We, The Least Likely Yet Called Out’

Posted: July 6, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 6:1-13

We, The Least Likely Yet Called Out’

Today’s journey in scripture is made up of two quite distinct parts. The first part is Jesus’ visit to his hometown, Nazareth and the second part is Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. These two parts are distinct not only because each is a story unto itself, capable of standing alone, but also because they stand together held is a sort of logical challenge in their vivid contrast to one another. The first is a story of failure. After initial enthusiasm, the people of Jesus’ hometown, turned against him. He was, Mark tells us in verse 5, “unable to do any miracles there.” But the second scene is a story of success. The disciples, again Mark tells us, “cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people and healed them.”

The odd part about the two stories held together is that Jesus, who up to this point in Mark, had been teaching with power, healing, and casting out demons, could do nothing, while the disciples who are so often missing the point, even missing in action, are powerful and effective. The two parts are so different and their difference so unexpected that it will come as no surprise that many commentators urge the preacher to pick but one of the two stories or parts to preach on — and not both . . . Still, in the text they stand together and maybe the author, Mark was onto something?

Maybe together these two scenes have something to tell us, not only about God and God’s agency, but about our agency in God’s. Together these stories tell us about the efficacy of trusting the Jesus Way and also something about the struggle to understand and make good decisions. Together they tell us something about what happens when ego and pride get in the way–when we get in the way–and what happens when hope, faith and expectation clear the way, in traditional language ‘when God takes central place’.

Two stories, two distinct stories, set cheek by jowl. In one it could be said they thought too small and in the other they saw the big picture. Looking at the first story we find Jesus visiting his hometown where new assume things should go well, the homecoming of a hero, the place where he is known among the wider family, he knows his way around and we imagine that things would go well. We might even assume that here Jesus would be received with joy and affirmation by those who knew him well. And this was probably so, initially he was. The people of Nazareth, those who had known Jesus as a boy and young man were surprised–astonished–by his wisdom and power. But quickly their surprise turned to offense. The tall poppy syndrome kicked in, Hey ‘the know it all’ has returned, and “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son? And they took offense at him.”

Why do you think this happened? What happened to turn them? He was one of them–at least he had recently been one of them. Maybe that was the problem: that one who had so recently been just one of them should suddenly now be so far above them. Did that feel like a slight? Remember we are not talking about a huge city of millions of people. Its Jesus home town. “Who does he think he is? Why him and not me?” Just yesterday, it seemed, they had looked down upon him as a boy. But today his words and demeanor asked that they look up to him. Was that hard on their pride?

Maybe there’s a warning here to us all: don’t let an earlier companionship or an earlier understanding or belief get in the road. Don’t let a different relationship blind you, or at a later time you might miss the new message, the new point of view. The new approach.

Maybe the matter at hand goes even deeper than this all-too-human tendency to envy another or to feel slighted by the success of someone whom we knew, or thought we knew, back in the day. Maybe its our understanding of being church, or congregation. Maybe as last week we heard that the Christian Church didn’t exist until the 4th Century and if that’s the case then who was Jesus before then? What was the understanding of the Jesus Way before the church existed? Why did people want to keep the story of him alive and keep gathering to talk about their understanding?

Who do we today think of when we talk about Jesus’ hometown crowd? Who do we think of as his own people today? Maybe, that would be us, the church of today? And does it ever happen that at least sometimes we are those who are blind to God’s presence, indifferent to God’s power? Is it even remotely possible that we who think we know Jesus best may at times honour him least? In his spiritual autobiography “Now and Then,” Frederick Buechner writes of his off-the-beaten-path (at least for a seminary-trained, ordained Presbyterian minister) encounter with Agnes Sanford, a Christian healer.

“The most vivid image she presented,” writes Buechner, “was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back, unable to do any mighty works because the ministers who led the services either didn’t expect him to do them or didn’t dare ask him to do them . . .” Last week we heard of how clergy, me included were not brave enough to share the doubt we had been taught existed, how we had opted for the comfortable easy way and stood Jesus in the corner, untouchable by creative doubt, unassailable by creative questioning, and locked in permanent absolutes of truth.

That’s quite an image: Jesus standing in the church, his hands tied behind his back. Then Buechner like some of us today add their recognition of their kinship with the Jesus in the corner. Is it possible that we in the church, Jesus’ latter-day hometown crowd, are sometimes the least likely to call upon him, the last to turn to him, less likely than many others to be open to his message and promise, his mystery and his grace?

