On Going Home

8 July 2018, Mt. Hope Presbyterian Church

Mark 6:1-13

1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 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 they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 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.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

On Going Home

   He left that place and went to his hometown.

   One of the challenges of imagining Jesus is deciding to what degree he was like us. Our religious tradition says that Jesus was a person, like us, except he was the person God had decided to become: not so much like us.

   The line “He left that place and went to his hometown” sounds like the beginning of a story where his similarity to us is pretty high. We love to go home.

   Whenever I go home, I drive past all the places where I used to live and think of what I hoped for when I lived in those places. Sixteen places. I look at the windows of the rooms where I used to sleep, and I wait for light to strike the glass at an angle that will break the glare and let my gaze go through to where I lay twenty years ago, or thirty years ago, and thought about the future. I want the boy who lived in those rooms to get up, come out, and offer me his hand. I want him to tell me he’s glad I’m the man he’ll become. Getting him to do that is harder than I would have imagined when I lived in those rooms. His hopes are high, and he’s so certain of them.

   Will Jesus do that when he goes home? Would the boy he was be glad to meet the man he has become?

   Certainty is one of the things I like to revisit. When I look back on my certainty now, from the perspective of an older man, I realize that it had little basis in reality, but I go back to linger in it anyway — remembering the certainty of youth. It’s still out there somewhere.

   There’s a country song that says, “Home was a swimming hole and a fishing pole and the feel of a muddy row between my toes. Home was an easy chair, with my daddy there, and the smell of Sunday supper on the stove. Home was a back porch swing where I would sit, and my mom would sing Amazing Grace while she hung out the clothes.”

   Home is the place where doing laundry makes you want to sing Amazing Grace.

   Doesn’t everybody yearn to be there? Even Jesus?

   So he left that place and went to his hometown. If this is one of those stories where Jesus is like us, that is if he goes home for the same reason I do, to bask in whatever made my mother sing Amazing Grace while she hung up the clothes, to revisit the world where doing laundry makes you want to sing a hymn of praise, he’s going to wind up disappointed.

   For the last few weeks, we’ve been reading from the Gospel of Mark, which the scholar Matt Skinner describes as “a Christian contribution to the war of myths” competing for the right to tell us what’s real and what’s possible. Skinner means that Mark expected his readers to compare the story he was telling with other ways of understanding the world and decide which one worked best. That was true two thousand years ago, when Mark wrote his gospel, and it’s true today. That’s why people in Mark’s gospel keep asking “Who are you?” or “Who is this guy?” in one way or another.

   That’s the question we’re required to ask if we’re going to live the Christian life: who are you, Jesus? — which is another way of asking what’s real and what’s possible. The question underlying the entire Gospel is: what’s real, and what’s possible?

   When I was young, I rejected the Gospel story because it didn’t stack up against what was real and possible in the world as I understood it. A hurricane is going to drown us all: well, tell it to be still. A woman has been bleeding continuously for twelve years: well, let her touch his jacket. A little girl has died of cancer, or septicemia, or hepatitis B: no she hasn’t — she’s just sleeping, Jesus says, and the people who had watched her die laugh him to scorn. So did I.

   Well the people waiting for Jesus when he goes home don’t laugh, but they certainly scorn. Their question isn’t “Who are you?” or “Who is this guy?” but rather “Who do you think you are?” It’s a question with a different purpose: not to find something out, but to underline what we already know, which is that none of us is any more than what we are: that little boy or girl who lay in bed and dreamed about a future that would never come. Why is it so hard to get my younger self to shake my hand, and tell me he’s glad that I’m the man he will become? Because he isn’t. But I go home any way, time and time again, to find whatever made my mother sing Amazing Grace while she hung up the clothes, even though my mother didn’t do the laundry much, and she never sang Amazing Grace.

   Who do you think you are?

   Maybe Jesus thinks it will be different this time — I always think it’s going to be different. The last time Jesus went home, in chapter three, people said that he had lost his mind. But people have begun to see him differently. In last week’s story, a leader of the synagogue asks him to come to his house and heal his daughter. While he’s on his way, a woman touches his cloak, because she believes a touch is all it will take to heal her hemorrhage, and she’s right. Then people from the important man’s house show up and say, Don’t bother: the girl is dead. No she isn’t, Jesus says: she’s just sleeping. And they laugh at him. Because that’s not reality as they understand it.

