Second Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
At the end of this week, I get to go to a place I still call home.
Increasingly, it is more and more difficult to get back to my old stomping grounds on the south side of Chicago. Even when I lived in Columbus, OH, which was also six hours away from where I grew up, it seemed like every couple of months I could take a weekend and crash at my parents’ house for a couple nights. Not so much anymore.
It’s always an experience going home. It feels like, for the first twenty years of my life or so, very little changed. There were a few new houses built. A building or two burned down. But the same businesses were on the “downtown” strip, the same coaches were in charge of the baseball and football teams, the same faces were in each church each Sunday. Every weekend back in Hegewisch was like a trip back in time, a trip back to childhood. It’s where I felt safe, and at home.
Now, while it is still truly the same old neighborhood, lots has changed. On one end of the neighborhood is a new underpass beneath the railroad tracks. The old familiar faces are stepping aside so that new faces can take their places. The downtown strip has been spruced up, and buildings I’ve never seen before are there. Now, when I go to Hegewisch, it’s not as much a trip to the past, but a chance to remember the way things used to be while celebrating how they’ve changed. Still, it’s always good to go home.
Unless you’re Jesus.
When Jesus goes home, he’s not welcomed with open arms. He’s not hailed as a hero even though his hometown knows what he’s been up to. News travels fast, even in Jesus’s day. When Jesus goes home, he starts a controversy.
This is only the third chapter in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has just gotten started in his ministry. But already, he’s called his disciples, cast out a few demons, and healed a ton of people. Pretty extraordinary stuff, I’d say. And people are taking notice—a lot of people. So many people that, when he goes home, Jesus is mobbed by such a crowd that it actually disturbs and disrupts the sleepy little village of Nazareth.
It’s about this time that I’d expect people to be saying things like “Wow, Jesus! You’re amazing! You’ve got your disciples. People plagued by demons come to you, and you throw these demons out of them! People who are blind, sick, disabled—you make them all better! You know, we’re certainly glad you’re here!” It only makes sense that this would be the reaction to what Jesus does.
So how come, when Jesus goes home, he hears things like this: “He’s gone out of his mind!” … what?
Or, my favorite: “He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.” Are… are these people seeing the same Jesus I am? Do they not see what Jesus is doing?
Yes. Yes they do. They see exactly what Jesus is doing. And they can’t stand it.
Now, I don’t want you to think that these are heartless people who are mad at Jesus because he’s healing people. Not at all. Nobody in that crowd is upset that Jesus is removing people’s disabilities, or healing them when they’re sick. That’s all really great! If more people were doing that, the world would be a great place.
No, they can’t stand what Jesus is doing because… well… you see, there’s a proper way to do things, and Jesus just doesn’t want to do things properly.
For example, Jesus calls his disciples, most of them poor, rural folk like he was, and like the people of Nazareth were. But he also called Levi. Think back—what was Levi’s profession? (Hint: in other Gospels, he’s also called Matthew).
That’s right. Levi is/was a tax collector. In Roman Judea, tax collectors were often locals who took on the job of collecting money from their own people and sending it off to support Rome, the occupying military force. Obviously, these are not people well-liked in their communities. So when Jesus takes one of… THOSE people as his disciple, it causes quite the stir. Why couldn’t he pick a respectable person instead of… a government patsy?
What about his healings? Who would complain about that? And it’s true, for the most part, people are ecstatic about Jesus’s ability to heal. That’s the main reason the crowds that follow him are so big—they’re bringing to Jesus everyone who is sick and in need of healing precisely so that he can KEEP healing people.
So what’s the problem? It’s… well, it’s his method. You see, Jesus has this nasty habit—he keeps insisting on healing people on the Sabbath Day. The one day, the one day of the week on which he shouldn’t be doing any work, even good work, and he goes and heals people.
Sometimes, it’s worse. No one could argue that it was a bad thing that he healed a leper of his disease. Leprosy was not pretty, a horrible disease. Jesus literally gives the man he heals his life back. But—and with Jesus, there’s always a but—he goes and touches the leper. You don’t touch a man with a highly contagious, communicable disease like leprosy. I don’t care how loving you are trying to be—you don’t go touching people with disease.
(The whole Beelzebub demon thing is a little stranger, but their objections do make sense. Demons don’t just listen to anyone—if they did, anyone could cast them out. So if demons don’t just listen to anyone, who would they listen to? Someone with authority over them: including, they assume, higher demons. Not everyone would make that assumption, but, it’s an assumption nonetheless.)
By the people’s standards, Jesus is doing really great, really good things. They’d love it if Jesus did more of them. But, by the people’s standards, there is a proper way to do them, and Jesus absolutely refuses to conform to those expectations. He will not follow protocol. He will not do things the way they are supposed to be done.
