Brush Away the Dust
Sunday, July 8, 2018
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 9)
Brush Away the Dust
God of grace and powerful weakness, at times your prophets were ignored, rejected, belittled, and unwelcome. Trusting that we, too, are called to be prophets, we ask you to fill us with your Spirit, and support us by your gentle hands, that we may persevere in speaking your word and living our faith. Amen.
He left that place and came to his hometown, 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 offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, 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.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 with Psalm 48 or
Ezekiel 2:1-5 with Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6: 1-13
1. How do these two stories shed light for you on leadership and call?
2. What does it mean to you to be a “steward of the gospel”?
3. How is an SUV a good image for evangelism?
4. Upon what do you depend in your ministry?
5. Is the good news something you find and share only in church, or do you take it on the road?
by Kate Matthews
We’re presented in this week’s Old and New Testament texts with an opportunity to think about leadership and the way God calls and works through specific individuals. In each of the Hebrew Scripture and Gospel readings, we have a “Tale of Two Crowds,” the people who accept David as their king, and the folks in Nazareth who couldn’t take Jesus seriously as a great spiritual leader.
The Second Samuel reading may suggest that David was the overwhelming, unquestioned choice of all the people, in the North and the South, and his rise to the throne may seem like a straight line from the time of his anointing by Samuel many years before. That would be a misunderstanding caused by our lectionary, which by necessity takes small pieces of the larger story of the Bible and presents them as “snapshots” instead of a long-running television series or thick novels rich in detail and context. In a lectionary reading, we often miss helpful background material and the larger story.
Not a pretty story
In fact, the story has not been a pretty one, and blood has been shed repeatedly along the way. There has been division, betrayal, war, and not everyone agrees that there should even be a king over all Israel. In the end, David is acknowledged as God’s choice and is remembered as having led Israel effectively even while Saul was still alive.
Perhaps the last line is the most important one, where David grows “greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him” (5:10). Whatever path brought David to power, and whatever mistakes he would make as king, it is the power of God that gave him charisma, intelligence, and grace, and made him the enduring symbol of Israel’s deep hope in every generation.
Where’s the enthusiasm back home?
On the other hand, the power of God at work in Jesus, in the Gospel reading from Mark, is not something the people of his hometown of Nazareth could wrap their minds around. He’s just returned from a road trip, a fairly successful tour in the area surrounding his hometown, and they’ve undoubtedly heard about the spectacular things he’s been doing. That sort of news travels fast.
We have to wonder, however, if word of the healings and the demons driven out and the life of a little girl restored traveled better than the Word that Jesus preached. Of course, everyone wants to see miracles, but does everyone want to hear about the life-changing but perhaps unsettling good news that those miracles illustrate and announce?
Where did he get his authority?
We might also ask whether anyone ever really wants to listen to a hometown boy, especially one whose parentage is, shall we say, questionable (“son of Mary” instead of “son of Joseph”), and “just” an artisan at that (how could he possibly have the learning needed to preach to us?). And yet he does what men did in those days, in the synagogue on the sabbath, opening the Scriptures and teaching those gathered, and he does so with great authority.
Richard Swanson sees their reaction in a slightly different light than pure disapproval: we should, after all, expect some pushback, some questioning from a people named after Israel, that is, Jacob, “the one who wrestles with God.” Swanson actually sees both respect and faithfulness in the synagogue crowd’s response: “The congregants honor Jesus with an argument.”
Honor or not, the respectful wrestling quickly turns to offended rejection, and more than one writer observes that this is the last time Mark reports a visit by Jesus to the synagogue. Jesus takes his ministry of proclamation out to the people, on the road, so it’s no surprise that he instructs his disciples to do the same. (The Reverend Otis Moss III calls this approach “iPod theology”–mobile and more effective than waiting for the people to “come to us.”)
What if we were in their place?
Jesus is as offended by the people’s lack of faith, their closed minds and hearts, as they are offended by his teachings. While we can look back on their refusal to hear or on the disciples’ painfully slow progress toward understanding, it might be more helpful to put ourselves in their place. Beverly Link-Sawyer, for example, asks how quickly we’d accept our next-door neighbor as “a miraculous teacher, let alone the reputed Son of God?” Would that be something we could wrap our minds, and hearts, around?
