Mansplaining Jesus

Sermon preached at Christ Chapel, Seminary of the Southwest
Mark 6:1-6
February 3, 2016

Open our ears, O Lord,
to hear your word and know your voice.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills,
that we may serve you today and always. Amen

I have a love/hate relationship with today’s Gospel reading.

On the one hand, it is a great “epiphany” story that shows us one way Jesus revealed himself and his mission. It shows him returning home in a position of authority and facing a tough audience. And then when Plan A doesn’t go well, he gets entrepreneurial with his ministry and implements Plan B. “Then he went about among the villages teaching.” He took his disciples and his good news out to the rest of the world…

On the other hand, this story is also revealing about the people who “know Jesus best,” the people who saw him grow from a boy to a man, who know his family and the kind of work he does. Sometimes, this story is called “The Rejection of Jesus in Nazareth.” To me it feels a little different from rejection.

Jesus’ hometown friends and relations are not rejecting his ideas, the content of his preaching. They don’t even outright send him packing. What they do instead is dismiss him, cut him down to size, put him in his place. They are condescending to him.

*****

Now, there is a lot that might make a seminarian like me feel right at home with Jesus in this story. After all, I will be an inheritor of the itinerant ministry he started after this hometown debacle. Like the original disciples, we modern day disciples follow Jesus into places where his message might get a hostile – or at least dubious – reception. We are armed with authority to preach. And like them, we will very likely have to be ready with a Plan B and a Plan C, because in the church today, Plan A is already not working as well as it should.

Like Jesus’ disciples, we are sent from here and from our home parishes to take the Good News to communities of strangers, new parishes, new towns, perhaps even new states. We won’t be going back to the places that know us best.

So, there is a lot here to identify with. A lot that might validate us as followers of Jesus who are active in the church and know a lot more about him than your average person on the street.

I really love the story for all of that. It makes me feel inspired and relieved to know that Jesus and his disciples took this message out into the big scary world, to new people, to strangers.

*****

But I said I have a love/hate relationship with this story and here is the part that challenges me. That’s a nice way to put it. Here’s the part that rubs me the wrong way and makes me feel really uncomfortable:

If Jesus has a hometown in the 21st Century, with friends and relations who “know him better than your average person on the street” – it is the church. And maybe even worse, it might be a seminary like this one. Who thinks they know Jesus better than we do? Who knows more about authority in the church, knows who can and should teach?

How often do we, and the church as a whole, say things like…
-      You don’t have the authority to say that.
-      We don’t do it that way here.
-      In Nazareth they said: “Where did this man get all this?”
-      “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”
-      In the South, we might simply say, “Bless her heart.”

If this story makes me want to identify with the disciples who followed Jesus home and were willing to follow him out to the villages. It also makes me admit that I am like some of those hometown folks, at least sometimes.

*****

One of the humbling things about the Incarnation is that in Jesus, God assumes all of human experience, even the most painful, humiliating parts of it. And with the reaction he gets in Nazareth, the painful human experience I see Jesus enduring is that he is being mansplained.

I am betting that many of you know what mansplaining is – and have even experienced it yourself. But if you are lucky enough not to know, here is a definition:

Mansplaining is explaining something to someone – usually a man explaining to a woman – in a condescending and patronizing way. And it is explaining something without regard for the fact that the one being explained to knows more about the subject that the explainer.

(If you have never been mansplained, I bet you might have been teensplained. Or toddler-splained. For many of us, it is part of the human condition.)

Writer Rebecca Solnit – who is one of the people credited with first articulating this phenomenon – says that mansplaining comes from a sense of both overconfidence and cluelessness. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me, documents a fabulous case in which, after introducing herself as the author of a book about high-speed motion photography and technology in late 19th C. America (which is a pretty niche subject) her new acquaintance interrupted her and began holding forth on the topic himself, telling her she really should read a definitive new book on the subject. The book she herself had written. And told him about.

This is a pretty much how the synagogue in Nazareth treated Jesus when he taught them. The hometown folks in Nazareth are both overconfident and clueless, they think they know who he is and what he is capable of, and so they have limited what they are willing to hear from him.

When we identify with the disciples and Jesus in this story, it is because we’ve been dismissed and put down, too. People who know what to expect of us don’t want to hear or see anything else.

But we also do it to others. Individually and collectively as the church, we dismiss people – not because of what they say, but because of who we think they are. We do it to individuals and to whole communities. Dismiss them. Reject their preaching. Condescend to their witness. Refuse to see Christ in them.

We do a lot of ‘splaining in the church. We ‘splain to women. And to various ethnic groups. We ‘splain to people whose “way of being” in the world doesn’t give them authority to teach us because they are poor or gay or deaf or carpenters. We ‘splain to youth a lot.

There is a lot of fret in the church about America becoming a nation of unbelievers, that in the realm of religious belief, the “nones” (those with no particular religious affiliation) are the fastest growing segment of the population. But one lesson in today’s story is that it might not be “nones” who are the most resistant and unwelcoming to Jesus’ and his disciples– it might be the people who claim to be the closest, it might be hometown folks. Like us.

