Vulnerable Mission: Sermon by Laura, 7.19.15

Scriptures: Mark 1-13

His disciples followed him.

With the dramatic stories that happen next, this phrase from Mark 6:1 seems rather innocuous and obvious. Of course Jesus’ disciples followed him. That’s what the disciples do, right? They go where their master goes. They do what he tells them to do. They open themselves to receive and learn from him. They follow.

In this text, they are following Jesus back from a tour of regions around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus has been announcing the coming of God’s kingdom. On this tour, the disciples have seen him rebuke the wind-tossed sea into stillness and cast a Legion of unclean spirits from a possessed man into a herd of swine. Just prior to our stories today, they have witnessed Jesus heal a woman suffering from 12 years of bleeding and raise 12-year-old girl back to life. Thus have the 12 disciples seen Jesus’ kingly authority revealed, bringing order to chaos, freedom from enslavement, and new life out of death.[1] Soon, they will themselves be sent out, in that same authority, to heal, cast out demons, and announce the kingdom.

His disciples followed him.

First, however, the disciples follow Jesus to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day. And, after all the wonders they have seen, I imagine the last thing the disciples expect is the hometown crowd’s reaction to Jesus. It begins well; the people seem impressed by Jesus’ wisdom and powerful actions: “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

But in the next breath, what appears to be a compliment becomes an insult. Regardless of any powerful deeds, these people know those hands were, up until now, employed in the mundane work of carpentry. Jesus was just a handyman, so how special could he really be?

There’s irony here, as N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus is indeed the one who can fix things, the one who is putting up a building, the one people should go to, to get things sorted out.”[2] But “familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes, and even more, it gives the locals the excuse they need to reject any notion of Jesus as Messiah and dismiss his dangerous kingdom teachings.

So this “un-miracle” story ends sadly.[3] Jesus offers a new, transformative reality, but the locals refuse to receive it. It’s not that Jesus’ hands have any less power, but that his neighbors and friends have effectively tied them.  After healing just a few sick folks, Jesus voices the pain he must have felt in this rejection: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…” And then, amazed at their unbelief, Jesus moves on.

His disciples followed him.

It’s interesting that Mark’s gospel places the story of Jesus sending the Twelve into the villages to minister with “authority over the unclean spirits,” just after an event where Jesus’ authority was rejected.  What is “authority?” One source defines it as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.”[4]

My mind links the word “authority” to the word “authoritarian,” a leadership style which enforces obedience “at the expense of personal freedom.”[5] Authoritarian governments use whatever force necessary to compel submission and conformity to their agenda. This is the kind of leadership Rome exercised over the people of first century Palestine, domination by force of arms and incessant war, celebrated, ironically, as the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome.

The peace of God’s kingdom, the authority in which Jesus sends the disciples, is utterly in contrast to such authoritarian regimes. And that, frankly, may be part of what offended Jesus’ hometown crowd. The kingdom Jesus was announcing contradicted the hope of Messiah so many Jews had nursed, the hope for a military leader who would fight Rome’s fire with fire, reclaiming their homeland from the pagans.

Jesus does not and will not compel obedience to his agenda by dominating force. Jesus’ authority comes from God, and God doesn’t force anyone into faith. God, who longs for our responsive love and obedience, allows people the freedom to reject him. In concert with God’s will and ways, Jesus’ authority makes change by way of free acceptance. He announces the kingdom, available to us here and now, and he shows us God’s desire and power for healing and wholeness. Those who freely accept and receive from him find their hearts and lives completely transformed. The eternal kind of life—a life of grace, purpose, courage, and deep love—becomes our everyday reality and spreads out from us to others.

But Jesus knows that for others, his way just seems too contrary to their understandings of prosperity and power on earth. No matter how loudly he speaks, some will not hear; no matter what sign he reveals, some will not see. Jesus grieves our rejection and our lack of faith, but he doesn’t let it slow him down.

And his disciples followed him.

 The Greek word, here translated “follow,” can also mean “imitate.” Disciples not only go where their master goes, but they take on his discipline: training that guides them in imitating the master’s character and deeds, training that shapes them in his likeness.

