Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for July 25, 2021: God is Feeding People Again based upon 2 Kings 4:42-44 and John 6:1-21
2 Kings 4:42-44
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and have some left.” ’ He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Food for Fifty: Lentil-Sausage Soup*
Brown in a large kettle 5 lbs. of pork sausage, broken into chunks.
Remove meat and pour off all but 1 cup of drippings.
Add: 10 medium onions, chopped; 5 cloves garlic, minced;
and 20 medium parsnips, cut in chunks (optional).
Cook 5 minutes until onions and garlic are tender.
Then add: 4-4.5 lbs. lentils;
5 Tbsp. salt; 1 Tbsp. marjoram;
6 qt. Cooked tomatoes or juice;
7 qt. water; and browned sausage.
Simmer about 30 minutes. Makes about 4 gallons.
– Doris Janzen Longacre, Living More with Less
If you had to suddenly feed fifty people, what would you feed them? I, personally, would probably panic, for at least a minute. Then, I would run to the pantry. If we had to suddenly feed 50 people, we have enough pasta and pre-made sauce to cover 10 (could cover the vegans with this). We also have enough pancake fixin’s for probably 10 people (would cover the vegetarians). And, with the beef stock, canned veggies, and rice, we could probably whip up a pretty hardy soup... enough to fill our big soup pot. Oh! And some frozen fiddleheads I could cook and put on grits. There’s another vegan dish. Tasha wanted to simplify things and said “Can’t we just order pizza or buy all the pasta and pasta sauce at Annie’s.” Annie’s is our local convenience store.
I asked three friends, all generous folks and good cooks, what they’d do. Kristy said chili or soup: “Something where a little goes a long way.” Tijuana, who is a pastor, too, and was working on her own sermon, said she’d make roasted veggies and farro and try to have tahini or sriracha sauce for people to use. If she had the ingredients on hand, she’d make beef stew, too. Emily said she’d roast veggies, too, and chickpeas. And, cook up a bunch of lentils. Cheap. Easy to cook up a bunch. Good for vegetarians and vegans and a lot of different food allergies. If you had to suddenly cook for 50 people, what would you cook? How would you feed everyone?
If you are the prophet Elisha, and a group of a hundred people is sitting in front of you, people who are living in the midst of a famine, you know that they need to be fed. And, because you are a prophet, you want to remind people of the love and compassion of God. Everything you do is an attempt to reconnect people with their covenant with God. That includes figuring out how to feed 100 hungry people. Dr. Dora Mbwayesango, in her commentary on the text, says that Elisha is following the footsteps of Elijah, by “showing God’s care and power through miracles.” Feeding 100 people, when you just got back to town and there is also a famine, is certainly a miracle.
Because he is a prophet and known to be close to God, a stranger has brought him an extravagant gift as an offering to God: twenty loaves of barley and more fresh ears of grain he’s carrying in a satchel. Dr. Mbwayesango said that kind of offering is usually made to a priest at a sanctuary. This offering is also far more than was asked to be given to a priest in Leviticus 23:10-14. Elisha, who follows a caring and powerful God, knows what to do with extra, unexpected food: Share it. But, even this much food won’t be enough for 100 people. Elisha’s servant is worried that it won’t be enough and maybe that the people will fight over what little there is. Remember how people were about the toilet paper last year? Dr. Mbwayesango said, “Fear sometimes brings a spirit of individualism that disregards the needs of others and ignores the connections among us.” That’s what the servant was worried about happening right there in front of Elisha.
But, like I said, Elisha knew he was following a caring and powerful God. He told the servant to put the food out. “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘they shall eat and have some left.’” The servant is worried. It’s like me looking at our three cans of chick peas, a small bag of couscous, and some beef broth and trying to figure out how to make it something that tastes good. He’s worried. But he puts the food out. All the people come. All the people eat. There was some left. Elisha knew God could pull it off. And, isn’t it beautiful that God worked through one faithful man’s gift to make sure a bunch of hungry people could eat.
What if you’re Jesus and you want to feed a whole bunch of people? What do you do? Turns out, something a lot like Elisha. Each of the four Gospels record Jesus working miracles. There is only one miracle that is in all four: Jesus feeding the five thousand. There isn’t even a birth narrative in all four of the Gospels. But, each of the people who wrote and compiled Jesus’ story into a Gospel though this story was so important that they each had to include it. Our reading today is the version from the book of John. It is not a time of famine, but it is a time of tension: Passover, a holy festival for the Jewish people that was also closely guarded by Rome, who feared rebellions might bubble up in those holy days dedicated to remembering God’s liberating power.
