Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, July 8, 2012.
Every year around Christmastime, a little melodrama plays out among students returning home from their first semesters at college. Young men and women who have been away from their hometowns, some for the very first time, have spent four months learning new things, encountering new people, and having brand new experiences. So when they come home for the holidays, they are very aware of their personal growth. For some, this growth may be represented in a new academic intensity: perhaps they discovered the works of Hegel in Philosophy 101 and insist on explaining to everyone how the world can be viewed through the lens of dialectics. For others, their newfound expertise is physical: people who had been gangly and awkward in high school have grown into their bodies and become varsity athletes. Still others have become expert socialites, regaling anyone who will listen with tales of partying at every college in town and staying out until the sun rose.
The melodrama takes place when a group of these people who had been friendly in high school decide to get together and reconnect. These young people had promised to stay in touch while they were at school but never seemed to be able to pick up the phone. And now, this get-together is a little bit of a chore, but nevertheless all of them decide to go, not necessarily because they want to see their old friends, but because they want to show them how much they’ve grown and changed. They want their old friends to be impressed with their new academic, athletic, or social prowess. They expect that their old friends will be amazed by the changes that have happened in their lives. But when they get together, they are so distracted by trying to show off, so distracted by trying to make deep philosophical points or flexing their muscles or relating anecdotes for which you simply had to be there that they forget to interact with one another. Everyone, in other words, is so distracted by the changes in their own lives that no one notices that anyone else has changed. These young people are so inwardly focused that they forget that everyone experiences change in their lives. The melodrama concludes when these young men and women return to their parents’ houses and come to the same melancholy conclusion: you can’t go home again.
It might seem that this is the dynamic that pervades today’s gospel reading. It might seem that Jesus is simply wrestling with the challenge of returning home after beginning a new venture in his life. At the beginning of this passage, Jesus is riding high. In the previous chapter, Jesus was on a roll: not only had he defeated a legion of demons, he healed a woman who had been sick for twelve years and he raised a little girl from the dead. When he arrives in Nazareth, then, he and his disciples must be thinking that he can do no wrong. Moreover, quite apart from his talents as a healer and exorcist, this is his hometown: imagine the reception that he will receive once he arrives. This hometown boy has put Nazareth on the map! Everyone knows who he is and everyone is clamoring to know where he comes from. At first, his reception in Nazareth is extraordinarily positive. Jesus begins to teach in the synagogue, as he often does on the Sabbath, and the people listening, his neighbors whom he grew up with, are astonished by his words. Though their reaction can be read in a biting, sarcastic tone, the fact that they use such positive words makes me think that the crowd is just being effusive: “Where did he get all this?! Listen to his wisdom; look at the deeds of power he’s been doing! This is little Jesus, the carpenter! His mom and his brothers and sisters are right here with us! What a great testament to his family and to our hometown values that he has become such a success!” But for all of that effusiveness, for all of that excitement, the crowd very quickly turns against Jesus. Our translation says that they took offense at him, but it’s more accurate to say that they were scandalized by Jesus. Very suddenly, in other words, Jesus goes from hometown hero to persona non grata. And at first, he is surprisingly stoical about the whole situation, reflecting that, “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown and among their own families.” More striking is the fact that because of their refusal to accept him, because of the fact that Jesus had scandalized his family and neighbors, he was unable to do any deeds of power. Jesus, who in Mark’s gospel reveals the royal power of God through his miraculous healings and exorcisms, was unable to do anything because his own people had rejected him. It’s at this point that, in spite of his initial philosophical response to his rejection, Jesus becomes emotional, even a little melodramatic; Mark tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.
After hearing this very brief story, we’re left wondering why the people of Jesus’ hometown rejected him. Why did the people in Nazareth go from effusively celebrating the wisdom and ministry of Jesus to being scandalized? It almost seems like we’re missing a verse. If this story were told as we might expect, the people in the synagogue would be praising Jesus, Jesus would interrupt them and say something nasty about their mothers, and then they would be scandalized. But we don’t have a record of Jesus saying anything rude. In fact, we don’t have a record of Jesus saying anything at all. At least in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, saying “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” He then claims that “this Scripture has been fulfilled” in the hearing of those in the synagogue. For Luke, in other words, Jesus’ family and neighbors are scandalized because he boldly claimed to fulfill a prophecy about God’s anointed. But in Mark it seems that the very presence of Jesus scandalizes those closest to him. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is rejected because of who he is, or rather, who he has become: the Messiah of God who is ushering in a new age. Jesus no longer exclusively represents the interests of a backwater village in an obscure province of Roman-occupied Palestine; Jesus now represents the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into this world. Jesus is a testament to the fact that the status quo is no longer acceptable or even relevant, that God is transforming the world in a radical new way. The people of Nazareth were happy to praise a young man full of promise who would operate within the power structures of this world; they were not ready to face the reality that through Jesus Christ God has broken into the world and is changing it forever.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, as people who have placed the gospel at the center of our lives, we are called to proclaim boldly that God has transformed and is transforming the world through Jesus Christ. And just as our Lord offended his family and friends, this proclamation sometimes requires us to be scandalous. It requires us to question the status quo. It requires us to cry out when the unjust structures of this world trample on those who cannot care for themselves. It requires us to make the transforming power of God’s love known to the world even when it makes us uncomfortable. And it may require us to face rejection by those closest to us, those who may not yet be able or willing to understand that the old age, ruled by sin and death, is passing away, and a new age, ruled by justice and righteousness and faithfulness is being brought into being. If and when we experience this rejection, it is not the end of the road. There’s a wonderful detail in our gospel passage; even after Mark tells us that Jesus “could do no deed of power there,” he goes on to say that Jesus did cure a few sick people. In other words, even when the transformative power of God appeared to hit a significant road block, Jesus still demonstrated that the kingdom of God is breaking into this world even when people refuse to recognize it, even when people push it away.
As Christians, we are called not only to realize that God is transforming the world, we are also called to participate in God’s work of transformation. This is not an easy thing to do. We live in an age where the gospel is met with increasing hostility. Fewer and fewer people claim membership in any kind of Christian community. Powerful interests are more concerned with profits and the bottom line than they are with helping those in desperate need. When we look at the world, we might be convinced that it is simply too much for us, that we should retreat into our church buildings and close our eyes to the injustice and the faithlessness we see in the world, pretending that they do not exist. But then, we would be forgetting that God has broken into the world and that the world is being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is part of the reason that the vestry of Heavenly Rest has set the goal of having a million dollar budget next year. It’s not so that we can give the staff big raises or buy all sorts of new altar hangings; it’s so that we can give money away. It’s so that we can put our money where our mouth is and affirm that God is changing the world not only in the abstract, but in this very community of Abilene. As Christians, we are called to stand up and proclaim through our words and our actions that God has changed and is changing this world forever, regardless of how that message may be received. Though Jesus was rejected by his hometown, though he suffered the ultimate rejection at the cross, God transformed that rejection through the Resurrection. Through the Resurrection, God affirms that even when our proclamation falls on deaf ears, even when it is being actively opposed, it will still usher in the new age. Even when we are rejected for the sake of the gospel, we are participating in God’s transformation of the world.