A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) July 5, 2015
Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “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. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 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. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
There’s a hymn called “I, the Lord of sea and sky” that’s too new to be in our hymnal, but many of you have probably heard it. It’s better known as “Here I am, Lord,” and the words are essentially a dialogue between God and, well, us: between God, who has heard his people cry and wants to know who will bear his light; God, who has borne his people’s pain and wants to know who will speak his word to them; God who tends the sick and lame and wants to know who will give his life to them…and us. The refrain – presumably our answer – is “Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” It’s very pretty and quite stirring, and you often hear it at faith-affirming occasions like confirmations and ordinations.
It scares me to death.
It just feels so momentous…first, in the reminder of the devastation, heartbreak, injustice, and pain in the world and that there’s just no getting around that. Then, in the realization that God cares about it and that God is present in all of it. And then, even more, in the realization that God is calling us, as Christians, to do something about it.
It makes me understand better why the people in Jesus’s own hometown – people who had known him his entire life and knew his family and probably rooted for him to be a success at whatever he did – why they responded to what he said to them the way they did. Clearly, it wasn’t what they expected to hear; the gospel asserts that they were “astounded.” It seems, at least at first, as if they heard something compelling in Jesus’s message: something that they hadn’t heard before or something they heard in a different way, and they were struck by his “wisdom” and “deeds of power.”
Chances are that it was some version of the message that we heard in the opening sentences of our service today: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…And…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. And it wasn’t what they expected. They had their own problems. For one, they had lived under the tyranny of Roman rule for long enough, and they were eagerly anticipating the messiah who would deliver them, someone who would take care of them for a change. Then along comes this fellow whom they’ve known since he was in diapers and tells them that their deliverance lies in loving God and each other. No wonder they were infuriated, and probably frightened at the same time. The Good News doesn’t always feel good.
The message that Jesus had for his hometown congregation clearly challenged them to the point that they took offense. And it was easier to reject the messenger than to heed the message. But the consequence of that rejection was that they missed out on the very things that they long longed for; there was precious little grace and healing in Jesus’s hometown. Not because Jesus didn’t want it, but because the people in his hometown couldn’t accept it. No “Here I am, Lord” for them.
The hard part is how easy it can be to sympathize and even identify with their response.
How do we find the courage and faith to say “Here I am, Lord”? There are plenty of inspirational stories of courage and faith all around us: at the forefront these days, and deservedly so, is the response to the violence at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, from those who died and their survivors and people like the anonymous philanthropists who have established a $3,000,000 scholarship fund for children in the Emanuel AME Church family. Many of us continue to be inspired by the witness and work of people like Mother Teresa and other saints through the ages. Ironically, though, those stories can be so inspirational that they can make us feel like we’ll never measure up, that we don’t have what it takes to say “Here I am, Lord.”
The answer for most of us, I believe, is simply to start small and where we are. After Jesus’s message was rebuffed in his hometown, he didn’t head to Jerusalem or another big city. Instead, he went among the villages teaching the message of God’s grace and healing. And he sent 12 of his apostles to do the same. These people were not learned scholars or sophisticated theologians. Like us, they misunderstood Jesus’s message on occasion (remember how fearful they were in the boat on the stormy sea and how puzzled they were that Jesus would try identify who touched his cloak amidst a crowd of people); like us, they would misunderstand Jesus’s message many times over. Yet, imperfectly, they kept the faith and kept at it. “Here I am, Lord.”
They traveled lightly simply because that was how itinerant preachers of the day were recognized. Giving up what we have and going without is not a requirement of the gospel. Loving God and our neighbor, however, is. It’s how the kingdom of God spreads, the call that Jesus and his followers throughout the ages have heeded. “Here I am, Lord.” Sometimes boldly, often tentatively, always imperfectly, it’s how we build up the kingdom, by answering the call from where we are.
“Here I am, Lord.” Unlike the slamming doors of Jesus’s hometown, it’s the sound of people saying yes to the good news. We hear it at St. Mary’s…from the youth who shared worship and lunch with residents of Monroe Park as part of their Homegrown Mission Trip a couple of weeks ago to the many people who participated in the weeklong hospitality of CARITAS…from the enthusiastic embrace of pastoral care teams to the involvement of so many in our Sunday morning worship…from the dedication of our Sunday School teachers to the children whose voices will fill the air during Vacation Bible School…from the response to food and school supply drives to the demands of stewardship…from active engagement with scripture through Bible study and special classes to the quiet contemplation of retreats…and more. Each of us has a part, and like the 12 apostles of today’s gospel, we start small and where we are. We remember that we’ve been given what we need to do our part in building up the kingdom. And that, together, it’s not so scary, after all.
Here we are, Lord.