Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
When I was growing up I always found doing a scary thing less scary if I didn’t have to go first. This was true whether the scary thing was getting shots in the doctor’s office or jumping off the high dive. If one of my siblings or friends or even my parents would go first, I was less terrified to follow. I wonder if that’s partly why these two stories in Mark’s Gospel for today are linked. The second part of the story is less scary because of what comes first.
The first story is a surprising one about Jesus not being accepted in his home town. In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was like Superman—healing a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years AND bringing a dead little girl back to life. Today Jesus seems unable to do any deed of power in his hometown—oh, except for healing a few folk, here and there, which Mark throws in there like it was nothing, though surely it was something to those people! But no matter what he’s been able to do before, Jesus has to walk away from his hometown that day to shine his light somewhere else.
Maybe it’s worth noting that up to this point in Mark’s Gospel, the people who were healed or raised from the dead had either eagerly petitioned Jesus for help or had someone advocating fervently on their behalf. But today no one asks him to address their sufferings nor expects him to be able to do so. Maybe the point Mark is making is that God expects us to participate in God’s work among us. What if God shares the ministry of reconciliation and healing with us? What if every day we have an opportunity to be channels of grace and mercy to people and a world desperately in need of grace and mercy, but God won’t force God-self on anyone?
I don’t mean to suggest that that if people are praying for healing and are not getting well—or whatever situation they are praying about is not improving—it is because they are not believing hard enough, not praying fervently enough. I just mean that perhaps free will means we can reject God’s arms around us just the same way any angry child can turn away from a parent. It doesn’t mean the love isn’t there (one either side), just that a real hug requires the participation of both parties. Maybe God wants us to hug back.
To be clear, it’s not that healing depends on our faithfulness. In today’s 2nd lesson, an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we hear him describing a mysterious illness he has as “a thorn in his flesh.” All kinds of writers have spilled a lot of ink speculating about what Paul’s “thorn in his flesh” could have been—ranging from failing eyesight to pride to the possibility that he had a nagging wife! In the end, whatever it was, this thorn came to stay. No matter how often or how hard Paul prayed that God would take it away, the thorn still caused him distress. As far as we know, Paul never received a cure, but that does not mean that he wasn’t praying hard enough or trusting God enough.
What Paul received instead of a cure—and what I believe God longs to give all of us for whatever thorns afflict us—was consolation in the midst of pain, and the grace to live every season of life. God never recommended Paul to come back when he repented, got his life together, or had a deeper faith.
Instead, God’s voice comes to Paul again and again, assuring him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, God says Paul is ok, just as he is. And you’re OK. God will help you keep going. God has work for you to do, and the work God wants you to do you can do in spite of the thorn, I promise.
This leads to the second part of Mark’s Gospel today. Here Jesus, having left Nazareth, is equipping and commissioning his disciples to carry on his ministry. Up to this point in the story, they have been followers and students, but now they emerge as partners in Jesus’ work. Two really important parts of this text jump out at me. One is that Jesus sends his disciples out to do their work two by two, well aware that the work of ministry can get scary and lonely and sometimes even dangerous.
The other message is that Jesus goes first. I think that’s why the story of Jesus being rejected by his hometown comes immediately before the sending of the 12. The disciples can be braver knowing that Jesus—mighty, miracle-working Jesus—has gone first into a situation where his message and his very person were questioned, judged and found wanting. Now when they—and we—experience similar flack for being faithful, we can remember that Jesus knows exactly what that feels like, has blazed that trail for us.
Jesus makes it clear that his followers are to go out into the community wearing their vulnerability on their sleeves, relying on others to care for and welcome them. This is uncomfortable in the extreme for many of us. We like to be the ones who do the caring. We don’t like to depend on other people for our well-being. But Jesus makes it clear that following him means we have to travel lightly, not attached to our building, doctrine, or traditions, but simply to the radical truth that God loves and wants wholeness for everyone. Messengers of God cannot get too cocky about having all the answers or being self-sufficient, so vulnerability and dependence are part of the work. As they minister to others, they will be ministered to. Real relationships require such a balance of power.
Being a faithful disciple doesn’t just mean inviting people to church (in fact, according to Mark’s Gospel, after today’s dust-up in Nazareth Jesus himself never enters a synagogue again)! It has nothing to do with filling pews and offering plates, and everything to do with mingling with people in our community who are hungry to know that they matter, that they are precious in God’s eyes, and so is everyone else.
Jesus is realistic, sharing that there will be some we meet who find such boundless love threatening. There are always people who want to control who is in the family of God and who is out, who is welcome and who is not. An all-embracing God whose love is not limited by human prejudices and fears is scary for some people. But Jesus knows this, has just encountered this, and tells his friends what to do when they meet hostility on the road: shake off the dust. We aren’t responsible for converting people. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Our work is to share what we have come to know and trust about God’s love for the whole world. It can be a scary job, but Jesus went first, as Jesus always does. Jesus modeled for us how to handle disappointment and rejection.
We need each other on this journey to remind one another that Jesus went first, from birth to death to resurrection, and he promises to accompany us every step of the way on our journeys too. That’s why I’m so grateful for Trinity and faith communities like it. Sure the music is great and the building is beautiful, but what keeps us anchored is other flawed, beautiful people who hold us up when we falter.
Yes, the gifts Jesus gives his friends are many, but these two are key: his own willingness to go first and The Church, both powerful signs that God will provide all we need for our journeys. Because we are so cherished, we are able to join Paul in saying, “I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so the power of Christ may dwell in me….for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
So, beloved Church, let us embrace our lives, including our thorns. Let us trust that that God can use our weaknesses as well as our strengths as channels of grace. Trusting that God can work for forgiveness and healing, for us and for all the world, regardless of our faith, let us hear again God’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, and my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider