Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, B, July 5, 2015 on Mark 6:1-13
Mark 6: 1-13
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 his son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not 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.
We have enjoyed watching the TV series called “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” Set in the days of the American War of Independence, it is about spies who worked for General Washington. The drama starts in 1776 in Setauket, New York which was under British occupation. British troops were everywhere. Resistance was dangerous.
It was also a time in which insults to honor were settled by duals with pistols, as happens in this story. Insulting someone’s honor was taken with utmost seriousness.
The occupation of the land by foreign troops, the hopes for independence and the culture of honor and shame are all parts of the story we read from Mark’s gospel. The land of Israel, like the American colonies, was under foreign occupation: Roman troops were everywhere and were not at all reluctant to punish sedition.
Every Israelite longed to be out from under the boot of the Roman Empire, to be free and independent in their own land. They wanted their kingdom back. And many were willing to go to war to get it back.
Into this context, Jesus is born. He grows up the son of a peasant carpenter from a small insignificant village in Galilee among the working poor. He goes to synagogue every Sabbath where they read Torah and the prophets, sing the Psalms, and pray. They pray to the God of Moses, who led the exodus from Egyptian imperial oppression. To the God of Abraham who turned from idols to worship the one true God. They prayed to the God of creation, the ultimate Source of all being.
We know almost nothing about Jesus’ experience of childhood and youth, but by the time we get stories about his adult life, we see a person who is deeply spiritual. He spends long periods in silent prayer and meditation, sometimes all night long. He is a person of compassion, willing to be attentive and fully present to suffering people. And Jesus has a clear sense of calling. He knows what his purpose is. He lives as one totally connected to the Source of all being. He is fond of calling that ultimate Source of being “Abba,” Father. His connection is personal and even intimate.
What comes from this connection? It is complicated. Some of it makes Jesus well liked – even amazing to people. At the same time, it alienates Jesus from some; even makes them angry.
Reacting to Jesus’ Vision
On the positive side, Jesus’ presence is a healing presence for many. He touches people in unique ways with the power of God’s energy flowing through him. He refuses to alienate anyone – he even goes out of his way to cross over to the Gentile side of the lake, to touch impure people and to remove social and even religious purity-barriers, as we have seen in the last few weeks of reading the gospel of Mark.
And Jesus has an amazing vision for he future. He lives in the days of monarchies, so he calls his vision the kingdom of God. It is a vision of shalom; of goodness, of reconciliation and wholeness. Most remarkable is that for Jesus, the future has arrived. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand, and for those who accept this vision, it changes everything.
I wish we knew how Jesus arrived at this amazing vision, but we can see where it came from. If you look back on the story of Israel told in Israel’s scripture, you can see patterns emerging, or evolving. You can see trajectories. The nation that is comprised of liberated slaves are formed into a community by covenant, under Moses.
Israel’s Odd Prophets
They worship their liberating God through sacrifice, as many ancient peoples did. But Israel had these odd, outlier people called prophets who had remarkable spiritual insight, who said that there was more to it. God, the Creator, the ultimate Source of being did not actually need sacrifices. What God wanted was justice, mercy and compassion.
God wanted liberation for humans at a deep level. God wanted liberation from selfishness, from greed, from violence. The prophets had an amazing vision of a future of shalom, of peace between nations, of swords beaten into plows and spears into pruning hooks. It was a world-encompassing vision by prophets who knew that this was the only possible world that the Source of all being could desire.
So Jesus grew up reading Moses, and the Psalms, drinking in the insights of the prophets, and communing with God, the ultimate source of all being.
This is why, like some of the prophets before him, Jesus offended people too. There are those for whom a world-wide vision was against their parochial self-interest. There were those who did not long for the days of shalom, but who wanted to go to war. They did not want the kingdom of God, they wanted the kingdom of David back.
Long ago, the prophet Jeremiah got thrown into a pit where he was expected to die because he told the people of his day not to go to war with the invading Babylonians. And similarly, Jesus offended the nascent zealots of his day by resisting their quest for a new war of liberation against Rome.
The story we read today shows glimpses of Jesus and the way he was received, both positively and negatively. People liked his sermons in the synagogue, but they had issues with his agenda. In that honor-and-shame-obsessed culture, they tried to insult Jesus. They did not call him a new prophet, but rather a lowly carpenter. They did not call him Joseph’s son, as patrilineal custom dictated. They called him Mary’s son. They mocked his family, his brothers and sisters.
Jesus got the insult. He said,
“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown”
But he did not call anyone to a dual or get into an ego contest. His sense of self was far deeper than their ego insults could touch. His response was the non-violent response of a contemplative. He simply moved on.
Jesus’ Two-leveled Mission
There were two levels to Jesus’ mission. First, he wanted people to come to know and love God, the ultimate source of being has he did. He taught people to pray “Our Father in heaven” meaning our Father who is Divine; God.
He taught people to be spiritually oriented. To come to understand that their truest selves were not their external labels and roles, their time-bound and culture-bound identities, but that their true identities were that they were God’s progeny; God’s children, in fact, at one with God.
Jesus wanted people to understand that their relationship to God was not about guilt and shame, taboo and law, but about redeeming love and ultimate trust.
This is exactly what we need still today; to be spiritually connected to the source of all being, to God, whom we know is for us, not against us. To finally know ourselves at one with God, to experience God’s presence in the present.
Spirituality is the first level. But it does not stop there; it cannot stop there. As soon as God is known this way, everything else changes. It changes the way we relate to all other humans in the world. They are not aliens to us if we share a common source, a common Father. We cannot be indifferent to their needs, their pain, their conditions anymore than we are indifferent to the pain in our own families. We become people of compassion.
Did you happen to see that piece that was carried on a popular news channel in which a white reporter in a sharp suit interviewed homeless black people living in Grand Central Station? It was so, so sad. This man went up to people who had no homes to live in, completely devoid of any compassion, and smugly coaxed them to reveal how dehumanized their lives had become. Then he interviewed white people who complained of how inconvenient these homeless people made their lives. Then he discussed the piece with the popular news anchor – all without one single word of pity, understanding or compassion, let alone analysis of root causes nor proposals for solutions.
Friends, we are called to a far higher standard. Just as Jesus sent out his disciples to pass on the vision of the kingdom, the realm of God, so we are here for a purpose. Just as their ministry was a ministry of healing, so we are called to be God’s agents of practical care and compassion to the suffering.
Just as they cast out demons, so we are called to confront all the ways in which evil manifests itself in our day: the way the evil of greed and corruption infects our economic and political lives. The way the evil of discrimination and racism continues to claim victims. The way the evil of apathy infects us and allows us to turn away from people in poverty, and to ignore the cruel absurdity of mass incarceration.
Let us be the people who embrace Jesus’ vision. Let us be people of deep spirituality. Let us practice our faith intentionally by daily prayer and meditation, by regular worship and sacraments, and gathering together as a community in fellowship. And let us be a community that passes it on in practical mission to our world.
Our perspective, since it seeks to be Jesus’ perspective, may run afoul of popular perspectives. We may have to take some heat for being scandalized by heartless reports about homeless people. We may take some flack for being the ones willing to stand up for equality for LGBT people and for pressing for an end to racism and all its politely tolerated symbols.
We may, like Jesus and his disciples, find some people unwilling to embrace the world as it looks from the perspective of the Source of all Being. But we will not be baited by negativity. We will live as hope-filled followers of Jesus, as children of the Father, as those who know we are one with God, our source and our destination