The first church both Garrett and I served right out of seminary was in Lombard, Illinois. A western suburb to the Windy City, its claim to fame is lilacs! I have the whiskey bottle to prove it! My mother found a Jim Beam bottle that celebrates the town’s centennial at an antique mall and gave it to me as one of the most unique souvenirs I have of Garrett’s and my first hometown.
Every spring the town cranks up the machinery that culminates in the Lilacia Ball! Every local Rotarian or Lion or business owner makes an appearance. Some young woman blushes with pride to be crowned the Lilacia Queen! Garrett and I were invited one year because I was asked to give the invocation before the meal. Sometimes prayer really is your meal ticket! I looked out over a room of people dressed in their finery, many in varied hues of purple. We found it amusing that the two local funeral homes each had their own table filled with employees. Normally I saw these folks in the somber setting of a graveside service. But at the Lilacia Ball they were drinking and smoking as if there were no tomorrow! Even though it was a suburb of somewhat significant size, it still perceived itself as the small prairie town that it once was. Every town chooses their unique branding and Lombard chose lilacs.
Before Jesus came along, Nazareth was nothing to brag about. A town of 200-400 residents, this boiled down to a couple dozen extended families who shared a total of about ten acres of land. Most were farmers who worked hard for their meager living. As is often the case in rural towns, it clung to conservative values and adhered to traditional Jewish culture. Everyone would have known everyone else in this village that was nestled in the hills some twelve miles from the Sea of Galilee. Take a walk with me as we drop in on a Shabbat service in the Nazareth synagogue. Whenever you go on a tour, you expect to cover some distance. In this story we will wade into a crazy mix of emotions as the hometown folks encounter the One who put them on the map: Jesus of Nazareth.
This past week I worked at one of the home sites on our youth mission trip. We scraped and washed down a mobile home in preparation for a paint job. It’s not gratifying work because things look worse rather than better! In this story that Mark tells, the more we scrape below the surface, the more the ugly attitudes are exposed.
By the time Jesus returns to His hometown to reunite with his family and friends, He is already well-known. He is a known entity! The synagogue ruler, Jairus, recognizes Him while on His opening tour. A blind man named Bartimaeus understands that Jesus is Savior even though he cannot see. Poor people and rich rulers, the lowly and the lofty, recognize who Jesus is. Even the demons cry out His name. But when Jesus stops home, none of His homies recognize Him for who He is.
Boys in religiously conservative Nazareth would have learned how to read. The main purpose for this skill was so that they could read from the scrolls during their worship service. So Jesus steps into a familiar space when He stands in the synagogue to read before the townsfolk. His teaching astounds these folks but also seems to strike a nerve. They move quickly from being captivated to feeling jealous. They remember Him as the carpenter whose quality work is in their homes and barns. They are unable to mesh His past with the man who stands before them: a popular speaker, healer, and religious authority. As they murmur among themselves, they name the other members of Jesus’ family: His mother Mary, His brothers and sisters. We assume that they are still living in backwoods Nazareth so how did this one get away and become such a smarty pants? Perhaps what most terrified them was the fact that His teaching moved them! They cannot—and will not—see Him in the present tense. Mary’s little boy is frozen in time on His home turf.
When I was growing up, we spent most of our summers on the shores of Lake Michigan at a family cottage. We all had our first jobs in Saugatuck (name any food establishment that dates back 50 years and one of the six of us worked at it!). We hung out with townies on our off hours but then moved on to college and life beyond that small tourist town. As a married mother of four and ordained pastor, I needed to have some dirt delivered to our cottage one summer. A burly guy backed into our yard in a dump truck. When he presented me with the receipt, I thought he looked familiar. When he was a teenager, he had a coarse mop of red hair so he was nicknamed “Brillo.” I asked him if he remembered my friend, Ava. When he remembered who I was by association, he gave a grunt of affirmation: “Anyone who partied with Ava is a friend of mine.” Well, I don’t know that I partied with Ava or Brillo and certainly our lives had gone in significantly different directions. But I noted that I was embraced as one of the old gang! If this whole ministry gig falls through, there’s a place where I still belong!
When Jesus shows up in off-the-beaten-track Nazareth with a band of brothers, He is perhaps remembered by His peers as a home boy. They had played together, studied together, worshiped and grown up together. While their Nazarene lives hadn’t changed much, Jesus’ clearly had! Jack Kingsbury writes, “The motive sparking their question … is unbelief, for they find it incredible that one whose origins they know should be able to do such astounding things.”
Jesus is not just ignored after the scripture reading. He is outright rejected. His boyhood cronies are offended that He should have succeeded so greatly while their lives look much the same. Mark lets us know that Jesus has an obedient faith which the townies lack. How could they miss the arrival of the One who would put their village on the map forevermore? Perhaps we understand. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we cling to what is familiar only to discover that our faith withers on the vine. We refuse to see what we don’t expect to see!