   Before that he had been teaching a large group of people in parables, which had the effect of reordering their conventional assumptions and challenging their perception of reality. “I speak to them in parables in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive,” Jesus tells his disciples, “that they may indeed hear but not understand.”

   To change the way they think about what’s real and possible, in other words.

   Before that, he had been traveling through neighboring villages proclaiming the message, and also curing lepers and epileptics. He’s so successful as a healer that sick people start coming out of the woodwork: so many of them fill the streets of every little town that he decides to avoid population centers altogether. People find him anyway — a great multitude, we’re told. At one point, they back him up against the Sea of Galilee, and he asks the disciples to keep a boat in the water behind him so that if the crowd begins to crush him, he can step into the boat and get a little space.

   Perhaps he hoped all of that would change how his neighbors thought about what was real and what was possible. It had changed how strangers thought about reality and possibility, so why not friends?

   Because they know him. You’re Mary’s son, they say, the one she was pregnant with before she got married. Don’t try to get above your raising with us because we know who you are.

   That part of the story isn’t surprising. We want what we know to be what we know.

   If a stranger comes to town and says, “You all might want to change the story of what’s real and possible,” I might ask: “Who are you?” But if one of my own comes back and says that, I’m going to ask a different question: “Who do you think you are?”

   Remember that you’re one of us, I’m going to say, and keep to your station. Stay within the limits all of us have to observe, or you’ll be humiliated when the reality that you’re one of us comes down upon your head.

   That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must, and so we do. In fact, we build fellowships of solidarity around that swallowing: my mother never sang Amazing Grace; in fact, my mother never did the laundry. I washed my underwear myself, and so did Bud and Ray and Tony sitting with me at the bar. Don’t come back here and tell me how to think about my mother. Or myself.

   That’s not surprising. I think what’s often referred to as hardening of the arteries is actually a hardening of perception — a kind of entrenchment in the ditch of understanding, which seduces us by saying yes, and yes, and don’t I know it, yes!

   Who wants to hang around with, “Well, actually no.”   

   What’s surprising is what happens next: “He could do no deed of power there,” we’re told. Why not? He’s been healing diseases right and left, even the disease of death, but he can do no deed of power there? Why not?

   Perhaps because, as Karoline Lewis suggests, the disease he finds at home is not leprosy, or schizophrenia, or cancer, but idolatry. “Worship of that which has been put above God is more than prevalent,” Lewis says. “We hardly recognize it anymore. But we should always be on guard against it.” Especially the kind of idolatry that says God’s love should look a certain way, should come to us a certain way — that the world should be a certain way: the way I expect and understand. That kind of idolatry, Lewis says, is the love of myself.

   That disease is hard to cure, because when I cling to my perception of reality, I separate myself from God, this story suggests.

   Maybe we should take what happens next as a way of handling that kind of idolatry.

   What happens next is Jesus tells the twelve to go out and do more or less what he’s been doing. But he prepares them in a way that none of us would choose to be prepared. Instead of getting ready for the journey, he says, get unready. Don’t take anything with you: no food, no bag, no money. Don’t even take an extra shirt. That way, when you’re rejected, as I just was, you won’t have recourse to any of the things we usually hold up against our awful fear of human vulnerability. Go, he says, but un-protect yourselves before you go.

   And don’t cheat by trying to find a sympathetic ear — nothing to be gained by preaching to the choir. Take your chances with whatever door is opened to you first. If those people put you out, leave town and walk on, in your flimsy sandals, with no food. That way, when you get hungry, and it starts to rain, and you start muttering against the people who put you out, those so-and-sos who don’t understand the world, who don’t recognize the gift of God when it walks through their door, you’ll have no way to protect yourself except by turning to those people, the ones over whom you’re exalting yourself.

   All you need for this work, Jesus seems to say, is your human vulnerability, no matter who your posse is, or who your mother is, or whether she sang songs, or did your laundry. Do you want that boy to come out and shake your hand and say he’s glad that you’re the man he will become? Then go like this: absolutely unprotected, totally exposed, with nothing. This is how it works.

   I don’t want that to be how it works. I don’t want to give up my protection. I don’t want to count on people who might scorn me, or just laugh.

   I know, Jesus says. I’m one of you, so I don’t want to do that either.

   Come on: take your shoes off: let’s go home.

   Amen. 

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