30 Aug Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 4th, 2021
Holy Gospel: Mark 6:1-13
Rev. Phil Schmidt
In the year 1912 Woodrow Wilson was elected president of the United States. After his election he visited his aunt, whom he had not seen for a long time. The aunt asked him: “So, what are you doing at the moment, Woodrow?” Wilson answered, “I have just become president!” His aunt was apparently not impressed; she asked, “O yah, and president of what?” Wilson answered, “President of the United States!” The aunt responded with an impatient tone in her voice: “Stop talking nonsense!” She did not believe him.
This was in the days before public radio, television and wide-spread reading of daily newspapers. But the real issue here is that this aunt had known Woodrow Wilson since his childhood; for her he was an ordinary person. She knew nothing about whatever qualities he might have had which enabled him to win a presidential election.
Apparently, Jesus had a similar problem in his home- town of Nazareth:
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.
The townspeople of Nazareth had known him and his family since childhood. They had seen Jesus grow up and knew him as a local carpenter. When they heard him teaching in the synagogue, they were irritated that he was saying things which they had never before heard from him. Putting this in a contemporary perspective, just imagine a person in a small town who earned money in his youth my mowing lawns or taking over a paper route, a kid who played on the streets with other kids, scraping his knees, climbing trees, eating junk food. Then he goes away, and when he comes back, he is being called the Messiah and speaking words of wisdom which went way beyond traditional faith. As we know from another section of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters thought that he had lost his mind, that he had gone crazy.
I had a similar situation with my father. When I studied theology, I developed a faith which went far beyond anything which my father could comprehend or accept. When he attended my sermons, he did not say much about them, but it was apparent to me what he was thinking, namely, that he and I were no longer living on the same planet.
The rejection of Jesus in Nazareth reveals a deeper issue. There is an old saying: “Seeing is believing”, which means that supposedly you can verify truth by seeing something with your own eyes. But this is not true. The people of Nazareth saw Jesus with their own eyes. However, they were incapable of seeing his true identity. They were unwilling to see Jesus as the incarnation of God’s presence and power. They looked at Jesus and did not see God at work; they saw a deranged person.
This encounter in the synagogue of Nazareth reveals a basic truth: we do not see with our eyes; we see with our mind. We see what we expect to see. Our hopes and fears dictate what we see. We tend to take notice of that which confirms what we believe to be true.
There is a Biblical scholar who discovered that the Bible is aware of how our eye can lead us astray. In the Bible there is a Hebrew word “latur” which means both “to see” and “to be led astray”. He writes:
We do not simply see what is there. We select and interpret what is there. We notice some things but not others. We make inferences on the basis of pre-judgements. But we are for the most part unaware of this.
It is remarkable that a Biblical word equates “seeing” with “deception”. It is as though the Bible anticipated how easy it is to manipulate people with images. The Internet has revealed how simple it is to create false impressions and spread lies by using images. Terrorist organizations spread hate and gain recruits by using manipulated videos. One of the biggest threats to fair democratic elections are images and videos posted on social media which have been tampered with.
In the ten commandments there is a categorical rejection of all man-made images:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.“
This instruction does not merely forbid making images of God, it forbids all images. In the Bible, faith is not conveyed by seeing, but by hearing and reading. Hearing and reading Biblical stories, not looking at images and presentations, lead to genuine fellowship with God. When Jesus came to his home-town synagogue he did not try to look impressive or to stage a glittering performance; he relied exclusively on his ability to read and to speak and on the willingness of his congregation to listen.
But this also made him vulnerable. As we heard in the reading:
And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
The townspeople robbed Jesus of his power because he did not fit in with their pre-conceived images of how a representative of God is supposed to look. Jesus was too ordinary, too common, too local. They could not conceive of a God who reveals himself in an ordinary, everyday person whom they had known since childhood. This is a warning to all of us: we can rob Jesus of his power to transform us, if we are blinded by our narrow-minded expectations of how God is supposed to come into our lives.
So, how can we free ourselves from the pre-conceived notions which prevent us from seeing Jesus as he is meant to be seen? One of the first steps is to recognize how our world has become obsessed and overflooded with images. Taking photos and looking at videos can become an addiction. Staring at smart phones can reduce our attention span, our ability to concentrate. If we want to get a clearer idea of truth, then a first step could be to recognize that we are being constantly manipulated by what we choose to look at. Biblical faith comes to focus through hearing and reading. Sometimes I say to myself: it’s time to shut off that stupid computer and read a book.
A second step is to recognize that Jesus always comes to us in ordinary things and ordinary people. In Bethlehem God came to us as a baby. On Golgotha he came to us as a convicted criminal. In the eucharist he comes to us in bread and wine. In worship he comes to us in words spoken by everyday people. In our daily lives he comes to us as our neighbor.
After Jesu had been rejected in Nazareth, he did not respond by trying to liven up his power-point presentation – figuratively speaking. He did not try to do something spectacular in order to win over the sceptics, instead he continued to convey his message within ordinariness. He sent out his disciples to travel from town to town in his name, giving them authorization to preach repentance, to cast out demons and to anoint the sick with oil, which at that time was a common household method of treating sickness. In appearance his messengers were unpretentious. They carried nothing with them except a walking stick: no food, no bag. no money, no second shirt. They had to rely utterly on the hospitality of strangers. In outward appearance they were like homeless people.
The disciples of Jesus, with their humble, down-to-earth approach to ministry, were like a preview of a Russian missionary by the name of Makarii Glukharev. In 1830 he traveled to a mountainous area of southwestern Siberia, which was inhabited by warlike nomadic tribes. Glukharev learned the local languages and dialects; he translated Scripture and liturgical texts; he organized open-air services, at which he preached. However, the tribesmen did not respond to his message. He was getting nowhere with them So, he tried another approach. He set out to become a servant to the nomads, especially in the areas of medicine and sanitation. Because these tribal people had no concept of hygiene, Glukharev went into their homes and did cleaning chores. He came with a broom and swept the floors; he became a janitor for Jesus, a Putzfrau for Christ. He wrote:
“To sweep the floor as a humble servant is to identify oneself with Christ, to bear witness to Him in a way which is more authentic than speeches.”
I have often felt that the most important representatives of Christ in a congregation are the people who are willing to do the little things: to make coffee, bake a cake, wash dishes, move chairs and tables, hand out bulletins, prepare the alter for worship, pull weeds, distribute newsletters, visit the sick and lonely, apply their tech talents.
Luther described the Incarnation by saying: “God made himself small for our sake”. In his followers Christus continues to make himself small. He comes to us in people who are unremarkable, doing tiny acts of service. The townspeople of Nazareth are a warning to us, not to underestimate the presence of Christ in the small and the ordinary. Anyone can become a powerful witness of faith by doing humble deeds, even by sweeping a floor in the name of Christ. May the Lord help us to be faithful in the small opportunities for service.
Holy Gospel: Mark 6:1-13
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.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So, they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.