother-in-law
was exhibiting pious devotion
in her desire to serve Jesus.
But in fact, she was being reactionary
to the circumstances of her day,
in which she was obligated
by rigid convention to serve her guests.

The better story, one might argue today,
would have had Jesus take Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand –
AND she would have also been given a name
instead of just, “mother-in-law” –
and bring her to sit next to him at the table.

To make this story personal
with a personal tension,
my mother-in-law, Mary,
for many years placed me in the tension
of Mark’s story.

You see, when Katy and I were courting,
and for years and years after we were married,
her mother would not let me near
the kitchen sink,
or stove,
or anywhere else
work needed to be done.

Given my upbringing,
Mary’s refusal to allow me to help
was very disconcerting.

What you also need to know about Mary,
as loving and sweet as she is,
you don’t mess with her.
My mother-in-law is every bit as strong
and determined
as my mom ever was,
only in a quieter and sometimes
scarier way.

It was not until we started having
our own children,
who then often occupied Mary’s arms,
that I could sneak to the sink
and start doing dishes
without being shooed away.

So, I relate to Simon’s mother-in-law
as someone who might actually have insisted
on the role of host and care-giver
the way my mother-in-law has always done.

Peter’s mother-in-law may have chosen it
even if she was free to do otherwise,
because some people really do like and believe
that radical hospitality is a core value.

In fact, I see radical hospitality
as the cornerstone of Jesus’ community.
I suspect Jesus of seeing
in Simon’s mother-in-law,
something of himself.
I suspect Jesus of harboring
radical hospitality as his anchor
because he chose,
when others around him did not,
to host an open table for feasting.

His choice to host an open table
was the source of accusations
that he was nothing more than a party boy.

They ridiculed him for ribald dinner parties
in which he ate with socially and morally
unacceptable people.
We know the litany:
tax collectors,
and a disheveled assortment
of reputationally-challenged,
debauched low-life’s.

I mention it
because valuing inclusion
is not new to the 21st century.
Practicing radical hospitality
is not counter-intuitive for Christians
even if it is not what we are known for.
It is right there at the very heart of our story,
in the very beginning
and everywhere we look
and listen to the gospel.
So, it is even stranger
that we became so obsessed with exclusion,
limits, and litmus tests on purity and beliefs.

We have this great and gregarious
standard of behavior
in which we are expected to host
a radically open table
with food,
and feasting,
and a joyful, spirited
communion of friends.

The spiritual community, when it is
vibrantly hospitable,
is a healing organism.
It works for the healing of those held within it
and sometimes even for those around it.
But healing is a fragile process,
and can be corrupted in any number of ways.

One of the primary ways spiritual community
becomes corrupted,
is when it succeeds in doing away
with the tensions within it.

There are plenty of sad and tragic of examples
of spiritual communities gone wrong
that may have begun with healing
but morphed into something else.
David Koresh and the Branch Davidians,
as well as Jim Jones and Johnstown,
are well-known examples
of spiritual communities that began
with healing in their wings
but crashed and burned.

They are examples, at least in part,
of a community that militantly jettisoned
the traditions in which they were rooted.
Then, without an anchor, they became
a lopsided horror crashing as a free-floating radical
to a dead fall.

Spiritual community,
as with individual spiritual practice,
requires rootedness in a tradition
bigger than itself.
It requires the wisdom of the ancients,
and traditions of elders,
and customs and rituals
handed down generation to generation.

But likewise, and here is the tension,
there are many examples
of historic spiritual communities that ossified
as they resisted with power and determination
the currents of change within them.
Even as rootedness is vital,
so is the energy of adaptation,
and the movement of new visions
struggling to be heard within the urge
for preservation.

When preservation becomes all-encompassing
and a rigid limitation on possibility,
there appears on the horizon
a period at the end of that tradition.

Take the Shakers, for example,
but also what has been happening to many
Mainline Protestant congregations
including Episcopal ones.
The spirituality of the community
hardens and dies
long before the congregation
finally closes its doors.
This happens
when preservation dominates
at the cost of all the other energies
that would enliven it.

Paradoxically, it is the tension
between these two competing urges
that feeds vibrancy and heals.

Both the historic community
and the current one,
are more than the sum of their parts.
Past and present
must hold in tension
the currents of change
and the energies of adaptation
and the movement of new visions.

At the same time, the drive
and will for preservation,
must be willing to hold the reigns of connection
between yesterday and tomorrow.

It is a furious tension than must not break.
It is a tension that must actually be nurtured.

If preservation decimates innovation
or innovation erases
the desire for preservation,
the healing nature of spiritual community
is gone with the wind.
It sounds counter-intuitive, I know,
but remove the tension
between preservation and innovation,
and the organism shrivels.

The healing community
is the one that stops seeking
to resolve the tension,
or to break the tension,
or end the tension
and instead,
learns to fly with the energy of that tension.

The healing community
is pulled forward by the currents of adaptation
and also anchored by the love of preservation.
That tension does its healing work on us
and sometimes,
if we’re really fortunate,
it migrates out to those around us.
It is almost miraculous.
This tension we really do not like
and would not invite, is
the source of healing in our wisdom.
The Gospel of Mark is a veritable cookbook
of the tensions that heal.

I mentioned Mark’s “Messianic Secret” last week,
and it is one of the most profound tensions
in his recipe for healing.

In Mark’s gospel, the good guys –
Jesus’ family and friends –
are precisely the ones
who do not understand him.
Meanwhile the bad guys –
the demons, the Romans,
and the religious authorities –
are actually well aware of who Jesus is
and how dangerous he is to their self-interests.