So, when Jesus sends out the Twelve, the disciples are not only to imitate their master’s powerful words, calling people to changed hearts and minds, fit for God’s kingdom; and they are not only to imitate his powerful sign-acts of exorcism and healing, which show, more powerfully than words, God’s kingdom is present in Jesus Christ. Above all, in the instructions he gives, we see that his disciples are also to imitate with authority rooted in vulnerability.

It’s an urgent mission; the disciples need to move fast and travel widely. They are not to waste time or energy carrying the burdens of self-sufficiency—bags with extra clothing, money, or even bread. If the disciples are not welcomed, they are not to waste time or energy trying to force the issue. Jesus tells them to shake off the dust and move on.

But beyond urgency, these instructions shape a relationship of hospitality. The disciples leave behind “the right equipment and…beautiful sacred objects”[6] we are so often tempted to substitute for faith. “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment,” is how Eugene Petersen puts Jesus’ instructions in the Message.[7]

Showing up in town as vulnerable people, strangers in need of welcome, willing to risk rejection, and accepting their lack of control over others’ reactions: It’s not just that these instructions allow them to be in a home to speak gospel words; it’s that, in and of itself, living out these instructions actually makes the gospel real. The disciples come into a community in vulnerable acceptance, just as Jesus Christ, in whom God comes to dwell with us came as a vulnerable infant, submitting himself to our hospitality, accepting our rejection, giving himself for our redemption.

His disciples followed him.

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes that hospitality is not just the literal act of receiving a stranger into our home, but “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being” and “…in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.”

Nouwen continues, “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”[8]

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that God in Jesus Christ offers us this kind of hospitality. When we were far off, God in Christ ran to us with open arms and received us with mercy and grace into his kingdom. Therefore, as Christ’s disciples, we are called to offer such hospitality to others. But in today’s scripture, we see that we do so not merely by welcoming strangers into our fine homes or churches, but by becoming strangers ourselves, allowing others to fulfill our needs, making ourselves vulnerable to the welcome or rejection Jesus himself receives. The paradox is that, in so doing, we become available to share the radical acceptance and the new reality of love we have received in Jesus Christ.

Friends, I know this is not easy or comfortable. It means shedding not only layers of stuff that get between us and others, but layers of cultural assumptions. In and of ourselves, we frankly cannot do it.

But we are disciples sent out in the authority of Jesus Christ, imitating and relying upon his utter faith in God: Nothing will be impossible with God. Friends, it is not easy, but the eternal love and abundant life of God in Jesus Christ is worth whatever discomfort, whatever risk.

So let us, Jesus’ disciples, follow him. Amen, and Alleluia.

[1] http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/07/mission-grounded-in-rejection.html

[2] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 66.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_5_2015

[4] https://www.google.com/search?q=authority+definition&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

[5] Definition from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/authoritarian

[6] Peter W. Marty, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_5_2015

[7] Eugene Petersen, The Message, Mark 6:8

[8] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 67, 72-73.

[9] Gittins, quoted at http://theearthenvessel.blogspot.com/2005/11/insights-from-anthony-gittins.html

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“Mission Statements”: Sermon by Keith, 1.27.13, Epiphany 3A

Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31Luke 4:14-21

A one sentence sermon.  Did you catch it?  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  I don’t think my preaching professors in seminary would let me get by with a one sentence sermon.  I’ve only heard of one other sermon that was only one sentence, and I understand that pastor got a lot of dazed, confused looks.   A previous pastor in the church where we did our internship walked up to the pulpit and said, “God is love.” and sat down.  From the way people told the story, they were grasping for some reason why he would do that.  Maybe it was a busy week and he didn’t have time to get a proper sermon done, or maybe there had been a crisis in his family.  But it was the one sermon people talked about years later.  Now we read about Jesus, back in his home town, and we find his first recorded sermon, a one liner.  And it is a doozy, one that makes his family and friends react to him in a way they never had before.

After being baptized by John and spending 40 days in the wilderness, he makes his way to his home country.  Reports start spreading about him through Galilee because of the miracles he is bringing to people’s lives and how he has taught.  So when he makes it back to Nazareth, it is quite a day in synagogue.  This is where he grew up, and everybody is there, eager to hear a world proclaimed from their hometown boy.

