Finding God in the Ordinary (A sermon from Mark 6:1-13)
Jesus is limited in what he can do in his hometown of Nazareth. The healing and liberating power of God is not irresistible. We can resist and reject what is good for us. Because of the resistance Jesus encountered in his hometown he could not do many good works there. While many were astounded by the wisdom with which he taught and the good works they had heard Jesus had been doing, Mark says that Jesus could do no more than heal a few people. They say, “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 then Mark says, “And they took offense at him.”
Why are they offended? The implication in the text is that Jesus was just too common and ordinary. He had not been to theological school. He had not been trained by a prominent rabbi. He was a carpenter, a common craftsman like many of them. He was one of them. They knew his family – his brothers and sisters were among them. So how could the great “Other,” the transcendent one, the Holy One of Israel choose and call someone so common and ordinary to do his work? And they took offense.
Mark says that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief,” that is, their inability to see and trust that the works he was doing were of God. These were religious people. Nevertheless, their bias, their preconceived notion of what God could and could not do, their predetermined notions of who God chooses to do his work blinded them to what anyone trusting common sense and a sincere intuitive sense of the Divine would have seen quite clearly. A second-hand faith that never reaches the level of personal experience of Divine love and mercy can blind us to what is.
I have been reading and re-reading some of the writings of Dr.John Philip Newell, who has spent considerable time studying and writing about Celtic Christianity. He recalls preaching at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh a number of years ago. Standing in the pulpit that hugs one of the thousand-year-old central massive pillars, he began his sermon by saying that there would be a time when that building would be no more. There would be a time when our Scriptures would be no more. And there would be a time when Christianity would be no more. At which point a woman in the congregation shouted out, “Heresy!”
This is when the rest of the congregation woke up. Newell could see them whispering to one another, “What did he say?” The woman had been sitting in one of the cathedral’s box pews. (Special seating I guess?) She decided to leave in protest. She opened, then slammed shut, the little door at the end of her pew as she headed off, stomping down the central aisle with her hard-heeled shoes, and shouting one more time, “Heresy!”
Labeling a teaching as “heresy” and the propagator of the teaching as a “heretic” is just another form of exclusion and projection of one’s own fears and insecurities onto the other person or group that challenges one’s beliefs and perspectives. Instead of viewing our religious faith as a road sign that points beyond itself, in our limited view we too often see it as a stop sign. When we do that we confuse our capacity to see, our limited understanding and vision of God with the actual reality of God, the Ultimate Reality, who is so much bigger and larger than what we can see with our flawed, limited, and biased vision.
Last week I shared a story that Dr. Newell told about his father who suffered from dementia in his final days. During that time the people who visited his father most frequently were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr. Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.
Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit with his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”
I like how Dr. Newell describes what happened in his father’s life. He says his father’s religious ego collapsed. It is mostly our ego and the ego of our particular faith group that keeps us from seeing the larger world where God is at work in diverse ways through diverse means.
As you well know I often say that religion can be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world. When our religious faith limits what God can do and the persons and communities through whom God can work, our faith can easily become detrimental and harmful to what God is doing in the world. An exclusionary Christian faith can quite easily lead to Christian exceptionalism and elitism. If God only works with people of our faith tradition and practice, then we have a basis for exclusion, for denouncing and condemning others who have a different faith and tradition, and who see God differently than we do. And when you meld a sense of privilege and chosenness to desires for power, position, and prominence, which temptations we are all subject to, then religion (an in particular, Christianity) becomes the worst thing in the world rather than the best thing in the world. Then we, just like the people in Jesus’ hometown, may well take offense when others of a different faith and tradition claim to know God and do the works of God. I have little doubt that Christian exclusivism is helping to feed the meanness and hatred toward immigrants and refugees that is coming down from the WH and supported by a considerable number of people. Christian exclusivism may not be the main cause of support for the merciless zero tolerance immigration policy being enforced by this WH, but it certainly feeds into it.
Jesus’ friends and relatives in his home town could not imagine how God could use him in such a remarkable way. Jesus was just too ordinary. Too common. Too human. But, you see, sisters and brothers, that’s where God is and how God works – through ordinary people like you and me.
