Sermon: Courage or Fear?
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13
The Importance of Relationship in Faith
When Jesus taught in his home-town synagogue, many were astounded. As Scott Hoezee (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-9b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel) notes, the Greek ekplesso indicates a kind of amazement which carries with it a note of incredulity – how can this be? Where did Jesus get all this wisdom and power? How can he perform such healings with his hands? Did they believe with the scribes who came down from Jerusalem that Jesus’ power came from Beelzebul, the prince of the demons (Mark 3.22)? After all, isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary? Why isn’t he working as a carpenter? Aren’t these his brothers and sisters? Mark tells us “they took offense at him” (6.3b; NRSV). Why would they take offense?
In the Middle-Eastern culture of Jesus’ time, one remained in the class and position one was born into. Jesus was born into a carpenter’s family – by every right, he should have been a carpenter! Just who does he think he is? Why, he is aspiring to be something more than his father! And speaking of his father, sons were always referred to, or associated with, one’s father – this is “Jesus, son of Joseph,” i.e., “Jesus bar Joseph,” not “Jesus, son of Mary!” The fact they referred to him as “son of Mary” may indicate they thought he was illegitimate – here it is, thirty years later, and the rumors still abound! Jesus, you should remember your place!
But even more was at stake here than Jesus’ failure to remember his place. Honor also lies at the heart of Middle-Eastern culture. Even today, we read of honor killings committed by families when a young woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The amount of honor was viewed as fixed – if you had honor, you did everything in your power to retain it, and if you did not have honor, you had no business attempting to acquire it! Through his teaching and healing, Jesus was acquiring honor! Who does he think he is? The town-folk were envious.
Jesus must have thought, “You wonder who I am; I will tell you,” then he said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6.4; NRSV). Jesus knew who he was; he perceived his prophetic function of calling the people back into a right relationship with God – a relationship of love and trust. Then Mark concludes this section of the reading by noting, “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” (Mark 6.5-6; NRSV). Hoezee further notes the Greek word for “amazed” which is derived from “thaumazo” indicates a degree of amazement which is largely free of doubt (unlike the incredulity of the townspeople) but which nonetheless “bowls one over” (Ibid.). Jesus was surprised, even shocked, at their level of unbelief.
Envy is a dangerous emotion; it cuts one off from relationship. Miguel deUnamuno, the Spanish playwright and philosopher, in “Abel Sanchez” retells the story of Cain and Abel. Abel Sanchez is a superb artist; he is friends with a skilled surgeon who plays the role of Cain. When the skilled surgeon is studying one of Abel’s paintings which depicts the original Cain and Abel story, he comes to believe that Abel has used his likeness for Cain. The surgeon is incensed – how dare he portray me as a murderer? How could he use his face as a model for envy? Upon closer inspection, he realizes his mistake – Abel Sanchez really didn’t use his face. Then the surgeon begins to think, how could he not have used my face? Why wouldn’t he use him in one of his paintings? After all, he has such a handsome face! This is a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” situation. When one is the object of envy, there is very little that one can do to ameliorate the situation. As Scott Hoezee, from whom I barrowed this illustration, sums it up: “Try to be extra kind to the one who envies you, and this kindness will get written off as condescension and charity. Try to rise above things by ignoring the one torn up with envy and you will be written off as arrogant and rude, thereby merely confirming the envier’s low opinion of you. Neither approach nor avoidance can help the envied one” (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-9b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel).
In Mark’s story, the town-folk envied Jesus; their envy severed the possibility of true relationship. It served to deprive them of experiencing the grace of God. Hence, Jesus “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6.5; NRSV).
Shortly after this event, as Jesus was teaching in other villages, he called his disciples to him, gave them authority over unclean spirits, and began to send them out in pairs. His instructions were simple—take nothing except their staff, a single tunic, and their sandals. They were to take no bread, no bag, and no money. When someone welcomed them, they were to remain with that house until they moved on. Mark tells us “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and they anointed many who were sick and cured them” (6.12-13; NRSV). If any place would not receive them, they were to shake the dust off their sandals as they left.
What can we gain from these stories? What do they tell us about the Christian life?
We have already examined the dangers associated with envy, how it deprives us of experiencing God’s grace. But what about envying good things? What about envying another’s talents and pursuing such talents for yourself? Even then the spirit of envy is still working. In envy we begrudge what another possesses; we all too often despise or hate the other for possessing what we do not. Their gifts and possessions only serve to remind us of our own poverty. One who envies would deprive them of what they have and appropriate it for oneself. Envy makes us mean-spirited and petty. In contrast, the spirit of love invites us to celebrate the other and his or her gifts and possessions with a joyful spirit. The spirit of love invites us to give thanks for their gifts – to accept them with joy and gratitude.
Second, it strikes me that faith is not about the possession of a certain set of beliefs or the recitation of the Nicene Creed. Faith expresses a relationship with God and with others. When we love others, we reflect the love of God that we have received; we express our faith in them. As John Foley, S. J., says, “The deepest meaning of faith is this: to have a mutual relationship with God. That is to receive God’s love and respond to it” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/14OrdB070818/reflections_foley.html). Foley further adds:
Faith is a mutual act between Jesus and a person. He offers to give himself to each of us. We (often) receive him. A failure in faith is like closing or even locking the doors to our hearts. If this makes some sense to you, then you will see why Jesus said ‘your faith has saved you.’ If faith is a word for a person's relation to Jesus, the curing happens because they have a real, bilateral relationship in trust and love. . . His relationship to the people of his home town seems to have been a non-relationship. He could not force the two-way bond called “faith” upon them. He offered it, they refused. No wonder he could not ‘perform any mighty deed there’ (Ibid.).
Foley gives us a lot to ponder. If nothing else, remember that faith is about relationship and love. The Nicene Creed calls to mind various things we have learned in that relationship.
Last, all too often when nominal Christians are confronted by the vicissitudes of life they begin to pray and are discouraged when their prayers are not answered. Is the problem with Jesus or with their lack of a true faith relationship with Jesus? Jesus wants to hang out with us all the time, not just when we call on him in our moments of peril. And even if we hang out with Jesus on a regular basis, as St. Paul found out, sometimes the answer to a prayer is “No, my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12.9; NRSV). Like Paul, may our relationship with Jesus bring us to the place where we can say, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.10; NRSV).