The Second Sunday after Pentecost (B)
June 7, 2015
On a Sunday morning many years ago, several teenagers in the congregation I was serving presented a skit, very much like we do here at Holy Trinity on Youth Sunday. They were portraying various characters in simple costumes which included wearing decorated paper bags over their heads. The congregation seemed to enjoy this unusual presentation. In a sense we were breaking new ground involving the youth in these leadership roles.
The service ended, and in the next few hours I made my way into the neighborhoods taking Holy Communion to elderly parishioners in their homes. As I rang the doorbell at one particular residence, I was greeted by a long-time member who was very distressed. “Come in,” she said, “I have just heard the news.” I sat down on her couch and asked, “What news?” She took a deep breath, and with her voice shaking she recounted the story of five or six hoodlums who had burst into the church that morning. No one knew them because they were disguised, wearing bags over their heads. Everyone was shocked. Even the rector was powerless to do anything until they finally left the building.
Now I took a deep breath and slowly, calmly told her the story of teenagers who presented a skit this morning at church based on the Gospel passage for the day. They wore colorful bags over their heads as part of their costume because they were portraying characters in the skit. All this had been carried out with the rector’s blessing, and he participated in the skit.
So we talked for a while. I asked her how she had heard about the service. She said, “Oh, there were several phone calls!” We reviewed the people who had phoned her, and we could track where the fantastic version of the story had originated. When I left, we both had a plan to phone those parishioners and let them know what really happened at church that morning.
It was Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and consultant to many synagogues and churches who first taught me that anxiety travels like electricity through a circuit. Anxiety reaches someone, for example in a series of phone calls, and that next person can act as a transformer. They either increase the current or bring it down. The person who reduces the anxiety in a system is known as “a non-anxious presence.”
Think about your own family of origin. That is where most of us learned about emotions and anxiety. That is where you and I first were taught how to handle or manage anxiety. Rabbi Friedman’s teacher was Murray Bowen, who went to the National Institute of Mental Heath in the 1950’s. At the time people who needed help in the mental health system were isolated and treated apart from others. Bowen had a different vision. He observed people in their family system. He found that the way all of us function in our family system provides powerful insight into the way we can grow and develop. Out of his research, family systems theory was developed.
And the cornerstone concept in family systems theory is called differentiation of self. This is our capacity to develop solid self and to respond to others out of deeply held principles and values. Togetherness is important to all of us. As you and I seek togetherness, we also know our own mind especially when our position is different from others.
Let us use some of these family systems concepts as we look at the Gospel passage today found in Mark 3:20-35. Let us wonder whether anxiety is present in the people in this scene. First, look at the number of groups in the scene. The first is the crowd, and we see that this crowd is dominating the setting, making it difficult for people to function. That is often a characteristic of a crowd, pressing people together and making it difficult to navigate. Within that crowd and affected by the crowd, we find Jesus and his disciples. Then we find another group. It is Jesus’ family. They want to restrain Jesus. Why? Because “people” are saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” Whenever I hear the phrase “people are saying,” I pay close attention. I wonder who the people are and how they are forming their opinions.
Next we find the scribes or religious authorities who have come from Jerusalem. They are there to condemn Jesus, and they do so by claiming that his deeds of mercy, especially acts of healing, are being accomplished through the power of Satan. They are raising serious questions about our Lord’s integrity by these accusations.
With these multiple potential sources of anxiety, notice how Jesus handles himself. First, he addresses the scribes, speaking to them using stories and logic. He refutes their accusation soundly and solidly, using very few words. Jesus is simply being clear about himself. He is a teacher.
Next he addresses the question of family. Word has reached him again that his own family is seeking him. He clarifies his focus at this moment. He is engaged in teaching. Perhaps we can identify by remembering a time in our own life when someone in our family was insistent that we drop what we are doing and respond to their needs. How do we respond at moments like this? Jesus is not rejecting his family. He remains focused on his mission and focused on doing God’s work.
The Gospel reveals the way our Lord defines himself in the midst of a world that is pulling him in many different ways. He stays in touch with those around him, carrying out his work with calm, steady determination. Christians benefit from family systems thinking because it asks us to look at the whole system, not just individuals. It teaches us to observe emotional process between groups. The family unit is the basic unit for all of us. Murray Bowen, Edwin Friedman, and the various teachers of family systems theory encourage us to keep learning within our families. Family systems theory also teaches us that the person in the system we can change is ourselves.
I remember a time before a particularly difficult Diocesan Convention when the clergy were very concerned about conflict in the diocesan community. Many of us were afraid the diocese might split. A group of about twenty clergy were meeting with a family systems facilitator just before the convention weekend, and we sought his counsel. We told him about our concerns and asked him what we might do. He smiled and said quietly, “I would advise each of you to go home before the convention and call your mother. And if she is not living or not available to you, call someone in your family who has mothered you.”
I remember going home and chatting with my mother. She is the person in our extended family who calls us together and cares for us. Thanks be to God that our diocesan community made it through that difficult convention. Amen.