Tuesday, July 13, 2021

We might as well be Nazarenes

preached on July 4 for Proper 9, Year B

In today's gospel we have a pair of stories in which miracles of healing play a part, but in what seem at first in opposite ways. The first story has Jesus returning to his home town, in which he receives a decidedly cold welcome. To us, accustomed to the modern trappings of celebrity, it is a strange reaction, for what modern place would not lay claim to a miracle worker? Perhaps the strangest statement, though, is this: “he could do no deed of power there.” For those of us who have heard this, every third year, for some time, perhaps it does not jump out at us. And yet, consider the implication: that the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate, to whom we ascribe all power and omnipotence not only because it is so revealed, but because it seems obvious—he is in this place incapable of exercising it.


The sentence continues, “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” One's first impulse is to read this as simply illustrating the diminishing of Jesus' power, but there is a message in this little coda. Recall in last week's story, Jesus spoke to the woman with the hemorrhage and said, “daughter, your faith has made you well.” Of course, we cannot be sure, because the gospel does not say so, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that those who came for healing were also made well through faith. But of the rest, “he was amazed at their unbelief.” For surely they had heard tell of the wonders he had done: their words testify to that. And yet the fact that this was the boy they had known, who had grown up on their town, the son of a carpenter, somehow this was enough to “offend” them. And yet, had they heeded scripture, they should not have been so surprised, for in the history of salvation it is recorded over and over that God chose not the high nor the mighty, but the childless to be the father of many, the second over the firstborn, the least over the most. Likewise, the disciples were ordinary men, seemingly picked by Jesus at random. Mary sang, “he hath put down the mighty from their thrones, and hath exalted the humble and meek,” and so then is Jesus himself: God made humble, so that man shall be exalted, indeed, raised to sit at the right hand of the Father. But his former neighbors did not, it seems, remember their scripture.

Instead, familiarity bred contempt, and they raised up for themselves a stumbling block, and out of these blocks, made their town a fortress against the power of the incarnate Word. And note further: from many other stories, we can see that doubt is not necessarily an impediment to the entrance of divine power into our lives; Jesus says that even the smallest seed of faith is enough to call it forth. But contempt is different, and, well, we live in a contemptuous age. You need only to listen how we practice politics to see that. And as many a parable relates, how we treat our fellow humans is how we treat our God.

Now, our second story sees no such impediment; indeed, it turns away from Nazareth and into the rest of Judaea. Here we have the first mission of the apostles, though they are not named as such, and as Jesus sends them out in pairs, we may recall his promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” And in this first mission, we see the same division between faith and rejection: faith brings forth the power of God through the hands of the disciples, but where they are rejected, the implication is that this rejection is not innocent. The disciples are not to harm those who do not accept the gospel word, but they are to shake off the dust off their feet as a testimony against those who reject it. I am reminded of a story of related by Anthony Bloom, the great Orthodox writer and bishop in Britain. The story is of a very nasty, hateful woman, who unaccountably throws a turnip at a beggar to chase him away. After she dies, so the story goes, she is judged and sent to the flames of hell, but there, she sees the hand of Jesus holding out a turnip, and he says to her, “grab hold of this.” Even the smallest good, it seems, may give faith something to grasp, but conversely, both stories today teach that rejection of the divine touch is also within our grasp.

It is quite tempting to view ourselves in the position of the disciples, going out into the world to spread the word and power of Jesus, when we read the second story. And I would not discourage this reading, for, of course, we are also so commissioned. But here, today as on every Sunday, we are the hearers. And in our familiarity with its message, we might as well be Nazarenes ourselves. And thus the question is set before us, in every act we make: are we ourselves to be bearers of the word, or do we treat it with contempt? The first way is life; the second, to turn away from it. Therefore, choose life, that you may have it abundantly.

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