July 8, 2018: Proper 9B (English)
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
July 8, 2018: Proper 9B
Pastor Eric Deibler
I started elementary school in 1970. Mrs. Naomi Hartman was my teacher. It was a small school located outside a small town, so everything about it was on the quaint side; on the small-town side.
It’s remarkable how much of that experience is still so clearly etched in my mind, like the report cards we used to get. I can still see them clear as day. Mint green with black lettering, space on the back for your parents to sign in order to demonstrate that they had actually seen it. And I remember there was a list of number codes on the inside which the teacher was able to use to indicate what kind of a person you were. I can’t remember what all the codes were, although I believe there was one for “personal hygiene”, one for “completes work on time”, and of course “plays well with others”.
The lesson for today from Mark is an interesting one and actually kind of odd. It’s really two units: there is the story of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth to visit, and there’s the story of Jesus sending out the disciples two buy two.
These two stories show us two different ways of responding to the invitation to Grace. On the one hand there is the response of the people of Nazareth. It’s interesting to see how the first part of the story is translated because it tells us there at the end of verse two, that “many who heard him were astounded.” That word, “astounded” is intriguing, because astounded isn’t quite the right translation. It doesn’t communicate the underlying emotion. The word “astounded” tends to make us think of wonder or amazement, when what it really communicates is more along the lines of, say, indignation or being incensed. I really like how Eugene Peterson translates the next couple of verses in his version of the Bible called The Message, “But in the next breath they were cutting him down: “he’s just a carpenter – Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justice, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?” They tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling. And they never got any further.”
And as a result Jesus really wasn’t able to do much there. I love the way Mark puts it: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”
And then Jesus calls together the 12 disciples and he sends them out two buy two and gives them authority over the unclean spirits. They are supposed to travel light, not taking anything with them except the clothes on their backs and the sandals on their feet. In verse 13 Mark tells us “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
What this says to me is that doing ministry with the power of God, with the Holy Spirit, is a collaborative effort. Do we play well with others, that is with God; with the Holy Spirit, or don’t we?
The journalist Tom Friedman once told a story in order to explain why the Middle East peace process seems so frequently stuck. It was a story about a man named Goldberg. Every week when the results of the lottery were announced, Goldberg prayed to God, "God, why don't I ever win the lottery? What have I done wrong? I've been a good man. Why shouldn't I win?" Again next week the lottery winner was announced and again Goldberg was disappointed and he cried out to God. "What will it take, Lord? I am a righteous man, an honorable man, a hard-working man. Would it be so hard for you, just once, to let me win the lottery?" The clouds parted, the heavens opened and a voice came forth out of the heavens. The voice said, "Goldberg, give me a chance--buy a ticket!"
This passage from Mark shows us how even Jesus had to deal with limitations. It’s no coincidence that the stories from last week are those which immediately precede the lesson for this week. Because what we have in the stories of last week is such a stark contrast to the people of Nazareth.
Last week we had two people who begged Jesus each in their own way to bring healing to their lives. We had Jairus, the leader of the temple, who came and fell at Jesus feet and begged him repeatedly to come to his house and lay his hands on his daughter, who was on the verge of death, so that she might be healed. And we also had the woman with a hemorrhage, who suffered for 12 years not only from her illness, but also at the hands of the physicians who treated her. And throwing all caution aside she forces her way into the crowd convinced that if only she can touch Jesus clothing she will be healed. And immediately following those two accounts, we have the story about Jesus and his hometown where they reject and ridicule him and he finds himself able to do very little, comparatively speaking.
The disciples on the other hand are able to do great things. The people of Nazareth are not willing to buy a ticket. The peoples of Nazareth do not play well with others. The disciples on the other hand are willing to buy the ticket. In fact they go all in, taking Jesus at his word and traveling with the barest of essentials, relying upon the willingness of those to whom they minister to provide for them. In this instance, the disciples play very well with others.
The take away of this for us is that ministry is not something that simply happens. It’s not something that Jesus does for us as we sit idly by and reap the benefits of his work. Ministry is something in which we need actively to engage. When I say “we”, I don’t mean it in the collective sense of this congregation. It means each of us individually participating in the work the ministry of Zion.
