A big surprise in our Gospel reading today: Jesus was not accepted in his hometown of Nazareth. Not even his own family acknowledged him as a prophet and healer in the very place where he most deserved it. You’d think they would all be bursting with pride at his accomplishments, and welcome him home with open arms and loving hearts. After all, he had just come from performing several miracles in surrounding cities: He had cast out the unclean spirits from the man called Legion. He had heard the request of an important leader of the synagogue, Jairus, whose 12-year-old daughter was thought to be dead, and Jesus told him not to fear but believe. When Jesus saw the daughter of Jairus, he simply said, “Little girl, get up,” and she rose immediately and walked away as if nothing had happened. In between those two stories, a woman with a 12-year history of hemorrhaging was healed by merely touching the cloak of Jesus, who told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” So, you’d expect Jesus to be heralded as the miracle man that he was, and certainly that events would be planned in his honor … at the very least a little wine and cheese reception! Instead, the hometown folks saw him only as the little Jesus they had known as a child, and now only as a carpenter, the son of Mary. No big deal; “who do you think you are,” they were thinking, “coming in here and preaching to us that way?”
This story reminds me of a personal experience I had about 12 years ago; some of you may have heard this before, but I believe it’s worth repeating because of its parallel to today’s reading from Mark. When word got out that I was going to seminary and had hopes of being ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, many friends who had known me well for years may have been thinking, “you’re gonna’ do what? You? Who do you think you’re kidding?” One friend, a Bible-toting, Sunday school-teaching, self-proclaimed religious authority, did speak out, asking me, “Do you have grace?" I fully expected his next question to be, “Are you saved?" The implication was that I may not be worthy, that this was a position reserved for those who were real followers of Jesus, someone who had already been “saved." Fortunately, I had plenty of support from family, friends and the church, and by the grace of God, I stand before you and do feel honored and accepted here. By the way, I’m still friends with the person whose doubts initially gave me pause.
Now, back to Nazareth, where Jesus was preparing to send out his disciples, two by two, giving them authority to cast out unclean spirits, as he had done. He was also preparing them for not being accepted, or even rejected, in certain places. When that happened, they were to “shake off the dust” of that place, meaning they they should put such rejection behind them and move on, continuing their efforts elsewhere. No doubt they were confused by these instructions, and were wondering who this charismatic person called Jesus really was, how he had had such a profound effect upon them, and why he was not honored in his own hometown. Adding to their bewilderment, Jesus tells them that they were to begin performing some minor miracles of their own! They were the same disciples who were terrified in the boat with Jesus during a fierce storm, and couldn’t believe their leader was asleep on a cushion, not seeming to care that they were about to perish! When Jesus calmed the sea, they said to themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Who is this Jesus, who can perform miracles but is rejected in his own hometown?
Who is Jesus for us in July 2018? Was he just a super-hero who lived 2,000 years ago, and had many stories written about the miracles he performed? Was he truly the Son of God, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, who lived and died so that the sins of generations to come could be forgiven? Does his life and teachings live on in our lives? Do we believe in the mystery of faith, and can we carry the faith we profess to believe on Sunday into the work-week and beyond? Are we willing to be disciples, to help cast out the demons of indifference, insincerity, doubt and despair, hoping to replace them with love and compassion? Do we welcome change, and the opportunity to make better the lives of the less fortunate around us?
Earlier this week, Linda Kay and I found a perfect example of discipleship, in the person of Cindy McMillion, a parishioner and photographer who took to the streets of Memphis to engage people from all walks of life. In her own words, her “purpose was to encourage understanding, compassion, and respect among people who differ in age, ethnicity, economic situation, or geographic location; to help us see each other as real people with real lives, rather than as categories to be dismissed or feared or resented; and to provide an opportunity for people to tell their own stories. For 2 ½ years, Cindy photographed and interviewed over 1,200 people, black and white, Hispanic and Islamic, rich and poor, young and old. From these, she has selected the 50 most memorable, and their pictures and summaries of their stories are on display in the library at Christian Brothers University, until July 18. I would encourage you to see this exhibit in person, but if you cannot, it can be accessed through her website, connectingmemphis.com (see me after the service, and I’ll give it to you again. One of Cindy’s final comments to me was that she was just trying to see the image of Christ in ordinary people in the streets of Memphis. That she has done. May God bless you, Cindy, well done, good and faithful servant.
The call to discipleship is not so much a matter of being saved as it is a matter of being placed into service. It is a matter of our willingness to enter into all the chaos, stress, turmoil and trials of life, and to be willing to confront and engage in all these matters with the faith that God walks beside us. Life happens, and does not always carry us to places of stability and safety. Evil exists, catastrophe and accidents and illness and loss happen. God wants us to “hang in there”, to keep showing up, for work, for church and for each other. Keep singing, and keep loving each other; keep praying, even when darkness surrounds, and you feel as if your prayers have not yet been answered. God knows the pain and brokenness we sometimes feel, and as the Book of Lamentations tells us, “God does not willingly grieve or afflict anyone”.
I’d like to close with this prayer for our mission, from the Book of Common Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace; so clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your name."
Editors Note: This photo is part of Cindy McMillion's exhibit at the Beverly and Sam Ross Gallery at Christian Brothers.