It is no coincidence that the story of Elisha feeding 100 people and Jesus feeding 5,000 are paired together as readings for today. In her commentary on the text, Dr. Susan Hylen notes that the author of John respected prophets and used comparisons to prophets to help people understand who Jesus was. Like Elisha, Jesus knew that God was caring and powerful. In his own ministry, Jesus mirrored the actions of earlier prophets, working miracles as signs pointing to God’s abundance and concern for the people, and inviting people to return to the promises they made in the covenant. Jesus was more than prophet, but as one who was also sent by God, he knew, like the prophets knew, that God would feed the people.
Jesus looks at the 5,000 gathered and knows they need to eat. He says to a disciple, “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?” Bread must have been Jesus’ go to recipe instead of grilled veggies and lentils. Phillip, ever the pragmatist, says “six months of wages would not buy enough bread for all these people.” Andrew, a little more optimistic, looked around to see what was at hand and found a boy who was willing to share five barley loaves and two fish. Yet another generous person willing to share what they have, even though it’s less than the man in the Elisha story. Jesus looked at the people and the food they had and he knew God would make it work.
So, he had his disciples sit everyone down. He gave thanks for what they had and began to break it apart, sharing the bread and the fish. And, he just kept having enough. Some people wonder if, in seeing the boy and Jesus share, it inspired others to share, with everyone digging into their purses and backpacks and pockets for any little bit of food to bless and share with their neighbors. That’s its own kind of miracle, generosity bearing more generosity into the world. I don’t know if that explanation is necessary though. Jesus does some wild and powerful stuff in John. But, it’s always to point back to God. How ever the people were fed, they were fed. And, they knew something more about God’s loving abundance after having eaten.
There’s more to this story. The people call Jesus a prophet, which is kind of true, and some even want him to be king, which Jesus doesn’t want at all. Dr. Hylen reminds us that Jesus will later be clear that ‘his kingdom is not of this earth.” And, he was not seeking his own power or exaltation. He performed miracles to show people something about God. Even when he walked on water at the end of this reading, it wasn’t just about showing his power. It was about telling the disciples not to be afraid. The things they will do together will be frightening. But, God’s power lived in Jesus. God’s abundance moved through Jesus. Jesus can be more powerful than a force of nature and gentle enough to feed strangers with food borrowed from a generous child. If the people are hungry, they will be fed. God will make sure of it.
There’s plenty of hungry people right now, needing to be fed. Whenever we are generous like the man with the extravagant offering or like the boy with a simple meal, we are getting a glimpse of God’s abundance in action. We are most often in the place of the servant or Philip, clear that what we have isn’t enough to feed everyone. But, I pray that we can be like the servant and Andrew, and look at what we have and share it anyway. God will still work through it. And, when the people are no longer hungry, they know something more about the caring and powerful God we service. And, they won’t be hungry anymore.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Recipe originally shared by Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi: https://www.ucc.org/worship-way/pentecost-9-july-25/
Dora Mbwayesango: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17-2/commentary-on-2-kings-442-44
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17-2/commentary-on-john-61-21-4
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
We’re back to talking about shepherds again. We’ve talked about shepherds before... Jesus as the Good Shepherd, God as the shepherd that guides you through the valley of the shadow of death. The prophet Jeremiah needed to talk about some bad shepherds... shepherds who didn’t know how to care for the sheep entrusted to them or misuse the power for their own game. As we well know, just because someone has been put in charge, it doesn’t mean that they know what they are doing and it does mean that they will do the job well. Jeremiah is clear that the shepherds who have been in charge of Judah have not done right by the sheep, God’s people. Jeremiah wants the shepherds to know that God will hold them accountable. Jeremiah also wants to assure the sheep that God has not forgotten them.
Last week, when I preached from the book of Amos, I talked some about what stressors Amos was responding to in his prophecies. One was the systems of acute inequality that were enriching powerful people and making a lot of less powerful people very poor. The second was the looming threat of a powerful neighboring country that was looking to gain more territory through war. Amos connected the two, warning the Northern Kingdom of Israel that the unjust systems, contrary to the covenant they made with God, would be the downfall of their kingdom and divine retribution would come through war with their more powerful neighbor. About a hundred and sixty years later, Jeremiah would respond to similar issues in the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, with a similar warning. The promises of the covenant come with expectations for ethical behavior. To fail in your ethical expectation is to risk destruction. The shepherds who have scattered the sheep will face accountability.
