God's plan is wider than our plan
I have often joked that of all the people in the world who needed to become a parent, I was one of them. I say this because I am a person who likes routine and order. I like things done a certain way, and prefer to have a sense of control over things. Of course, this is one of those areas in life with which God and I often struggle. Jesus even teaches about the need to let go of control and trust God. Whenever I read that passage I nod in assent, remembering the many times God has proven God’s self to be trustworthy. I put up my hands in defeat, and try to trust God. And then about 48 hours later, I am sneaking back to grab the reins again.
That is why parenthood has been so good for me. Parenthood challenges this weakness over and over again. My eldest is at the age where she wants to do things herself. This is a good and natural development. But for someone who likes a sense of control, this good and natural development can be maddening. I cannot count the number of times I have had to literally bite my tongue instead of jumping in with some explanation about a better way to do a task. I cannot count the number of times I have had to clinch my hands to prevent myself from just taking over a task, so that the task would be done the correct, and often faster, way. Sometimes I wonder whether God is chuckling to God’s self when God sees me fumbling through this reality with my children over and over again.
The people who had gathered at the synagogue in Mark’s gospel lesson today have a similar experience. They are not unlike most of us here. Every week they go to temple, following the same pattern of worship, expecting the same experiences. There is a certain comfort for them knowing what to expect. They have learned to watch how the scribes debate and have a dialogue about the traditions. [i] This is how they learn and decipher truth and is a natural part of their weekly experience at temple. But today is different. Today there is a new teacher in synagogue, and he is doing things all wrong. His teaching style is more declarative than deliberative. [ii] For some reason he teaches with tremendous authority, as if he really is sure of what God would say or think about certain things. Jesus is not following the rules, and those gathered at the temple have no idea what to make of him. He even is able to exorcise an unclean spirit out one of the worshippers who is present. They had not even realized the man had an unclean spirit, and here Jesus is, casting the spirit out. How did he know? Where did Jesus get the idea that he had the power to do such a thing?
If ever we doubted that we come from a long line of faithful Jews, today is the day we realize how closely related we are. I cannot count the number of times I have heard this same conversation at Church. Why did the priest use that prayer today? We never use that prayer. Why did the Vestry make that decision? We never used to do things that way. Why did the Activities Committee change that event? We never do the event that way. I have sat in many a meeting discussing a change or a new way of doing something and invariably someone will say, “If we change this someone might get upset.” After many years of experience, my response has finally become, “When we change this, someone will definitely be upset.” That statement may sound obvious or maybe even sound judgmental or harsh. But what I have come to find is that expecting that change is unsettling and makes people upset actually makes the wave of resistance to that change not a frustrating thing, but a happily expected reaction. In fact, a wise old priest once told me, “If you are not upsetting people, you are not doing your job.”
Just the other day, my older daughter and I were making scrambled eggs. She was fumbling through breaking the eggs. I must have picked out two or three shell pieces that day. Then she was stirring the eggs so haphazardly, my tongue started hurting again. My clenched hands had to strain to stay at my sides to avoid “just taking over this one part.” We all do it – and not just with children. We think we know a better way to accomplish a task, so instead of inviting someone to help us, we do the work on our own. We know the historical way something has been done and we forcefully teach a volunteer that way instead of hearing their idea of how to do something differently. Instead of a shared, collaborative ministry, we take over a task ourselves because we can get the task done faster and more efficiently if we do not have to sit around a talk about the many options available.
But you know what happened when I bit my tongue and pinned my hands to my sides that day? The eggs tasted just as good as they always do. Though I could have had a stress-free cooking process otherwise, you know what else happened? My daughter had a big, proud smile on her face when we devoured those yummy scrambled eggs. I have seen the same thing happen here at St. Margaret’s. When I started team teaching with other adults, we gained some tremendous and transformative teaching material. When we let some excited volunteers start a community garden, we not only fed the hungry in our neighborhood, we also made some new friends by letting our neighbors, AHRC, help water the garden. When we revamped our family Christmas Eve service, we found that the service attracted new people, and in fact has become more popular than our once favored midnight mass.
I have been thinking this week about that man with the unclean spirit in today’s gospel. The funny thing is that no one seemed to notice the man beforehand. [iii] Had the leaders of worship and learning been in control that day, the man might have come to temple and left temple equally tortured. He may have come hoping someone would notice his pain and suffering and left realizing that no one could really appreciate the depths of his struggle. But because Jesus is there, teaching in a way that only the Holy One of God can, the unclean spirit reveals himself, and is cast out by Jesus. Had Jesus not been there, doing things the “wrong” way, the poor afflicted man may have never been cleansed and given new life.
I wonder what ways we are not like the scribes and those gathered at the temple. I wonder how our way of insisting on the familiar blocks us from seeing unmet needs. I wonder how our reliance on ourselves and our guarding of control forbids new life from breaking in and shining new light into our community. Today we will pray the Litany for Healing. Every month we make space for people to come forward for healing prayers. Most of us come forward for some physical ailment we are facing or for healing prayers for a loved one. But our healing prayers do not just have to be prayers for the healing of our bodies. They can also be prayers for healing our spirits. If an unclean spirit has taken over you – like a spirit of control or manipulation – perhaps today is the day you ask God to release that spirit from you. Or perhaps you have lost a sense of joy or connection. God can heal that brokenness today too. Or perhaps you know that you need God’s healing, but you cannot articulate the brokenness, even to yourself. Our healing prayers can be for you too. Much like Jesus could see the unclean spirit when others could not, my guess is that Jesus knows what is troubling your heart today too – even if you cannot articulate that pain yourself. And much like that day at the temple, albeit in a way that was unusual, uncomfortable, and unexpected, Jesus can work in you, casting out the darkness and blasting through with light. Amen.
[i] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 1.21-28,” as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2343 on January 28, 2015.
[iii] Ofelia Ortega, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 310.