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.. (Mark 6:1-13)
Today’s scripture is one of those odd readings in the “Revised Common Lectionary” - a three-year cycle of readings - that makes pastors scratch their heads and wonder why whomever chose these verses picked them. Today’s Gospel lesson is really made up of two very distinctive parts. The first is Jesus rejection by his hometown and even his family, and the other is Jesus sending out his disciples two by two.
What connects these two? Let’s find out…
Our reading begins, like many times, with Jesus traveling. We are told that he “left that place and came to his hometown”. THAT place would have been where Jesus had just performed a miracle by raising the daughter of Jairus, as you may remember from last week, and where the woman with the hemorrhage had been cured simply by making her way through the thick crowds and reaching out to touch Jesus’s cloak. But not only that, Jesus had also stilled a storm and he had cast out demons - and now he was on the way to his hometown accompanied by the disciples. Home for Jesus would have been Nazareth, while all his disciples were from Galilee. While there Jesus of course is found in the Synagogue on Sabbath, teaching all who are there, and they are “astounded”. Whatever it is that he is teaching, likely repentance[i], they find themselves in shock and at awe as they wonder “Where did this man get all this?” and “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” and “What deeds of power are being done by his hands”.
But before long they remember who he is - he grew up playing on the same streets as they and their kids, he became a carpenter and so held a normal job, he is one of them! Realizing that they know him, the awe and surprise turns into questioning, into suspicion, and even into rejection. “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?” It is as if they are saying, “Hey, we know you and you know us and, anyway, you and your family aren’t that special. Who do you think you are? What makes you think you have something to say? Who are you trying to fool? We remember you - you are the snot-nosed little brat who ran away from his parents when he was 12 years old and worried them sick - and now YOU are trying to tell us about the Kingdom of God?”
And so, because of what they see in him and how they know him, and maybe even a little because of what they think of and see in themselves and the expectations they have for members of their community, they are closed off to his teaching and “they took offense at him”. Whatever Jesus had told them that had them at awe in the beginning, it is now gone, and he is rejected by his hometown as well as his own family. He is rejected in a way that seems common for a prophet throughout time - as our first reading in Ezekiel seems to attest to as well[ii]. Success is not a given when it comes to spreading the Good News[iii]. Still, I would imagine Jesus was kind of put off by their rejection and probably even hurt when he shook his head at their disbelief and said that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
The villagers in Jesus’ hometown were unable to step away from their idea of what makes a prophet and they don’t have any faith in Jesus and, hampered by their lack of faith, Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them”. Driggers writes that “it is not that Jesus had actually become powerless, but that the [villagers] restricted by their own expectations, cannot see their own well-being realized in his ministry[iv]. Stated simply, Jesus cannot heal those who do not approach him for healing”.
What about us? Do we approach Jesus for healing? Especially considering that his healing asks us for repentance? Healing of illness, yes, and healing of things like joblessness, homelessness, not enough money to pay the bills, depression, other difficulties in life - YES, YES, YES, to all of these - but repentance? Although I was never a member of a church that did that, the word REPENT still conjures up images of authoritarian, school-masterly looking pastors wagging their finger in the air and telling people to repent or go to hell and waiting for them to admit that they are unworthy. Who would want that? And even more so - who would want that not only from a preacher but from someone close to them? Someone they grew up with? Someone sitting in the pew next to them? Someone who seems just as or even more flawed as them? I have to be honest - I can see how I might be put off. Wouldn’t you?
What does that even mean - repentance? So often that word seems to bring with it shame about things done wrong or bad choices made. We think of repentance as something scary rather than something that frees us to live a life that enables us to walk around without feeling as if we carry on our backs a bag full of rocks that seem heavier with each step and fearful of encountering people whom we may have harmed. Instead, to me, twelve step programs have it right when they ask participants in steps three through seven to make a decision to turn their will and lives over to the care of God, to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves that includes the good and the bad, to admit the exact nature of their wrongs to God and themselves and hopefully another person, and, step seven, to humbly ask God to remove any shortcomings. There is no shame or guilt in any of these steps, but only awareness of how one's actions may have hurt us, others, or even our relationship with God and a heartfelt desire to re-establish true and honest relationships. There is no shame but only beauty in this and grace.
