As we come into today's passage, behind us are some incredible gospel moments, scenes in which Mark has made clear who and how Jesus is. We've seen his divine power and authority, coupled with astonishing mercy and grace. We've seen a kind of recklessness about the way he gets involved with this world, with us. He's commanded the wind and the waves, saving his disciples from a storm that would surely have been the end. He's overmatched a legion of demons, sending evil shuddering into oblivion, and setting a hopelessly bound man perfectly free. Just last week we saw his beautiful tenderness as he restored a sick woman to wholeness in body and soul, and raised a little girl from death.
It's an incredible series of witnesses to the will and way of Jesus, to the way he is with us and for us. Mark is showing the Church what it means to say that the Good News, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come, is here. There is power in his presence, authority in his name. His will is for our best: his is the face of the God who cares about our going out and our coming in (Ps 121), the details of our lives, no matter who we are; his is the touch that can heal our deepest hurts, the light that scatters even the deepest darkness; his is the word that orders chaos into creation, that brings life out of death. This is who Jesus is. This is how the One who will bring about God's dream for the world, the holy kingdom of love and justice and righteousness is. It's a beautiful and powerful testimony about God's desire for this broken and beloved world.
But then, we're told, he left that place. He left that place and came to his hometown. For some reason, this transition has stuck out for me, this week. It seems odd. I tend to think of leaving our homes, our familiar places, and going into strange places; in this case, Jesus leaves unfamiliar, even foreign places, to come home--which, it turns out, is where Jesus is least recognized. It's possible that I'm reading more into this than there is meant to be, but it seems to me that this is a subtle hint that in the company of Jesus things tend to be sort of backwards, a bit disorienting. If we were reading through Mark's witness straight through for the first time, we might expect Jesus to be welcomed home as a conquering hero, like a victorious soldier returned from battle, a local son who'd really made something of himself. But Mark tells us that he left the place where that was happening; he left the strange place where people were dumbfounded and delighted at him, where they couldn't stop talking about him and telling others all that they had seen and heard. He left the strange place and came to another place entirely.
Let's pray: Come, Holy Spirit, come. Breathe this word deep into our hearts, into our lives. May it be for us both conviction and comfort. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be true to who you are. In Jesus' name: amen.
He left that place and came to his hometown. And maybe it's just really true that you can't go home again. Obviously, since the last time he was there, things have changed. Jesus has begun, from the time of his baptism, to live his holy vocation. Inquiring minds are always wondering just what Jesus got up to before his encounter with John the Baptist, when the heavens were torn open and we caught a first glimpse of who Jesus truly is. According to Mark it wasn't any more spectacular than being the local carpenter, in a place like Nazareth (where, apparently, nothing good comes from [John 1:46]). If ever we forget Jesus' full humanity, Mark is quick to remind us here.
But ever since Mark bolted out of the gate with the thunderous declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, right in the first verse, we've been in the know that something else is up with this carpenter from Nazareth. We've been watching his divine power and presence come clearer and clearer. And apparently, in his home town, this catches the locals off guard. Maybe it's fair. Maybe it's always unnerving to discover that God could be--would be--so unassumingly in our midst.
I want to remember that the gospels are written, these witnesses are given for the nurturing of the community gathered in the name of Jesus, the community called into his will and way, women and men learning to live and move and have our being like him. That's the purpose--not just historical information, but holy formation. And so I think it's interesting that we see that in the company of Jesus what's familiar becomes strange, and what's strange may just start to feel more like home. Mark tells us that his disciples followed him to Nazareth, and I have to wonder what they were expecting. News about Jesus was flying every-which-way. Even though he kept instructing folks to keep a lid on it, word was spreading about his teaching and his power, about the way that the world is changed when he's around. And so, surely, his disciples expected a rather more enthusiastic welcome than they got.
I think that makes this story both challenge and grace for those of us who would be shaped in the way of Jesus, who would be his disciples. It's a challenge because it reminds us that when we are called into cahoots with Jesus, when we choose to go with him, things don't stay the same. Things we once held dear are traded for a new thing altogether. When we begin to move in the rhythms of grace, we're apt to find ourselves out of sync with a world in which we once moved easily. When we commit to following Jesus, to walking in his will and way, we can't expect everyone to see this as cause for celebration.
Will Willimon served for many years as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School. And in that role, he would sometimes get phone calls from parents concerned about their kids. He says that the most frantic calls he ever got from parents weren't about kids who were overindulging in alcohol or drugs, or being promiscuous, or flunking out of their classes. The most frantic calls he ever got were from parents whose kids had decided to follow Jesus--kids who were using their very expensive education to serve the poor, or who were forfeiting lucrative careers to pursue some ridiculous vocation just because Jesus seemed to want them to. They wanted Pastor Will to set their kids straight, make them understand that Jesus meek and mild wouldn't mess up their best laid plans like that. These frantic calls came from parents deeply concerned that this Jesus had got their kids mixed up in a life that was not what family and friends expected of them. They were scandalized by what Jesus was getting their children into!
That's the word that Mark uses to describe how Jesus' neighbors responded to him. Our translation says that they "took offense" at him, but the Greek word is scandalizo, from which we get scandalize. It's the same word that St. Paul uses when he says that the Cross is a "stumbling block" to some (I Corinthians 1:23. The way of Jesus is a scandal. The way of grace messes with our expectations. The way of mercy upsets our social norms. When we start insisting that maybe according to the metrics of heaven, it's really the poor, the pure in heart, the peace makers who are blessed; that it's the mourners and the meek, the hungry and the haggard, that God seems to have a special affection for, and to whom God has in mind to give the keys to the kingdom, that's going to cause us some issues in a world more or less obsessed with avoiding those conditions.