We might examine our preconceptions about whom we consider “worthy” of leading or teaching us. How do we even begin to look at one another with the eyes of God, to see in the most unexpected of people those whom God has chosen to lead? Would we really have chosen the youngest one, the one out with the flocks, to be anointed as the next king? Would we really open our hearts and minds to a hometown, homegrown boy, someone we’ve known all of his life? Could anyone of importance really come from here, from us?
Megan McKenna describes Nazareth as “a backwater village where perhaps 120 to 150 people lived at the time of Jesus,” with many of them members of Jesus’ extended birth family. In the face of this kind of rejection, is it any wonder that Jesus redefines family for his followers? Now Jesus has been rejected not only by the high and mighty but even by the humblest of his connections, the people who should have known him, and loved him, best. In our own turn and in our day, what (and whom) are failing to see? What (and whom) are we missing?
Familiarity breeds contempt?
So the townsfolk of Nazareth fail to acknowledge or recognize God at work in a hometown boy, and they recite his family history as proof that he’s just one of them, and that his teaching is a sign of over-reaching and perhaps even arrogance. Several writers recall the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” which could be a title for this section of Mark’s Gospel. This crowd, rather than acclaiming Jesus as their spiritual leader, misses out on the amazing things God is doing in their midst.
Matthew Skinner says that “they barricade themselves from the fullness of blessings that God might have poured out in Nazareth.” Jesus responds with an observation rooted in conventional wisdom; Skinner, for example, provides a proverb from “the moral philosopher Plutarch: ‘The most sensible and wisest people are little cared for in their own hometown.'”
Walking away to shine elsewhere
Reading that Jesus’ power was somehow limited by the people’s unbelief may raise questions in our minds. Barbara Brown Taylor employs a wonderful metaphor in her sermon on this text to illustrate why Jesus couldn’t work the same miracles in his hometown, where the people refused to respond to him. Jesus was still Jesus, she says, but the people–then and now–have to be open to him and his transformative power.
Taylor compares this to the experience of trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks: “So call this an ‘un-miracle’ story, in which Jesus held the match until it burned out in his hand, while his family and friends sat shaking their heads a safe distance away.” Instead of working great wonders, Jesus had to walk away from his own hometown that day, and went on “to go shine his light somewhere else.”
Are we open to miracles?
Taylor then compares us to those folks in the synagogue, and to Jesus’ own family, for we are the church and claim Jesus as our own, but how faithful, how open, are we to his transformative power in our lives? Taylor’s sermon challenges us to consider our discomfort with being challenged, especially by the unexpected, unlikely people sent by God to do just that.
Like the United Church of Christ, Taylor believes that God is still speaking: “God is all around us, speaking to us through the most unlikely people.” Sure it might be the stranger or even the enemy who preoccupies our thoughts, but sometimes–surprise!–it’s the people who are right around us, every day (her sermon, “Sapping God’s Strength,” is in Bread of Angels). Who’s to say that Jesus can’t and won’t work through those most everyday people?
Depending on the power of God
Speaking of leaving to go shine one’s light somewhere else: Jesus then sends out his disciples to continue and expand his ministry and to be God’s agents at work in the world, traveling light and depending on God to provide all that they would need. The followers of Jesus do this not by their own power or authority, but by the authority and power Jesus has placed in them, “sent out,” Dianne Bergant writes, as “delegates or envoys” to preach Jesus’ message, in Jesus’ name. And they are enabled, through the power of Jesus, to do amazing things.
However, the images of a wandering prophet or a spiritual seeker do not fit this sending. “This is no rootless wandering,” Richard Swanson writes, and “the disciples do not look like itinerant preachers. They are sent out to attack demons and heal.” Like Jesus and John the Baptist before him, the disciples “are sent out to call for change.” Our call, as followers of Jesus, as those sent with power and authority (that derive from him) is to do the same: to heal, to attack the demons that plague our society and the world that God loves, to share the good news.