Amos was delivering a warning before the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria. Jeremiah appears to be offering a rebuke-filled explanation for Judah’s loss, and Jerusalem’s destruction, at the hands of Babylon. Choir members, when you sing that beautiful setting of Psalm 137, you are singing about the same period of history that Jeremiah is addressing in this part of his prophecy. Here is part of Psalm 137, written as from the ones who were kidnapped and taken to Babylon:
By the rivers of Babylon--
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
I appreciated reading Dr. Julián Andrés González Holguín’s commentary on this part of Jeremiah. He reminds the readers and hearers of this text, which began as prophecies shared by the prophet and remembered by the people and was later collected and edited into the version we have today, that this book is a product of a community processing a significant trauma. The siege of Jerusalem, a destructive, several-month attack on the city at the heart of the communal religious life in the Southern Kingdom, is the particular event that the prophet and editors of the prophet’s words were trying to explain.
The temple was destroyed. The ark of the Covenant, that is, the resting place of God, was carted away as treasure. The king, his family, court, and other members of the ruling class were forced to go to Babylon. Many other leaders and elite in the community were killed. Life became even harder for the poor folks. Dr. Holguín notes in his commentary that everything about life in this city changed in the wake of the siege. So many people were displaced. So many people struggled. It was, as Holguín describes it, “a multilevel debacle,” a disaster on national, economic, and spiritual levels. Displacement from one’s home and disruption of religious spaces and practices, in particular, threatened the survival of the people of the covenant as a whole. We can look at the histories of indigenous communities and the descendants of Africans kidnapped and brought here to North America to see how much damage a nation can do by moving people against their will and forbidding them from participating in the common religious rituals that give life meaning.
If something really bad happens when you are in charge, you should expect people to assume that you should have been able to prevent it. That is part of Jeremiah’s critique here. According to the scholar Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah is a part of theological tradition of priests who were already in conflict with the kings of Judah. He may have been primed and ready to be critical of the ways they were leading the kingdom. Chapter 22, the chapter just before today’s reading, is a critique of three different kinds of Judah, who, according to Blake Couey, “ruled unjustly and exploited their people.” In her commentary on the text, Elaine James points out specifically that these kings failed to follow the ethical demands to care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow (Jeremiah 22: 3-4). Jeremiah 22:13 says: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” If Babylon was able to destroy Jerusalem, according to Jeremiah, it was because the rulers of Jerusalem were more concerned with building up their own comfort than adhering to the demands of God’s law.
Dr. James makes it clear: the consequences of corrupt leadership is a scattered flock. Now, Jeremiah will make an argument that I won’t. I don’t believe that God empowered Babylon kill so many people. But, I understand why Jeremiah would argue that God would. In Jeremiah’s understanding, nothing happens in the world without God’s command, including war. Dr. James also notes a tenderness of God held in tension with God’s scrutiny. Other scholars I read this week talk about this as the patterns of judgement and restoration common in prophetic books of this era. As surely as God will mete out justice on those who ignore divine ethical requirements, God will also provide for the restoration of God’s people.
Our reading for the day describes it this way, with God speaking to the kings who have been poor shepherds: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. I will attend to you for your evil doings.” That’s the judgement. Here is the restoration: “Then I myself will gather then remnant of my flock out of all the lands when I have driven them and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” Dr. James notes the ways that the shepherd metaphor is flexible here. God, once again is the ultimate shepherd who gathers and tends to the sheep. But, God will also raise up new shepherds, that is kings, who will tend to God’s people with justice and righteousness. Under this king, “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.” Did you notice that, in this time of restoration, the two kingdoms we be reunified? Judah and Israel will both be safe under the new king. That’s the ultimate restoration, isn’t it, two nations, split by arguments over leadership, brought back together in justice?
