Jesus left that place, Mark tells us, and came to his hometown. (Mark 6:1-29) “That place” was the region around the Sea of Galilee, most recently where he healed a woman who had been suffering for many years and also raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus, a leader in the synagogue. Before that he cast out a demon from a tortured man. Before that he calmed a storm that was battering the boat taking him and his disciples from one side to the other. Before that he was teaching about seeds – sowing seeds, growing seeds, seeds as small as a grain of sand. Before that he healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. Before that, before that, before that….
Jesus has been on the move – healing, teaching, challenging, calling, sending. Jesus has been on the move all around Galilee and again and again as he performs wondrous acts and teaches with authority and wisdom from beyond himself people are amazed at what they see, amazed at what he does, amazed at what they notice in him – – at least those who notice it – – the Spirit of God.
Now he has come home and it is Jesus’s turn to be amazed, but not necessarily in a good way. On the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and began to teach. I wonder, but we don’t know, how often he had done this before. The gospel of Luke includes a story that Mark doesn’t of Jesus as a twelve year old getting separated from his parents on a trip home from Jerusalem. When they finally find him he is in the temple with the elders reading scripture, studying, asking and answering questions in a way that astounds everyone.
I wonder, however, if this became a habit, this reading and leading and teaching, in his home community, because when he does it on Homecoming Saturday everyone gets pretty worked up. “Where did he get all this? Who does he think he is? He’s just Jesus! The carpenter, the hometown kid. He’s no one special; he’s just one of us.” So, now it’s Jesus’s turn to be amazed, but he’s amazed at their unbelief.
I heard someone say this week that maybe the church is a bit like Jesus’s hometown. We’re used to him. We’re comfortable with the version of him we’ve always known, the one we grew up with, the one that is familiar. He’s holding a sheep on his shoulders, or sitting on a rock gently speaking to children. The porcelain skin of his face, framed by perfect locks of light brown hair with divinely natural blond highlight, practically glows as he welcomes us, arms outstretched and white robes flowing behind. He looks an awful lot like us and seems to be on the side of every one of our needs and causes.
But then we start listening with new ears or new teachers help us hear different things about him. Jesus might not be so white like me? He says what about the rich trying enter the kingdom of God? Like a camel going through the eye of a needle? And my enemies? It’s not good enough to just not be mean to them, I have to pray for them? I have to love them?? At some point in our lives, if we’re really paying attention to Jesus we find out that he challenges our comfort, has stern words for our way of life, and asks us to do some pretty counter-cultural things. Who is this guy and why is he messing with what we’ve known? Coming home is hard, Jesus knows. Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, their home synagogue, or even their church.
That was hard for me to hear, hard for me to consider, but as I sat with it, it began to see it. We want to be the disciples that Jesus sends out. When we read the story of Jesus calling his disciples, we want to be the kind of people who drop our nets, leave our worldly concerns behind, and follow him. But more often we end up being the Nazareth Homecoming Committee, pointing, staring, dodging the call, resisting being sent out into the world, to heal, to find God who is already at work, to point to the good news. We’re called to be disciples, but our disbelief in what Jesus can and really does do, our desire for a comfortable non-threatening God, and our fear of what might happen to us get in the way.
A fear, I might add, which doesn’t come out of nowhere. If people didn’t believe Jesus himself and rejected his ministry, it can seem a stretch to think they’ll welcome ours. If there were those who refused to listen to his disciples or rejected their ability to bring wholeness, it’s understandable that they might refuse and reject us, too. And then there’s John the Baptist. Mark pulls up this story from the past in part to show just how dangerous speaking out for the mission and will of God can be.
John’s ministry was one that called for repentance – – a physical turning from life that is contrary to God’s purposes, life that follows the written and unwritten rules of the empire that benefit a few, and turning to life lived in humble obedience to God, following the Holy Spirit that brings life indiscriminately to all. John’s ministry didn’t sound exactly like “good news” to those who were trying to hold onto their power, prestige, and prominence in society, so they arrested him. And when they didn’t like his confrontations about their choices, they killed him.
