Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018 Lectionary B, Proper 9
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Rector Scripture: Mark 6:1-13
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Local boy makes big.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to increase our belief in you and Jesus that we might see and do the miraculous through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Many of us have been to some kind of reunion, family or otherwise. Certainly, the high school reunion brings to bear its own unique pressures. Whether it is the ten year reunion, twenty, or greater, it is a time of assessment and comparison. How do I compare to my peers after all these years?
Several movies have been set within the high school reunion context. In the movie, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” actresses Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow play two less than bright, inseparable friends, who hit the road for their ten-year high school reunion. Wishing to impress their old high school buddies, they concoct elaborate lies. When asked what she has done since high school Lisa Kudrow declares that she invented post-its. You know the little yellow (now in all kinds of colors) sticky notes. Obviously, she didn’t invent them, making her reputation sadly laughable. She is not what she pretends to be.
One of my favorite class reunion movies is “Grosse Point Blank”, starring John Cusack and Minnie Driver among others. This, too, is a 10 year high school reunion. Again, the old gang is comparing themselves to one another, scrutinizing their various occupations and appearances after 10 years. John Cusack plays Martin Blank, a professional assassin, who is depressed and disillusioned with his work. When he joined the army, his psych profile showed a “moral flexibility” that made him suitable to work as an assassin for the CIA after which he decided to go freelance. Yes, the movie sounds somewhat morbid—tragic-comedy is more like it. Regardless, reunions have the potential of revealing people in a new light. People may be other than who we thought they are. Reunions can bring out the worst and the best of people.
In today’s gospel from St. Mark, Jesus with his disciples returns to his hometown. It is a reunion with those with whom He grew up. We are not told how long it has been since He was last home. As was His custom on the Sabbath, Jesus got up to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard Him were astounded. As we heard, they said of Him, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 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 local boy had made good, but for them Jesus was just the same old person that He had always been. Their question is a put down: “Is He not a common worker with His hands like the rest of us?” “And they took offense at him.”
They knew Him as Mary’s son, had watched Him as a boy, playing with their sons, causing mischief, and learning carpentry from His dad, Joseph. They knew him as a child. They are incapable of seeing him as an adult. And it is clearly impossible for them to imagine that he might be sent by God to teach and enlighten them. He looked as human as the rest of them from the small town of Nazareth. Their assumptions about him blocked them from receiving what He offers. They are unable to discover anything new because they believe they already know everything that is important.
This kind of prejudging by the town’s people is widespread. We have probably experienced it, and maybe even done it, ourselves. It happens when someone looks at us and only sees what is on the outside. We get labeled as “old” or “not physically able” or “too young.” It’s not a good feeling to be discounted because of biased judgments.
This is also how bullying starts. It can be tempting to categorize people because they look different or seem less than the mainstream. Soon those who don’t quite fit in are ostracized or are told through our disregard of them that they have no value.
Too often we assume that someone has nothing of value to offer. It would take effort on our part to change our mind or alter our opinion. It would mean that we have to set aside our opinion, ask questions and really listen. The gospel today makes us wonder whom we might be dissing or whom we might be overlooking because of our assumptions.
Jesus, however, is not discouraged by their demeaning attitude and question, famously retorting, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” However, as we heard, “[H]e could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”
I have always found this verse where Jesus could do no deed of power rather puzzling. By this time in His ministry Jesus has already done incredible things—healed the sick, cleansed lepers, cast out demons, and He even raised a little girl from the dead. All of which testify to incredible power. Indeed His homies, as we heard earlier, had even remarked, “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” This was not a question, but a declaration.
And now in His hometown Jesus’ power seems to have evaporated. What gives? Are we to believe that unbelief is a greater power than death? Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead, but He could not overcome their unbelief. Think about that for a moment. Oh sure, there have been abuses where people have been told that they were not healed because they lacked belief. Still, we are left wondering. If I believed just a little more then maybe, maybe my prayer might have been answered. Perhaps, we find ourselves remembering an incident from Mark 9.
“And they brought the boy to [Jesus] . . . immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling about and foaming at the mouth. 21 And [Jesus] asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. [. . .] But (said the father) if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can!’ All things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” 25 [. . .] (Jesus) rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out.”
It is a scary thought, is it not—that our unbelief may be limiting if not negating the effectiveness of our prayers for whatever or whomever. What if we had had just a little more belief, maybe things might have turned out differently for us or someone else? So, what are we talking about here? Does the question of belief boil down to how big we believe God, believe Jesus to be? Jesus’ hometown people had known Him as the carpenter’s son—a regular old Joe like the rest of them. How could this local boy possibly have made it good? Even more, could they ever entertain that this local boy, Jesus, was God Himself?
If the strength of our belief and the results of our prayers are dependent upon on how big or small we believe Jesus and God to be (their power), what does that say about the size of our belief in them? For us, is God, is Jesus big or not? To begin to answer that question, let’s look at our western culture. How big does our culture say that God, that Jesus is?