As we continue to hike into this rocky emotional terrain, I’m surprised by something. Mark tells us that Jesus’ power is short circuited by the hard-heartedness of His townies. He is human, after all, and having your home community utterly reject you would be difficult to overcome. Jesus counts on us to work with Him so that mighty acts of healing and renewal can happen. We have the freedom to choose our own belief system. But the regimented faith of the Nazarenes shows us the potentially dire effect of looking past Him so as to keep our worldview intact. We miss the light show when God acts in power. As fireworks of healing illumine the sky around us, we close the blinds more tightly. I suspect we do understand how Jesus’ community could reject Him: they didn’t want to change their window on the world!
After being rejected at home, Jesus pairs up His disciples and sends them off to other villages to try out their ministry bag of tricks. The instructions are few but comprehensive: Wear your walking sandals (they didn’t have Merrell hiking boots!). Don’t take a suitcase or even a change of clothes. You will have to rely on the kindness of strangers. Only take with you a walking stick that will help you cover some ground. Oh, and by the way, it may also be needed to fight off wild animals. Good luck! Have a great trip! Buhbye!
Twenty of our middle and high schoolers headed off on a mission trip this last week. Some years our youth go out of country to serve others. Other years they drive all day to get to their destination, laughing, napping, and littering the rental vehicle with food wrappers. This year, they drove eight miles north to work on the homes of our community members. Unlike the pairs of disciples, they dragged a suitcase or duffel bag into a middle school that was transformed into a dormitory for 200 youth and chaperones. They slept on the floor right next to lots of other sleeping, breathing bodies. They pitted out their fresh clothing on long, sweaty work days. The best meal they had all week were the burgers and watermelon at a church member’s home after an afternoon of swimming and boating. Ask any parent—I would be willing to bet that these kids fell into a deep sleep the moment they got home. Only rest could replenish them from the rigors of leaving home to serve others in the heat of each day.
When we act in faith, we are given a level of authority. With authority comes responsibility. With responsibility comes risk. Jesus sent His guys out after they saw how He endured rejection from those who knew Him best. He wanted them to know that rejection, at some point in the journey, is inevitable. So move on. Go to another town where people will receive you. Don’t even let particles of their DNA cling to your dirty tennis shoes. Jesus warned against a form of spiritual cooties. Shake the dust off your feet and move on down the road! Times a wastin’ so don’t take too long trying to convert the know-it-alls!
So what is asked of these men who must have been terrified as they were sent packing? The same thing that is required of us as we journey through each day. Michael Lindvall writes, “…they need not have polished words…They are simply called to speak the Truth in love, from the heart, in their own words, and never be ashamed.” We are summoned to follow their example and to become evangelists. We must tell our story of faith with words—they don’t have to be eloquent. We offer our story in spite of anxiety or embarrassment, trusting that God will use our testimony for the well-being of others. With faith we are entrusted with authority which leads to responsibility. When we speak of our faith, our risky behavior begins to change the world.
At the mobile home community that was the locus of our mission activity last week, folks couldn’t miss us. Our vans stuck out too far in their narrow streets. Our team members played music and laughed together. Residents ate lunch with their workers and everyone did devotions together. The Spirit moved with a beautiful contagion that was all the more powerful after the viral infection we’ve fought the past fifteen months. One resident drove by the many work sites in his car, smiling out the window as he observed a miracle of change in his neighborhood. As we packed up to leave at the end of the first day, two men in a creaky car drove by and asked if we had trash we needed to dump. We said yes and they took it off our hands. They got caught up in the movement of the Spirit that wafted in with the mission teams and they wanted to do their part. As the neighborhood changed, the townies noticed!
The limited perspectives on Jesus by the people who should have known Him best actually limited His power. Their misunderstanding neutralized Jesus so that His only option was to journey on until they found individuals who would listen with open hearts. That can still be difficult to find today!
These mission trips pack a spiritual wallop into the hearts of our young people. We look forward to hearing from them in the fall when they are back from the adventures of summer. We need to hear their stories and they need to tell them! In their absence, I offer a prayer that was written years ago by a young man at the close of a week long mission trip. Both of his parents suffered from significant mental illnesses and his only sibling lived with debilitating cerebral palsy. His home life was loving but traumatic. A week serving others in Jesus’ name gave him a voice that emerged in the form of this sermonic prayer:
Today we are all one in the body of Jesus Christ and we have gathered together to worship our Father, in Love and in hope for the future. Our Father rests among us, watching and listening. I come to you to speak the word. God is the Master, the Creator and our Savior. We are his children. I ask you today to listen and watch, because now is the time. Jesus has come and cleansed us of all sin. It’s always easy to lose the way, but Jesus will still be there. Fear is quick to knock us off balance, but do not be fooled, because God has given us his perfect Love and it has cast out all fear. Remember your faith when you drive home today. Remember your faith when you speak to your family. God is miraculous. Can we imagine His Majesty? I believe that it takes Love to dream, Courage to believe, Humility to see and Wisdom to be. PEACE BE WITH YOU. AMEN.