Often today we in the church seem more focused on ourselves–whether our proud accomplishments, our current projects, or our persistent problems–more on these things than on God’s power and truth.  Just think about the energy we here have spent in the last few years on our buildings and our survival rather than the growing need around us.

I want to tell you a story. It’s not about me or you but it could resonate. It’s not about what was done right or wrong, it is just a story that can be applied to many places today.

The story begins when a well-known preacher visited an old once prominent church a church that had for decades been known far and wide as the home of great preachers and a center of great social causes. Like many, however, this church had declined in recent decades as people had moved away and community demographics had changed. When he arrived to give a lecture there, the preacher was met by an officer of the church. And as he was early, the church officer asked if I would like a tour of the grand facility. As they walked the officer told the preacher that twenty years ago he had feared for the future of his church. In fact, he said, “I was pretty sure that by now they would have closed their doors. You see, he said, we were just fifty elderly people left in this great sanctuary.” Then he brightened. “But something happened. Something changed. They were experiencing a kind of renewal, a revival.”

“Really,” the preacher said, “that’s wonderful.” “Yes, said the officer; these days we have four or five hundred people in church. We have new ministries in the community. We are seeing new people, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight.” “How do you explain this?” the Preacher asked. The officer thought for a moment, then he said, “Well, it wasn’t all our new minister, but he has made a difference.” “What’s he done?”

“Well, he got us studying the Bible . . . yes, our minister gives a wonderful Bible Study. In fact, he can give you the entire message of the Bible in just six words.” The preacher inwardly groaned and though Oh dear “Another fast operator?” “And what might those six words be?” he asked skeptically. His host, an older man grinned broadly. “The six words that summarize the entire message of the Bible of course? ‘I am God and you’re not.'” They both laughed. But what was it they were laughing about and why?

“I am God and you’re not.” Sounds very clear and simple at a social or cultural level. It also sounds clear in a sort of fundamentalist theistic level. It speaks of a supernatural God up above in charge yet it rings true in that it speaks of our propensity to bring everything back to ourselves, to make ourselves central to everything that exists. It’s not about you, not about us. It’s about God. I remember Graeme Ferguson often speaking of Mission as God’s Mission and not the churches Mission. One of the sad things about our Church is its obsession with its own mission as opposed to the mission of the gospel. We get so consumed with our survival in a world that seems to no longer need us. The figures scream this at us but we seem to hide behind the idea that the world must be wrong and isn’t listening to us. Maybe we are in our hometown with blinkers on? Maybe our once great church has become so focused on its past glories and singular prominence that we have forgotten, the church officer said; the real source of the church’s power and of its life . . . the power of the living God. Had been given over to their collective pride and ego.

But be careful; listen again to the story. Humbled by their decline yet blessed with the insight that it wasn’t really about them, they had turned to God afresh, calling upon their God who is known in and through the everyday, known in and through the great picture of the universe alive they had acknowledged their own need for healing and for change. They had come to know this divine energy and power in a new way, in a new time. They had taken risks in faith. They had taken the risk of change, the risk of oblivion and they had stepped out two by two.

When Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, he did not–though it must have been painful for him–reject them in turn. He did not take offense. He only sadly shook his head and then moved on. He moved on, 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. In these times of change and challenge for the church or in times of challenge in our personal lives,

The message might be to “lighten the load,” Let go of some weighty assumptions about how we have always done things. Leave behind those big, bulky suitcases stuffed full of tradition and outdated interpretations. Note I said interpretations and not outdated stories. Maybe we are being asked to surrender some truly heavy stuff. Not only the old conflicts we’ve been bearing or the grudges we’ve been nursing but also the very truths we have not tested before, the very values that have become intrenched in culture so much so that we are afraid of losing our culture.? Maybe we are being asked to strip these things away so that we might travel light again, maybe like going back beyond the 4th Century and looking at what motivated Jesus and his earliest followers, the men and women who heard him not only with their minds but also with their hearts.

Having said all the above I need to say that I do not think you are hometown people. You are two by two sent people on the verge of oblivion. You have bought the lotto ticket and the price has been your faith, a wild, risky faith, bold and trusting faith not is a belief system, not in an institution grounded on creed or doctrine but in a real and incarnate power of God in a Jesus of Nazareth who made all things new. Yours is a transformative world changing faith, Amen.

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