7 Pentecost—Proper 9-B, July 8, 2018
Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13
“And Jesus 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.” Forgetting the caveat of a few sick people getting healed, we need to sit a moment with the admission that “Jesus could do no deed of power there.” We need to sit with it in order to let it correct our view of who Jesus is. The citizens of Nazareth watched him grow up, learning to be a “tekton”, the Greek word that is traditionally translated “carpenter”, but is better translated construction worker. Jesus grew up as a construction worker in a village of 300 people, who are no longer capable of being surprised by him.
Of course this isn’t some novel problem that only Nazareth has, for this is a human problem. When we assume we know someone through and through, we too become incapable of being surprised by them. And when we are incapable of being surprised, it means we’ve gotten lazy and are no longer paying attention to the living, breathing, ever-changing human being in front of us.
I remember hearing somewhere a teaching for couples who have fallen into this kind of deadening rut: it goes—“each day practice noticing 5 new things about your partner.” Of course, there is the proverbial wife’s new haircut that men are accused of never noticing, but take even smaller things. Maybe a new word is spoken or an unusual thought is expressed, or something is done in a way you’ve never noticed before.
Notice Five things. The only way to do this exercise is to pay close attention without pre-judging what you’re seeing and hearing. If we’re always finishing another’s sentence it means we’ve stopped imagining they could ever say anything new. So in this exercise we observe the person, as if we are seeing them for the first time.
Of course the truth is, we are. We’ve never been with this exact person before. 400 years before Christ the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, makes a simple, yet profound statement: He says, “you can’t step into the same river twice”. You can’t do it because the river is always moving and changing and therefore is ever new. Only those who are paying attention are capable of seeing that this is true. If we become bored with the river we take it for granted and stop seeing it as it is in each new moment. Sometimes it takes a tourist to show us the river we thought we knew.
Every person is a new creature in every moment, but if we are fixed in our prejudices about this person then we will not be able to see who they really are. This is why prejudice of any sort works so powerfully—if I am convinced I know this person because of the color of their skin, or ethnicity, sexuality, education or class or how they were yesterday, then there is no need to look any closer. My prejudices are all the information I need.
The good people of Nazareth stop paying attention to Jesus because they are confident they know all there is to know. He’s a home grown construction worker, so why on earth should I listen to anything he has to say about spiritual matters? Who does he think he is with all this healing and teaching?
And we may have the same problem. If we’ve locked into our heads an image of Jesus we learned years ago, then there is no need to learn anything new about Jesus and his teaching. New ideas bounce off of us, because we’ve got Jesus all figured out. Our image of Jesus is set in concrete which means the real Jesus is no longer able to surprise us—or challenge, change, and, worst of all, get close to us.
For some, Jesus is frozen into the image of “meek and mild, retiring and shy”, who could never make me uncomfortable or call me to account. Or maybe it’s Jesus the Superhero, who is larger than life, a cartoon figure computer-generated to meet my needs. Or maybe it’s conservative Jesus who always agrees with me on social issues. Or maybe it’s progressive Jesus who always agrees with me on political issues.
All these images point to a truth about Jesus but if we stop paying attention to the Living Christ we will miss him working in our lives to transform us into his Body and transform the world into God’s Kingdom.
This week I’ve been surprised by the line, “Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.” This challenges my superhero image of Jesus who floats through life because he knows everything ahead of time. It challenges my image of Jesus as always successful. It challenges my image of Jesus who never judges me, because of the implicit judgment in his assessment of their unbelief. N. T. Wright translates “Jesus was amazed at their unbelief” as “their unbelief dumbfounded him.”
Jesus knows his apostles struggle to see him as he is, through their false images of him and his mission, so he creates a group experience to crack them open to experience life as it is, so they can practice trusting God and not themselves.
Jesus also sends us out on the same mission. But notice the rules of the experience: first, he sends them out in pairs, and not alone. Then he says to take only the bare necessities: walking stick, sandals, and tunic, that’s it—no food, no money, no extra clothes—not even a backpack with some snacks and cash for emergencies.
Why is Jesus doing this? Couldn’t they take some extra stuff in a backpack and still pray the sick?What is he trying to teach us? The fundamental lesson is one of trust: Trust Jesus that this experience will be good for us and trust God that those to whom we go will share with us what we need.
Saint Paul suffered greatly on his missionary trips. Shipwrecks, imprisonments, stoning, and vicious opposition. He writes the Corinthians that he also has a thorn in the flesh that causes him such distress that he asks the Lord to heal him—three times he prays. But all the Lord tells him is “My grace is sufficient for you”.
Disciples who travel light learn the same lesson that “when I am weak then I am strong.” How could we possibly ever learn the power of God’s presence, if our lives are chock a block full of all the stuff we think we need to keep us safe?
This applies not only to possessions but even more to the inner clutter in our souls—all the false images of Jesus, for example, and all the false images we have of each other, that keep us too full to have space for God. This is one of the central things Jesus calls us to repent, to let go of, so we may live and love.
Jesus loves us so much that he offers us a fantastic, transforming, experience: He says, “Drop your images and pay attention to your neighbor, as you wish your neighbor to pay attention to you; pray for the sick, liberate those trapped by evil, and, while you’re traveling light, don’t worry, because the only backpack you need is God. See Elena Bosetti, Mark: The Risk of Believing: A Contemplative Reading of the Gospel