One of the marks of discipleship is servanthood: Christian service within the congregation and also to the greater community. As we grow in faith and ministry, we will find ourselves open to greater possibilities. We will have increased opportunities to provide meaningful ministry to the community around us and to one another.
Doing ministry is transformational. It’s transformational not only for those to whom we minister, but it’s transformational for us, as well. The story for today from Mark represents a pivotal moment in the life of the disciples. For some time now they’ve been following Jesus, they been watching Jesus, they been listening to Jesus. But now they are sent out to act like Jesus. Up until this point they’ve been passive standers-by. Now Jesus sends them out to actively engage in ministry. And what they are able to do is astounding. In fact, what they’re able to achieve is far greater than what Jesus was able to achieve in Nazareth.
Rev. Anthony Roberts, a UCC pastor, relates the following story of being invited to lecture at a church that had declined in recent decades.
“When I arrived to give a lecture there, I was met by an officer of the church. As I was early, he asked if I would like a tour of the grand facility. As we walked he told me that twenty years ago he had feared for the future of his church. In fact, he said, "I was pretty sure then that by now we would have closed our doors. You see, we were just fifty elderly people left in this great sanctuary." Then he brightened. "But something has happened. Something has changed. We're experiencing a kind of renewal, a revival."
"Really," I said, "that's wonderful." "Yes, these days we have four or five hundred people in church. We have new ministries in the community. We are seeing new people, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight."
"How do you explain this?" I asked. He thought for a moment, his hand on his chin. Then he said, "Well, it wasn't all our new minister, but he has made a difference."
"What's he done?"
"Well, he got us studying the Bible. In fact, he can give you the entire message of the Bible in just six words." Inwardly, I groaned.
"And what might those six words be?" I asked skeptically. My host, an older African-American man grinned broadly. "The six words that summarize the entire message of the Bible? 'I am God and you're not.'" We both laughed.
"I am God and you're not." Sounds kind of silly perhaps, but I don't think it is. It's not about you, not about us. It's about God.
That once great church had become so focused on its past glories and singular prominence that they had forgotten, my guide said, the real source of the church's power and of its life . . . the power of the living God.
Their collective pride had prevented them from buying the ticket.
Just like their pastor could sum up the Bible in six words, we can sum up the sin of that congregation with just one word: ego. It’s the same old sin of Adam and Eve. It’s the sin of ego, placing ourselves and our needs above those of God.
The people of Nazareth hindered the ministry of Jesus in that they refused to admit to themselves that there was more to him than being a simple carpenter. It was the sin of ego, placing themselves above God. In this case, quite literally, because of the way they were denigrating Jesus.
But we do the same thing. When we say that we don’t have time to do something in the church, to participate in some form of ministry, we’re saying that our time and our needs are more important than God’s time and God’s needs.
When we encourage you to participate in ministry, to engage in Christian servanthood, it doesn’t mean devoting your entire life to the church. Just a small portion of it. Think of it as a tithe of your time. When we refuse to participate in the ministry of the church, we, like the people of Nazareth, impede the work of Christ by denying him access to the gifts which God has given us which are necessary for the ministry of the body of Christ.
Each of us has been uniquely created, with unique gifts, for the purpose of the unique ministry to which we are called. When we neglect to fulfill that calling, we deny God the use of our gifts. As a result, your unique ministry remains unfulfilled.
In Nazareth, Jesus is able to do little. With the disciples offering themselves up to do ministry, he achieves much. And the disciples will go on to do even more. Not just during the time of Jesus’ presence on earth, but even more so after his death and resurrection.
We are a part of that ongoing work. Think about it: What power is there in doing ministry? You change the lives of others. You experience the power of Christ in your own life. You are drawn deeper into the life of a caring life-giving community. You’re drawn into deeper relationship with God. And you’re part of an ongoing legacy that stretches back over 2000 years.
Or, you know, you can watch TV. Which one will have a longer-lasting impact on your life? Which one will change the world? C’mon. Buy the ticket. Come play with Jesus.