In the synagogue, there were no professional clergy, so to speak.  The leader of this community house of worship could invite any appropriate person to read and comment on the text.  So Jesus is asked to read the lesson from the prophets. The choice is up to him. Since there isn’t a book like we have today, a bulky scroll is brought to him and placed upon the lectern. Jesus unrolls it, searching for the text from Isaiah.  In a voice strong with anticipation, he reads aloud these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Finished with his reading from the prophet, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat.  It was the custom that the teachers and rabbis sit, so when he takes his seat, everyone looks at him, expecting some sermon and commentary on the text.  This was a text they knew well, one that had been read multiple times.  They knew what Jesus was supposed to say, the question was would he say it correctly or not.

And what Jesus says catches them all off guard.  Jesus sets free the scripture passage he has just read.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He claims those ancient words of Isaiah as his own personal mission statement.  The reason the Holy Spirit came down on him in his baptism was to empower Jesus to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; free the oppressed, and usher in the Jubilee year of God’s justice.

Jesus takes all this as his mission statement, and everything that follows in this life, especially as we see through the gospel of Luke, can be pointed back to his reading of this prophecy he claimed for himself that Sabbath morning.  As you go through the gospel, every time Jesus acts, he is living into these words, until it finally kills him.  Now there are some who welcome what Jesus does, especially those who are freed from bondage of sin and illness and those whose eyes are literally opened and those whose eyes are opened to the reality of God in their midst.  Based upon some scholars calculations, the year that Jesus stood in the synagogue and read these words was an actual year of jubilee, a once every 50 year cycle of freedom and rest, freedom for the fields to rest, a year debts are forgiven, a year when people return home and slaves are freed.  Relationships are restored and salvation is found.  In Jesus, literally the time of salvation had begun.

But there are those who do not like what Jesus does.  They do not want to give up the power and control they have been given or acquired.  They do not want to face the possibility of freedom for others that is found in the year of jubilee.  When someone is freed, they have to be freed from someone or something, and that is when the balance of control gets upset.  Jesus pushes those in control to question their complacency and pushes them to recognize that their relationship with God may not be as it should.  They find their discomfort increasingly intolerable and think his crucifixion will bring an end to the matter.  They are wrong.  Jesus rose from the dead to show that the freedom that is promised by God and found in God even extends to being freed from the grave.   The captivity of the grave cannot stop the Holy Spirit.

Friends, that same Spirit that fell upon Jesus is the same spirit that falls upon us.  The same Spirit that anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor is the same Spirit that anoints (name of congregant) to bring good news to the poor.  It is the same Spirit that sent Jesus to proclaim release to the captives that sends (Name of congregant) to proclaim release to all those who are imprisoned.  It is the same Spirit that gave Jesus authority to give sight to the blind that gives (name of congregant) the same authority.  The same Spirit that gave Christ his mission gives us, the church, our mission.

God in Christ is still active in the world in and through his church.  Jesus still does these things because his church does them.  Now we might say we cannot perform these kinds of miracles.  However, as individuals we can indeed do much.  Remember the Holy Spirit is upon us.  But only if we think we are alone are we limited.  Christ is with us in and through his body, the church.  As his body, collectively, we can also do miracles.

And we are called to do those miracles together here and now.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Do you hear the urgency of that one sentence sermon?  The time of God’s Holy Spirit is today, right now.  Daily we are called to live into the mission Christ calls us into.  Not just the mission field in Africa or some place far away, but in our hometown, on the corner of Washington and Fir Street, La Grande, Oregon.  The poor in our neighborhoods gain hope, whether it’s their souls or their bodies that we find starving. The captives experience freedom, whether they are prisoners in a jail or prisoners in the biggest house on the block. The blind receive sight, whether it is from lack of Vitamin K, by cataract surgery at the Grande Ronde Hospital or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of someone filled with hate and are blind to the love and grace of God. The oppressed are set free, whether oppression is a political regime or a drug addiction. When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces the mission statement for himself and for his body, the church.  He announces the mission we are called to do with and for him in our world and especially our community today.

So, here we are, remembering a one sentence sermon given two thousand years ago.  It had an impact, hasn’t it?  Even the day he gave, tempers flared and the people attempted to throw him off a cliff.  But as his church, we do more than just remember it.  We live into it everyday, no matter the consequences, because Christ is with us, forming us into his people, his body, who will carry his mission into the world.  His mission is our mission.  Amen.