What follows is my sermon from Sunday, March 4th. And, of course, it reads more like a sermon than a blog post. But, you’re a forgiving crowd.
Mark 6:1-6 (NRSV)
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 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! 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?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Where the other gospels begin backstage as a whisper and slowly crescendo, Mark’s gospel enters like a Quentin Tarantino movie: graphic, fast-paced with both barrels blazing. There’s a certain breathlessness to Mark’s gospel that heightens urgency. The pace holds our attention. It entertains as it teaches and is all about bold pronouncements, big miracles, immediate actions, and expected responses.
So, here are a few highlights, the prequel as it were, to Mark 6:
Jesus heals and forgives a guy let down from torn out ceiling tile.
Increasingly, teachers and scribes question Jesus’ character and ministry decisions, creating added tension.
He chooses the motley crew, otherwise known as the disciples.
He speaks of a house divided against itself followed by his own family trying to “shush” him by calling him away (he was likely becoming a little embarrassing).
He teaches about sowers and seeds and lamps and bushel baskets; grain and sickles, and mustard seeds.
He stills a storm with a couple words tossed out over the waves.
He sets free a crazed, demon-possessed man at the expense of some poor bugger’s herd of pigs who hurl themselves into the sea. You know, as pigs do.
He raises a synagogue leader’s daughter from the dead, all while indirectly healing a desperate woman’s lifelong hemorrhage.
And that’s only the first 5 chapters. The guy’s just getting warmed up.
But then he shows up in his home town. One would think that a particular type of reception would be forthcoming. What he receives instead is a collective, “who the hell does he think he is?!” And a bone-crushing flurry of amazing feats of heavenly daring-do come to a screeching halt on his own front door.
I’m sure we can all think of times when social gatherings didn’t work out in desirable ways. For example, high school reunions. They’re always fun.
After many years, we reassemble, all of us wondering whether we’ll be able to pick up where we left off. We all know the ropes. And, we have a shared language, a certain unspoken understanding of things.
Will Bobby still be a science geek?
Will Audra still be the quiet, awkward girl stigmatized for her weight?
Will Matt still be the annoyingly self-referential football star the girls loved and boys loved to hate?
Will Alistair still be the class clown?
Will Skye still be the hippy girl who was good at writing and photography?
Most importantly, how will I be perceived?
To some degree, how could anyone compete with the likes of Jesus? He’s one of their own, a meagre carpenter no less, claiming equality with God and performing the coolest party tricks ever to substantiate it.
I love stand-up comedy (I know, big surprise). Comedian, Brian Regan, highlights this socio-pathology. In short, party-talk one-upmanship. At every party, there’s at least one loud mouth, self-identified socialite sophisticate whose story is always so much better than anyone else’s.
How many of you have experienced this? Maybe it was you!?
This is mine, not Mr. Regan’s (the lesser quality should be a giveaway).
You: “I climbed Mt. Adams last year.”
Mr. Better-Than-You: “Aw, how sweet. That’s when I was in Africa, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
You: “Well, I finally did it. I finished my bachelor’s degree.”
Mr. Better-Than-You: “Hey, that’s great. I’m getting a publishing deal for my post-doctoral work.”
You: “After four years of frustration and fertility drugs, we’re finally pregnant!”
Mrs. Better-Than-You: “Congratulations! We decided not to have a fourth and are going to Cambodia to adopt. We may stay for a year or two and work among the poor.”
Regan continues setting up his punch line. While Mr. Big Man in the room is doubling down on his own greatness:
“Last quarter, I managed to bring our company out of its slump and produce the highest quarterly earnings in its history. My wife’s been such a trooper, taking on all the extra responsibility while I taught in Prague. So, I took her and kids to Thailand for a month. Then, on the return trip we rented a Bucatti and drove the Autoban. It. Was. Fabulous.”
At the other end of the table sitting quietly and without pretense, is an unknown guest, whose response is simple, unadorned and genuine: “I walked on the moon,” says the guest, Neil Armstrong.
All the air leaves the room. No one will ever have a better story.
