Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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 Maryand 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.
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.
I bet that some of this story seems familiar to you. 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 in some place that is new and unfamiliar. That local kid hardly checks back in with old family or friends. A lot happens while the local kid, now an adult, 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. She may be surprised at the cold reception she receives. She knows that she has important things to tell people. Why won't they listen? Maybe she's not surprised at all. Maybe she knows that her homeplace never treats you well if you leave and try to come back. Maybe she knows that it always hard to go back to your hometown.
Sometimes when we hear stories of Jesus' life, it can seem so different from our own. Part of the reason it's fun to read the Bible is to read stories of people who led such different lives than our own. Sometimes, though, Jesus' story sounds a lot like ours. I think this is one of those times. Stories very much like this one happen in small towns and big city neighborhoods every day. 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. This is yet one more story of the wanderer who doesn't fit in back home anymore and the hometown folks who worry that he's gotten above his raisin'. They are surprised by the wisdom that he has brought back with him, and maybe even suspicious.
This interaction goes so poorly that it almost makes me wonder if they may even be mad that he left. It sure seems like they are. To be fair, they may have a good reason for wondering why in the world he left town. After all, he had responsibilities. He was the oldest son. There were six other children. And, there was the family business. 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. You don't just ignore the training you've received when someone else has invested that much time in you. And, some people even think that, by this point in the story, Joseph may have died, too. 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. All of this makes it even more unusual that Jesus would have left. The oldest son would have likely been entrusted with caring for his widowed mother. What kind of boy leaves his mom to run off on some wild goose chase with his weird cousin? I don't care if there were 6 other kids. Jesus had responsibilities.
Maybe they were just 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 would have seemed very different from those of the legal scholar and rabbis. While I can think of several occasions in the past year when it would have been helpful to be a trained carpenter and a preacher, it doesn't appear that the people who heard him thought that carpentry and preaching went so neatly together. Most people would have understood religious teachers to have gained wisdom through inspiration rooted in years of study of Scripture and theology. Jesus would have come from a simple home. Who knows if the people in his family even knew how to read? 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 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. It's just not right.
In the translation we read today, it says that his former friends and neighbors took offense to him. 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'm pretty sure that my ideas about God are right. I don't particularly enjoy it when I stumbled upon a Holy rock and end up face down in theology that I used to think was so elegant and helpful and such an accurate description of the Divine. I've not always been happy about these little trips. 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.
I don't think this story is trying to tell us that we shouldn't be surprised by how Christ can come into our lives. Jesus isn't amazed by the fact that his former friends and neighbors are surprised that he has returned home with new-found wisdom. It says that he is amazed by their disbelief. This is the kind of amazement that is colored 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 (by the way, our modern word "scandal" comes from this ancient word that means "to stumble as though on a rock"). 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 see the new gift that he is bringing them. He 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. They were too mad to hear a new word from a voice that they thought they already knew.
Some of you may know that the theme of General Synod this year was Unexpected Places. It is certainly helpful to me to be reminded that God often comes in ways we don't expect and through people we don't expect. Two of the best conversations I had at Synod were with people who either told me something unexpected about their faith or showed up in my life just out of the blue. One was with a young woman who shared how much Pilgrim Lodge feels like church to her. I don't necessarily think about church when I think about summer camp. The other surprising conversation was with a humanist clergy person who had shown up at the same press conference I was attending, ready to officiate marriages for people on the day of the marriage equality ruling. Had I not been willing to see the Divine in unexpected places, I would missed the two great conversations. My prayer is that we can be little more like Jesus' disciples who were willing to hear him when he made the unexpected request that they follow him, and little less like the folks from his home town, who couldn't get past their preconceived notions about the man that they once knew. May we be willing to hear a new word from a source that we thought we knew. And, may we be open to the times when Jesus comes to us with unexpected words of wisdom. We may be surprised by what we hear, and maybe even a little mad about it. I hope we stumble so hard that we miss out on the healing.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing her sermon
Clifton Black's commentary on Mark 6:1-13: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2502
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx
The Pulpit Fiction Podcast : http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/122-proper-9b-july-5-2015
Preaching Mark by Bonnie Bowman Thurston (Augsburg Fortress, 2002)
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.