Divided: Psalm 138 and Mark 3:20-35
As you may know, most weeks, I decide my sermon title, which helps guide my sermon research, some time on Tuesday. It usually has something to do with what catches my attention in the scripture or seems timely. After hearing our reading from Mark, where Jesus butts heads with scribes, is at odds with his birth family, is accused of being a demon, and redefines family, I bet you can understand why the image of the "house divided against itself" caught my attention. Have you heard a scripture that is a more apt description of the angst that many Americans are feeling right now? Powerful people saying one guy is possessed, not just wrong, but possessed by a demon, mostly because he has the gall to disagree with them. The same guy's family is really worried about him and comes to take him home. When they come to see him, he completely blows them off. Not only that, he said that their claim on him as birth family wasn't really all that important. He looked at his siblings, his mama... the woman who risked her life to give him birth... and he said that his real family was someone else. This guy, Jesus, an upstart preacher from a nowhere town, decided to upturn and reorganize two of the most important institutions in his culture, religion and family, and he was causing a lot of trouble while doing it. On Tuesday, with the divisions in our current culture on my mind, this seemed like a scripture worth preaching on.
And, then, sometime Thursday afternoon, while I was working on the class I'm taking right now, I came upon this list of practical things to do when you feel overwhelmed. We are almost at the end of the first eight weeks of the coursework. Most of what we've been talking about is doing the stuff Jesus was doing in this part of Mark: reorganizing and reorienting our important institutions to better reflect Christ's priorities. We've been talking alot about how we can be coworkers with God to address the most critical issues of our time. That's what Jesus did in his time. It's the work we continue in ours. Brian McLaren, our teacher for this part of the course, argues that the most pressing issues of the day center around three major areas of concern: environmental stewardship, ridding the world of poverty, and fostering peace on national and international level. The fourth area of concern guides our response to the first three: how do we cultivate religious communities that, as the author of Mark might put it, "do the will of God" in caring for the earth and our neighbors.
As you can imagine, between the news that I read, the interactions I participate in, and the information presented in my class, I can get overwhelmed by the scope of the problems that I am navigating as a person of faith. I have a hunch that I am not the only one who has had this feeling. I think Brian knows this happens, too. That's why he had a whole lecture lined up for us about it. He knows the weight of the information he's sharing. He's a pastor and a Christian. This is stuff he has to deal with, too. I figured, knowing how conscientious and hospitality-minded this congregation is, for as much as you appreciate a call to work with Christ and become part of Christ's family, you might also appreciate a practical list of some things you can do when you feel overwhelmed, so you don't get too bogged down to work with Christ for the world.
The first thing Brian said was that it can be helpful to reframe the overwhelm. To think about it as a sign that you are paying attention to both your neighbor's and the earth's needs. It means that you have the opportunity to, in the words of Quaker writer Parker Palmer, let your heart be broken open to opportunities for healing instead of broken apart in despair. You may have heard a Sihk activist and lawyer named Valerie Kaur talk about it this way: When you feel lost in darkness, you can think of it as a tomb or as a womb, preparing you to be born again. Your feeling of being overwhelmed can be a sign that you are preparing to be born again. Now that you know you are in the midst of such fertile darkness, ready to be broken open to serve, what can you do to nurture the impulses that help you to be family to Christ?
First, if you are overwhelmed, admit it to yourself. You can say it out loud or just think it real hard. This is a real feeling in response to real things in the world. But, a feeling doesn't have to stay forever. They ebb and flow naturally. This feeling of overwhelm is here now but does not have to be here always. Next, know that you don't have to hold that feeling on your own. You can ask someone to hold it with you. Tell a friend, a colleague, a counselor, your pastor: "I'm feeling overwhelmed." Brian suggests practicing finding a metaphor to describe your own overwhelm. Tell your person, "I feel like... I'm running a race and can't catch up, or... I'm on a boat that's filling with water and I can't bail fast enough" or whatever captures your feeling best. Tell your person. Practice beforehand if you need to.
Brian suggests to tell God, too. Some might tell God first. That's fine. This isn't a checklist or a set of steps that must be performed in a specific way. Do the parts in the ways that help the most. But, tell God. If you have a hard time starting with your own words, maybe use Mary's words from a time when she was overwhelmed, "Here am I, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Brian also said don't be afraid to tell everybody else, too. It's ok to share aloud, maybe during prayers at church or conversation over dinner or on walks with your neighbors, "I often feel overwhelmed, but I’m not giving up." He said you can take this time to affirm that you've decided to trust in God's promise of justice and grace, even in the face of very hard odds. Then, go back and tell all of these people, yourself, your confidants, your neighbors, your God, not just about what overwhelms you, but also what you are grateful for, and why you are grateful. Brian said, "Gratitude helps heal broken hearts." So, go tell everyone thank you.
Once you've done the telling part of this exercise, you can shift to the asking part. Ask yourself two questions. What kind of person would I wish to be in an overwhelming situation? What qualities would I wish to demonstrate in a hopeless crisis? Practice naming how you want to act in the world. That makes it easier to actually act that way later. You can remind yourself what you are aspiring, too. You can work towards those aspirations little by little. And, lastly, Brian invites us to pay attention to what recharges us. Jesus ate dinner with friends and spent time in the wilderness in prayer. What do you need to fill up your resources so you can go back out to work with God? A hike? A party with friends? Art? Kickboxing? Do the things that recharge you and fill you with joy. In a world that can get you down, Brian says joy can be a revolutionary act.
If you are looking for a place to start this process of sharing your overwhelm, can I recommend our reading from Psalm 138? It is a beautiful Psalm of Thanksgiving: "I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart... I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness... though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies. You stretch out your hand and your right hand delivers me." Reading and reciting this prayer is a way to practice gratitude and practice talking with God. It even describes aspirational behavior- graciousness, perseverance, faith- in the midst of crisis. I don't think Brian was writing about the Psalm when he pulled together the lesson this week, but it's awful close, isn't it?
Our story from Mark is intense. Jesus, wild enough to concern his family, fierce enough to concern the scribes, knew what it was to be divided. He used the metaphor to explain his power of healing. No evil thing to could cast out more evil. Dividing a house against itself does not make it stronger. Dividing our feelings from our actions doesn't make us stronger, either. It is necessary to go to our moral center rather than break our hearts into pieces. Our walk with Christ, like his words about family, will be a scandal and a challenge. But, there is no need to be lost eternally in the enormity of the work before us. The Lord will fulfill a purpose in us. God's steadfast Love endures forever. God will not forsake the work of God's hands. We can be broken open instead of broken apart. We can be knit together again in the womb of God's love. And, we can emerge, when we are able, ready to once more with Christ. Are you ready to be a part of Jesus' family?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.