We are in a time when people are trying to make sense of the on-going trauma in our world. Between the Pandemic and the failures of leadership that have incited even more suffering, and the droughts, fires, and floods, and the failures of leadership to address climate change that is at the root of these dramatic weather events, I know that we are hearing prophetic voices, right now, warning us of the further destruction that awaits nations that don’t attend to the ethical demands of care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow. May we be more moved by the prophets to change than these ancient kings were. And, when things seem the most bleak, I pray that we can remember the promise of restoration. We can be gathered together as God’s flock and live in righteousness. We don’t have to be satisfied with a nation that stomps on the needy. God’s leaders rule in justice and righteousness. If we are following God, we can insist on justice and righteousness, too.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
Our Sermon for July 11th, 2021: Prophets, Shepherds, and Plumblines, based on Amos 7:7-15
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Prophets, Shepherds, and Plumblines: Amos 7:7-15
I have spent part of my week learning what a plumb bob is. Plumb line… plumb bob… these are both phrases for an ancient building technology that helps people build straight walls and posts and roofs, really anything where it’s important that one part of the build be aligned with another part vertically. I watched videos where one guy used it to place a rafter, one of the pieces of a building that holds up a roof. I watched another one where someone used it to add a support beam in a temporary wall. The 2x4 at the base had to line up with the 2x4 that had already been attached to the ceiling. I watched another video where one poor guy had already framed a corner of a building, guided by a level, and it looked pretty straight. But, he just wanted to make sure everything was as level and plumb and straight as it was supposed to be. He said “the plumb bob never lies” and used it to double check his work. Sure enough. He was 3/8th of an inch off. Three-eighths might not seem like a lot. But, if you are off a little in one part, that can throw off the whole house. Best to measure twice, early on, to make sure that what you’re building will stand. I hope it didn’t take him too long to rework that corner.
I had to learn how to use a plumbline because the Prophet Amos once had a vision where God was standing next to a wall that God built. God was holding a plumb line. God had measured the people and found out that they were not properly aligned. And, God was not happy about it. God says to Amos, “I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Yikes. None of that sounds good. Not even one bit.
What, you may ask, is God so mad about? A thing God is usually mad about: Injustice. Let me set the scene. I feel a little like Sophia Petrillo of The Golden Girls: Picture it- Israel, 752 BCE (or, at least, sometime between 760 and 750 BCE). A couple hundred years after the death of Solomon, Israel has split into the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom for a while. The Northern Kingdom is still called Israel and also Samaria. The Southern Kingdom is known as Judah. The ancient holy site of Bethel -- where Abram built an altar to God, where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven, where Deborah issued rulings, and where Rebecca was buried -- was in the Northern Kingdom. Amos is arguing with the priest at Bethel, Amaziah, later in this reading. Amos is a shepherd, turned prophet, who is from the Southern Kingdom. Jerusalem, David’s royal city and the home of the Temple, is in the Southern Kingdom.
According to scholars I read this week, the book of Amos, along with the books of Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, are dealing with prophetic interpretations of two significant culture issues of this era: 1) the increasing wealth of the elite of the both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms that was being built on systems of mistreatment of poor people and 2) the looming threat of Assyria, the powerful neighboring nation with imperial aspirations. Amos, like Isaiah, understands that faith in God not just to be about an individual person’s religious commitment, but about an entire community’s ethical behavior. Gregory Mobley, in his introduction to Amos in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, puts it this way: Israel’s covenant with God did not provide it with a special privilege. The nation, as a whole, is required to live up to an ethical standard of justice and righteousness. In her commentary on this passage, Elaine James says, “God’s love demands righteousness, and breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.” Amos, along with other prophets, believed that Israel had so thoroughly ignored their ethical commitments that God would soon punish them by letting Assyria defeat them in war and take over their nation.
I’m not exactly sure what systems the elite and wealthy people of the Northern Kingdom put in place to cheat poorer people. Dr. Mobley indicated that it had something to do with how wealthier people would manipulate the smallest amount of debt held by poorer people, forcing them out of farms held in their families for generations and forcing some people into slavery. In his commentary on the text, Walter Brueggemann cited scholars who outlined the impacts of these unjust systems. They might seem familiar to you. While some lose land, homes, and family, others managed two own two homes and to have homes decorated in fine ivory and ornate masonry (all of that is described in Amos 3:15, 5:11, and 6:4). While some could not find enough to eat, the elite would throw lavish banquets (4:1b). This is not how people living according to the covenant with God should be behaving in the world. Amos’ vision of God The Builder with a plumbline is a visualization of this frustration. God’s builds justice and righteousness. The nation’s behavior should be plumb, that is, in alignment, with God’s priorities. And, it is not.