Sadly, that question is easily answered. If you think this is a recent occurrence, then a brief history review is in order. One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was a deist, meaning that whereas he believed that God created everything He, God, had since left the building. In other words, He is not here at all. How much smaller could God be made? With Jefferson’s deist point of view, how could God even be said to exist at all? In fact, as you may know, Jefferson re-wrote the gospels, deleting any and all the miracles Jesus did. It is known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson did not believe Jesus did any miracles at all. How small did this make Jesus? Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment preceded by and closely associated with the scientific revolution where belief in the power of human reason reigned supreme. Sound familiar?
Reason, though, cannot comprehend the miraculous. It is not big enough to comprehend the largeness of God and Jesus. Even so, reason has been the governing principal of our western culture. It is taught in our schools. Our children are taught not to believe in the miraculous. We have been taught not to believe in the miraculous—in a God, in Jesus who can do the miraculous. Instead, science is god. We live in a culture of unbelief. Is it any wonder that we hear of Jesus doing miraculous healings in the non-western world. They believe in a big God and a big Jesus who can do big things, and that is what is happening—big things.
You have heard me speak of worldview before, meaning how we view the world. The western worldview, the worldview of this country, the United States is an unbelieving worldview. Yes, a revolution is needed in this country, but it goes beyond any social, economic, or political feebleness. It goes to the very heart of how we, as a people, view reality. Is God the ultimate reality or is our reality merely our reflection in the mirror—our selfie, standing there clothed, partially clothed or not clothed at all. Isn’t it this selfie which our culture promotes? Do it your way, right or wrong. Define yourself, who you are, by any fantasy that might appeal to you. We have come to believe, perhaps, that we are god. How pitiful is that? Is it any wonder that there is no longer any room for God, for Jesus, never mind the miraculous?
The blame, though, does not stop there. The loss of belief in Jesus continuing to do the miraculous actually started with the Church, centuries ago, not that long, relatively speaking, after Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. Initially, though as the Book of Acts makes quite clear, Jesus’ followers were still doing the miraculous after Jesus’ ascension. Yes, there were healings, and we can even read where the disciples raised people from the dead.
“Now in Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha. [. . .] And it came about at that time that she fell sick and died. Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive” (Acts 9:36-41).
Likewise we hear in Acts 20:7-11. “And there was a certain young man named Eutychus sitting on the window and he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor, and was picked up dead. 10 But Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, “Do not be troubled, for his life is in him.” 11 And they took away the boy alive.”
What made it possible for them to do these mighty works? We know the answer to that. In Acts 1:4-8 we read that: “(Jesus) commanded (the disciples) not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Peter, Paul, and the rest of the disciples were able to do what Jesus had done because they had received the Holy Spirit and His power.
So,what happened? Why did the miraculous begin to stop back then? Was that sort of thing only meant for a short time in order to establish the church? Again, history tells the story. As noted, the Holy Spirit continued to remain active in the early church. Some, however, thought He was too active or that He was too actively activating members of the Church. The leadership (that is the bishops) could not have that. They had to be in control. So, a theology, a false one, began to develop which said that the Spirit’s exclusive residence was with the office of the bishop. Note how this false assumption established power and authority in the bishop alone. In other words, the institutional church did all it could to keep the life-giving Holy Spirit out. This was not what Jesus intended then, and it is not what He intends now or ever.
Needless to say, the Holy Spirit, being God, is as big as God the Father and God the Son. In the name of Jesus He still does the miraculous, the incredible healings that He always has and will do. However, if we keep the Spirit out, if we make Him small, if we don’t invite Him in, then as Jesus saw in His hometown two thousand years ago only a few sick will be cured. Is that what we want? Is it? If it is, then our belief will be small because very little will happen when we pray.
As we heard in this morning’s gospel, Jesus was not discouraged by His hometown’s poor reception and opinion of Him. He continued His teachings in other villages. Remarkably He sent the twelve disciples out under His authority two by two to do the very same miraculous things He had been doing. “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Whereas Jesus’ power was limited in His hometown because of their unbelief, it obviously was not limited elsewhere. Indeed, He had more than enough power. He shared it with the twelve disciples. There is, though, a problem with God, with Jesus being big, being powerful. Can you guess what it is?
Last Sunday we had a healing service. We started by having three people come up to receive prayer from our prayer team. Several of you reported to me that you had felt a peace during this time—the Holy Spirit’s presence, I would say. What, though, if we had not only felt this peace from God, but had also witnessed miraculous healings? What would we have thought? What would we have done? Would we have wished we had not seen the miraculous?
Do you see what I am getting at? When God and when Jesus get big and do big stuff, it requires us also to get big. It requires us to repent. What did we hear in verse 12 of this morning’s gospel? “So they (the 12 disciples) went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”
So, I wonder. Maybe, we are content not to think of God, of Jesus as being very big. Maybe, we are comfortable with our belief also being unbelief. That way, we wouldn’t have to change, would we? We could continue living our lives as we have been, not expecting much from God, from Jesus when we pray. What do you think? Is that where we are—happy with sort of believing because to believe more would require more of us? Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.