Everything I Actually Learned

Ms. Carolyn Capern
April 7, 2011—Thursday Healing Service
Mark 3:31 – 4:9

Mark 3:31–4:9 NRSV • Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

 

I remember very clearly the first Sunday sermon I ever heard Mark preach. I was a scared little freshman who didn’t know a thing about what to expect from college when I wandered into Kay for the first time. So of course it was a great relief to find not only a familiar worship service, but also to hear a sermon entitled “Everything You Need to Know.”

Well, four years later, I pretty much haven’t wandered out of Kay since that first night. And since I will be graduating one month from today, it seems only appropriate for me to get up here and tell you Everything I Actually Learned over the course of my college career.

  • I learned that you should always buy a copy of Street Sense when you walk by a vendor.
  • I learned that you should really watch out for wall-mounted televisions and other low-hanging objects.
  • I learned that college friendships revolve around food, and the best restaurants are not actually limited to Tenleytown and Friendship Heights.
  • I learned that the District of Columbia practically runs off froyo, cupcakes, coffee, and unpaid interns.
  • I learned that you should always head for the first or second car of the Metro during tourist season if you want a seat, but there’s pretty much no hope at rush hour any time of the year.
  • I learned that a lot of the best professors at AU are adjuncts.
  • And I learned that family appears in the most unexpected forms.

This last one becomes critical in light of all the other things that you learn at college. The more you realize how crazy college is, with all the late nights and the stress and the random events that happen every day of the week, the more you realize how much you need people to depend on. Since college is made up of so many different orbits– groups of people with whom we are acquainted– it can be a lot harder to find your “family”– in this case, not the biological kind, but the friends who are there for you no matter what, the anchor that reminds you who you are.

This passage from Mark has always been difficult for me to grasp because of its apparent rejection of biological family ties– in fact, if you look back at the previous passage, Jesus’ family calls him crazy, so it probably makes sense that he was a little upset. We know that family loyalty was considered a priority in Jesus’ time, so his words here are significant. We also know this was an important theme– it made it into all three synoptic gospels.

For a long time I read this passage as a call to reject all ties with non-Christians, particularly in light of the other verses that say not to be yoked together with nonbelievers and so forth. And this idea really troubled me, for a variety of reasons. How are you supposed to know who is the acceptable believer in the sight of God, anyway? And since I already believed that God is love, where does this rejection of ties fit in anyway–  what is so loving about that kind of behavior? Nothing, obviously.

And so we read on in Mark, and if you’re like me, you pretty much try to put that pesky passage out of your mind. At the beginning of the next chapter we find Jesus teaching from a boat to everybody sitting on the shore near him– now that sounds like a cool class. He starts telling the Parable of the Sower– you know, the one you heard in Sunday School where seeds fall over the place and some grow well and some fail. The usual interpretation of this passage– in fact, the one explained by Jesus himself later on– is that it shows different ways that people receive the Gospel message: some very well, some very badly, and the ones who receive it well prosper and the ones who receive it badly die.

So great. Here are two passages in a row in which Jesus is being very unlike the Jesus we usually think of, the peaceful guy who feeds the masses and interacts with Samaritans and lepers and in general people whom society spurns. What’s the deal?

Well, to be honest, since I’m not a seminary student, I don’t know that I can really answer my own questions. But I have figured out a few things about these passages:

First, Jesus is redefining what family means when he says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” It’s not where you were born into but what you choose to do with your lives; or, in the language of the parable of the sower, it’s about the soil you offer to the seed of God’s message. That idea is familiar to most of us as college students– as much as many of us affirm and try to maintain our ties to our homes and biological families, we define our college families by what we do and the people we find who share our deepest passions or beliefs.

Secondly, it matters a great deal what you think “God’s message” is. If you believe that those who haven’t received God’s message are people who haven’t said a certain prayer or gone to a certain number of church services or committed to doing a certain act of justice, then these passages from Mark take on very different meanings. I’m not going to pretend to understand exactly what “God’s message” is supposed to be, but it’s important to be aware of what we believe about that. Take a poll of people around Kay– the wide variety of beliefs about God and God’s priorities are one of the things that makes life around here so interesting.

Thirdly, and thankfully, it’s okay to not understand exactly what these passages mean, and to doubt the usual interpretations of them. The reason the “Faith Questions” service has meant so much to me over the last four years is that it affirms curiosity and doubt, and invites us to question the parts of belief that we have struggled with. In the face of the dogmatism that I know exists elsewhere, this openness to dialogue is something that I– and I know many of you– have found valuable.

In his sermon four years ago, Mark said that we are here at college to learn how to learn, and that this community is here to teach us how to wrestle with the mysteries of faith, not to give us answers. I have found that to be true, and it’s a big reason why I feel free to stand up here and admit that I don’t know all the answers. But the other reason is that I have also learned that we don’t see with God’s eyes, so it is good to make our “families” large and diverse in ideas, whether those ideas are about theology or politics or movies or… New Jersey. It all comes back to that powerful idea that God is love, and that God loves us– all of us. The rest is in the details, and those can be figured out along the way.

So when, one month from today, I walk across the stage at commencement, I will celebrate the ideas I have learned and the questions I have yet to ask. Most of all I will carry with me the treasure that is my AU family, a family that is, for me, anchored in this community. Though my diploma will read “School of Public Affairs,” I will be graduating with a degree from the Kay Spiritual Life Center, specialization in the AU United Methodist-Protestant Community. And for that I am eternally thankful.