Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 9B] - July 5, 2009 (Mark 6:1-13)

“O beautiful, for patriot dream…”

Jesus is a patriot in this morning’s gospel text, although not necessarily a patriot in the sense that comes to mind in national songs on Independence Day as we wave our flags and eat our flame-grilled hot dogs. Here Jesus is a patriot in the strictest sense of the word; that is, Jesus travels to his hometown and there he comes face to face with the people of his ancestors. In Greek, “hometown” is patris, the very root word that gives us patriot and patriotism. Logically, it is related to the root word for “fathers,” and we often still think of our homeland—our hometowns—as the place of our forefathers and foremothers. These things stir feelings of patriotism in us, for example, because we feel connected on some deep level to the people who came before us in this particular place.

Nazareth is just that for Jesus, and then some. In the social milieu of first-century Israel, a person’s hometown was little more than one, large, extended family, a wide network of strong bonds based on bloodlines and marriage contracts. Inextricably linked to this network, and with a less-developed sense of individuality than we have today, a person’s clan was his or her identity. And so, in his hometown, Jesus encounters this clan, this community who made him who he was. The synagogue he preaches in would have been the synagogue he attended as a kid. The worshippers he reads to would have been the rabbis and elders who would have taught him the Law. The people he reaches out to would have been the members of his own extended family: siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts once and twice and three times removed. In fact, we are told Jesus is instantly recognized by his compatriots, properly identified by his traditional role in the community and immediate relations: “Is this not the carpenter, Mary’s boy?”

But whereas we might expect to be lauded and applauded—even as prophets—by our hometowns in this day and age, Jesus meets fierce resistance. This is anything but a patriot’s dream. Almost no one in his own tribe is convinced by his message of God’s coming kingdom, and, in sharp contrast to what had happened in the other Galilean villages, few people are healed and Jesus performs no deeds of power in Nazareth. His townspeople are first astounded and then scandalized by his words and teaching. “Who does he think he is, anyway?” they mutter under their breath. In fact, that’s probably what the Nazareth Town Council would have printed on their city limits sign as you came into town: “Nazareth, Population 550. Home of Jesus. Who does he think he is, anyway?”

The truth is, in finding himself rejected by his own compatriots, Jesus falls into a distinguished group of prophets who had also been tormented or doubted by the very people from which they had arisen. Almost all of the house of Israel’s own prophets met insurmountable odds when bringing God’s word to bear upon them. Moses, Jeremiah, after another, they dealt with the stiff-necked, close-minded nature of a clannish people. For those who have come to view Jesus as a biblical Superman guy who can always work a wonder in the most hostile of situations, who can make a believer out of even the most reluctant sinner, Jesus’ dismissal in Nazareth comes as a shocker. As it turns out, his own kith and kin couldn’t care less about his kingdom. Even Jesus, we are told, is surprised at their thick-headedness.

One of sin’s most effective tools is to get us to divide ourselves into different groupings—whether they be nations, towns, races, families, political parties—and then convince us that we can’t learn anything new, that those who don’t think exactly as our group does are a threat that must be ignored or done away with. All human communities—even countries as noble as ours—run the danger of adopting a tribal mentality, an outlook that teaches we are essentially broken down into these different “hometowns” where identity is entirely wrapped up in who your forefather or foremother is. In such communities, we end up thinking the liberating word of Jesus has nothing new to say to us, or, if it does, it only serves to reinforce our sense of specialness, that our family, or our town, our party, our race, our nation has it all figured out.

But, in truth, he is a stumbling block, for he comes to remind us of our need of grace. His word is a scandal, because through it we discover his kingdom will include all—most especially the sinners like me. And a community that cannot come to terms with its own sinfulness—and therefore its morbid unity with all of humankind—runs the risk of never knowing the full embrace of his kingdom.

In the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, it would be somewhat fitting to have the story end there, as the stories of so many other prophets do. We could see Jesus standing at the edge of the town that refuses to claim him for who he is, cursing the stiff-necked people in the vein of Moses or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. But Jesus, the new prophet, takes a different approach. He, on the other hand, gathers together his disciples and entrusts them with the message. Sending them out in pairs into even more villages where they would doubtless be rejected from time to time, he empowers his own followers with the news of the kingdom. Equipped with nothing but the authority of his word, they would go in his stead, and their success in the surrounding towns would be a contrast to Jesus’ failure in his own. And so, word by word, healing by healing, anointing by anointing, we see an entirely new community taking shape over the hills of Galilee, one that is built on Jesus’ grace and mercy, one that is founded on repentance and forgiveness, rather than a Constitution or military might or family pedigree.

As part of that cadre of disciples who are called to go out and carry his message, we’re talking about a much larger communion here, a family tree with more branches than we can ever imagine, extending far past any national or racial boundaries we could ever set up. It involves those who live in Nazareth and those who live in its neighboring towns. It involves those who may live in America, and Canada…and Iran and Afghanistan…in each and every country on this planet, as well as those who have no country on this planet to call home. It is the community of those in each and every hometown who have been claimed by the word of Jesus, the prophet who doesn’t just talk but who dies to set us free from the grip of sin. The sheer size and scope of this community can catch us off guard at times.

A few weeks ago I made a quick run to the Wal-Mart over on Parham Road. I was making a quick trip to buy a pizza for the babysitter to cook for the kids. As I was walking in from the parking lot, I was observing and making note of how many different ethnicities and races and languages seemed to be right there in the parking lot with me. Were they my new compatriots in this great land? When did they arrive here? Were they fitting in? Were we as a nation being hospitable enough?

And then, as I was placing Laura into the shopping cart, I felt the pressure of a large hand on my shoulder. I turned around to a tall, dark-skinned man looking down at me. “Excuse me,” he said, “are you Pastor Phillip, from St. Andrew’s Church in Cairo?” There, looking at me in the eyes, was one of my former parishioners from my internship congregation in Egypt. He was a Sudanese refugee who had attended our church and sought shelter through our ministries in downtown Cairo after fleeing war and persecution in southern Sudan. As it turned out, he had been resettled by the United Nations and U.S. Immigration Service a couple of years after I left here to Richmond, Virginia. A Presbyterian congregation had helped set him and some other Sudanese refugees in an apartment less than a mile from my house on Patterson Avenue.

Now, I could chalk this experience up to random chance, an outcome of a statistical probability that throughout my life I am bound to run into a certain number of people I’ve run into before. But I can’t do that. In light of how I know our Lord works in spite of the rejection and dismissals from the stubborn Nazareths of this world, and in light of how I know he is methodically and persistently using ordinary disciples like you and me to spread Christ’s embrace to all villages and nations, I know, rather, that meeting my refugee friend in Walmart was just another powerful reminder that the Spirit is knitting us all together into one big baptismal hometown where Jesus is the true patriot dream that sees beyond the years. I was not so much looking at a new member of my American tribe, but a brother from another village who had nevertheless received the same wonderful message about Jesus that I have.

It was a powerful reminder of the size of God’s community. I pray that my eyes would be opened to even more of these wonderful reminders of our one Forefather in heaven who is embracing us all.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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