I am delighted to yield this space today to the Rev. Casey Wait, pastor, storyteller, and painter. She currently serves as pastor of John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Annandale, Virginia. You can reach Casey on Twitter @caseyfitzgerald or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can see her paintings by visiting www.caseypaints.com or listen to her tell stories at www.storydivine.com .
Mark 3: 20-35
20Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”
22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”
23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.”30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”
31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”
The legal experts were angry. Jesus had been healing and casting out demons. His power was a threat to their authority. They needed to change the narrative, to exert control, to keep his influence at a minimum. They needed to set the system right. They met him in that crowded house, accusing him of being possessed himself. How else could he know so well how to rid the demon-possessed of their demons?
The legal experts weren’t the only ones concerned about the unfolding scene, nor the threat to the systemic status quo. Jesus’ own family sought to intervene. A mother worries when her son isn’t getting enough food. I imagine she also worries when he’s accused of having demonic powers. It was time to intervene on his behalf. Adding to the crowd, the family comes to extract Jesus from his present predicament.
Jesus, it’s totally great to preach the good news, but probably better to preach the good news from a safe distance.
Jesus, it’s better to be gentler and alive, than brazen and dead.
In this way, like the legal experts, the anxious family also seeks to set the system “right.” But when the crowd points out the presence of his family, Jesus responds with a stinging rebuke. ““Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
In the past, I’ve read this text and assumed its primary function was to point out the larger “family” of God’s people. That seemingly innocuous surface reading takes some of the sting of the rejection away. Taking some of the sting away is a long-standing tradition of readers of scripture, allowing for our own comfort in “understanding.” It allows us to claim faithfulness without requiring transformation. It feels much better than the alternative. Taking the sting away is often part of the unspoken contract between preachers and congregations. There is an expectation that we choose safe readings of the text over ones that cause us lingering discomfort.
Preachers who violate that contract more often than not find themselves on the receiving end of concerned or angry texts, emails, phone calls, and parking lot discussions. The church system does not like the threat of change, and proceeds to try to “right” the system accordingly. Jesus’ family cannot seem to bear the pain that inevitably accompanies communal transformation. More often than not, neither can our congregational families. Almost as often, neither can we.
We have two choices when the system pushes back:
1) We can choose to see the pushback we receive, the anxious and/or angry responses, as signs that things are not going well. We might feel shamed by accusations that we have not led with empathy, that we have preferred division over unity in our rhetoric. We will no doubt feel the grief that comes with angry, anxious, and hurting congregants. Subsequently, we may be tempted to lean into our own anxiety, anger, and fear. We’ll be gentler next week. We will return to the comfort of the systemic status-quo.
2) We can choose to see the pushback we receive, the anxious and/or angry responses, as signs that we are living into our call. The call to be gospel truth-tellers comes a cost. We see this firsthand in scripture. Jesus’ mother and family were well-intentioned. They were faithful. They were trying to keep him safe. It can be argued that Jesus’ fellow religious leaders were also well-intentioned. Jesus’ words and actions show us time and again that bearing the good news does not mean keeping the system comfortable. While faithful leadership often requires the ability to tolerate loneliness and heartache, most of us did not take up the call with this in mind, nor with any desire to cultivate such a leadership skill. When there is anxiety in the system, everything in the church system will try to correct for the shift. A system always seeks to maintain its current state of equilibrium, whether or not it is a healthy one. Many well-intended church folks will ask us to choose kindness and “unity” over gospel.People will threaten to leave our churches. Some of them will. They will sometimes be people we deeply love, and wish would stay. Sometimes, they will be our bigger givers. Even our biggest supports may start to voice their concern about the pastor-church relationship. We will be accused of all manner of failures, some of the accusations may even hold truth. Our inner voice may join in the chorus of complaint. We are human, too. Systemic status quo is universally tempting. But what if we chose to see all of these systemic pushbacks as possible signs of God’s transformative work in us?
This Sunday, many preachers in predominantly white churches will draw from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, lifting up his critique of the profound failure of white moderate churches. For some congregations, it will be an excusable violation of the general preacher-congregation-comfort-contract. Even annoyed and angry members will count on this being a once-a-year uncomfortable sermonic experience. I pray we have the strength to further violate and dismantle that contract. I pray we are able to tolerate our own pain around the transformative work. If we can’t tolerate our own pain in the process, we will not be able to tolerate the pain required for systemic transformation. The good (and hard) news is that opportunity for the work of transformation will never stop presenting itself.
The last year has been a particularly lonely time to be a pastor, but I pray you will know that you are not alone. When we lift up our voices to stand for all God’s people, we join the chorus of the saints. When pastors of white churches stand faithfully in the tension of systemic change, they join their Black and brown siblings, who’ve done this work by necessity all along. When any of us does this work, we join our leadership with Jesus’.
May we be faithful enough to tolerate the pain of transformation.
Posted by the Rev. Sharon M. Temple who is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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