No, being at least a little frightened about what following God can really do for a disciple isn’t an abnormal response at all. It’s scary to put ourselves out there, saying things that are different from the majority. It’s scary to speak about valuing love and mercy over competition and fairness. None of us love the idea of sticking our necks out and possibly being misunderstood or challenged or disliked. It is challenging the status quo, working in the wilderness instead of the halls of power and comfort.
We live in a culture that is resistant to the message Jesus has been preaching, “Repent, turn around. The direction you’re heading will strip you of life.” Jesus says that healing is for the nameless woman as well as the synagogue leader, and that just doesn’t line up with our understanding of fairness. Our culture tends to preach that is you work hard, you’ll get what you deserve. And if you don’t get what you think you deserve it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. We hear that every good thing can be bought for the right price – the best seat at the concert, the best car, best house, even the best medical treatment. If you are rich enough you can be healed, and you deserve it because you worked for it. But if you don’t have the money and can’t afford it, it’s probably because of something you did. This is how a “fair” system works, and this is what some will go to the voting booths to defend.
But this is exactly what Jesus comes to turn over. This is exactly what Jesus comes to call us to turn away from – a mindset of fairness and a focus on getting what we deserve. Jesus comes with a message and ministry that is far better than fairness. Jesus comes with grace. Over and over again. Grace and healing and wholeness and forgiveness – – for those who deserve it by any earthly measure of fairness AND those who don’t. Jesus comes, God’s spirit persists even when there is rejection, because rejection is always going to be a possibility when “the way things always have been” is disrupted. But rejection doesn’t stop the Holy Spirit.
This last week marked the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger that killed six astronauts and one school teacher. In 1986, when this disaster occurred I was in the third grade at Indialantic Elementary School, located about 30 min south of the Space Center where that shuttle and all NASA shuttles were launched. As a practice we watched virtually all the shuttle launches from the school playground. Many in our community worked in some way, shape, or form in the space industry. A few weeks after the disaster Mr. Straehla, my elementary school principal walked into our classroom to teach us this idiom:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
He made us repeat it after him again and again, and I remember him telling us this is persistence. It’s that drive to keep trying even when the evidence against success is
mounting. It’s what Jesus calls his disciples to practice when they go out in his name. If at first you don’t succeed shake the dust off of your sandals and move on, try again. If someone you have approached doesn’t hear what you say, it’s OK. God is at work. It’s not the human job to save, but God’s. If a ministry you attempt doesn’t bear fruit you expect, it’s not the end of the world. Pack up the crayons or drums or dinner dishes, and try going in a different direction. You prayed, you dreamed, you planned, you tried. It’s OK to let it go and move on. Failure is a natural part of moving toward success. Failure is a natural part of ministry and it isn’t a reason not to go out and witness to the good news that God is at work in the world moving us, changing us, turning us toward a way of living that honors all of creation.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
And even more than a call to human persistence, what I believe Mark is trying to point to at this point in his gospel is divine persistence – – the persistence of God who will not stop trying to reach humanity, reach all of creation with love, and life, and forgiveness. When the people of Nazareth don’t want to or can’t hear Jesus’s teaching, when his deeds of power aren’t effective, he still laid hands on people and cured them. Divine persistence. When the disciples are rejected by some as they travel out in their mission, two by two, even then demons are cast out and the sick are cured. Divine persistence. When the prophet John the Baptist has been arrested and even killed, still another who is more powerful came after him baptizing with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near. This is divine persistence.
In the face of all manner of human resistance, God still persists. God still comes again and again to welcome us to a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new purpose on earth that isn’t about wealth or power or prestige or fairness or what we deserve or what we can earn on earth or in heaven. God comes to persistently welcome us into the divine kingdom of grace, inviting us into this work where, as disciples of Jesus, we also become part of God’s persistent love in the world, pointing to the one who provides healing and wholeness for all.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.