Scriptures: Ezekiel 2:1-5 Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Mark 6:1-13
Have any of you ever visited a church that was once your home church, but is your home church no longer – for example, perhaps spending Christmas Eve with your family In the church you grew up in, but no longer attend because you’ve moved. As those who have been in this situation can attest, it can be a strange feeling. The surroundings are likely familiar – renovations in churches are few and far between, especially in these days of low attendance and tight budgets. So the building and the worship space are more or less as you remember them. But the people have changed. There are new people there, who of course you don’t know, and the ones you do know have grown older, and you see more grey in their hair and more lines on their faces, and the older members may have visibly slowed down a bit from when you saw them last. Those who know you want to pick up the conversation where it would have been when you were there last, but your life has moved on, and their lives have moved on as well. It’s possible that the pastor you grew up with has moved on, and the church has a new and unfamiliar pastor – and of course, no pastor can ever measure up to the pastor who baptized or confirmed you. Now, it’s one thing if you plan to reconnect with the church on a long-term basis – perhaps moving back to your hometown to take care of an aging parent. Over time, you’ll plug back in to the life of the congregation, get to know the new pastor, and eventually it’ll be as if you’d never left. But if you’re there just that one time, it can be a reminder of the truth of the saying that “you can’t go home again.”
In our Gospel readings over the past several Sundays, Jesus has been constantly on the move, healing and teaching. Just to recap: since the beginning of Mark’s gospel, he healed a leper, cast a demon out of a man in a synagogue, healed a paralyzed man, restored a man’s withered hand, cast demons out of a man who lived among the tombs, healed a woman with internal bleeding, and raised the daughter of a synagogue leader – just to name some of the more prominent healings. In the midst of all this, Jesus called disciples and taught the crowds. With this background, and after all the travel involved, perhaps we can understand why Jesus may have wanted to come home.
But, even though Jesus had likely only been away for a matter of days and weeks, not month or years, Jesus found that home wasn’t necessarily a place of comfort and refuge. Again, that saying: you can’t go home again. In the short time he’d been away, Jesus had been experiencing and proclaiming and channeling the power of God in a unique way, has changed many lives, has touched many communities. Meanwhile, the lives of the people in his hometown had gone as they ever had. And so when Jesus tried to share his experience of God’s power with those hometown folks…..well, it didn’t go so well. Jesus was on fire with the Spirit, and wanted those in his hometown synagogue to bask in the warmth of the spirit’s fire. But the response of the hometown folks was like a bucket of ice water: “Who does this guy think he is? We know who Jesus is! We knew Jesus when Mary was changing his diapers! Mary and the brothers and sisters have been here all this time…..though God only knows where the father is, or even who the father is. And now he wants to get up there and presume to instruct us? Who does this guy think he is?” After telling us all this, Mark’s gospel concludes, “And they took offense at him.” And Jesus was astonished – expecting to re-enter the warmth of his hometown synagogue, he instead got the back of their hand. Who are these people? Who had they become in the short time he’d been away…..or had they always been like this, and Jesus was just discovering it now. Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” We’re told that Jesus could do no deed of power there, except apparently a few people believed in him, so that he could heal them.