We resent feeling upstaged. We resent whenever we’re not the most interesting person in a room. But, it’s so much more than just that.
I believe Mark 6 tells us many things. It speaks to the irritation of being confronted by the unexpected, especially if something is demanded of us.
Jesus was a home-boy done good and, had he returned in his nicest Sunday School clothes with Bible under one arm, flag under the other, kissing seniors and babies, and preaching white bread ‘n gramma’s apple pie, he’d have been welcomed with open arms.
“Just look how wonderful Joseph and Mary’s boy has become. You know he made Helen’s china cabinet, right. Yes! He’s making Bob and Edna’s patio furniture. That boy is going places.”
But Jesus returns to his hometown as a prophet. He’s been saying big things that don’t stay within the party line. He’s messing with convention. And, friends, let’s be honest, nothing spoils a party faster than someone who sees our failings, our deepest sins, and our most persistent needs…and can quote them publicly.
I had a radical conversion experience in 1981 while touring as a musician. I’d experienced miracles while on the road, made lots of new and strange friends, started carrying around a big Bible, hung out downtown at the Mustard Seed Street Church, gave away half my clothes, most of my record albums, and gave my Mom $50 just for doing my laundry.
And my family loved me.
Well, in theory. My reentry into my family of origin was anything but easy. What I saw as beautiful, persuasively formative changes in my life often came across as threats and condemnation to them. I recall my sister, in casually caustic manner, telling me to just go away and sell flowers at the airport (that’s actually quite funny). My brother threw a pair of scissors at me and my poor mother just thought I was abandoning her and everything they had taught me as parents.
Frankly, I was new in faith and just being an immature dink. So, perhaps this is not the best analogy. But, it was still deeply disconcerting.
We resent perceived changes to our status quo.
We resent that with which we have easy familiarity. It can in fact breed contempt.
We resent whatever pulls us out of a stream of consciousness flowing comfortably in one direction.
We resent reminders that we are not called to be power-brokers, but prophets.
We resent being told that we’re somehow on the wrong side of history if we think ourselves winning some culture war.
We resent being reminded that the last shall be first and the first, last.
Jesus was too well known in his home town for anyone to actually listen and be moved to repentance and change. They had traded their wonder for revulsion. What many non-Jewish, non-conformist, non-“correct” outsiders were experiencing – forgiveness, healing, emancipation – his own townies found offensive.
I’ve been drawn back to the prophets of late. I once hated reading them. Grumpy buggers, the lot of ’em. With the sorry state of our national life these days, primarily the church, they are offering much encouragement. A number of things become apparent when one honestly reads the OT prophets.
First, those most in need of God are God’s people. Judgement always starts where one would assume kingdom truth to be self-evident. Friends, if there’s anyone who needs to hear the gospel all over again, it’s us, the church; those most familiar with him.
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, trying to get back into his own church; a church too in love with political agenda, and worshiping a fabricated Jesus, rather than following the red-letter Jesus of the New Testament.
Second, God’s people can be surprisingly smug and dismissive about kingdom life as we become overly familiar with it. When it ceases to be a radical way of life and becomes instead our politics and our sub-culture; a “worldview” rather than the missio dei, it has lost its allure.
Third, God is most unwelcome among those who do not want to be reminded of their failings. And, if the scriptures tell us anything, that happens often with insiders. Us.
However, God NEVER gives up. God is a jealous lover who will pound at our door again and again and again until we reawaken to see what has never left us.
Friends, when we become too “familiar” with what we think the gospel to be, we can become offended at that which once amazed us. Resentment poisons humility, denies teachability and robs us of childlike wonder.
When truth begins to hit too close to home, we retreat back to the safety of our shared prejudice rather than face the withering scrutiny of God’s transforming word.
You see, to rediscover Jesus is to rediscover wonder. Gospel as way of life, not just some political platform, the trumpet section for our culture parade. Jesus, the lover of our souls, not the name on our bumper stickers, the picture on our t-shirts, or our regrettable church-sign slogans.
Church, I hear Jesus knocking at our door. Let us allow him back in. Let’s rediscover Jesus, the real Jesus…and let our wonder be rekindled.