Scripture – Mark 6:1-13
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 12, 2015
On their 20th wedding anniversary, with their son safely tucked away at camp, Douglass Key and his wife checked into a mountain inn for a few days. Their hearts set on a special dinner, they drove out to find what the innkeepers assured them was the best restaurant in the county. However, despite their GPS, they drove back and forth over the same mountain three times trying to locate the highly-rated restaurant. When they finally found the town, they realized why they kept missing it. The town consisted of a bridge, a few houses, a railroad trestle and a general store. Not one stoplight. Later they learned that it had once been a thriving community, but the flood in 1901 had destroyed it.
They drove through the tiny town with their eyes peeled for this special place to dine. Nothing. They turned around and drove through again. All they spotted were the houses and a run-down general store. Wait! "In the window of the store was a hand-painted sign that said 'Restaurant.' This is it? The building appeared abandoned. It had not been painted since the flood – perhaps since Noah's flood!"1
There were no other places in sight, so they parked the car and peered inside. The shelves were "filled with general merchandise from a bygone age. A waitress warmly greeted them and showed them to a table. They opened the menu and were amazed. An eight ounce locally sourced filet with chipotle butter and marinated onions; venison with kiwi puree and cremini mushrooms; lobster pot pie. In an old general store hidden in the mountains?"2
They were astounded by the extraordinary meal in such an ordinary place. It was similar to what the people of Nazareth experienced when Jesus returned to his hometown and taught in the synagogue. They were astonished by the extraordinary eloquence of the hometown boy. Such wisdom!
The scene takes place in the early days of his ministry. Jesus has already dazzled people in several communities with his compelling insights into the character of God, with his fervent message of compassion and justice for all people, and with his remarkable healing touch that was bringing health and wholeness to people's lives. One day his journeys bring him back to his hometown of Nazareth, the community where he grew up and where his family still lives.
It is unclear how long Jesus has been away from his hometown, but when he returns his homecoming is a disaster. On the Sabbath, Jesus goes into the synagogue – a plain building, smaller than our chancel, with rows of seats – and he begins to teach. His family and neighbors pack the place, curious to hear if the boy they remember has any potential as a rabbi. As Jesus speaks, his wisdom floods the room. People quit rustling in their seats and the room becomes silent except for the voice of Jesus. The people are astounded by his message. However, instead of concluding that he is truly filled with God's Spirit, their judgment shifts.
Today, Nazareth is the largest city in the northern part of Israel, home to more than 80,000 Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, with traffic-filled streets and sidewalks flush with travelers from around the world. However, at the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a small village of only 300, with olive trees, a donkey operated oil press and some sheep. Small enough that everyone knew Jesus and his family. Small enough to slander Jesus and his family.
It is easy for us to miss, but that is what is intended when we read in verse three, the people say, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" In the first century, a young Jewish man was always referred to as the son of his father. Naming him the son of his mother "was an insult, hinting in a vulgar way at illegitimacy."3
Despite Jesus wowing them with his wisdom, the amazing moment is fleeting. The townsfolk turn on him as doubts creep in and they question their experience. Someone says, "Wait a minute. Isn't this Jesus, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us? We know this family. Jesus is a common laborer. Remember him working alongside Joseph building tables and laying stone?" The people's expectations prevented them from seeing Jesus as the one in whom God's Spirit uniquely dwells.
We tend to see what we expect to see. If we see our daughter as the child who was constantly making mistakes, we will likely highlight every misstep she makes as an adult. If we fear people of another race, we will foster prejudice in our minds which can turn our words into poison. Alternatively, if we believe someone to be wise or compassionate, we anticipate receiving a gift when we are in her presence. We often see what we expect to see, which can be limiting or illuminating.
Our text indicates that our expectations can be stifling. We can even block the flow of God's Spirit. Mark declares that by seeing Jesus as nothing exceptional, the people of Nazareth become a barrier to what Jesus can accomplish. He had been performing numerous deeds of power before coming to Nazareth. But there, in a community that could not see beyond the ordinary, Jesus could do nothing extraordinary. They were not open to God's life-changing spirit. Their minds could not be changed; their hearts could not be transformed.
We need not force our minds to believe something we think is preposterous. We merely need to be open to what may blossom beyond what we anticipate. Rather than narrowing our field of expectations, we broaden it, by simply recognizing that what is possible is sometimes greater than we allow. Can you be open to what may sprout beyond what you foresee?
