Sunday, July 4, 2021

Good News That's Hard To Hear


July 4, 2021 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 16:15.

Why do people have such a hard time hearing certain things from those closest to them? Why do our children ignore us when we tell them that the person they have a crush on is nothing but trouble, but, when they hear it from their friends at school, they take it as gospel truth? Why do our parents refuse to listen to us when we tell them that they can’t say those things about women or immigrants or people of color, but, when the man who works in their yard invites them to recognize the full humanity of all people, it’s as if the scales have fallen from their eyes? Why are congregations eager to hear challenging, prophetic sermons from visiting preachers but take offense whenever the rector says something even remotely controversial?

Whatever it is, it’s not new. By the time we get to Mark 6, Jesus has done some pretty amazing things. He’s healed the sick. He’s cast out demons. He’s stilled the wind and the waves. He’s even brought the dead back to life. And now he’s come back home—back to his hometown, to the synagogue where he grew up. He’s been invited to preach, and, when he does, the people are offended.

Listen how Mark conveys to us how quickly their admiration turned to disgust: “‘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! 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.” It’s as if they were captivated by his wisdom and power until they remembered where he was from and who his mother and siblings are. “Wait a minute!” they said to themselves. “This is Jesus—the boy who grew up down just around the corner. Who does he think he is, coming back home and talking to us as if we didn’t remember him crawling around in diapers?”

When Mark tells us that they were offended at him, he uses a word that literally means “scandalized.” They weren’t merely put off by his words. They were tripped up, snared, stumbling-blocked because of them. But why? Because there was something incongruous about knowing a man since he was a boy and hearing that man proclaim the coming reign of God. They couldn’t hear this person they knew talk about the kingdom they didn’t. As Jesus declared, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 

The closer you are to a prophet, the harder it is for you to hear what a prophet declares. And why? Because a prophet never tells you what you want to hear. The prophet brings the sharp, painful truth of God that is almost impossible to hear from someone you already know well—from someone who is a part of the life you already enjoy. What the people of Nazareth wanted was the sweet, smart, articulate boy whom they had celebrated as he grew up. What they got was a firebrand rabbi who came to turn their world upside down. And they weren’t having it. Jesus, we are told, was essentially ineffective in their midst—robbed of any power by their hardheartedness and unbelief. 

Is our response any different? The Jesus we know and love has been living in our homes and in our town and in our country for a long, long time. We’re familiar with him. He’s an intimate part of our lives. We even think of him as a friend. He’s loving and gentle and kind. He heals the sick and cares for the poor and welcomes the outcast. We love that Jesus. We admire his benevolent power and seek his life-giving ways. We appreciate the way he gently chastises us just enough to make us uncomfortable before quickly reminding us that he loves us just the way we are. He helps us see the world a little more like the kingdom of God but also permits us to take a piece of that vision back home free of charge—back to the families and jobs and lives we enjoy. He invites us to dream with him of a better place without asking us to give up on the place we already have.

But the Jesus we have welcomed into our hearts and homes isn’t the Jesus we read about in the gospel but the domesticated version whose spirit we have broken and whose power we have tamed. Jesus didn’t come to heal the sick. There were doctors back then who could take care of that. Jesus came to heal those who couldn’t find healing among the physicians of their day. He came to bring healthcare to those who fill up our emergency rooms and urgent care clinics because they can’t afford to go to a doctor until they’re desperate. 

Jesus didn’t come to cast out evil spirits in order that people like you and me could live a tranquil life. He came to overthrow the forces of Satan and the chains of the devil, which bind people to low-paying jobs and inhumane working conditions—the kind of jobs where people get Covid and then lose their jobs and then their homes because they can’t show up to butcher that chicken we buy for $1.89/pound so that the company that sells it can make a few more pennies and the stock price in our portfolios will go up.

Jesus didn’t come to still the storms that ruin our Fourth of July cookouts or quiet the winds that rock our fancy boats. He came to summon the primal forces of creation and subdue the destructive chaos of evil that is rampant in our world. He came to do battle with the hurricanes that devastate already-impoverished communities. He came to condemn the sinking apartment buildings that threaten to collapse. He came to stand up to the wildfires that our greed and ecological abuse are fueling. He came to save those whose lives are threatened by the sweltering heat that we have caused.

When Jesus came to the earth, he came not to bring the dead back to more of this life but so that those who die to this life—to this way of being, to the kingdoms that dominate our world—might be given a new and flourishing existence. We like to think that the heaven that awaits us is more of “Your Best Life Now,” but the unending reign of God into which Jesus Christ calls us is only found when we die to this world and the forces that have corrupted it—when we see that those forces are at work in our own lives—in our politics, our economics, our schools and hospitals, our cars and trucks, our consumption and waste—and recognize our need for repentance.

People look at me funny when I say that Jesus would have made a terrible rector. And that says as much about you and me as it does about him. There’s a reason he never stayed long in one place. There’s a reason that crowds cheered for him and disciples followed him yet the people who knew him his whole life rejected him. It’s hard to have the kingdom of God come nearby, and it’s especially hard when it moves in and takes up residence in your comfortable life. God’s reign displaces all of the powers and principalities in our lives. It will not share authority with any of the institutions we hold dear. Its demands are total and totally new. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus brings to the earth is most definitely good news for all people, including you and me, but it’s the kind of good news that challenges us to our very core. It promises us new and unending life, but we must first die to the life we know and enjoy if we are going to receive the one that God has promised us. Are we willing to die—to give up all of this—in order to be a part of God’s unending reign, or do we just want a Jesus who pats us on the back and makes us feel good about the life we already have?

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