The Gospel says Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.” That is, he was amazed at the unbelief of a congregation of believers. Their unbelief was not a matter of rejecting the content of Jesus’ message. Their unbelief was their inability to see or hear the message from a well-known but unexpected source.

-      “Where did this man get all this?”
-      “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”

There is a lot about Jesus and his ministry that is outside of what was expected. Familiar, but surprising. But the people in Nazareth could only see what they expected to see. Do we have the same problem? Do we “already know” what Jesus has to say about the problems we face every day? Do we really already know everything the teachings of our tradition?

For those of us inside the church, the disciples and the hometown folks (most of us are both) the challenge is to share the Good News in the villages outside our comfort zone. For those of us inside the church, the challenge is also to learn the Good News from people we think we know well – people who might surprise us if we’d let them.

And sometimes, the one who might surprise us the most is Jesus himself.

Amen.

Love’s Banquet

Once, she sipped from the cup we all shared
Now, we gather round the same table without her
Yet with her, in her memory
Table extended, chairs added
An overflow crowd of lives touched
This banquet is a foretaste
And even in grief, we can taste the sweetness
of the next cup we will share

__________________________________________
This weekend, I went to the funeral for a woman I knew at my former parish. There were a mix of people – some I knew, some I did not – all of us connected because of Cynthia and her daughter. I was asked to read one of the lessons and here is what Isaiah told us:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The first reading at the funeral was about rejoicing at a lavish banquet. It makes you take another look at your surroundings to hear words like that. On the way into the service, I was ready to share grief with everyone else there. The sense of loss was there, but there was also a palpable sense of abundance. It was more than the number of chairs in the room (and we had to keep adding because more and more people came) and more than the cookies eaten at the reception afterwards. The abundance came from all of us together being more than the sum of our parts. That’s what love does.

 

A little community

Ball moss isn’t really moss. It is an air plant that lives off of humidity and dust, water and soil – the same stuff of which I am made. These botanical spheres seem self-sufficient,  they don’t really need any other plants for their survival. Yet, they usually live in trees. Maybe they do it for the company. That little ball of thin leaves is really a community of plants holding tightly to each other, and also shooting out long-stemmed flowers to share themselves with the wider world. Island plants that are really not islands at all.

I’ve been using a different lens lately to consider human nature. One view I’m seeing is the nature of our physical selves – humans are both corporal and corporate. We are separate bodies and connected communities – at the same time. You and I can’t be truly human without being both. Our nourishment comes not only from water and soil, but also from holding tightly together and sending our blossoms out to the wider world. It’s how we are made and what we are made for.

Feather Finder

My daughter is a feather finder. She loves feathers and finds them wherever she goes. Some are fancy enough to bring home, but most are pretty common and stay where they’ve landed on the grass or in bushes or along sidewalks. Whether she keeps them or not, she looks at them closely, because she loves them. And if you love something, it is worth some examination.

Over the weekend, she held my hand as we walked our dog around the block. It is a walk I’ve taken a thousand times before and I feel like I know it pretty well – the pavement, the neighbors’ houses, the pitch of the hills. On every walk, I compile a to-do list in my head and usually miss the nature and the neighbors. On my own, I know what lies along the route, but I don’t see it.

It is a different walk with my daughter, because she is a feather finder. We can talk about anything in the world, but because she cares about feathers, she will notice them. They are actually right there in plain sight for anyone to see – anyone who seeks them, anyone who cares about them. She finds feathers even when she isn’t looking for them because she is attuned to feathers. They find her.

What am I missing on these walks? While my mind is wandering far away, what is my heart missing? If I hold my daughter’s hand a little more often, will she tether me to the moment and help me see beauty and meaning there?

 

What I am learning

I’ve been reading some great books this summer and watching some great videos – all part of my chaplaincy training. (None of them are pictured above, but look at those titles!) The material and the discussions are changing the way I experience my encounters with just about everyone, not just patients, and also helping me develop skills to better listen and respond to people’s needs – spoken and unspoken. Check it out:

Wit – We watched the HBO movie adaptation of the play, featuring the incomparable Emma Thompson and the amazing Audra McDonald. This movie was a crash course in empathy in a medical setting. Heartbreaking.

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s project is to have us rethink the way we use language, thinking, and judgments. The four components of nonviolent communication are observations of what is actually happening, identifying the feelings present in the situation (and what real feelings are), articulating the needs  connected to those feelings, and the actions we can take to address the real needs people have. It sounds simple, but it isn’t! Most of us have learned a totally different way to handle communication and conflict, and this book presents a totally new approach.

Extraordinary Leadership, by Roberta Gilbert. This book takes family systems theory and applies it contexts particular to clergy – but really the principles can apply to any organization. It is nearly impossible for me to boil the theory down here, but we’ve learned a lot about the anxiety that is present in all human interactions, the roles we all learn to play in our families of origin – and how those roles are recreated in other relationships (social, professional, etc.), and how leaders can help the organizations they serve navigate the chaos and emotional intensities that inevitably arise when people live, work, and worship together.