Maligned and dismissed by the people of Nazareth, what does Jesus do? Withdraw into depression? Burst into anger? No. He simply moves on to more fertile territory where he expands his mission. Our text says that he calls together his 12 disciples and gives them instructions. He places them in pairs and orders them to travel light. And he means light! No suitcases, not even a carry-on bag. They are not even allowed an extra pair of shoes. They are to travel with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.
He wants his disciples to be totally dependent on the hospitality of others. And to make certain that when they reach a town they do not shop around for the best digs, Jesus says to stay in the first home that welcomes you. Perhaps he wants to drive home the point that we are dependent on one another for our well-being, and it is in the bonds we form that we satisfy yearnings of the heart.
With their marching orders in hand, here is what the disciples accomplish. They help people turn their lives in the direction of God, they cast out demonic spirits, and they heal people. Jesus sends out 12 ordinary men to do the extraordinary work of God. It is the way God works in the world. Rather than telling us to step back while God performs supernatural feats, God sends ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
A few years ago, at Emory University's commencement exercises, honorary degrees were being awarded and the recipients made the requisite speeches. As is often the case, the students chatted through most of the ceremony. However, there was one moment when everyone became still and listened. "It was when a man named Hugh Thompson spoke. He was the least educated person on the platform...He never finished college, choosing instead to enlist in the Army, where he became a helicopter pilot."
"On March 16, 1968, he was flying a routine patrol in Vietnam when he happened to fly over the village of Mai Lai just as American troops, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, were slaughtering dozens of unarmed villagers – old men, women, and children. Thompson set his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining civilians. He ordered his tail-gunner to train the helicopter guns on the American soldiers, and he ordered the soldiers to stop killing the villagers...Hugh Thompson's actions almost resulted in him being court-martialed, but he saved the lives of dozens of people. It was thirty years before the Army...awarded him the Soldier's Medal."
"As he stood at the microphone for Emory's commencement, the rowdy student body grew still...Thompson talked about his faith. Speaking of what his parents taught him as a child Thompson said, "They taught me, 'Do unto others as you would have them do onto you.' The students were amazed at these "words of Jesus, words from Sunday school and worship. When Thompson finished, they leapt to their feet and gave him a standing ovation."4
God sends us on the same mission as the first disciples. We are to demonstrate to others a life that is turned in the direction of God – one that loves our neighbor as ourselves. We are to combat the demonic spirits in our world – racism, violence, greed, lust, envy, oppression, neglect...the list is long. And we are to be healing agents, praying for the ill, visiting the lonely and reconciling relationships.
God calls us. God challenges us. God sends us into our wounded world, because God knows that what we can accomplish is extraordinary.
Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton
Gracious God, who guides us on the journey, we hold our hands, our hearts, our lives out to you this day, asking that you use us...use our gifts, use our skills, use our dreams, use our time, use our love, to transform this world into a place of life and joy for all. Where controversy rages, let us be peacemakers. Where violence surges, let us be courageous in addressing its causes. Where racism hurts, let us be steadfast in our resolve to create harmony.
We pray this day for our fellow travelers on the road through this world. We lift up to you churches hurting because their buildings have burned, and we pray for those whose souls have been stung by symbols of hatred and division and discrimination that have waved over our land. And, we pray for all of our fellow travelers who have been marginalized, silenced, shunned. Let your comforting arms surround them, and let your church be a visible beacon of hope in their lives.
And so we pray for your church this day, as we travel along our own journeys. Let your church be a place of refuge for those who are struggling and help us always to open our doors to all of your children regardless of where they are on their own journeys. Let your church be a prophetic voice by speaking truth to power and breaking down walls that divide. Let your church have enough faith in your love and power to risk its very life to become the people you call us to become. Let us not be complacent. Let us not be content. Let us not hold on. Let us reach out and find ways to proclaim your love and grace in ways that might be heard by this weary world in which we live today.
Many of our fellow travelers are in difficult places. Grief weighs heavy, bodies hurt badly, depression envelops and despair fills them. We pray for all who hurt in body or soul. Bring healing and wholeness. We pray for all who are afraid, all who are in harm's way, and all who are struggling with life changing decisions. Bring discernment and safe passage, and the certainty of your presence.
With gratitude for this church, for those persons in our lives who care for us and claim us, for educational achievements, professional advancements, medical care that sometimes can cure, we pause at this point on our journey to give you thanks and praise. We are grateful for the extraordinary gifts of your love which you bestow on us. As we offer you thanks, we remember the prayer which Jesus taught saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine, is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
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