Thursday, May 23
Sunday, July 05, 2009|
Grace be unto you from God our Maker and our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
On this 4th of July weekend we remember many of the things that make our country famous: things like democracy, the flag, … and celebrity gossip. It’s true! Celebrity gossip may be popular all over the world, but here in the United States we have raised it to an art form. Want proof? How many of you have ever watched “Entertainment Tonight?” or “CelebTV”? Come on; raise your hands. How about “E-Online”? “The Soup,” “Chelsea Lately“? Has anybody here ever picked up a “People” magazine at the doctor’s office? … and they say Hope is an “intellectual” congregation!!
How about those front page photos on tabloids in the check-out lines at the grocery store. You know you’ve peeked at the headlines about Angeline Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, or about the Kirstie Alley’s weight loss struggles or whether Amy Winehouse is in our out of rehab. (Of course, I must confess that I don’t know actually very know much about things like this myself. I had to ask some friends … from my church.)
Yes, we Americans love celebrities. We love to build them up and we love to tear them down. Just ask Martha Stewart, Brittany Spears, or this last week South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford and his amorous escapades.
Jesus knew exactly what the up‘s and down‘s of being a celebrity were like. Our Gospel text for today says that when Jesus first went back to his home town of Nazareth, people were “astonished” at his knowledge and abilities. All over Galilee people were talking about him and gathering in large crowds to see him. But then suddenly the tables turned. The text says that they “took offense” at him, and in Luke’s version of this story, they actually drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. That’s worse than what we do to celebrities. Interestingly enough, the Greek word for “took offense” is “skandalizo.” It is where we get the English word “scandal”, which we still use for so many of those celebrity headlines today.
So what happened? How did Jesus go from hero to outcast, from being a celebrity to being a prophet without honor in his own hometown? Perhaps it si not really so hard to understand. Most of us have actually experienced something quite similar. Many of you went off to college, or spent some time overseas and then came back to your home community only to find that things had changed, that you had changed, and that the people who knew you from before could not yet see you in terms of what you had become. War veterans in particular, whose courage and sacrifice we honor this weekend, often understand this more deeply than the rest of us.
In Jesus’ case the change was dramatic. Luke’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus began his ministry, he was about thirty years old. Did you ever think about that? Most of us probably picture Jesus as a young man, wandering freely around the Galilean countryside with his disciples. But in Jesus’ day, when the average life span was only about forty, he was already on his way to becoming a village elder in Nazareth. People there knew Jesus as local businessman, and they knew him very well. In Mark’s text, the villagers say, “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?” The people of Nazareth knew Jesus as one of their own, an ordinary guy who worked with his hands like they did.
Some scholars speculate that the reason Jesus stayed in Nazareth so long was that his father Joseph had died years before, and that, as the oldest son, he had stayed to help Mary take care of his younger siblings. In our church library there is a book entitled “Was Jesus Married?” It makes a persuasive case that he was. If that is true, perhaps Jesus stayed in Nazareth in order to raise a family of his own. (By the way, if you want to read that book, you’d better hurry. My guess is that it will be checked out shortly after the service today.)
In any case, the people of Nazareth were understandably baffled when Jesus came back to town after his forty days in the wilderness and after his early ministry in Galilee and began to teach so eloquently in their synagogue that day. “Where did this man get all this?“ they asked. “What is the wisdom given to him?”
In our Epistle lesson for today we hear the Apostle Paul recounting a mysterious experience which he describes as “being caught up to the third heaven. It is worth noting that the context in which Paul tells that story to the Corinthians is a context of rejection. Paul shares that story in order to defend his credentials as an Apostle to people who are starting to reject him.
In our Old Testament lesson for today, we hear about the prophet Ezekiel being sent to a “rebellious people.” God warns him that people might refuse to hear what he has to say. Later in our Gospel lesson Jesus sends out his own disciples, telling them to “shake the dust off their feet,” in the places where they encounter rejection, because some people are not going to listen to their message about God’s kingdom.
In all these cases it is clear that rejection of God’s word -- by God’s own people, by the believing community -- is a distinct possibility. But why? Why were Jesus’ own family, friends, and community -- the very people who had seen him grow up, who had worked with and worshipped with him -- why were they so unable to accept that God could speak to them through one of their own? Was it because it is sometimes so hard to see God in the familiar and the ordinary?
In Japan there is a well-known proverb which states that the nail which sticks up will be hammered back down. It means that individuals who don’t conform, who upset the social norm, will be put back in their place, by force if necessary. In America, where individuality and individual success is actually celebrated, we nevertheless reject celebrities, too, if their excesses become too blatant -- think Wall Street bankers with their big bonuses.
Is that why Jesus was rejected? Were people jealous? Did they think Jesus was becoming arrogant? How was he any better, more “God-worthy” than they were, they might well have wondered. If you are going to claim to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, as Luke’s Gospel says Jesus did, you had better be able to back up what you say.
In fact, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was actually doing some pretty amazing things. Stories were circulating all over Galilee that Jesus had become a healer, driving out demons, and challenging the religious authorities. Still, the people of Nazareth were so stuck in their traditional views that they could not see that God might be doing something new.
During just this last month we have all been witnessing the dramatic unfolding of an historic paradigm shift in the country of Iran, a shift that could eventually re-shape the entire Mideast, impacting even Hezbollah and Hamas. The old order is being threatened by a vision of something new. That vision is now powerfully associated with an individual, a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year old student of philosophy and religion who represents the change that is coming and whose tragic death has been viewed so many times on YouTube.
Jesus represented an even greater paradigm shift, an even greater kind of change, not just political or cultural change, but a change of destiny for all of humankind. Unfortunately for them, the people of Nazareth could not see it. They were still stuck in the old order. Their need to judge Jesus by the traditional standards and expectations of their own community prevented them from perceiving the arrival of God in their midst.
Our text says that Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief” -- “amazed“. But worse than that, it says that Jesus “could do no deed of power there.” How scary is that?! How disturbing is it to think that our ideologies -- and even our theological convictions, -- our demand for proof according to our own presuppositions, our refusal to believe that God can be working in ways we didn’t anticipate -- how scary is it to realize that such things can actually limit the power of God in our lives? It makes us ask, what is lost when we are so trapped in our current ways of thinking that we cannot listen to each other and to God speaking in our midst? What “deeds of power” go undone because of our inability or our unwillingness to see each other as vessels of the sacred through whom God can be at work? What might that mean even for national discussions about health care, for debates about state budgets, or for church discussions about social issues?
Fortunately for us, that is not the end of the story. The people of Nazareth rejected Jesus. The religious leaders of the day began to plot against him. His own community condemned him. But many others believed. People who were not blinded by familiarity, people who saw what he was able to do and who experienced the results, did receive his message. The rejection at Nazareth did not impede the Good News. Not even the ultimate rejection at the Cross could stop Jesus. Otherwise, we would not be here this morning.
Jesus went on from Nazareth, teaching and healing. Soon after the events described in our text today came some of Jesus’ most striking deeds of power, like the feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus walking on the water, and the Transfiguration. One wonders how the people of Nazareth would see all of that today.
What so we see when we look at Jesus in our midst, when we face the new paradigms he brings, and when we listen with kindness to each other for God’s speaking? May Jesus be “amazed” by our belief, and able to do “deeds of power” among us. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.