Throughout the Gospel of Mark,
bad guys tell the reader who Jesus is
and what his mission is,
while good guys reject the news
and try to hold Jesus back
from what he came to do.

The tension of this Messianic Secret
represents that tension within us.

If we are honest about it,
the angels of our darker nature
know well, and fear, Jesus;
while the angels of our better nature
often wrongly assume
they are best-buds with Jesus,
even though they do not really know him.

But there are other tensions in Mark
in addition to the Messianic Secret.

Jesus is the celebrity
who everyone wants to touch
and be touched by.
In tension with this desire
on the part of the masses,
is Jesus’ desire to run away to be alone.
We heard it in today’s story.

Jesus is the host of a community
that energizes him, yet it is his deep thirst
for solitude that grounds him.

He is a healer who cures
the blind, the lame, and the possessed
but what he really wants to do,
his mission,
is to preach and teach.
He is pulled by his passion (to preach)
and tugged by his com-passion (to heal)
Tension, tension, tension.

Such niggling tensions
are not only annoying but they are healing too.
Not only are they healing, but
they are absolutely necessary
if we are going to be a healing community.
Without such tensions, we shrivel
or worse, darken and explode.

Honest to God, I do not know why
tension is so integral to healing,
but I do know,
as sure as I know anything,
that such tensions are the source of healing.

And so, these and other tensions,
are sewn into the lining of our worship.
Allow me to offer a few examples.

Our worship is designed to hold the tension
between private and corporate,
personal and communal,
introverted and extroverted.
It is designed to be a tension
rather than remove tensions.
Lose the tension,
and we lose the quality and value
inherent in our worship tradition.

Think about it.
We enter this place
as a chaotic bunching of individuals
and individual households.
We come from north, south, east, and west,
literally, through those big wooden doors.
The funneling through those doors,
or the smaller one over there,
symbolically squeezes us into the same place.

For some, the thirst is for that “quiet, deserted place,” while for others, it is
an extroverted gathering of friends and colleagues they haven’t seen
for a whole week or more.

The Prelude is for gathering,
and allows both the personal and communal.
In many congregations there is a power struggle
between those who want absolute quiet
as people gather, while others,
often parents, want a more welcoming embrace.

Then comes the Opening Hymn
in which we sing together.
Singing is a communal enterprise –
whether we can barely be heard
or we are that person belting it out back there.
The organ and choir weave us together –
the virtuoso and the demure mumbler.

Then the opening prayer, collect, or call to worship, invites our attention
to a common theme.
We are being coaxed
and pulled and tended into
a communal herd.

But then we sit and listen.

We immediately drift back into our private selves
as we listen or allow our minds to wander
through the readings and sermon.
The “Centering Song” or a hymn
calls us back into the communal,
but we are always wandering away into the private
as soon as the music is over.

Then the prayers come along after the sermon.
It is an awkward meshing of
togetherness and separateness.

We are put in the position of placing
personal and private prayers
right alongside those of a bunch of other people
whose prayers we may not like,
or care about,
or think are the right prayers.
That group-praying thing
really teases up the tensions,
especially when people get bold enough
to name their prayers out loud.

But again, we get called back into the corporate
by being asked to say together
an Affirmation of Faith.
Now there is a tension if ever there was one.
“We believe…” is a huge presumption
in our highly individualistic and literalistic culture.
My god is not a “Father,”
and your god may not be a “son” or “Holy Ghost.”
We may even stumble over
the more contemporary Affirmations.
But there we are, yammering out loud
with a bunch of other people
what “We” say we believe
but that “I” may not believe.

Then, abruptly, as if from nowhere,
comes the onslaught of The Peace!
Holy cow,
suddenly we are pulled into an excessively extroverted moment, whether or not
we are introverts.

It is also a difficult test of our hospitality.

Do we take pains
to greet people we do not know,
or do we seek the comfort of those we do,
or simply not decide
and wait to see who comes over to us?

Then music again,
pulling us back from chaos
into a common voice.
It also covers over
the tension of those dang plates.
Everyone is free to come here
and yet really coming here,
really being invested and part of the community,
costs us.
It turns out, we are open
but not free.

Then we arrive at the tension
that cuts deeply into Communion.
It is the most awkward combination
of private and communal.
Is communion about me
or is it about us?
Is it my meal or it is our meal?
Is it about what I believe is happening
or what we believe is taking place?
Can I be fully a part of what is going on
even if I choose not to receive communion?
Do I have to eat that bread
if I have an allergy,
or do I have to drink that wine
if I do not drink alcohol,
or simply don’t want to put my lips
on a common cup?
It is never quite clear
and the answer can change from week to week…
even moment to moment.
Communion is a narrow balance beam
with one foot on “we” and the other foot on “me.”

Finally, in the end,
we go out as We into the world,
as We to change the world,
but when we leave
it feels like me who is leaving,
because you are not with me
and either is We.
So, if you feel any of those tensions…Good!
We are supposed to.
It is not supposed to be a private experience only.
It is not supposed to be a communal event only.
It is both/and
and it is the very tension
that nurtures us.

The veil we hope is lifted from time to time,
is lifted amidst the tension.
The face of God we seek in private prayer,
will come to us in the face of another.
The communion we seek in intense fellowship,
will take place when we least expect it
in the extraordinary aloneness of our own heart.

The tension heals us,
and the tension ensures the spiritual community
will be a healing one.