If we start suggesting that we pray for our persecutors rather than pillory them, that we love our enemies instead of raging at them, there are those who will cry "Scandal!". If we begin to take on the shape of the One we have been called to follow, and stop grasping at power and instead give radically of ourselves, we're going to be strange. If we stop heeding the rallying cry of those committed to the way of Mammon and Mars, and instead submit to the One who created this world in joy, out of an overflow love, we're going to be weird. If we cause holy mischief, folks just might be scandalized.
I think that's the heart of the challenge that Mark is holding up for the Church, for us as Christians seeking to be faithful. Our task, wherever we are, whatever we're doing, is to look weird enough, sufficiently out of place now, that when Jesus gets the world he wants, we'll fit right in. We are called (each of us) to be signs and symbols of what God has in store for all things: we're to be beacons of God's reconciling power, of God's self-giving love, of God's concern for the least and the lost. We're called to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control--flavours that change the world. We're meant to do that. We're created and called for it. That alone is enough to scandalize some: the idea that the God of all things would get all mixed up with the kinds of folks you find in a church is enough to have people scoffing.
That's the challenge. The grace is that when we walk this way, we're not alone. When we tune ourselves to heaven's song, we're caught up with the One whose voice turns chaos to creation, the One whose word overcomes the storm, whose touch transforms and makes new. The grace of this passage is that when we are dismissed for any number of reasons, when we're mocked right out of town, we know that our confidence is not in ourselves, but in the One who's made us and claimed us. Jesus may have been amazed at the lack of faith shown by his neighbors, even his family. But his power doesn't come from their permission; his work is not dependent upon their approval, but on the power of God, living and active, in this world.
And we need to know that, if we'll do what we're set here, in this time and place, to do. If we'll be part of what God is up to, here and now, we need to know the source of our commission. The second half of the passage reminds us that as Jesus does, so he sends us out to do. He sends us out to be weird in the world, to cause holy mischief, to create a scandal or two in his name. And he sends us out, not to do the best with what we've got, but with an authority, a power not our own. Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits. Jesus equips them to do work they could not otherwise do, if he hadn't equipped them to do it. (Jesus doesn't call the equipped, he equips the called, right?)
I want to linger on this point for a minute. It reminds us, as Rowan Williams puts it, that it's not the church of God that has a mission; it's the God of mission who has a church. We're not sent out into the world to make it better by our own designs, or standards, or our own power. We're sent out in the name and way and power of Jesus: God's mission; God's plan. We're sent out with authority over the brokenness of the world: with the authority to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgiveable; the authority to give generously, the authority to move against the seemingly unstoppable, all-demanding ways of consumption and greed; we're sent out with permission, divine authority, to trust our God and our neighbors, to be both the bearers and receivers of grace.
We're sent out with perfect permission not to look like a world that closes doors, shuts out grace, refuses hospitality to the stranger and the needy. We shake that dust off. We're sent out to proclaim repentance with our words and our actions; to proclaim with all we are that there is another way, another kingdom and that it has come very near. The call to repentance is not the call to shame and guilt people, but to speak the truth in love, to bear witness to what gives us hope (sometimes in spite of ourselves), and to invite people into the startling, reconciling, scandalous way of Jesus for this world.
I believe that that's going to look different for each of us. There is no prescription for faithfulness to our Lord who's always on the move, always upending expectations. The way we're called to live isn't a way made of rigid expectations, but made out of a living relationship with the One we know and follow. This is why we need to pray: we need to know the One who sends us, we need to know his power and how he uses it, we need to know for ourselves the saving grace that we're calling others into. We need to know the repentance we're called to proclaim. (If you have questions about prayer, talk to someone about it. My door is always open.) This is why we read scripture, why we come back to stories that boggle the mind--storms calmed and demons overcome; healings of every kind--stories that remind us that we go into the world not confined to our own will and efforts, our own skills and expectations, but called and committed to the will and way of God for this world.
This passage is challenge and grace. It challenges us to remember that our faith is a scandal. What we have to say about love and justice, mercy and grace, about our relationship with God, about who and how Jesus is for this world, all of it is a stumbling block in the way of some of this world's most dearly held convictions about who we are and what we're made for. If we're saying and living gospel things, it's going to trip some other things up.
I read recently about Bree Newsome, the African American woman who climbed a flag pole to remove a Confederate flag from the South Carolina capital building, just days after nine African Americans were gunned down in their church. She boldly declared to those who were scandalized by such an action, "You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!" She talks openly about how her living faith in the liberating power and presence of Jesus spurred on her on; that her actions were soaked in prayer, rooted in Scripture.
Mercifully, we're not all expected to climb flag poles. And we may not be called quite so dramatically into the public eye. Most of history's saints haven't been. But Bree Newsome reminds us that our faith is a disruption of the broken ways of the world. If we're walking in the will and way of Jesus, eventually it's going to trip some folks up. And she reminds us that when we create the kind of holy mischief that Jesus gets us into, when we allow ourselves to be a heavenly disruption--when we disrupt the unclean spirits of anger and violence, of selfishness and greed, of loneliness and exclusion, of hopelessness and fear, sickness and pain, on and on--we do so in nothing less than the authority of Jesus: in the name and way of the One whose power is at work within us and among us--the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the greatest disruption of all--to do more than all we could ask or imagine.
That's the grace. It's what the Church is for. May it be so.