Rejecting Jesus

Proper 9B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Our son, Mehari, became a U.S. citizen four months ago on March 13th.  At the ceremony, everyone got a small U.S. flag.  New Americans from over 60 countries embraced and waved the flag with joy.  Some of us may have a complicated relationship with the flag.  Standing in the courtroom that day, it was clear, the flag stood for liberty, justice, and freedom for all. Freedom is not an American dream it is a dream of every human being everywhere.

By its very design, beginning in 1777, the stars and stripes were intended to be a statement of human solidarity and unity. The flag echoes the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum—from many, one. The beautiful idea that is America is diminished and rings hollow when we start to ask which ones? I am relieved that Mehari is now a U.S. citizen and cannot be rounded up and deported as some are now proposing—at least I hope so—for that would mean our people have rejected the spirit and meaning of America’s own creed that all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today’s gospel is a story of what happens to a community that turns away and rejects its own best values and spiritual inheritance. Jesus led the disciples to his hometown, and the people there took offense at him (Mark 6:3b). Nazareth was a small village with no more than 120 to 150 inhabitants. Most were probably relatives of Jesus. These people had raised him, taught him to love and fear God, and kept him safe through childhood. No doubt, they had heard about the miraculous things he did. Jesus was famous, yet he could do no deed of power there in Nazareth (Mark 6:5). Does God’s grace require some small place in our heart in order to do it’s work?

Sometimes this is called the great “un-miracle” story. (Barbara Brown Taylor) The people of Nazareth shut themselves off from receiving the blessings of God. “Where did this man get all this?” they say. “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 son of Mary and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3)

Notice, they called Jesus the ‘son of Mary.’ Scholars point out this was a clear insult intended to question his legitimacy. Does anyone know who Jesus’ real father is?  Extended family, lifelong friends and neighbors weaponized his birth story.  Did they hope to humiliate him into silence? No doubt, the hostility of these same villagers was what convinced Jesus’s mother, brothers, and sisters to take Jesus in hand during his previous visit to Nazareth (Mark 3:31). In John’s gospel we read that his brothers didn’t believe in him.  In Luke’s gospel we read the people of Nazareth tried to toss him over a cliff (Luke 4:30).

We know very well how the religious elite will accuse Jesus of blasphemy and conspire with the Roman authorities, specifically, Pontius Pilate, to execute him.  We know that Jesus will draw resistance from the powerful, corrupt, and connected.  But it’s a surprise, isn’t it, to uncover such strong opposition from the very people who knew him best. Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown.

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” Jesus said (Mark 6:4). Perhaps, we’ve all experienced something like this.  It can be hard to shake off an old role from childhood or take on a new one whether in our families or in our workplaces.  There can be outright rejection and cruelty toward insiders who attempt to break cherished norms and expectations.  We, who know the whole truth and can sing Silent Night from memory, would be more open to Jesus had we been there –right?

Perhaps this is the big question our gospel confronts us with.  After all, today, we are Jesus’ kinsfolk. We are the body of Christ. We’re the ones who claim to know him best.  We are the modern-day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. Will we follow when Jesus leads us into new and uncomfortable territory?  To see him where we least desire to look? “The uncomfortable fact is, Jesus offends his beloved community in this story.  Maybe, if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we’re worshipping.” (Debi Thomas, “Hometown Prophets,” Journey with Jesus, 7/27/21)

 Pastor and best-selling author, Brian Zahnd tells the story of how he began making big theological changes at his church to the liturgy and to re-center on the sacraments. Members of his congregation accepted all these easily. It wasn’t until he began to point out that the kingdom of God is not synonymous with America he discovered where people’s foundational beliefs lay.  America is many things, Zahnd says. America is a nation, and a culture. Each is a mixed bag of things to celebrate and to lament. America is an empire, by which he defines as a rich and powerful nation that believes it has a manifest destiny to shape history and a divine right to rule other nations. An empire presents itself as a rival to the kingdom of Christ. Worse, America has also become a religion. This is the faith Zahnd discovered people in his congregation held more deeply than the Christian gospel. God, flag, and country are tightly wound together. This, of course, is idolatry.

In the desert for forty days Jesus said ‘no’ to the devil. There are those today who wish to circle back and take up the devil’s offer to gain power over all the kingdoms of the world.  They would prefer to build crosses for their enemies rather than take up the cross and follow Christ. In doing this they would overthrow the core principles that makes America great, and the gospel gift be children of God. Notice that lack of faith among the people of Nazareth wasn’t a mere technicality; it had real and lamentable consequences.  “It constrains Jesus.  It blocks the healing work he longs to do for the people he loves.” (Thomas)

The call of the Gospel is not a call to stand still.  It is a call to choose movement over stasis, change over security, growth over decay.  Do I allow the people I am close to to grow?  Do I allow myself to explore?  Or do I cut myself and others off with expectations that are severe and stifling? (Thomas)

After Nazareth, Jesus sent the twelve out two by two to preach and heal and call others to renew their hearts and minds. They didn’t know what they were doing. Jesus sent them anyway to learn by failing and by doing. They traveled light, because you don’t need a lot of baggage to be the church. You are the equipment.

There aren’t many examples where the pre-Easter disciples show us how to be faithful.  But here, the disciples show us how to be the church—the church that is our home but is not a place; the church on the move; the church that widens the circle, the church that exists to be good news in Jesus’ name to hungry people searching for it.