Familiarity destroys intimacy

Mark 6:1-13

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Assisting Priest

July 08, 2018

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

When I was rector of my parish in Massachusetts, I would spend a fairly significant portion of my ministerial time preparing couples for the joys and trials of Holy Matrimony, engaging in what the church erroneously describes as "pre-marital counseling." I think that the label is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, I am not sure in my own mind and heart that the wedding marks that moment when a marriage begins. Certainly, the IRS and the post office view it that way, but the church has traditionally taught that marriage actually begins when two people give their consent in the present tense, promising to live together in a life-long union. Legally, people are married when the license is signed after the ceremony, but theologically and spiritually they are married when they decide to join their lives for life and when they encase that pledge in spoken promises. Secondly, I think that the label is inaccurate because it implies that there is some form of counseling, some piece of instruction or advice that can actually prepare people for marriage. Any number of self-help books and psychological gurus make such claims; however, in my experience, holy matrimony, like all the sacraments, is ultimately a mystery which can only be entered into fearfully and tentatively, with an open and vulnerable heart supported and enveloped by faith.

Yet despite these reservations, I was required by canon law to meet with couples seeking the church's blessing and to give them counsel on the nature of Holy Matrimony and over the years I struggled to find a way to deal with this daunting task in a manner that would not compromise my integrity. What emerged from that struggle was certainly not a blueprint for a happy marriage, but instead a few disjointed thoughts that I shared with the couple concerning the dynamics of intimacy. I tended to focus on those things that I believe can destroy or erode intimacy and at the onset, I spoke about the most insidious force which can undermine that frail and fragile bond, the numbing effects of familiarity.

My first marriage lasted twenty-one years, ending in divorce many years ago. When I look back on the failure of that relationship, accepting my own culpability in its demise, I can clearly see the pernicious influence of familiarity. After twenty years of marriage, I could finish most of my wife's sentences. I could predict her behavior in most situations with alarming accuracy. I knew her likes and dislikes and I had heard most of her stories many times. Where I made a terrible mistake was when I confused familiarity with knowledge. I thought that I knew her, an illusion that was drmatically and permanently shattered when she walked into the living room and told me that she could no longer live in our marriage. At that moment, I was suddenly forced to accept the reality that I did not know this person at all. I did not know her, but I thought I did because I had been duped by familiarity into believing that predictability represented knowledge. I had lost sight of her "otherness," the wondrous mystery of another human being, because I had become blinded by the deadening familiarity of certain patterns of her thought and behavior. It is a mistake that I pray I will never make again. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt because it robs us of wonder and curiosity, enshrouding our imaginations in a false cloak of knowledge and a beguiling sense of false security.

The reason that familiarity is so destructive in intimate relationships is that it invites us to live with our projected image of who we believe the other person is, rather than dealing with their distinctive, unique and ultimately unfathomable reality. We think that we "know" the person and that knowledge becomes a projection, the lens through which we filter all our experience of what they say, what they think, what they do. In a similar fashion, the good people of Nazareth thought that they "knew" Jesus. The people who took offense that day were not bad people. I reckon that they were, in fact, solid citizens, decent religious people who were honestly trying to live lives that were pleasing to Almighty God. They worked hard, raised and schooled their children, went to synagogue regularly and contributed to the life of the community to the best of their ability. They were not evil men and women but were God-fearing folk who were undoubtedly seeking to discover and experience God's will in their own lives and within their community. And yet, when God's will actually entered into their midst, when the Incarnate Word of Love stood before them, there vision was so clouded by familiarity that they were unable to perceive or experience the wondrous mystery of the Lord's saving grace.

For a brief moment, it seems, their hearts and minds were open as they listened to Jesus and were impressed by the profound wisdom and authority of his teachings. But their wonder and awe were deftly eroded by familiarity and soon they began to see Jesus through a projected image rooted in their knowledge of him from the past. They smothered the living word of God beneath a worn-out blanket of anachronistic preconceptions. They could not see the living icon of God's eternal love because they had projected upon it a faded photograph of a carpenter they once knew.

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

The reaction of the good people of Nazareth is disturbing and disquieting; but what makes it truly frightening is the fact that it seems to have had had the ability to inhibit the graceful power of God in Christ. Confronted by their contempt, Jesus was apparently unable to do any mighty acts, to accomplish any deed of power. How could this possibly be? Was the power of the Incarnate Word somehow dependent on a response of faith? Can God's pervasive grace actually be shackled by the constraints of familiarity? I'm afraid that that is an inescapable message of this morning's Gospel and one that we ignore at great peril. Our relationship with God must be one of intimacy. We must seek to enter into a relationship with God that is as intimate and loving as that represented by the ideal of Holy Matrimony. We were created in God's image and we were given free will so that we could become intimate with God, linked by a love that is freely offered, consent to a life-long union given in the present tense. Such intimacy is not immune to the erosive power of familiarity. With deft and subtle ease, we can fall prey to the familiar, believing that we actually have knowledge of God, that we know something about how God thinks and acts and loves. The realm of Christianity is filled with those who feel that they have a handle on God's truth, knowledge of divine reality. There are people who believe that they are terribly familiar with God's will for humanity, that they know precisely what God expects from us and can predict with alarming accuracy what brings the Almighty anguish and pleasure. Some believe that the Bible clearly and unequivocally sets out the nature and will of God, while others find patterns of God's will and expectations within ceremonies or social work. None of these things are wrong in and of themselves, but they all hold within them the seeds of destructive familiarity, which germinate within us, prompting us to project an image of God, an image of how we believe God thinks and acts and feels. Like the good people of Nazareth, we too can become blinded to the graceful presence of Christ in our midst because it does not conform to our projected image of God's majesty and glory. The cost of such blindness is indeed frightening as we can clearly see in this morning's Gospel. Our failure to perceive and accept God's authority in our lives can actually inhibit and restrain its graceful power. If our minds and hearts are not open to Christ's presence within all the convoluted rhythms of our everyday lives, God will not be able to accomplish within us any deed of power. To be open to Christ's presence is to sacrifice the comfort of the familiar. It is to recognize and realize that we truly know very little about the nature of God's saving love which can come to us in the most unexpected and unpredictable ways. What we perceive as a curse, may well be a blessing and what we earnestly believe is a blessing may prove to be a terrible curse. Our faith bids us to combat the seduction of the familiar by constantly reminding ourselves that we are engaged in an intimate relationship with One who is "wholly other," who is mightily mysterious and who loves us with a love beyond our imaginations, which exceeds all our desires. To sacrifice the security of the familiar will make us feel weak and vulnerable, but we will discover with our brother Paul, that God's grace is all that we truly need for his power is made perfect in such weakness. We must shatter all our projections and open our minds and hearts just as we open our hands at that rail, praying fervently that Christ will place his grace within us so that we might be transformed by mystery of his love.