It doesn’t matter how good the things are that Jesus does, if he doesn’t do them in the right way.
It matters to us how we go about things, and when we don’t do them the way we’re expected to, it rubs people the wrong way. Here are some examples.
- Nobody would argue that it’s wrong to feed people who have no food. It’s humanitarian and Christian work at it’s most basic. People need food to live, and it’s easy to provide. But in dozens of cities across the country, feeding the homeless in public areas (which is where the homeless live) is illegal. The cities where this is the case argue that it’s not wrong to give food to homeless, but it should be done by properly licensed and regulated shelters and services.
- Sex education is a controversial topic in schools. Nobody denies that as children grow up, they need to be informed about sex. This is so that our children grow up healthy, understanding their bodies and how they work. But people strongly disagree on what that education should look like. Proponents of abstinence-only education argue that it is the only 100%-effective way of preventing pregnancy outside of marriage and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Proponents of comprehensive sex education argue that it doesn’t hide the truth and facts from children and better prepares them to make sound decisions. Both arguments have the same goal, but disagree on what is proper.
It would seem the people in Jesus’s day have the same dilemma we have. We want good things to happen. But we want them to happen in the right way.
I’m not sure why this is as important to us as it is. But it is important to us, even in the church. There is a proper way of doing things, and no matter how good something is, if it doesn’t fit into our idea of what’s proper, we don’t want anything to do with it.
We would love new people to walk through our doors on Sunday morning, and we would welcome them with open arms—so long as it’s understood that they would adapt to the way we do things.
We would love to have children in worship with us—so long as they cease to be children for that hour and sit still and quiet, spectators and listeners only.
We would love to be the church in the world—so long as we built a building, formed a council, organized boards and committees, and never let them go.
This is how things are done. Changing them would be… very, very uncomfortable.
But why is that? David Lose strikes gold again this week when he suggests that, at the heart of our anxiety about the proper way to do things is: Insecurity.
When I used to go home to Hegewisch, and it seemed like nothing had changed, there was definitely a feeling of security. When I moved away to college, I moved six hours across two states to do it, and it took almost a decade before I felt comfortable there. It wasn’t Hegewish. It wasn’t home. It was so different from what I was used to, and going back to Hegewisch was going back to what I knew and loved—it was something I thought to be unchangeable. Secure.
But I can’t imagine my neighborhood now if it never changed. The neighborhood used to be all old Polish people. But time passes, and most have died or moved away. What if nobody else moved in? Or what if, when a business moved out, no new businesses moved in? Yes, it means the neighborhood will change. New people will come in, and they’ll be the ones coaching sports, and they’ll be the ones in the shops, and they’ll be the ones in church.
That’s okay. It really is. Because when things change like that, something remarkable happens. When we stop wallowing in insecurity and throwing up walls around the way we think things should be done, we suddenly discover that all those people we were afraid of—all those “other” things and ways of thinking out there really aren’t a threat. And neither are the people who hold them.
This is what Jesus was all about.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to pick people to be his disciples. He picked people others would not normally associate with—poor fisherman, and a tax collector. People who made other people downright uncomfortable and insecure.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to hang around with people who thought just like he did and who acted like he did. He routinely hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and yes, even Pharisees—all people his followers would dutifully avoid if they could help it.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal people from a distance. He got up close and personal. He touched them. He brought the human factor into the equation. He healed them no matter what day it was, or whether someone else said it was okay to do so or not.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal and make whole individuals—he healed and made whole their relationships, their relationships to God and to each other.
In doing so, Jesus even redefines what some of those relationships are. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks, challenging the accepted notion that nobody was more important than family. An idea which Jesus still holds, but he defines family differently: as those who do God’s will.
Jesus knew that the people around him had set ways of doing things and interaction with each other, and in the process, found ways to separate others from themselves. They’d found ways to cut off parts of their community that didn’t adhere to those ways of being or doing things. In their insecurity, they built walls to keep themselves safe and secure.
Jesus has never been about being safe.
Jesus routinely and radically challenged every barrier and obstacle people set in front of him in insecurity. He associated with all the wrong people, he reinterpreted laws that, while meant to help people, eventually hindered and oppressed them. He challenged the prevailing notions of the time, like violence was an acceptable response to anything, or that retribution was available for our use. He preached love for the enemy and resurrection from the dead. He established faith and trust as the basis of our relationship with God instead of rules and laws. He effected healing and wholeness for the entire universe not be wielding power, but by being killed by it.
This thinking, this acting, is not safe. It’s not secure. But neither are we, no matter how hard we want to be. We can’t “go home” again, to the neighborhood and life we used to know. And that’s okay. Jesus didn’t play it safe, and neither should we. Some things are more important.