Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Audacity of Authenticity; Proper 9, Year B

Mark 6:1-13


Has this ever happened to you?

Or, wait, I know the answer to this one. So: This has happened to you:

You're back visiting your parents for [funeral/wedding/holiday/vacation] after being away for a while. You've got friends, a job, maybe a spouse and kids-- in short, a whole life and identity where-ever you live now. You're not the same person you were when you were living with them, (although you ARE who that person grew into).

And yet, surrounded by the same old walls, the familiar books on the shelves, by your parents (+ possibly siblings), you mysteriously find yourself falling into the same habits of interaction and behavior. You find yourself strangely pressured into the old configurations of relationship, the same way of being; you shift a bit from who-you-are-usually to who-you-are-with-your-family.

Some of this invisible pressure is internal: you know how to be around them, and you have habits of interacting with them that are deeply ingrained. It's just easier, or more comfortable, to slip back into old habits. But a large part of this pressure is external: They "know" you as you used to be; they expect you to be a certain way; they know how to be with *that* you, not the 'updated' you.

You find yourself either reverting to another, older pattern of behavior-- OR, if you've made major life-changes and are trying hard to behave accordingly here-- you may find yourself pressured or pushed. You might be criticized, cajoled, treated with confusion, or otherwise manipulated towards a "you" that they are comfortable with.

If you have the audacity to be authentic, you might be greeted with confusion, hurt, hostility. Authenticity can easily be misinterpreted... as willfulness, pride, or self-righteousness... "Why are you behaving like this? You were always so respectful as a youth." or "I can't understand why you're acting so contrary."

This phenomenon is well defined in "family systems theory," a branch of psychology that studies how groups influence behavior. The family is like a mechanism which has learned how to operate with each member *a certain way.* If that member changes, the whole system doesn't quite know what to do with them, and is thrown off balance. It will subtly (or not-so-subtly) push them towards the way they used to be.

At its most benign, this phenomenon denies growth and development; at its worst, it can even work (without meaning to) to keep people unhealthy or dysfunctional. A family that has had someone work themselves to death taking care of everyone else doesn't know how to get along without someone in that role; a family with a "problem" member-- a troublemaker or perpetual screwup-- begins to "need" such a person in the family.

Groups other than families exhibit the same behavior; they learn how to function with people the way they are, and expect them to remain that way because now that's how the group *works*. If someone changes, there is pushback -- again, even if someone is trying to change for the better. (Think of the way that recovering alcoholics most often need to cut ties to their old group of friends, who invariably pressure them to revert. Or think when, after Jesus healed a demoniac who had been hurting himself for years, the nearby villagers become angry. They know that man as a demoniac, and they've learned how to cope with that-- now they have to figure out how to live with him as a man! Mk 5:1-19 [Note that Jesus sends the man back home to witness to the villagers, to make them accept the power of the change in the man.])

I'm put in mind of the proverbial crabs in a bucket... You know, how if you have a bunch of crabs in a tub of water, the ones below will supposedly grab any that begin to climb out and tug them back in?

So, to today's Gospel. Nazareth knows Jesus. They've known him since he was a kid! They know his family, his siblings, his childhood friends. "Isn't this son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and aren't his sisters here too?" They've seen him work under his father, learning the family trade. So, that's another way to define him: "Isn't this the carpenter?" His very familiarity blinds them to the power of God which is so obvious to others. He is a known quantity in Nazareth. They can't seem to accept him as something different than what they already know of him.

In this context, Jesus has the audacity to be his authentic self. And so, he is greeted with, "The nerve of him! Who does he think he is? He's just Jesus the carpenter, Mary's kid!"

How often does that familiarity blind us? How often does what we "know" about someone keep us from knowing them more truly? Strangely, it may be hardest for us to recognize or accept holiness in those we know best. We aren't looking for the power of God in an old acquaintance; we're looking at the kid who stole our bike 15 years ago. We don't see the the power of the resurrection at work in our once-alcoholic brother, but the same screwup who can't seem to ever do anything right. We can't seem to recognize the Holy Spirit's life-changing influence on that friend from highschool; after all, we know what kind of trouble they got into in those days!

Expect God in each other. Sure, past behavior can give us some idea of what may still be going on with someone, but expect God's power to be working in your brother or sister. Expect to find the Spirit hard at work in their lives. Look with eyes open to the possibility that you may see Jesus' face... in someone who you used to think was a total jerk. Don't miss Jesus because you think someone is a "known quantity!" Don't miss a word from the Holy Spirit because you knew the speaker when she was a toddler!

And be true to who you are becoming in Christ... Even in the face of other expectations. Be yourself with integrity -- your true self -- even in the face of pressures to revert to some older, more comfortable you, a 'you' that your old friends or family know what to do with. Have the authenticity to go back, as Jesus sent the Geresene demoniac, "home to your friends, and tell them how much God has done for you."

Have the audacity to be authentic. And dare to see more in your neighbor than what you think you know. You might just surprise yourself, and be surprised in turn... by the face of Christ.

Blogging Episcopalians
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