Frozen Roles – Br. James Koester

Matthew 6: 1-13

Over twenty years ago, we Brothers went through a period of renewal. We were stuck, and we knew it. It was difficult for us to make decisions. We were busy all the time, but it seemed, we were mostly busy spinning our wheels. We didn’t know which direction we wanted to go, and we weren’t even sure how, or who, would decide that. We were stuck, and we knew it. Luckily, we also knew that something needed to change. We weren’t sure what, but we knew we could not go on like that. And so, we asked around. What had other people and organizations done in similar situations? Eventually we were led to a woman named Jean. Jean walked into our life one day, and while there were countless times when we all wished she would walk right back out, she and we persisted, and we’ve never been the same.

Twenty years later, all of us who were here then, still speak of her. Brothers who were not here, certainly know of her. She is perhaps quoted, and referred to, only slightly less frequently than Father Benson. Ask some of us, and we all have our favourite Jean story.

One of the things that was eye opening for me, was the day Jean introduced us to the concept of frozen roles.

Jean’s point was that we often cannot see what another is doing, or saying, because we think we know what they will do, or say, even before they do, or say it. She always reacts this way. He always does that. I don’t need to bother listening, because I already know what they will say. We freeze people, and even ourselves, into certain patterns, and we don’t allow them to break out.

The dynamics of frozen roles are perhaps most prevalent in families, small work situations, and dare I say it, monastic communities, where members have known one another over decades. Here he goes again, we say to ourselves. How many times have I heard this in the last 10, 20, 30 years? I don’t need to listen. I already know what he will say.

Today in Mark’s gospel, the author paints a classic picture of frozen roles. Jesus comes home, after having been away for some time. At first, everyone is thrilled.

[Jesus] … came to his hometown …. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands![1]

The hometown crowd is impressed and astounded with his words and deeds of wisdom and power. But that astonishment quickly turns bitter. No longer do they see the man Jesus has become. They can only see the one they think they knew from before. Suddenly the past catches up and the wise teacher becomes the simple carpenter.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’[2]

In an instant, small town jealousies freeze Jesus into roles that are as predictable and safe, as they are familiar. It seems all he could do in the face of their offence, was to lay his hands on a few sick people and [cure] them,[3] before leaving town.

Frozen roles and frozen expectations quench possibilities and stifle innovation. In the end if you stay there, everyone gets stuck, and no one can move. Patterns of behaviour and response are frozen, as are the relationships around them. Luckily, Jesus had the force of will, and that’s what it takes sometimes to get unfrozen, sheer force of will, to move on and leave town, amazed at their unbelief.[4]

Once he left town and escapes his former neighbours’ preconceived notions and frozen roles, amazing things began to happen.

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits… So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.[5]

Sometimes it takes sheer willpower to break out of a frozen role. Sometimes it takes a global pandemic.

Now don’t get me wrong. I would not wish the death, grief, loneliness, isolation, even fear, of the last 16 months on anyone. But in the midst of it all, something has happened. We Brothers at least, in some ways, have become unfrozen.

You’ll remember over two years ago we announced a pause in our Emery House ministry and began another period of renewal. We called it Renewing our Foundations. We knew we were stuck. We didn’t know how to move into the future, or even what that future might look like. We were frozen. Sure, we were busy. We did a lot of things. But we had a sense there was something more, something else. But what? We didn’t know, and we didn’t know how to figure it out.

And that is when the pandemic, and the lockdown struck. Suddenly, the very things we were known for, and that we expected to do, stopped: public worship, retreats, spiritual direction. It was as if we had frozen ourselves into a pattern of behaviour: Are not we the Brothers? Do we not do ‘Brother, Give Us A Word’; do not people come to us for public worship, retreats, and spiritual direction? And we could do no fresh deeds of power. Our expectations of ourselves, and the ability to try new things, were frozen by our inability to see in ourselves something new.

Just as it took the force of will for Jesus to leave home, it took a force greater than ourselves to push us into trying new things, or even just trying new ways of doing old things.

Throughout Scripture, we see that the work of the Spirit drives people into doing things they could never on their own imagined doing.

We see this in Ezekiel, a prophet sent to a people frozen by their inability to hear the word of God:

He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, … and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.[6]

We see this in Paul, a man frozen by his preconceived notion of God, until he was caught up to the third heaven, and heard things that are not to be told,[7] thereby driving him to become the very person he once persecuted.

We see this in ourselves, as suddenly a world we could never have imagined, and one which we actively resisted, opens before us, and we walk, tentatively at first, and then boldly, right in.

Two years ago, we were stuck. We did not know what to do, or even how to decide what to do. We were frozen by old habits, relationships, and patterns of behaviour. Are not we the Brothers? Do we not do ‘Brother, Give Us A Word’; do not people come to us for public worship, retreats, and spiritual direction? And we could do no fresh deeds of power.

Suddenly something happened, and we could no longer do the only things we thought we could.

This season has not been easy for any of us. We have all lived with loss, sadness, and grief to an unimaginable degree. Isolation and loneliness have marked our mental and physical health. Uncertainty and worry have kept us awake a night. Our daily and weekly routines have been turned upside down. We have lived this way for 16 months, and it will take longer than that to recover our equilibrium.

But in the midst of it all, God through the power of the Holy Spirit has been at work, as we have discovered new ways to be church, in a world very different than the one we lived in, when we went to bed on 12 March 2020.

This has been an incredibly challenging time for all of us, but through it all, the warm breath of the Spirit has been melting us, thawing us, and unfreezing us, so that aided by your continued prayers and friendship, we Brothers are ready for whatever the future holds, and no one will be more astounded than us.

Year B, Proper 9

[1] Mark: 6: 1 – 2

[2] Mark 6: 3

[3] Matthew 6: 5

[4] Matthew 6: 6

[5] Matthew 6: 7, 12 – 13

[6] Ezekiel 2: 3 – 5

[7] 2 Corinthians 12: 2, 4

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