Disciples on a mission
Jesus knows that the journey and the work will be hard, but he sends his “agents” out with very little besides the good news and each other, and a stick, perhaps for safety, perhaps for support. We so often practice evangelism as a ministry to bring people to church that it’s an exercise to picture ourselves taking the good news out on the road, out into our lives, out into the world that hungers for it. If we focus too much of our time, energy and resources on the physical plant of our church, for example, then we might grow dependent upon it, a material resource, a possession, in a sense, a security blanket, perhaps.
It’s what we humans do when we feel insecure: depend on things instead of God. Our intentions are good, but we depend on the medium more than the message, the right equipment and the most beautiful sacred objects. Jesus knows this about us, understanding that “Provisions for the journey can substitute for faith if we’re not careful,” Peter W. Marty writes. Jesus knows that the gospel is more precious, more important, than anything else in the life of the church.
We are the equipment
Eugene Peterson offers Jesus’ instructions this way: “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment.” These are challenging words for us in the church. Often, we think of ourselves as heirs in the church: of building, of the church name or endowment or even the history of the congregation. But do we think of ourselves as heirs, or better, stewards, of the gospel?
Henry G. Brinton provides the delightfully contemporary image of “SUV spirituality” for the daunting task of evangelism in a world hungry for good news but often hostile to it, for we need “to serve Jesus by doing something tough, and by performing the Lord’s work in some hard-to-reach regions.” Preachers and disciples in any age, he writes, have “to leave the comfortable road of conventional wisdom and to face the rocks and logs and other barriers that society throws in our way.”
Reclaiming our passion for evangelism
Mainline Protestants are recovering our passion for evangelism, reclaiming our call to share the good news in both word and deed, and making sure that neither contradicts the other. With sorrow we recognize the considerable number of people who shut out our message because it doesn’t match our attitudes and our deeds, or because it seems to be aimed more at saving our churches from closing than at simply saving souls. Is the gospel such good news in our own lives that we can’t help sharing it, even with people who will never fill our pews or our offering plates?
How do these two stories shed light for you about leadership and call? The work of God, even through gifted and called leaders, happens best, it seems, when the people hear God still speaking to them in their place and time, in their own situation, and listen for where God is leading them and whom God is sending to lead them. Openness is called for on the part of the people to listen and accept God’s gifts. Of course, leaders also need to be open to God’s voice, to be humble and led even as they lead. Is it surprising, then, that the humble image of a shepherd is used to describe both David and Jesus?
How does the word “covenant” strike you in the story about David? Do you feel that you are living in covenant in your local church, that you are called there, that your leaders are empowered by God? As a leader and an evangelist in your own way, do you feel empowered by God? Upon what do you depend in your life of faith? Is the good news something you find and share and proclaim only in church, or do you take it on the road? Do you believe that you have everything that you will need along the way?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick, 21st century
“The mission of God’s people is not simply directed at saving people’s souls from a bad life-after-death into a good life-after-death, but it addresses and hopefully touches the injustice and violence around us–poverty, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, war, environmental destructionówhere salvation, justice, and peace can merge.”
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 5th century C.E.
“Run to and fro everywhere, holy fires, beautiful fires; for you are the light of the world, nor are you put under a bushel. He whom you cleave unto is exalted, and has exalted you. Run to and fro, and be known unto all nations.”
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
“Most Christians have enormous respect for the space and freedom of others, it is only that they have found a joy in Jesus they want to share. There is the tension.”
Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life & Work, 20th century
“The imitation of Christ is the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th century
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Theodore M. Hesburgh, 20th century
“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
Tierney Gearon, 21st century
“Even in the familiar there can be surprise and wonder.”
Mae West, 20th century
“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”
Harlan Ellison, 20th century
“If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”
Voltaire, 18th century
“Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.”
Oscar Romero, 20th century
“Let us not forget: we are a pilgrim church, subject to misunderstanding, to persecution, but a church that walks serene, because it bears the force of love.”
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