Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Sermons Nobody Wants to Hear

Mark 6:1-6
July 5, 2015
William G. Carter

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.

I don’t know what Jesus expected. He went back to his hometown and began to preach, and they tuned him out. Of course they did. What did he expect?

Up until now, he has been spending a lot of time on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, on the boundary between Jews and Gentiles. The village of Capernaum has been his home base as he goes about his work. Jesus teaches in the synagogues and preaches to the open-air crowds. He throws out the demons and gives bread to the multitudes. He is a busy guy.

Back and forth, he goes across the sea. He touches down in a Gentile graveyard and straightens out a crazy man while getting rid of a lot of unclean pigs. Then he gets back in the boat and lands in Capernaum. A bleeding woman is healed and a little girl is raised from the dead. Jesus is making a name for himself. Everywhere he goes, life is restored, faith is nourished, hope comes alive.

… everywhere except his home town. They know you in your home town. They remember you.

Whenever I visit my hometown church in upstate New York, I am disqualified before I even open my mouth. Everybody remembers the kid who became a preacher. There’s the lady who had a spat with my mother at the last Women’s Association dinner. There’s the retired usher who was there when I made a paper airplane out of a worship bulletin and accidentally threw it out of the balcony. There’s the Sunday School teacher who still can’t figure out what God did to my heart.

Just last Sunday, I went to a graduation party for a classmate’s kid, and there was my pretty prom date. We sat at a picnic table and talked, and then she said in a low voice, “I still can’t believe you are a minister.” Familiarity breeds dismissal. They know you; therefore they don’t have to listen to you.

If you are a preacher, you don’t even have to go home to experience that phenomenon. Just stay in the same church for twenty-five years. Somebody will say, “Sorry I’m going to miss the next forty-nine Sundays, but I know you will be here whenever I drift back.” Familiarity. Same old, some old.

When Will Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University Chapel, he says the phone rang at lunchtime one day. Nobody else was around, so he answered it. A voice said, “Who is preaching this week?” Will cleared this throat and said, “The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon, dean of the chapel.”

The woman said, “Is that the short, fat man with the high squeaky voice?” No, he said, that’s the other guy. Nothing special. Same old thing. He’s here every week, so you don’t have to come.

Jesus goes home to the hilltop city of Nazareth. His family is still living in that town. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. He opens the scroll and begins to speak. The crowd murmurs, “Ah, Jesus. We know Jesus. We know his four younger brothers. His sisters are sitting up in the balcony with their mom.” He’s the same woodcutter’s kid who left here a few years ago. Sure, he’s done a lot of things. He has made a name for himself. We have low expectations. Nothing good ever comes from Nazareth. Isn’t that what they say?

… Except that this time, he’s pretty good.  No, actually he’s better than that, he’s really good. And he doesn’t use footnotes like the rabbi. He tells it straight. There is an uncommon depth to his message. He’s not stealing little rinky-dinky stories out of Reader’s Digest. He certainly isn’t telling any jokes. No, there is substance and significance to his instruction. His words are drenched in insight.

Pretty soon, they are saying, “Isn’t this Jesus, the neighbor kid who grew up down the street? What is this wisdom given to him from heaven? Where did he get all of this?”

And because of that, they really took offense at him. The reason for the refusal was once described by my preaching professor Fred Craddock. Fred said, “There are two kinds of sermons that nobody was to hear: bad sermons and good sermons.”

What he means by that is, within each of us, there is the desire to push God away. To keep God at arm’s length … or further. We know what God wants to say to us, but we don’t want to hear it. We have a deep hunger that can be satisfied only by the healing love and abundant mercy of God, but we are really not sure we are ready for it. And we will come up with any reason to keep God away and disqualify all God’s messengers. It is the human predicament.

A man I knew was listening to a graduate student pour out his broken heart. The tough story was told in tears and confession. He had gotten to the end of his tale of woe, and the older man said, “Tony, I hold all this weight that you have unburdened. Why don’t we pray? Let’s give it to God.” Tony nodded, they both bowed their heads. My friend put his hands on Tony’s shoulders and began to pray. Suddenly Tony sprang up and said, “I’m not ready for this yet,” and ran away.

Imagine if that was Jesus, and not merely one of his messengers. Imagine if he came to you, spoke with you, asked you, “What is the deepest desire of your heart?” And he invited you to this communion table and said, “I’m going to break my own body and put it in your hands. I’m offering you the cup so you can take my life into your life.” Would you do it? Or would you push him away?

In this brief story, Mark repeats what other New Testament writers have said about God’s mission in Jesus Christ. The gospel of John says it most directly: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:11). John doesn’t specify if he means the hometown congregation in Nazareth or the church full of Gentiles in his own time.

There is no need to specify, for there is something profoundly within us that pushes away the presence and power of God. We can gather any Sunday to draw near to the very thing that could heal us and fill us with peace and holiness, but in every person there is the all-too-human tendency to skip out and go for brunch, or go for a boat ride, or do anything we possibly can to avoid the presence and power that can make us well.

Mark says, “Jesus couldn’t do any deeds of power in Nazareth.” It wasn’t merely because he was the home town boy back for a visit. It wasn’t merely because he stunned them by speaking with the clarity and precision of grace. He couldn’t do any deeds of power because they were humanly anxious about him getting too close. And they didn’t have the courage to trust him, to listen to him, because that would mean they would be changed.

Anybody here want to be changed? Or are you content to stay the way you are? That’s a good question to ask of synagogue dwellers like the likes of us. We show up at the same time every week. We sit in the same pews, we talk to the same people. We like to sing the same songs and grumble if one of them is new. We expect to have our opinions confirmed and our habits reinforced. We hear the same old preacher, say the same greeting at the back door. Faith goes on autopilot. Hearts are slowly coated with Teflon, ready to deflect any act of God.

But what if it happened? What if Jesus got through to any of us? What if we were awakened or interrupted? What if we were shaken or disrupted? What if the living word of Christ cracked through our defenses, and we suddenly perceived the immensity of God’s grace? Could we stay the way we are – or would God do something astounding within us, among us, and beyond us?

Tell me: does God-in-Christ have the power to change us – or are we going to squelch it? I guess it depends on what we do with what we hear.

Did you hear what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, after Dylann Roof shot up the A.M.E. church and killed nine people? After he was arrested and arraigned on charges, the authorities brought him before the families of the victims. They were invited to say whatever they wanted to say.

The daughter of Ethel Lance looked him in the eye and said, “I just want everybody to know I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again but I forgive you. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive(s) you, and I forgive you.”

The husband of Myra Thompson spoke. “I forgive you, and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change it.”

The granddaughter of the Rev. Daniel Simmons said, “Although my grandfather died at the hands of hate, this is proof … that hate won’t win.” Hate won’t win.

The sister of the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor said, “I’m very angry… but one thing my sister taught me is that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul… May God bless you.”[1]

It was astounding. The world was stunned. Where these people get all of this?

They must have been listening to Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “Charleston Church Shootings: What victims of church shooting said to Dylann Roof,” 19 June 2015,

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