Pentecost 6B: Hometown Disbelief

Readings

  • Ezekiel 2:1–5
  • Psalm 123
  • 2 Corinthians 12:2–10
  • Mark 6:1–13

Sermon

Many people like to ask me where I am from. I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the meaning of the word ‘home’. I understand that people are asking about my hometown, not necessarily about my home, and I have mixed feelings about that place too. I sometimes describe my hometown as a ‘hole.’ Literally, because it’s located where the ocean has tunnelled its way into the middle of the land mass that is Vancouver Island. Both highways out of that town have to climb mountains. The valley is full of very hardworking, hands on kind of people, who generally like where they live and are fiercely protective of the place they call ‘home’. But it’s also got a darker side – the government used to bus the unemployed into my hometown because: there were mills and fish plants everywhere that needed labourers, it was isolated, and it was cheaper living. Now, the mills are almost all gone, the salmon fisheries have all but closed, but a lot of all those people stayed put. And this town is ranked as one of the worst places in all of Canada to live.  So, figuratively, it’s a hole as well. I’m one of the ones who left, or, ‘got out’.

To most who know me, I’ve become a well-educated, independent, career-oriented, faithful, world-travelling kind of person. The last few times I’ve been back to my hometown, however, that all sort of goes out the window. There are very few people still there who care about what I do or who I’ve become. The bulk of the people I ran into wanted me to sink in, sit back, drink a beer, sit still, and listen to how the weight of the world sinks their hometown and these people further into the ground. These are the people who want the particular Zsófi that they remember growing up before their eyes, who lived within the truths that they find themselves in. When I have made the trek to my hometown, I’ve often come face to face with judgement, scorn, dismissal, or astonishment. At least at first. I think it’s a sort of “here she is, back from the adventures of the world, how high and mighty…and, watch she’s going to take off yet again, just like all those other times…” feeling that greets me, and every time, I then work to prove that the Zsófi they know is still there within me, a part of the makeup up of me. Not the whole Zsófi of me, anymore, but a gateway, perhaps for them to discover other parts of me too.

My, how things don’t ever really change! Jesus sort of gets the same kind of reception in his hometown. The audience’s “astonishment” at hearing Jesus speak and teach is supposed to remind us of his first synagogue appearance, earlier in Mark, in which the spectators were “astounded” because “he was teaching them as one with authority unlike the scribes.” On another occasion in Mark, when Jesus is teaching and speaking to large crowds, his whole family came to get him because everyone thought Jesus was possessed or going off the deep end into crazyland, including his family, and they wanted to hush him up before it got around the whole town and surrounding area – or worse, got Jesus killed. This time in Mark, however, the amazement immediately turns negative as the crowd starts to ask a series of questions that lead them to the issue of Jesus’ own origins. And, they – these hometown folk — seem to know all too well where he came from. The description of him as “the carpenter,” “the son of Mary” shows that these hometowners know a lot about Jesus and his family. Or at the very least, many of these hometown people are familiar with Jesus’ childhood and family life.

The way the questions are asked and the way this information is presented is meant to be a direct insult on Jesus’ character: his honour. In this first century culture, there was a lot of emphasis put on one’s honour. Jesus’ type of history: with his fatherless lineage and then living a life bigger than his status, is a scandal. Plus, it’s easier to dismiss someone who is speaking with authority when we have known their whole life. It’s hard to see who they have become because who they were may have been better known, and it’s hard to see their new authority and power. So, these people are unbelieving. And the author of Mark says that Jesus was powerless except for the few people he healed.

Wait a minute.

It feels a bit like the author is suggesting here that Jesus’ reception affects his ability to work and it’s a little troubling because I’ve been taught to think – actually to defend and count on the fact that – God doesn’t need us, that God isn’t inhibited by our faith or lack thereof, that indeed what I believe or think or do matters not even a little bit when it comes to God accomplishing God’s purposes. I mean one of the central elements of the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” is precisely that it’s all up to God. God is the one who justifies. It’s by grace, not by our work.  In fact, the reality of life is mucky and mired down in anxiety when we come to rely solely on our own abilities and power. All the Bible stories are in place to remind us again and again that we can find comfort and confidence in God’s call. Our ability to lead, to shine, to become great comes not from our own doing, but because of God with us. Our faith is really just an awareness of and trust in what God has already done. All true, I confess.

