Sermon: “Faith – the Good Soil”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13
One could say that Jesus, as depicted in the first five chapters of Mark, has been on a roll. He has cast out demons, causing people to exclaim, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1.21-27, NRSV). When the disciples feared for their lives during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, they woke him, then he rebuked the wind, calmed the sea, and asked, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” In response, the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4.40-41; NRSV).
Last Sunday, we noted the faith of the woman who had suffered hemorrhages for twelve years, who thought if she could but touch Jesus’ garments she would be healed. Upon doing so, she was immediately healed. Jesus, sensing power had gone out from him, asked the crowd who had touched him. Upon confessing, Jesus lovingly said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5.34; NRSV). And that took place on the way to Jairus’ house.
Remember how members of Jairus’ household came and said he should no longer bother the Teacher, for his daughter was already dead, but Jesus told Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5.35-36; NRSV). Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, had expressed faith in seeking out Jesus, in begging him to come save his daughter. But now she was dead. That would have been a mighty blow to Jairus’ faith, but Jesus compassionately said, “Do not fear, only believe!” Jesus then restored his daughter’s life.
Yes, things have been going right well! Jesus is on a roll! Then Jesus decided to visit home. It is the Sabbath; Jesus is not only attending his home synagogue, but he is teaching – “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” (Mark 6.1-2; NRSV)! So far, so good. The people are impressed!
Then someone, probably from the back of the synagogue, who undoubtedly was full of envy, asked, “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?” Then Mark observes, “And they took offense at him” (Mark 6.3; NRSV). What is happening here? After all, things were going so well.
As we have noted before, honor is greatly valued in Middle Eastern society. John Pilch observes, “Honor governs every dimension of life in the Mediterranean world. This is particularly evident in today’s reading, where Jesus is ‘in his home country’ that is, Nazareth or the vicinity” (https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/14OrdB070421/theword_cultural.html). A son honored one’s father by following in his father’s footsteps. As Joseph was a carpenter, people naturally expected Jesus would be a carpenter. Who did he think he was by aspiring to do something different? Furthermore, how could a carpenter have found the time to attain such wisdom? Surely, something was wrong!
But there is another feature to these objections which cuts even deeper. As Pilch notes, “Of particular interest … is the statement that Jesus is ‘the son of Mary.’ In the Middle East, a son is always identified by the father (e.g. Simon bar [= son of] Jonah; James and John, the sons of Zebedee). Identifying a son by the mother’s name usually signals some confusion about the father” (Ibid). The villagers were casting aspersion on Jesus – indeed, what were the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth? This was insulting!
In response to their insults, Jesus replied, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6.4: NRSV). Did you notice Jesus’ reference to his hometown, extended relatives (“their own kin”), and his closest family (“their own house”)? Jesus answered their insult with an insult of his own! Sometimes it is necessary to use some shock value to get people’s attention.
Mark goes on to inform us that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief,” i.e., their lack of faith. Undoubtedly, those few who were healed had faith, they placed their trust in Jesus.
In returning home, Jesus experienced rejection. But this rejection ultimately proved valuable, for he set about preparing his disciples for their own encounters with rejection. When Jesus sent them out two by two, totally dependent on the hospitality of others, he told 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” (Mark 6.10-11; NRSV). Such action was a means of stating, “We have been faithful to our call; on the day of judgment, you are solely responsible.”
When we reflect upon this story in light of the Parable of the Sower set forth in Mark 4, we come to realize our faith is the good soil which bears thirty, sixty, even one-hundred-fold!
Our interchangeable use faith and belief leads to confusion. The notion of belief carries with it the idea of propositional belief. Propositions are either true or false. It is one thing to believe in the proposition “God exists” and a vastly different thing to relate to God in love and trust. The first reflects the cognitive domain; the second, the affective domain. For this reason, I sometimes suggest we change the reading of the Nicene Creed to “We trust …” rather than “We believe ….”
Yes, faith – trusting and loving – is an essential part of our relationship with God. Our faith unlocks, or releases, God’s power in our lives. The people’s lack of faith in Nazareth meant that Jesus “could do no deed of power there.”
But even if we have faith, even if we are in a trusting and loving relationship with God, we should not expect that all will be ease, comfort, and victory. Remember, Jesus suffered rejection, and he prepared his disciples for the experience of rejection. We should also expect to encounter rejection. Indeed, the closer to God we become, the more we are transformed into the image of God, the more we should anticipate rejection. Why? Because our lives, whether we wish it or not, serve to critique the lives of the worldly.
Our reading from 2 Corinthians reflects St. Paul’s victories, challenges, and rejections. Paul tells us he was caught up to the third heaven, to Paradise where he witnessed and heard things no mortal is permitted to repeat. To prevent him from being too elated, too boastful, Paul tells us he was given a “thorn of the flesh.” Although many have speculated, Paul does not disclose the nature of this thorn. Some believe it may have been depression. As one who has long suffered from depression, that makes a lot of sense to me. Paul tells us on three occasions, he asked God to remove this thorn, but God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12.9a; NRSV). We need to remind ourselves that God’s grace is sufficient; we need to remind ourselves, to take note, that Jesus taught us to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Trusting God is not always easy!
But despite his adversity, Paul concludes these thoughts by saying, ”So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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 12.9-10; NRSV).
Faith is the good soil. Let us cultivate our faith such that it may yield abundantly while joyously living in the grace God extends.