When Things Fall Apart

February 4, 2018

Series: February 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Mark 1:29-39

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

When Things Fall Apart

          My high school swim coach used to joke about the simple answer his grandmother would give him about life’s overwhelming challenges.  He said he could be in college feeling totally overwhelmed, stressed out, like he was falling apart over a nuclear physics exam the next day and she would said to him, “Well, be sure to have a good meal.” 

I wonder when you last felt overwhelmed, like things were falling apart. One of you sent me an article from the New York Times by Duke Divinity School Professor Kate Bowler.  In it, Bowler, who is living with colon cancer, describes her new normal of living in three-month increments between scans.  If the tumor has shrunk, she gets another three months to repeat the cycle again. [1]  Within a day, I read an eerily similar description of the same cycles of cancer scans from conservative political commentator Erick Erickson, what he calls three-month “windows of normalcy.”[2]  We share these experiences.

          Things small and large can throw us off, make us feel as though we’re coming apart.  It doesn’t take much to throw me off - getting a late start to the day, receiving a frustrated communication, watching the Warriors play Utah last week…and the Nuggets?!  We can all build the list – trouble in a relationship, the loss of a job or sense of fulfillment in a job, the loss of a child, or loss of any loved one; life stage changes such as retirement or becoming an empty nester; getting a college rejection letter.  A man showed up at the church this week in desperate need of food, but he couldn’t walk up to the office to get the Safeway cards the deacons provide us, so I brought it down to his car.  When I leaned in the window, I could tell this was not only his vehicle; it was his home.  And, not only did he have trouble walking, he was also was missing an arm.  Amazing how some people don’t fall completely apart.  Maybe he had.

          While we can be quick to gloss over it, things came apart for Jesus too.  We’re so used to the Jesus story that we talk as if the cross was some delightful end to a painless plan.  I suspect Jesus was regularly overwhelmed by those coming to him in need.  He’s always going off to pray for a reason, escaping the crowds.  Look at the ridiculous predicament in which we find him in Mark 1.  The moment he leaves the synagogue where he has been teaching, he is in the home curing Simon’s mother-in-law. Word gets out and Scripture says that by night “at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  That’s hysterical; they brought all who were sick or possessed…the whole city!  

In its economy of words, the Bible doesn’t show us the inner workings of Jesus, and we don’t get to see how he’s able to act the way he does. It’s one of the ways our stories, as written, can leave us feeling helpless.  Thankfully, an outside perspective from time to time can open things up, shedding light on how one comes to interact with the world like Jesus did.  I’m nearing the end of a book by Buddhist teacher and writer Pema Chodron called When Things Fall Apart.  Chodron writes in great detail about how we can respond when something difficult comes our way.  She says we essentially have two choices:  We can close by pushing back, pulling back, shutting down, or running away.  These are important skills to remain safe at key moments, but it’s no way to go through the world.  Our other choice is to open up by recognizing our grounding, getting curious, and staying with what is making us unsettled.  Essentially, in the face of challenge we can shrink or we can expand. 

          The great ones expand.  Jesus exemplifies this.  He is so tapped into the Spirit that he has a reservoir from which to draw when need comes his way.  Recall the Psalm you heard earlier:

Praise the Lord!

…God is gracious

…The Lord builds up

….gathers the outcasts

…heals the brokenhearted,

…binds up their wounds

…numbers the stars…gives to them their names

…God gives food to the animals…the young ravens when they cry


Psalms would have been Jesus’ prayer book. He was so close to the wellspring they provided, and able to draw upon it, that when people watched him they were convinced he must be the Son of God.  Even the demons recognize him as a “Spirit-empowered being,” as one commentator puts it.[3] Jesus was so Spirit-empowered that Mark, the leanest of all the gospels with only 16 chapters, still finds room for 200 verses about his miracles.[4]

          How does someone heal a whole city of people?  One at a time, addressing what’s before him, not what’s in line. Then, remembering why he is there, Jesus isn’t afraid to move on.  Even while more seek him out, he says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk 1:38).  Jesus shows us how to be compassionate to what’s before him without being swallowed up by the need, tapped dry, or sidetracked.

          The way we’ve told Jesus’ story has had the unfortunate consequence of making people feel as though they are supposed to be as good as Jesus was right away.  We should remember that the vast majority of Jesus’ life remains a total mystery.  We don’t get to see all the practice that must have gone into him becoming recognizable as even a relative of God.  Again stepping outside helps us look back in.  Chodron doesn’t tell us we need to be a savior—and as Christians we already have one—we just need to aim for manageable increments of expanding consciousness.  If we are lonely or restless, she says, “and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.”[5]  Confronting your discomfort for .6 seconds more today doesn’t make you a failure, but a warrior.  I like that. 

          Jesus and The Buddha would agree on one thing (I think they agree on many things) and that is that suffering happens.  To measure life by the ability to escape it is to guarantee failure.  Chodron’s book is When Things Fall Apart, much like Rabbi Kushner’s book is When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  It’s inevitable, so let’s not waste our energy being anxious about it.  Instead, let us learn to set a table for it.

          That’s precisely what Jesus did when everything was falling apart for him.  When they came for him he opened, he expanded.  He brought his companions together, broke bread and in doing so gave himself to them and to us himself as sustenance.  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but it might be a test.  So, on this communion Sunday, let us begin with a good meal.  Amen.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/opinion/sunday/cancer-what-to-say.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/30/opinion/erick-erickson-common-ground.html

 [3] Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark, p. 82.

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, audiobook.