A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
We know how Jesus' story ends. But it‘s easy to forget he met with rejection not only in Jerusalem, in the last days of his ministry, but from the first and even in Nazareth, among those who knew him best, as today's Gospel (Mk. 6.1-13) reminds us:
Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “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! 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?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
In the end, the authorities in Jerusalem arrest and execute Jesus because they are incensed at his teachings and afraid of the trouble his wonders may cause for them and their rule. But in the synagogue in Nazareth, long before anyone in Jerusalem has heard of him, Jesus is met not so much with indignation as with incredulity.
He's perceived not as a threat, but as a fraud.
Remember, these people—his neighbors, his kinfolk—have known him all of his life. And in his time, Nazareth was a village of perhaps three hundred people. Everyone would've known everything about everyone. And precisely because they're so familiar with him and his family, they're sure they know all they need to know about him, sure he has no right to speak and act in such ways. Their question is smug: "Where did this man get all this?"
In response to their dismissiveness, Jesus quotes a proverb, one which he seems to have referenced often: "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." Perhaps he was angry. Certainly he was troubled. But notice: he does not take offense at them even though they have taken offense at him. He does not scold or belittle. He turns the other cheek. They dismissed him, but he did not recoil or lash out. They dishonored him, but he did not retaliate in kind, because he did not need to be honored.
Like Ezekiel, he did not fear their faces because he had seen the face of God.
Still, we need to notice that he was in fact troubled by their lack of faith. The Gospel, daringly, goes so far as to say that Jesus could do no deed of power among them because of their lack of faith. We should not rush to condemn them, however. After all, we are familiar with Jesus in ways unimaginable for them, and our history shows that we are no less likely to fail to take him seriously.
We need to be careful, obviously, talking about God's disappointment and our lack of faith. The truth is, God has no ego. He does not need us to like him. His love for us is truly unconditional. He is not disgusted with our weaknesses or irked by our disbelief. God does not arbitrarily demand faith of us, certainly not as a test of our sincerity and devotion. God demands faith of us only in the sense that God desires abundant life for us, and without faith, which makes it possible for us to meet reality gracefully, it is impossible to live life to the full.
This, then, is the good news: we are all the room Christ needs in the world to do the work he's been asked to do. But if he's going to be at home in us, as he wants to be, then we'll have to receive him as he is and not as we wish him to be. And that means we'll need to honor him even when he acts dishonorably. We'll have to receive him as our guest even—especially!—when we feel we're unworthy hosts.
Whatever we might want or wish to be the case, our God only feels at home only with the ordinary, the poor, and the afflicted. To him, everything else is false, vain. So, if we want to make room for him, to hold space for him to do what he alone can do, then we'll need to embrace the truth about our own ordinariness, poverty, and affliction.
This is exactly what St Paul had to learn:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul wrote this letter after the Corinthians had rejected him in favor of other teachers, apparently because they found them more impressive, more trustworthy. These new teachers, unlike Paul, looked the part. They came bearing letters of recommendation. They performed more miracles. They preached better sermons. But Paul dismisses them, bitingly, as "super apostles" and "ministers of Satan." They're concerned, he warns, only with appearances. But he does not deny his own unimpressiveness. In fact, he revels in it. He remains sure of his calling, but only because he remains sure of God's reliability. And he insists he has been tasked with impressing Christ's image in them, not his own. But in the end of the letter, he acknowledges that he did not come to these realizations easily, or naturally.
Paul had to learn, and relearn, a hard lesson. Now, we have to learn and relearn it, too. God dwells not in my powers, but in my powerlessness. Not in the persona I project, especially in prayer, but in my true personhood—my essential self that for now is known fully only by God. The “me” sustained not by my striving to be perceived as strong or wise or noble, but by the intercessions of the Spirit who cares only for what is true of me.
In October 1888, when she was only 15, and not long after she had become a nun, Thérèse of Lisieux wrote to her older sister, Céline, in the hopes of comforting her:
Do not let your weakness make you unhappy. When, in the morning, we feel no courage or strength for the practice of virtue, it is really a grace: it is the time to “lay the axe to the root of the tree,” relying upon Jesus alone. If we fall, an act of love will set all right, and Jesus smiles. He helps us without seeming to do so; and the tears which sinners cause Him to shed are wiped away by our poor weak love. Love can do all things.
In later letters, she encouraged her still-distraught sister to "remain far from all that dazzles, loving [your] littleness," and offered her this assurance: "If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will have made a perfect resting place for Christ."
This, I believe, is the wisdom of God, the wisdom we eat and drink at the Lord's Table. God delights in helping without seeming to. And if we can show even a little hospitality to our own weaknesses, including the weakness of our faith, the weakness of our love, we'll find to our surprise that God, somehow, has made himself perfectly at home in us. As our guest, he makes us worthy hosts.