Amos, who God plucked out of the fields and sent to the Northern Kingdom to warn them to change their ways, tells the people that individual rituals of piety aren’t enough to make the nation plumb. In chapter 5, verses 21-24, Amos shares that God says:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Dr. James notes that you might remember those words from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King had been criticized by white clergy in Birmingham who had grown too comfortable with their good life to stand up for racial equality with the speed and intensity required to do right by their Black neighbors. Dr. King reminded them of the ethical commands found in Amos and the plumbline with which God could measure a nation. To paraphrase Dr. King, and maybe Amos, the right time to live according to the demands of love and justice is right now.
This is not exactly a fluffy and sweet vision of God. It is a hard word delivered by a simple man to a religious professional who is not prepared to hear it. Amaziah, the priest, who assumes that he is living right, or at least living right enough, has no interest in the harsh critique of Amos. “Go back to Judah and prophesy there,” he says. Amos said “No, God sent me here to tell you when you trample on the needy, your nation will not survive.” Sometimes you have to be willing to hear the hard word, really hear it, if you are going to change the path you are going on and make yourself plumb with God. At least Amos reminds us that God is invested in humanity and has expectations of us. And, the greatest of these is that we will care for each other as a reflection of our love of God.
I called Hariph (the moderator of our church whom I always call with questions about tools and wood-working) on Friday morning and asked him if he used a plumb bob. He said “not anymore!” But he used to. You see, we have lasers now. A lot of builders have switched over to them. They are accurate and fast, and can do a few things that the plumb bob can’t do as easily. But, the lasers and plumblines all do that same work: they help you build something that is plumb... that is strong and in alignment with the rest of the structure around it. The tools we use to follow God might be different now, but the good ones still help us discern if our structures -- our churches, our local and national policies -- are in alignment with God’s priorities. Amos shows us that a community that is so out of alignment with God’s priorities that a small group of people own most of everything while many people struggle to survive is not sustainable. We can be like Amaziah and try to run out Amoses off. Or, we can hear their words for the plumbline that they are. May we be willing to be measured and make the shifts necessary to align ourselves with God.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
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 honor, 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.
The Mission of the Twelve
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.
Since Pentecost, we’ve been working our way through Acts, hearing about how Jesus’ first followers were led by the Holy Spirit to make a broader welcome to Christ’s table. Today, we’re going to shift back into a story from Jesus’ early ministry, a time he returned to his hometown. As Emerson Powery says in his commentary on this passage, Jesus and his disciples had been welcomed and readily engaged in neighboring synagogues in other towns. You might expect that when he returned home, given how successful his earliest public preaching and healing had been, that his hometown synagogue would welcome him. As Dr. Powery notes and as you heard in our reading today, that would not be the case.
I bet that some of this story seems familiar to you, and not just because you’ve heard this Bible story before. Local kid leaves town from some reason, maybe it's for school or for a new job or joined the military or just to go on an adventure. That local kid hardly checks back in with old family or friends. A lot happens while the local kid, is gone, both to that local kid and in her hometown. She grows up. She learns things. She is changed by what she experiences. She comes back to town, not really to visit, but for work, and runs into the people she grew up with. She shares what she has learned and experienced, and it is not at all like what the hometown folks expected. They remember when she was a toddler running around in diapers and teenager who got caught drinking wine coolers behind the high school. They know her family, and all the rumors about her family. There is no way that they could take her seriously, even if she kinda sounds like she knows what she's talking about. They know her too well, they think. There is no way that she can convince them that there is more to her than just the kid they used to know.
Now, she may be surprised at the cold reception she receives upon coming home. Especially if she knows that she has important things to tell people. Especially if she has learned a lot while she was gone and wants to share it. Or... maybe she's not surprised at all. Maybe she knows that her homeplace never treats someone well if they leave, even if they try to come back... especially if they seem really different when they come home. Maybe she’s heard “you can never go home again.” But, she’s willing to try anyway.
In my life, I have heard countless stories of someone who goes away and then comes back, and no one really knows how to act when they return. So often, there are questions like “who do they think they are?” and accusations of “getting above his raisin'.” For all the folks who are happy to see them return, there are just as many who are suspicious. This particular return home, Jesus’ return home, goes so poorly that it almost makes me wonder if they were actually mad that he left. To be fair, they may have a good reason for wondering why in the world he left town. Afterall, C. Clifton Black reminds us in his commentary, Jesus had responsibilities. He was the oldest son. There were six other children. And, there was the family business. Bonnie Bowman Thurston also noted that it appears that Jesus had learned a trade and would likely have been expected to work with or maybe even take over business from Joseph.
