July 8, 2012
A few years ago, before I started the call process that lead me here, I went looking for a new pastoral call. However my heart wasn’t really in the search. I wasn’t sure I was ready to move or take a full-time call yet. So I got my paperwork together, limited my geographical search and didn’t have a lot of confidence that anything would come from it.
I did talk with a few churches, but the most interesting query I received actually was from the Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Maryland. It was interesting because this church was my first call out of seminary. I went there as an Associate Pastor. In the e-mail correspondence I had with the chair of the search committee, whose name I did not recognize, I told him that I had already served there. His response was that he knew that, and there were members of the search committee who remembered me and were eager for me to come back.
I’m not immune to flattery and this was flattering, so I told him I’d really think and pray about it. And I did. The conclusion I came to was that even if I’d felt compelled to pursue that call, going back to where I’d once been was too fraught with problems. I realized that there’d be a lot of people who would be glad to have me back, but they’d expect the young, naïve pastor I’d once been. I’d grown as a pastor and as a person in the years since I’d left Rockville. But I believe it is human nature to forget that fact. I wasn’t sure that I could pastor that church, not in the way I would want. So I respectfully declined.
It wasn’t all that hard to make that decision when it came to going back to Rockville. But had a call come from a church in Nashville, Tennessee, that would have been a different story altogether. Nashville is my hometown, and I often say that had I known when I moved away from there that I would never go back, I’m not sure I would have ever left.
Had a call come from Nashville, I would have been tempted to take it whether or not it was a real call, a good match or anything else. That’s because there’s a part of me that will always long to go home again. Nashville maintains a rosy glow in my mind.
The problem though is that there is a disconnect between my rosy image and Nashville as it actually is. It’s not that Nashville isn’t a great city. It is. It’s just that it’s not the city I grew up in. It has grown and changed and evolved, in ways that I think are both good and bad. So whenever I make a visit, it is somewhat disorienting. I have to relearn my way around and figure out what makes my city tick all over again.
If I’m disoriented by the changes I encounter in my hometown, I can only imagine how disoriented the people of Jesus’ hometown must have been encountering him.
Jesus and the disciples came into town. As soon as the Sabbath arrives, Jesus did what he does, which is not only to attend services at the local synagogue, but to teach and interpret the Word of God to all who will listen. But that’s where the trouble started.
The people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching with authority, as people often are when it comes to Jesus, but these are the people who knew him when. These are the folks who remember him when he was a kid. These are the people who know his family. These are the ones who hold the stories of his childhood. So when the man that Jesus had become stood up and preached and taught and did all of it with the authority of not just a really talented preacher and teacher, but as the One with the authority of the divine, they can’t hear it. They cannot get past their memories of him as the carpenter’s son and see him for who and for what he really is.
Not only could they NOT get past their memories of Jesus, who Jesus had become offended them. Jesus realized what was happening and said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
From that point on, Jesus couldn’t do anything for them. He couldn’t do any deeds of power. Sure, he was able to heal a few people with the laying on of hands, but considering how many he’d been able to heal before, this was pretty much nothing. Then we leave this part of our passage with these words, “and he was amazed at their unbelief.”
He could do no deeds of power and he was amazed at their unbelief.
This is not the kind of Jesus we’re used to hearing. This is a different kind of Jesus. A Jesus whose ability to heal and perform deeds of power was stymied by the unbelief of the people around him.
This is such a remarkably different kind of Jesus that when Matthew and Luke take on this story in their gospels they change this part. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus chooses not to do anything. The people’s unbelief doesn’t thwart him. He makes a conscious choice not to heal. And Luke just leaves this bit out altogether.
Yet this is one of the main reasons why I love the gospel of Mark. As challenging as Mark can be, it is in this gospel more than any other where Jesus’ humanity rises to the top. But that’s what is both frustrating and a little frightening about this gospel, especially this passage. We see Jesus as very, very human. And with his humanity comes human limitations. He can’t do any deeds of power. This is not a choice he makes. He can’t do it.
This makes sense in light of last week’s story as well. The woman who has bled for twelve years doesn’t ask Jesus to heal her. She touches his clothing and his power leaves him. It is a completely passive healing on Jesus’ part. He has no control over it. The power leaves him without his willing it or doing something to make it happen. He has power but he has no power over how it is used in that particular moment. And in today’s story, whatever power he has used in other places is useless here. He can’t do any deeds of power in his hometown.
A Jesus who can’t do something is definitely a different kind of Jesus, isn’t he? I suspect that many people don’t want this kind of Jesus. They want a Jesus who has absolute power. They want a Jesus, they want a God, who is in absolute control over all things, all events, all places, all people at all times. So to hear that Jesus can’t do something is scary. I think it’s scary because it presents an image of Jesus as powerless. Whether I like to admit it aloud or not, I feel powerless most of the time. The last thing I want is the God I worship to be powerless too.
But here’s where I think we have to parse out the word power. As I see it, our human way of understanding power is to equate it with control. I am powerful if I am in control. If I can maneuver and manipulate all the aspects of my life then I have control, and subsequently I have power.
Yet when we read the gospel, not just Mark’s gospel but all the gospels carefully, this is not the power that is portrayed. Jesus’ power, his real power, comes from being the suffering servant. It comes from his weakness, from his obedience. He heals and preaches and teaches and does great deeds but it’s not through control or manipulative power. It’s through love.
That’s where Jesus’ power really comes from, isn’t it? It’s through love.
The people who experience that love, that power, are transformed by Jesus. Whether they are healed of a physical ailment or their hearts are softened, they experience the power of Jesus when they experience his love.
And therein lies the rub of this passage. The burden of responsibility is placed on the people. Jesus can’t do great deeds of power because the people are not receptive to him. They close their minds and their hearts to him. They refuse to see him as anything but Mary and Joseph’s kid. So he can’t do for them all the things he’s done for others. Their lack of belief limits Jesus.
So here is the question I think we all must ask ourselves. How are we limiting Jesus? How are we being unreceptive? Are we keeping Jesus’ ability to heal us at bay because of a wound we won’t acknowledge or a grudge we won’t let go of? Are there ways in which we’re making it impossible for Jesus to do any deeds of power in our lives because of our unbelief?
This is a different kind of Jesus to be sure. But the reality of Jesus’ humanity does not lessen the good news of love. Jesus’s power is the power of love. And I believe that it is love that can break down every wall we construct to keep Jesus and one another out. The people of Jesus’ hometown may have thwarted his ability to heal or do great deeds of power. But they did not limit his love. Let’s not limit ours. Alleluia. Amen.