How do members of an organization live through major change well? This is a question at the heart of Mark, chapter 9, our gospel reading for today. How do members of an organization live through major change well?
This part of Mark’s gospel is set between the Transfiguration and the crucifixion. James, John, and Peter have literally been with Jesus to the mountain top. They’ve had their “mountaintop experience:--a clear confirmation that Jesus is who he says he is. God has spoken directly to the disciples--“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). How often we long for such a clear confirmation from God to our mission, our decisions.
Jesus, James, John, and Peter come off the mountaintop into a public discipleship debacle. The rest of the disciples or “members of the organization” were trying and failing to cast a demon out of a boy. It was a pretty public failure--in front of the crowd and the religious leaders.
Sometimes it seems that not two minutes after our “mountaintop experience” confirming our call and direction, things begin to fall apart.
Both the mountaintop experience and the disintegration of the old are part of the transformation that is taking place. The center no longer holds. A new center is emerging--but as yet it is unseen, unfelt, unexperienced.
In the midst of a destabilizing transformation, it’s good to find solid ground. What can we really stand on? What is our authentic self? It’s good to bring the vertical and horizontal dimensions of life into balance.
Jesus does this by taking the disciples back through Galilee. This is their home ground. He was taking the disciples into a contemplative place, where they could be by themselves, where they could be themselves. He helps them bring the vertical and horizontal dimensions back into balance. What can we do to encourage spiritual groundedness and community during times of transformation?
He did this because the disciples had to deal with some hard truths: As it says in verse 31, “The Human One, the “Son of Man” is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, will rise again.”
The “members of the organization,” in this case the disciples, were about to go through a major change. Their leader would die in a way that was also a “pretty public failure.” The “Jesus organization” as they knew it would be publicly humiliated, broken, scattered, and beaten down. For all intents and purposes, the Jesus Movement would die and many of its individual members with it.
One thing leaders do during deep transformation is to intentionally choose their role. What kind of role is needed to lead this community now? Are the leaders to be Midwives, Light-Bearers, Solid Rocks, Way-Makers?
Which of these is our own call in how we offer leadership? What do our communities need in this time of deep transformation?
Jesus delivers the hard truth about what is coming. The disciples can’t understand. The change is happening too fast. Our psyches can’t take in the speed of change. And we don’t want to ask questions because talking about it only makes it more real.
It’s easier to talk about how to reform the system than to face squarely into its collapse. Who can find a moderate middle that will help us slide through the change without too much personal cost, the disciples might have asked. Who is really great at this, the disciples might have been arguing about along the way.
But the longer we hide from reality, the more difficult it is to engage it and learn who we are to be in the Great Transformation.
As Pope Francis teaches, Realities are more important than ideas. There is a constant tension here, but in the end, realities simply are, whereas ideas have to be worked out. (EG, 231).
Jesus then leads the disciples to Capernaum. He takes them inside the house, perhaps to the home of Peter’s family. This is their inner sanctum of safety, back into the womb.
Jesus intentionally chooses his role. I suggest he chooses the role of Mother Wisdom feeding her children. These disciples will need the experience of someone who has been radically torn open in the act of giving birth to something new. These disciples will need less of the masculine forms of power and more of the feminine forms of power. They will need to be less like rocks and more like rivers.
Traditionally we are taught that Jesus assumes the position of an authoritative teacher. He sits in the chair, the disciples sit at his feet. But what if we imagine this is not a chair like a small throne, but a chair like a birthing stool. Lady Wisdom is guiding, teaching, pouring herself out. Jesus, as Lady Wisdom, takes an infant child in his arms and to his breast, saying, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
When we are staring at the ashes of the cross, we need to know what to lay as the foundation to begin again. Jesus says, when it all burns down, you can start again by putting a child or a slave or a widow or an accused woman or a leper or a blind man at the center, in your arms, and build from there. You will find these foundational people in every place and in all times. This is how you build again, in the name of Jesus.
There is a Shinto community in Japan that burns down its temple every 20 years. But the process of rebuilding begins years before the fire. The choosing of trees for wood, the training of apprentices in building techniques, the preparing a foundation for the new shrine. This community is always preparing for the end of this particular shrine and the building of the new one. In this way, the community has practiced resilience in the face of major change for more than 1,300 years. This is how members of a community live through major change well.
Today, all of us are living in a Great Transformation. The old is falling away. A new center is emerging. Let us draw one another close and find new ways of building that put Jesus’ foundational people at our center. Let us be intentional in choosing our leadership role. Let Lady Wisdom teach us how to come through this process of dying and rising, this Great Transformation, and to come through it well and in the name of Jesus. Amen.
--Rose Marie Berger, senior editor, Sojourners magazine
For background on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesusby Ched Myers
With gratitude to Luisa M. Saffiotti for her insights on transformational leadership for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Evangelii Gaudium, para. 231
Japanese Shrine Has Been Torn Down And Rebuilt Every 20 Years for the Past Millennium by Rachel Nuwer (Smithsonian magazine, 4 October 2013)
Rose Marie Berger
Rose Marie Berger
Rose Marie Berger (@RMBerger) is a Catholic poet, writer, and peace activist who has worked for social change movements for 40 years. She is poetry editor and senior editor for Sojourners, a magazine whose mission is to inspire hope and action by articulating the biblical call to social justice. Rose is active in the Watershed Discipleship movement and the global Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. She recently served as co-editor of Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church and World. Her first collection of poems, Bending the Arch, was released in 2019. She is also author of Drawn By God: A History of the Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries from 1967 to 1991 (with Sr. Janet Gottschalk, MMS, 2012), and Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood. Rose has spent her life engaged in faith-based activism, advocacy journalism, and pastoral leadership. She currently serves on the board of the International Thomas Merton Society. Rose was born at 319.08 ppm CO2 and raised in Franciscan communities in the American River watershed on traditional Nisenan-Maidu territory. She lives in Sacramento, Calif., with her wife Heidi Thompson. 
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