When President Obama spoke to the nation after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage he urged respect for the opponents of same-sex marriage. He recognized that there were people with different views. In his comments, he took no credit for it, even though his support for same-sex marriage was a major factor in changing the tide of public opinion. In his comments he said that the Supreme Court decision was “the consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, talked to parents, parents who loved their children no matter what, folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong, and came to believe in themselves and who they were, and slowly made an entire country realize that love is love.” The President concluded by saying, “What an extraordinary achievement, but what a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But then, in another sense no one is just ordinary. We are all extraordinary. We all have the divine life pulsing through our soul and body. I love the way the little epistle of 1 John puts it, “See what love the Father (our Abba, our Compassionate Guardian) has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” The reason, the biblical writer goes on to say, that the domination system does not know us (that is, the reason it does not recognize how extraordinary we are) is because it did know him (the domination system did not recognize how extraordinary Jesus was either).” John goes on: “Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will fully be has not yet been revealed” (3:1-2a). The reason it has not been fully revealed what we will be is because we are still growing into what it means to be God’s sons and daughters. Our growth as God’s sons and daughters takes faith and effort on our part. But our sonship and daughtership is pure grace. We are God’s daughters and sons right now! There is nothing to earn, there are no hoops to jump through, no doctrines or religious creeds to believe, no rituals to perform. We are, right now, the very children of God in whom the divine nature, the Spirit of God dwells. That was true yesterday, it’s true today, and will be true tomorrow.
Now, as we claim and grow into this reality we will most certainly come to believe some things. We will most likely participate in some spiritual rituals and practices. We will certainly engage in acts of kindness and works of justice and peace. But, sisters and brothers, we do not in any way merit or earn our identity as the children of God through our beliefs or through our works. That’s simply who we are. We belong to God and one another by pure grace. And by virtue of that identity we are of infinite worth and value. So no matter how ordinary we may seem, we are each one extraordinary.
So ordinary people, who are extraordinary, can do extraordinary things. We see this in the next unit in our biblical text. Jesus sends out the twelve to do the very works he had been doing – these common, ordinary folks – fishermen, a tax collector, a former insurrectionist – unschooled, average persons – healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Once upon a time a small Jewish boy went to his rabbi and said that he didn’t know how to love God. “How can I love God when I have never seen God,” asked the boy. The rabbi said to the boy, “Start with a stone. Try to love a stone. Try to be present to this most simple and basic thing so that you can see its beauty and goodness. Start with a stone.” “Then,” said the rabbi, “try to love a flower, be present to a flower and let its beauty come into you. You don’t need to pluck it or possess it. Don’t destroy it. Just love it there in the garden.”
Next the rabbi singled out the boy’s pet dog and told him to love his dog. Then he said, “Try to love the mountains and the sky and the beauty of creation. Be present to the creation in its many forms. Let creation speak to you and come into you.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved the creation try to love a woman. Try to be faithful and give yourself sacrificially to another.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved a stone, a flower, your little dog, the mountains and sky and creation, and a woman, then you will be ready to love God.”
What do you think the Rabbi was trying to teach the boy? I think what the rabbi was trying to teach is that the way we consciously enter into the experience of God and communion with God is through all that is. We learn how to love God by loving the world in all its variety and beauty and messiness. Paul says that a vital part of what it means to reach maturity is coming to trust that God is “all in all.” If we can trust that, we can find the Christ everywhere. If we trust that God is “all in all” then we can encounter God in all reality. We can be led by the Spirit anytime all the time.
In our celebration of the Lord’s table may we be reminded that Jesus didn’t just teach truth, confront injustice, heal the sick, and free the oppressed for one particular group of people. Yes, he was a Hebrew and he was a Jewish prophet and teacher and reformer. But he is the world’s Messiah. His life and death was for the world. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the cross.”
Oh God, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, may we know that our communion is not only with our sisters and brothers here in this place on this Lord’s day, but with all creation, and all our sisters and brothers the world over.