Not the homecoming Jesus envisioned. So he took his show back out on the road. He also sent the disciples out on their first mission without him by their side. He sent them out two by two, and as we read his instructions to the disciples, we may have visions of Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s witnesses dancing in our heads. And he told them to travel light – no luggage, no travelers checks, don’t bring a change of clothes, don’t even pack lunch. He wanted them to be entirely dependent on the providence of God and the hospitality of the people among whom they’d be ministering. Jesus told them that if they were rejected, they should knock the dust off their sandals as a testimony against them, and move on to the next village. And, we’re told, “they proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
After a successful ministry tour, Jesus came home, and got a cold reception from those who’d known him all his life. The folks in Jesus hometown knew him….and what they knew about him from the past blinded them to what Jesus had to offer in the present. It can be like that for us as well. We use past conduct as a predictor of future behavior – we expect people who have helped us in the past to be there for us in the future, and conversely if people have disappointed us in the past, we don’t expect much from them going forward. The same can be true of groups of people, be it a football team or a faith community. And it’s a sound practice. And yet, God is at work in ways we can’t see, in us and in our neighbors, and so people can surprise us, and faith communities can surprise us, just as the Eagles surprised us this year. After decades of chokes and disappointments, who at the beginning of the season expected the Eagles to go all the way….and yet, this year, they did. In the same way, people and groups that haven’t impressed us much in the past, or that have crashed and burned in the past, or have even hurt us in the past, may yet hold unexpected God-given possibilities for health and wholeness. And if we’ve given up on ourselves – well, the same is true of us. We also hold unexpected God-given possibilities for health and wholeness. God is not done with us yet, or with our neighbors. Sometimes hard experience can distill into wisdom that can bring change. God’s resurrection power can transform even the most seemingly dead-end people and situations. So it’s ok to be skeptical, but let’s guard against becoming completely cynical. God is still speaking.
After being rejected at his hometown, Jesus sent his disciples into ministry. And we should take another look at how he did it. He sent them out two-by-two – for mutual support and mutual accountability. Ministry is a lonely, lonely call – believe it. One thing for which I thank the Penn Southeast Conference is that they’ve encouraged pastors to form into support groups, which are called communities of practice, where we can share the joys and struggles we encounter in ministry, sometimes hear new perspectives on how to deal with this or that situation. I’m a member of such a group, and I’ve really come to look forward to meetings. But the same applies not just to pastors, but to any ministry of the church – we need to support one another and be there for one another.
Jesus also told the disciples to travel light, and to rely on the hospitality of those they visited. Had they brought a lot of supplies with them, the disciples could have gone into a given village, done some ministry, and then gone off by themselves at day’s end to eat and sleep. But Jesus’ instructions forced them not only to rely on God but to connect with and rely on the people to whom they were ministering, as they’d be depending on them for food and shelter. By contrast, our churches seem so dependent on things, on gadgets and technology, be it televangelists shaking down their faithful for money to buy jets, or megachurches with amphitheaters equipped with visual and sound effects to dazzle the eye and delight the ear. And those churches like ours who don’t and can’t offer such things may feel ourselves left out of the running. But Jesus’ disciples could offer nothing but themselves and the power of God working in them – and we’re told that they cast out demons and healed people, that lives were changed forever by their work. And we can offer that as well – ourselves, and God’s power working in us – and change lives as well.
Jesus also realized that not everyone will respond to the Good News, just as those in Jesus’ hometown did not respond. So he gave his disciples permission to disengage, to knock the dust off their sandals and move on. We have that permission as well, when those we try to reach don’t respond.
One other thing: God sent the disciples out, to do ministry among the people. He didn’t send them out to gather people to where Jesus was. Rather, he sent them to do ministry where the people were. So much effort and energy, in our congregation and elsewhere, goes into getting people to come to church. And denominations encourage this, as they tend to measure churches according to membership numbers and attendance numbers and offering numbers. So much energy goes into asking what can we do to get people to come here. And what we do here on Sunday morning is critically important. But what we do here is to equip us to go out there and do ministry. I’m so happy – so happy – that our newly-launched homeless ministry is modeled on going out to homeless people and giving them food where they are, without any kind of precondition. And, like the ministry done by Jesus’ disciples, it’s done in groups, not alone. Yes, make no mistake, I want people to come to church….but I also want what we do here in church to have an impact that extends far beyond the front steps of the church. Jesus told his disciples to go where the people are, to go where the pain is, and make a difference. God calls us to do no less.
Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two, and gave them authority. May we at Emanuel Church support one another, and claim the authority God has given us – to share the Good News of the gospel with others, to pray for healing and to bring healing to broken people and situations, to share God’s love with all who cross our paths. May God’s love fill us and surround us, and through us may God’s love bring hope to a hurting world. Amen.