Proper 9, 2015

Lord Jesus Christ,

I eat too much.
And I have too much money.
So, I don’t know if I know what grace is.
I need you to burn the chaff and create in me plenty good room.



My faith began to change when I was in my undergraduate program.

I took classes in Church History, theology, and Christian Ethics – classes that ultimately brought me to where I am right now.

I learned about the development of doctrine, the lives of the great saints, and the connection we have to this through our communion and participation in this liturgy. I loved learning about these things, and I loved knowing these things.

Having them in my “tool belt” was empowering. But feeling empowered quickly became a sense of power over other people.

I began to wield this knowledge like a weapon, a weapon I could draw quickly as a countermeasure to anything that sounded disagreeable or seemed “sloppy.”

You see, I was in charge of the student-led worship service, so this weapon of new knowledge was used nearly every time our planning committee sat down to a meeting.

The point is that I had forgotten one crucial piece of the puzzle: all that I knew was given to me by people who cared enough to teach it to me, and teach it to me with patience and long-suffering.

It was not an entitlement. It was a gift. And I forgot that important distinction. It is with this in mind that I read the first half of our Gospel story this morning.

Jesus is rejected by his own neighbors and kin. He arrives, preaches, and astounds them with his teaching. Their reaction is difficult to pin down because this story is repeated in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, each with its own particular variation.

In Luke, Jesus seems to impress them, but he says something to tick them off after he impresses them, and so they try to haul him out of town and throw him off a cliff. I hope this sermon doesn’t end that way, but we’ll see…

What is common to the three stories is that the people of Nazareth all seem to know Jesus.

At least, they rattle off the list of things they know about him: his occupation, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters. And they know where he comes from.

He’s from Nazareth. He’s from their neighborhood. Maybe they have swallowed the stories that were being told about Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

They do not seem to believe there can be anything particularly special about this one.

They know him; they know his parents. And they’ve probably heard through the grapevine that this prodigal son embarrassed his family by denying his relation to them. You just don’t do that!

No, this one is a bad egg if we’ve ever smelled one. There is no way that this Jesus – who we’ve known since his family’s return from Egypt when he was still so young – this Jesus – who disappointed us by being too good to claim his own family – there is no way that this kid can have anything we don’t, anything we might need! How dare he waltz in here and presume to teach us!? We changed that boy’s stinky diapers!

This is, of course, an elaboration on the text and the surrounding stories in the Gospel of Mark. But, the bottom line is that they have rejected this Jesus who they think they know so well already.

They do not believe, and Jesus is amazed at their disbelief. I have always assumed that Jesus could not do the deeds of power because they had no faith, but it does not say that.

In fact, he does heal a few people. Maybe he couldn’t because his life was in danger, and he didn’t have a chance to do anything more than heal a handful of people. After all, the Gospel of Luke adds that the crowd tried to kill him.

In any case, I do not think we can read this story in a way that makes faith the necessary ingredient for Jesus to have any power. It is not, again, a magical formula for extracting power from Jesus.

I think this is best understood in terms of the relationship between faith and deeds of power. That is, we have to see that relationship in terms of reception of Jesus. They have rejected Jesus – perhaps forcibly removed him from their midst. The gift of God was offensive to them, and so they pushed that gift out of their midst.

But we cannot forget that much of their offense was due to this knowledge they thought they had. They could not see the possibility that they just might not know everything about this Jesus.

They had the information they needed, and that information took up too much space in their imaginations to accept the gift of God in their midst.

So, it is no surprise to me that Jesus sends out the twelve in the manner he does: “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.’”

People are often so interested in the “shake the dust off your sandals” bit that this incredible detail is overlooked.

Some people have written about this passage, about Jesus sending out the twelve, and they have suggested that they are asked to travel light because they ought to trust God for provision.

There is a temptation to self-sufficiency and independence that hinders our ability to believe this truth. Learning to receive the Gospel, to receive Jesus, is to learn to receive a pure gift. We cannot earn this gift. And we cannot lay claim to it or tame it with our perceived knowledge of it. If we could, it would no longer be a gift, and it would no longer be the work of God.

So I think, when Jesus sends the twelve out with nothing to take with them, he is sending them out together as people who are prepared to receive the hospitality of another as a gift of God. They are in a position to need the person with whom they are staying. And they are postured to see that other person – their fellow human creature – as a gift from God.

How often do we seek to offer hospitality and service and fail to see our neighbor as a gift from God, as someone who has also been given gifts by God, someone who also has something to contribute to our common life together because we think we have it covered, that we have it under control?

Many times, I think we go out into our communities with a full bag, full wallet, and a full belly ready to distribute this thing we possess and control called the Gospel.

But the problem is that these things – the full bag, full wallet, and full belly – make us think that we do not need anything in order to bear witness to the gift of the Gospel.

We begin to see ourselves as bearers of the gift rather than those in desperate need of that gift every single day.

But the truth is, we do need the grace of God daily. The truth is, to use the words of Fr. Brennan Manning: “We are all, equally, privileged but un-entitled beggars at the door of God’s mercy!”

I heard an interview with our new Presiding Bishop-elect, Michael Curry, this week. He said that the church could no longer wait for the congregation to come to it. Rather, “The church must go to where the congregation is.”

I think that is true, as long as we understand it alongside another thought from Bishop Curry: “[The church committed to making disciples who follow in the way of Jesus of Nazareth] evangelize as much by listening as by sharing.” As much by listening as by sharing.

Perhaps the most faithful way the church can bear witness to the Gospel is by revealing its empty hands, poverty in spirit, and daily desperation for the Grace of Christ to fill it once again.

So, when we come to the table with our empty, cupped hands, we see that they are filled with the Body of Christ. And we are invited to approach our neighbors in Albany in the same way: empty of all else but the Grace of Christ, ready to hear the need of our city and point to the Giver who is the Gift itself. Amen.


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