Monday, July 6, 2015

Leaving Expectations Behind

July 5, 2015 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9B
Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Several years ago, my parents rearranged their kitchen. I still have not forgiven them. Where the cups were, spices are now kept. Where the plates were, flour and sugar are to be found. The cabinet where I grew up looking for cereal now has the plates and bowls in it. Our family doesn’t go to Fairhope often enough for me to have learned the new layout. Every time I need something, I end up opening three or four cabinets before I find what I am looking for. And, with all due respect to my parents, that just isn’t fair. I might only visit once or twice a year, but it’s still home, and home is the place where everything is supposed to be exactly the way I left it. In an ever-changing world, home is the one place where everything is supposed to be just the way you expect it to be.

Plates and cups aside, returning home does bring us right back to where we were, doesn’t it? The other day, our family went to Birmingham for a short visit, and I watched how Elizabeth subconsciously fell back into the routines of her childhood and adolescence. It would be an overstatement to say that her personality changed, but it did shift ever so slightly, and I felt like I was watching a side of my wife that belonged in a time and place that came before I was a part of her life. I do it, too. When my brothers and I get back together, we fall into the same roles we fulfilled when we were teenagers. I boss everyone around. Stewart rolls his eyes. And Andrew tries to keep the peace. You do it, too. Everyone does. When I see families come together for a wedding or a funeral, I watch men and women in their sixties start acting like they are little kids again—bickering, bossing, and blaming.

The inexorable pull of familiarity sucks all of us into its transformative grasp. We do not choose to become our former selves. It just happens. We have a role to fill—a role that meets our expectations and those of others. And everyone else has a part to play, too—typecast from the formative years of childhood. The family system, more than any other, is designed for stability. It resists all substantial change. And, so, anyone who tries to break free of the bonds of expectations is molded back into place. It’s easier that way. The expectations that we inherit from the system of our origin—that system we call home—are too powerful for us to resist. Deny it if we want, when we go home, we still become the people we are expected to be. There’s nothing anyone can do about it—not even Jesus.

Mark tells us that Jesus came back home with his disciples. As was his custom, on the sabbath he went into the synagogue and began to teach, but his words were like nothing the people had ever heard. “Who is this?” they started to mutter to one another. “Is that the carpenter’s son—Mary’s boy?” “No,” another one said, “That can’t be right. No one from around here ever spoke to us like that!” “Who does he think he is, coming in here all high and mighty from the big city?” another objected. “He should know better than that. A country boy like that has no business coming in here like he owns the world. He’s forgotten his roots. He’s forgotten that we don’t talk like that around here.”

Jesus, Mark tells us, offended the residents of his hometown. The neighbors, the aunts and uncles, the family friends, the ones who had watched this curious boy grow up in their midst refused to accept what had come home to them. And Jesus couldn’t do anything about it. “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark reports, “except lay hands on a few sick people.” This time, back at home, the roles were reversed. Usually, the crowds were amazed at Jesus, but this time Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” Jesus declared, acknowledging that even the Son of God could not shake the expectations of those who had known him since birth. So what did he do? He left and never returned. According to Mark’s gospel account, this was the last time that Jesus came to his hometown, and it seems he wasn’t interested in looking back. There wasn’t anything for him to do among those who thought they knew who he was. Their expectations had shackled his ministry, so he left them behind and went on to find new possibility.

Jesus teaches us that, like him, we cannot encounter the transforming power of God if we are stuck in a familiar place—a place where our expectations or those of others hold us back. It is no accident that the story of Jesus’ rejection at his hometown is followed immediately by the sending out of the disciples. Notice what he says to them. “Go,” he says. “Go out two by two, and take nothing with you—no food, no bag, no money, no change of clothes or shoes. Just a staff in your hand and the clothes on your back. And when you go, go with the authority to bring the good news of repentance and transformation to everyone you meet. And trust that everything you need is already out there waiting for you. So go!” Those are Jesus’ words to us as well.

Consider, for a moment, the art of the cross-country road trip. Few things are as distinctly American as getting into a station wagon and driving for a solid week in the same direction. Of course, there are any number of ways to get from here to there, but the real benefit of such an expedition is not merely arriving at one’s destination. If you only wanted to get to the other side of this continent, you’d be better off flying. But how could you take in the unanticipated variety of our nation from 30,000 feet? The power of the road trip is not knowing what will come around the next bend, not knowing exactly where you will lay your head at night, not knowing where you will eat your next meal or how far it is until the next gas station. The uncertainty heightens the senses. Every road sign, every detour, every exit on the highway is charged with possibility. If you over-plan your trip and over-pack for every eventuality—well, you might as well not even leave home. You’ll be so busy making sure that you stick to the schedule and use all the right equipment at just the right time that you won’t notice this great nation passing you by. Even if you venture away from home, if you take all of your expectations with you, you rob yourself of the power that this great land has to free you from them. The same is true for our discipleship.

As the church, we are standing on the cusp of a great and exciting yet terrifying journey. Jesus is sending us out into world with the good news of repentance and transformation. He’s sending us out into our neighborhoods and into our shopping centers and into our schools. He’s sending us out into city centers and rural villages. He’s sending us out into coffee shops and movie theaters and parking lots and grassy meadows. He’s sending us out to preach and teach and share that good news in person, in print, and in social media. But it doesn’t take a genius or a Pew Research Center study to tell us that we haven’t been doing a very good job of taking the good news of Jesus Christ out into the world. Instead, we’ve spent the last century or more sitting at home in our pretty church buildings with our pretty liturgies and our pretty music and our pretty preaching waiting for the world to come to us. But how well has that worked? Well, it’s time for us to throw out that logic and get off our duffs and head out on a great missionary journey that leaves all of our expectations behind.
Take no bread, no bag, no money in your belt. Take no prayer books, no bibles, no Sunday school classes, or sermons. Take only the life-changing story of Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world. We cannot assume that we know how to package the gospel story for a world that we barely recognize. We are setting out on a journey that will take us to places we do not know. As the church, we must leave our expectations at home. We cannot worry about how we will get the job done. Those worries belong at home—where everything is just the way we think it should be. If we are going to experience the transforming power of God’s good news and share it with the world, we cannot stay here where we are comfortable, where we are known, and where we know what will come next. Jesus is sending us out with nothing more than the clothes on our backs. He’s asking us to leave everything else behind. It’s a scary thought setting out like that, but, if we stay here, nothing will change. And Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate our expectations. He came to set us—and the whole world—free.

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