Repentance is about asking God for help in becoming who we were created to be and for those of us who are baptized, it also means to remember our baptism and to grow in becoming Easter people by constantly finding ourselves renewed by the waters of baptism and continued growth in our own Christ-likeness. That is our task in life - to walk in the footsteps of Christ as best as we can and when we stumble, to get back up and try again. For us as people it means to live into a right relationship with God and our neighbors and for the Church it means to be the hometown that does not close its ears or reject, but to be ever conscious of the ways in which we may have been deaf to the words of Christ and our calling as a church, including to carry Christ's message forward. If we don’t do it, then who will? One thing is clear, Christ cannot be stopped.
Faced with rejection that he can’t overcome, Jesus does the only thing he can do - he shakes his head at the disbelief of the villagers and after healing the few people he could, he moves on to the surrounding villages. He does not try to defend his name or reputation but instead he continues his journey and even commissions his disciples to go out two by two, pointing the power away from himself and pouring it into others. This is a crucial turning point in his ministry and that of the disciples who will now play a more active role. Through their words they will proclaim the Good News; by their lives they will show what it means to live faithfully as they travel lightly, leaving behind everything that might get in their way including ideas about past and themselves.
Each church must make a continuous and clear decision - to be the villagers or the disciples and I believe our choice is clear: We are disciples of Christ; we are part of the body of Christ; and our website and brochures all proclaim that we are a servant people of the Servant King. So, the question is: How may we live into this more fully as persons and as a congregation?
In 12 step programs, once people make it successfully through the first 11 steps, the last one reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” To me this sounds a lot like the Christian life (and no, I am not advocating 12 step programs for all, but I could not help but notice the beauty in the steps). We are saved by grace through faith, not works, but because we are saved and out of love and thanksgiving, we should want to shout from the rooftops the mighty deeds God has done so that others may know and to help them experience God’s incredible love, too[v]. This does not only mean to invite people to church, although that too, but also to intentionally reach out to those in need in the “surrounding villages”, the places outside of these doors. The good news is that it is post-Pentecost and we are filled with the spirit who enables us to say the words people need to hear and to bring healing into brokenness - we are sent with power! Let us take this power into the world. Jesus sent out 12 disciples -twelve, as you may remember from last week, is an important number - and so I challenge you over the next 12 week, to talk about your church, about Trinity, and about your love for God to twelve people and to invite these twelve people - maybe they will come, maybe they do not - either way - you know you asked. And I also ask you to pray - to pray about what God has in store for you. What is God sending you out to do? Maybe you are already doing it - and maybe something new will spring up as well. Pray also about this church; what are we sent out to do right now?
May we allow the spirit to use us and move us to show God’s love to a world in need. But let us also heed Christ’s instructions: Travel lightly - leaving behind preconceived and limiting notions about God and Christ and discipleship and even about how things have always been done and ought to be done. Instead, let us be willing to sharpen our ears to hear words of wisdom from unexpected voices and open our eyes to witness healing in unexpected ways.
And above all - whatever it is we do, let it all be done to the glory of God[vi].
[i] Ira Brent Driggers, New Proclamations Commentary: Year B 2012, Easter Through Christ the King, Fortress
[ii] Ezekiel 2:1-5: He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, "Thus says the Lord God." Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
[iii] The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version, Amy Hill Levin and Marc Zvi Brettler Eds., Oxford University Press, 2011
[iv] Ira Brent Driggers, New Proclamations Commentary: Year B 2012, Easter Through Christ the King, Fortress
[v] Jeremiah 20:9 came to mind as I wrote this, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones, and I become weary of holding it in, and I cannot prevail.”.
[vi] 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”, Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”