I think that some people would argue that you don't just ignore the training you've received when someone else has invested that much time in you. Some people even think that, by this point in Mark, Joseph may have died. Several scholars I read note that he is not mentioned at all in the book of Mark, and Jesus is called the son of Mary, not the son of Joseph, as would have been the custom if Joseph had been alive. If Mary was a widow, and Jesus had been expected to step up as the eldest son, and lead the family, and had, instead, chosen to leave to become an itinerant preacher, more than a few of his neighbors and oldest associates would have disapproved.
Frankly, though, family business drama aside, they might have just been shocked that he seems to feel comfortable speaking in the synagogue. While Jesus would have been highly trained as a carpenter, the skills required to do that job are different from those of the legal scholar and teachers. Most people would have understood religious teachers to have gained wisdom through inspiration rooted in years of study of Scripture and theology. Despite his training and skill as a carpenter, it would not be unreasonable to believe that, if he was taught to read at all, it was primarily so that he could do business, not so that he could spend his time reading ancient theology and philosophy books. Who does he think he is, spouting off his ideas about the reign of God? I can hear the crowd gathered say, “I know his mama. I don't care how wise he sounds. There is no reason he should be able to do what he's doing right now. Who does he think he is?”
In the translation we read today, it says that his former friends and neighbors took offense to him. Bonnie Bowman Thurston tells us that the word in Greek, eskandalizonto, literally means something more like "hearing him made them stumble as though they tripped on a rock." What do you feel like when you trip on something you didn't expect? Embarrassed? Angry? Frustrated that you didn't see the thing that tripped you in the first place? Hurt because you fell on your face and now you feel foolish in front of people you needed to impress? The thing about stumbling on a rock is that you almost never know that the rock is there until the moment you trip on it. And, the rock almost always changes your course in some way, whether you want to change course or not. What the author of Mark was saying is that Jesus' presence and new-found wisdom was so surprising to the people in his hometown that it knocked them flat on their faces, just as surely as if they had tripped on a rock. And, they were not happy about that in the least.
I suspect that Jesus' old friends and neighbors aren't the only ones have certain ideas about who Jesus is and who God is. I also suspect that they aren't the only ones who get mad when these expectations are upended. We all have ideas about the Divine that often seem pretty firm and unshaking. Maybe we learned them in our religious communities. Maybe they came to us through our own personal study or through the broader culture in which we live. I don't know about you, but, I don't particularly enjoy it when I stumbled upon a Holy rock and end up flat on my face. I've often been embarrassed, angry, and frustrated that I didn't see the rock until the very moment that I tripped over it, and had to learn something new about God, whether I wanted to or not.
Verse 6 tells us that Jesus is amazed by their disbelief. This is the kind of amazement that is shaped by despair. He does not begrudge them a certain level of shock. After all, much has happened to him since he left. And, he is likely telling them something about the reign of God that many would find a scandal. What dismays him is that they are so locked into their idea of who they think he is... Mary's son, the carpenter, the oldest boy who ran off... that they can’t see the new gift that he is bringing them. In her commentary, Dr. Thurston notes that Jesus tried to bring healing and light back to his hometown, but they were so stuck in their old expectations around who he was that they could not hear new word of God's love and compassion that he brought them. Only a few people could hear his word of healing love and be cured. The rest were so mad that they stumbled when they saw a version of him that they didn't know that they missed out on the Gospel.
Fortunately, the poor reaction of his hometown did not stop Jesus from preaching and teaching. In his commentary, Emerson Powery notes that, once Jesus said that his ministry was that of a prophet, he was asserting an identity that placed him in, what Powery calls, “a long line of countercultural figures in Israel.” He knew his religious history and what people’s responses to prophets often was. Even if he was dismayed at his hometown’s response, it didn’t stop him from continuing his ministry and sending his disciples out on behalf of the Holy Spirit. He teaches them how to be good guests of the people who offer them hospitality. He tells them to rely on God (sometimes through human hospitality, sometimes through the Holy Spirit acting within them) rather than intense preparation to do their mighty works. If the Gospel can’t live and breathe in one place, they will travel somewhere that it can. When our own plans get thwarted, may we be as willing as Christ was to make new ones. Great healing and fellowship might await us in the next place we go, even if it’s not in the first place we go looking. Prophets may not be welcomed in their hometown, but disciples can still proclaim the gospel along the way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2502
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001).
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14-2/commentary-on-mark-61-13-5
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.