So, what if what’s at stake here isn’t a matter of God’s ultimate purposes or our eternal destinies? After all, it’s not like Jesus was absolutely powerless and couldn’t do anything there. I love the way that Mark records that because of all the bad vibes in Nazareth: Jesus wasn’t able to do much of anything there — he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that’s all.

Wait a minute.

That’s all???

For Jesus, a hometown visit is what we would call “a bad day at the office”?! I wish all my bad days were like that! Sometimes we set such high standards and expectations for ourselves that we are disappointed when we don’t achieve much. And maybe that’s true of Jesus too. And maybe what Paul is talking about in Corinthians is also true of this text as well. Relationships are messy. Specifically, Paul is talking about the messiness of power – how we like to hang on to the great religious experiences. Paul is dealing with frustration and standing up to the current trend. He is facing off against some “opponents” from a distance as the church in Corinth asks for proof of Paul’s supernatural experiences. Rather like the young student who asks the wise spiritual guru to describe what the goal of meditation and emptying of the mind ought to look like, the Corinthians want Paul to validate his expertise in faith matters by giving up the details of what it means to be a superhero for God.

And Paul’s answer is as cryptic as the wise spiritual guru: Grace is sufficient, God works through our weakness, not our strength. Paul has flipped his opponents’ argument upside down.

Our texts this week are not a framework to let us know that God’s power can only be effective if we believe. We are not the reason God can or cannot work in the world. The greatest thing God did for humanity happened in the darkest hour as Christ died on the cross at the hands of humanity. God’s might, mercy, and grace poured out at the weakest and most difficult of times would never appear greater. The wise spiritual guru eventually answered that eager student: The goal of meditation cannot really be explained; you will recognize it when you do. It is in our weaknesses and failings that we get to know and understand God’s power. For that reason Paul is drawn to boast of his weaknesses – because however weak he gets, there God is stronger still.

Our texts are, however, a means of letting us know that because of the way relationships work, we are somehow involved in the healing work of Christ. And for that reason, the author of Mark is inviting us to move beyond the idea of a powerless Christ who is limited by the disbelief of his hometown community – he did, after all still heal and cure some people – and contemplate the possibility that we have a different perspective here.

To say it another way: this story isn’t about salvation. It isn’t about how our belief affects the power of God in the world. It is about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world. Some of the ways we might do this are to consider the ways we are encouraging or trying to inhibit God’s work in our lives, households, communities, and the world. And then really ask ourselves: is there some area – some regret we can’t get over, some grudge we can’t let go, some hurt that has come to define us, some addiction that imprisons us, some anger that has taken hold of us – that we are having difficulty entrusting, or giving over, to God? That might be limiting our vision of God in the world?

When Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, he did not reject them in turn. He did not take offense. He kind of worked to show the people that though the Jesus they knew is still there, that part wasn’t the totality of who he was now. He healed a few people, was amazed by the people around him, and then moved on. He moved on and outward, sending his disciples out, two by two, to preach, to heal, and to teach. He said something interesting to them: they were to travel light, to “take nothing for the journey” but the clothes on their backs.

God invites us all to “lighten our load,” even offers to help us to do so. God is calling us to let go of some of the weight and assumptions about how we have maybe always done things. God is encouraging us to look toward the work Jesus has planned for us. Just like the disciples: Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. We are the means of Christ’s grace. We are the voice of his message. We are the healing of his hands. We are God’s ambassadors. It’ll be a whole lot easier when we are called to serve if we leave behind all that incredibly weighty baggage of trying to do it all under our own power and all those attempts of trying to fit within the confines of how other people define us. Because, I think, those things are not the totality of who we are, but parts of us, windows that allow us all to see the whole picture. That we are all children of God, loved by God, continually lifted up again and again. Our ability to lead, to shine, to become great comes not from our own doing, but because of God with us. And, in through the windows of our failings and weaknesses we can see and trust in what God has already done.

Let us pray:

Enlightened One, only you really know the totality of who we are. Make us bold in our weakness, that we would look to you again and again; and know however weak we are, you are greater still. Help us to lay down the things that keep us from having new ways of understanding the people and the world around us. Encourage us to see ourselves as some of the means of your actions in the world, and to remember that if any place will not welcome us and refuse to hear us, we are to leave, without rejecting those who will not welcome us. Keep us mindful that we are loved by you and continually lifted up again and again, shining brightly because of you, with us. Amen.

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