Brené Brown. No particular book, just her entire project! I am a big fan of Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability – and wholehearted living. But I always thought about it in terms of my own life – my particular sources of shame and vulnerability, the risks I am willing to take. Now, I am learning to think about these concepts as I meet, listen to, and minister to strangers.

And then there are the amazingly wise chaplains who have taught us from their own experience. Today, our whole group of chaplain interns gathered at the feet of a woman who opened the discussion with a quote from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

It is true. At a hospital, almost everyone feels broken in one way or another; most people feel extraordinarily vulnerable and imperfect, hopeless and isolated. But there is light in their troubles, in their wounds, in their mortality. There is light in their relationships and anxieties, in the words and silences we share. Once in a while, sitting with people I’ve only just met, there is a glimpse of these rays of light shining thru the cracks. What seemed like utter brokenness becomes an occasion of grace and blessing. It is those moments that illuminate all the others, the occasions into which light yet to find its way.

Books and discussions help me identify the miracles that can happen when I truly listen, when I am utterly present with another person. But nothing replaces the experience of begin with another when the light gets thru the cracks in their life, when they experience hope in their desolation, when they know love while they are feeling most isolated. If I experienced nothing else this summer, this has been more than enough.

Mountains in my mind

At about this point every summer of my life, I start dreaming of getting away from the hot Texas sun and my hectic job for a place that is cooler and calmer. And for almost every summer of my life, that place has been the North Carolina mountains. As a child, moving from city to city following my father’s medical education and career, the family ties in the Blue Ridge helped me feel connected to people and a place. When I am there, I sense the spiritual power of community, rest, and the renewable baptism of jumping in an ice cold lake.

Hike around Kanuga Lake

My mother came to visit me in Texas earlier this summer, and during her stay she asked some of us where we’d want to travel if we could go anywhere in the world. I searched my mind, but North Carolina was the only place I wanted to be. It is so full of good memories and has played such a huge role in making me who I am. It is family, tradition, creativity, love, connection, and blessing. It is one place that will always be home to me.

This summer, I am not able to make that annual pilgrimage. I’ll be working until the last week before school starts and won’t get the chance to dash off for a peek of those beautiful peaks or a walk through a tunnel of trees or a late night on a back porch full of friends.

For now, those mountains will have to be in my dreams. And they are.

Warm Words

One of the blessings of being immersed in a completely new role (hospital chaplaincy) and unfamiliar situations (other people’s grief and loss) is that it allows me to see my own life in a new way. The frame of reference I used to have raising funds to address systemic issues is now replaced with work on a more personal level. When you stand with people in their times of crisis, you can see connections between their pain and your fears, between their comfort in memories and your unfolding story, between their response to extraordinary heartache and your everyday life.

My colleague Mike recently used a moving image to describe a moment when family members were gathered around a dying loved one. They said their goodbyes by “covering him in a warm blanket of words.” I imagined their words holding precious memories of the past, and also being part of the narrative of their family going forward, keeping the lost one wrapped together with them. Words allowed them to express themselves individually and also to articulate the bond that held them together.

This image has stuck with me for days. It speaks to more than just one family’s pain or even of grief. Words connect us to one another, they carry memories and bear emotion. While touches and looks have immediacy, words can connect people through time and across distances. They can bind entire cultures…or individual families. And so, the image of this family’s warm blanket of words connects their particular experience to any of us when we use words or allow them to land on our shoulders.

As a writer, the idea of words being a warm blanket is inspiring and a little scary. I want my words to comfort…or carry the emotion I intend. But once words leave your mouth or pen or keyboard, you can’t really control how others take them in. I hope when I tuck my daughter in at night my words are a warm blanket for her. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that no matter how warm my words seem to me, they probably grate on the ears of my teenage son. I know the stories I tell my children about their deceased grandparents keep those forebears enfolded in our family. If that is how my words can touch people I know – how might my words (or yours) be felt by others? People you don’t ever see or know? Words can have a life of their own.

Even on a summer night, it is nice to imagine thoughts, memories, and emotions enveloping you. Wrapping you in relationship. Holding you in community. Like a warm blanket.

Joy v Happiness

I’ve heard about the difference between joy and happiness, but this summer, I am learning it personally.

Happiness comes from outside yourself – good fortune, wealth, life running smoothly. But this summer I am with people who are in the midst of crises and lives that have hit rough spots. None of them are happy about it, but some of them do have joy. It can be almost tangible, the sense they exude of peace and contentment, even when they are suffering.

Joy comes from within, it is part of a person’s essence. Both theologians and psychologists describe this capacity that people have (or don’t) to rise above tough times, to be resilient, to find meaning in their circumstances.

I cannot give anyone joy – although perhaps I can give them happiness from time to time – but I hope I can help them honor, discover, or recover the joy within them. I know that they do it for me. Sometimes watching joy sustain a person in pain touches a place of joy in me and reminds me to nurture this inner resource.