Sermon for July 15th, 2012

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Mark 6:1-13

6He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2On 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! 3Is 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. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If 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.” 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Hometown Prophet

Just so there isn't any confusion here, the "Hometown Prophet" referred to in my sermon title today is Jesus. Some of you may remember that the first sermon I ever preached here at First Presbyterian Church, as a pastoral intern, was from the text Amos 7:14 -- "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a shepherd, and a tender of sycamore trees." I still identify with Amos more than Jesus, but there is something to today's passage, and I can identify with Jesus in this respect: After 20 years in the wilderness, last week I finally found my way back to my childhood hometown, and here I begin my ministry, among my own people, my own kin.

But it would be nice if the similarity stopped there. In the NRSV translation of the Bible, the subheading for the first six verses is "The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth." We are told that those in Jesus' hometown "took offense at him" and that "he could do no deed of power there." I never imagined I would find myself, and so soon, in a situation where I didn't exactly want to follow in Jesus' footsteps. And sure enough, in the process leading up to my acceptance of the call to ministry at this church, here in my hometown, this very passage was brought up to me several times, by friends, relatives, professors, other pastors: "Even Jesus couldn't minister in his own hometown, what makes you think you can?" Or they would remind me of the old saying "You can never really go home." I think underlying all this is the idea that even if you do go back home, your home is not the same as it was, and neither are you. At least, I would hope that I'm not the same person I was at 17, when I left El Paso, and I can see that El Paso in many ways has changed, has grown too. You may have experienced something similar yourselves, if you've ever gone to a high school reunion, or when you get together with your extended family on holidays. Sometimes you find yourself reverting to old patterns of behavior, fitting into old roles and family positions--or even if you don't, others may place those old expectations on you. I do admit, "going home" is not without its challenges.

But like all old sayings, while there is some truth to the idea that "you can never go home" I think its a bit overstated. For example, Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son -- one who does go home and is welcomed by his father with open arms. In the Old Testament, God's chosen people, the Israelites, go home after years of exile and captivity in Babylon, and they rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem. Sometimes, you really can go home.

Likewise, I think that our interpretation of this passage today, "A prophet has no honor in his own hometown" is often misunderstood, isolated from the context of the passage and the events surrounding it. And that, of course, gives *me* hope. I hope it can give you hope as well.

For starters, Jesus makes an interesting choice when he uses the word "honor." A prophet is without "honor" in his hometown. Does Jesus strike you as the sort of person who was overly concerned about honor, and receiving honor? This is the man who said that the first will be last and the last first; this is the man who said that when you arrive at a feast, you should not seat yourself at the place of honor, in case you find out you were wrong, and then have to re-seat yourself. Jesus never pursued or sought honor, and I would like to suggest that perhaps his statement here--a prophet has no honor in his hometown--is not the harsh condemnation we often make it out to be. The folks in Jesus' hometown (Nazareth) know him well, and so they question his authority. A little bit later on and down the road, the folks in Jerusalem show Jesus great honor on Palm Sunday, declaring him the King of Kings, and laying palm branches in his path. Then they crucify him. If that's honor, I think I'll stick with the hometown variety.

Still, we read that because of his questionable reception, Jesus "could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them." I'm guessing those few sick people who were cured didn't say "Yeah, this was a waste of your time, Jesus; you probably should have gone somewhere else." Nor can I imagine Jesus seeing it that way. Certainly not Jesus the good shepherd, who would leave behind the flock of 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep. No, it is we who too often judge success based on size, numbers, grandeur and glamour. Jesus simply went to his hometown, and did what he was called to do. Sometimes the work is big, and sometimes the work is small. That's in God's hands, but our job is to answer the call.

Jesus could do no deed of power there. Wait--Does that really mean that the creator and sustainer of the universe was suddenly rendered powerless by the presence of his grandmother, some cousins, and his high school science teacher? No, I suspect the answer lies in the word "power." Like "honor" this is another word that we tend to associate with Jesus more than he does with himself. The word we translate here as power is, in the original text, the Greek word δύναμις, which means power, but also has some interesting shades of meaning. Listen to these definitions of δύναμις from Strong's Bible dictionary: the power and influence which belong to riches and wealth; power and resources arising from numbers; power consisting in or resting upon armies, forces, hosts. I'm suggesting that "deeds of power" of this sort are not Jesus' way. And no one would be more aware of Jesus' lack of riches, wealth, numbers, and armies than those in his hometown. Jerusalem may deceive themselves into thinking Jesus is a conquering hero, a new king to defeat Caesar. But in your hometown, you are laid bare. The only thing you can be is yourself, for better or worse. And in the case of Jesus, I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.

A lot of sermons I've heard on this text try to isolate the first half of this passage (Jesus' so-called "rejection" by his hometown) from the second half, the sending out of the disciples. But they are connected. It is precisely the principles that Jesus demonstrates in his hometown that shape the directions he gives the disciples: Don't worry about honor--travel light, without all the dignified trappings of the Pharisees. Don't worry about numbers and extravagant displays--go to people's houses and stay as long as you have to. Don't worry about power--go two by two, wear humble clothes, and if you're not welcome, just quietly move on. Succeed or fail, a thousand people or just one, you will still be answering God's call. Answer God's call.

Wrapping all of this up, I think there are some principles here that we can all benefit from--whether you're a minister coming back to his hometown, someone trying to navigate your family systems over the holidays, a business owner trying to engage the community, or someone in a workplace full of people who presume to know you all too well. Here's what we can learn:

  1. Don't pursue honor, especially among people who know you well. If you focus instead on helping a few people at a time, the honor will eventually come your way on its own. I'm pretty sure those "few people" Jesus cured in his hometown spread the word quickly--and they didn't even have facebook or twitter back then.
  2. Don't rely on power, wealth, and authority to accomplish things, especially among people who know you well. Instead, build relationships based on serving others. Give generously of your time, your attention, your presence, and your compassion.
  3. Start small. You don't need a fancy title, expensive clothes, a lot of equipment, a degree in psychology, you don't need a lot of people or money--you just need to answer the call, and love the people you are called to serve.
  4. Start at home. It's harder, but you'll get more honest feedback. It will force you to be yourself, and since you are created in God's image, that's a good thing.
  5. Even the Son of God had bad days once in awhile, at least by the standards of the world. Keep going. Your bad day might have accomplished more than even you realized, especially if you were doing what God called you to do. Besides, if your disciples (your children, your students, your co-workers, your friends) learn from your example, and you are learning from the example of Christ -- their work will exceed yours, and God will be pleased.

Prayer: Lord, we are no prophets, but we all have hometowns of one kind or another, places where we are known, and where expectations are placed upon us that make it hard to succeed. Help us to define success not the way the world does, but the way you do. Help us to measure our lives by the service we give to others, by the compassion we show to our neighbors, and by the loving example we provide to those in our spheres of influence. Give us strength to get up when we fall down, and to always follow your call until our last breaths, when you finally bring us home to you. We pray these things in your holy name, Amen.