Monday, August 6, 2018

We Are the Bread.

John 6:24-35
August 5, 2018

I.

In his characteristic prayer that Christians use at least daily, the Lord Jesus has us ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.”  Jesus recognizes that bread is obviously important as food for our bodies.  It is something we all need to survive.  I would even call bread or food a fundamental human right.  Jesus himself has just fed 5000 people on a hillside with miracle bread.  Feeding people physically is important to him.

God places us in a creation of astounding abundance where there is more than enough to feed everyone, even a population of 10 billion humans.  The fact that this doesn’t happen and we have hungry people and a yawning gap in the world between a very few who have way too much, and almost everyone else with way too little, is a product of human sinfulness, egocentricity, selfishness, and greed.  It is like this because we choose to mess up the distribution.  

Jesus comes to change the world.  If we can be liberated from the bondage to greed and the fear which spawns it, we can see a new economy emerge in which all are fed.  Those who witness that miracle of the bread are on board with this new economy.  They are all about the provision of bread; they want to see everyone fed.

So when Jesus weirdly disappears after they want to take him to Jerusalem and make him king, they pile into boats and try to find him somewhere along the coast of the Sea of Galilee.  Eventually they do locate him, predictably, in his headquarters-town of Capernaum.

They want more bread.  They want to build on the bread experience.  They want to use Jesus to do the good work of providing bread for all, especially the hungry.  They want to build a better distribution system, and fulfill Jesus’ prayer about giving all of us this day our daily bread.  Indeed, they want to fulfill Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 about serving him by serving the needy.  “I was hungry and you gave me food.”  They’re all about that.  They want to be one of the nations that is received into the joy of the Lord because they served the least of these, the destitute, deprived, disenfranchised, diseased people on the bottom of society.

I totally get that.  All my life I have been on the side of a socially active, progressive Christianity.  And I noticed at the recently concluded General Assembly that our denomination has never been so focused on addressing the injustices that pervade our society.  We’ve never been more about feeding the hungry, no matter who they are.  You’d think I’d be ecstatic!  And you’d think Jesus would be all over us with approval and accolades.  Well done, good and faithful servants!

And yet, when faced with the enthusiasm of people who want to change society and change the government and get hungry people fed and make Jesus the king, Jesus himself says, “Not so fast.  You’re all still focused on the physical, literal bread.  That is important.  But it is not the most important thing.  It’s a superficial and derivative thing.  It’s secondary.  That food eventually perishes.  Don’t work for the perishable food.  Work instead for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”  

II.

Then they say to him, “Okay, whatever… but what must we do to perform the works of God?  Give us our marching orders!  Show us what we need to do to install this new order where everyone gets fed.  Tell us the new policies you advocate.  We’re ready to get organized.  Send us out with some of that bread.  We want to do God’s work in your name!”  

Jesus answers them, “You want to know what the work of God is?  Here it is: that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  In other words, the work of God is not primarily going out and doing good things.  Doing good things is important and essential; there is no eternal life without doing good things as Jesus teaches and exemplifies.  But the good things we do are secondary and derivative; they are the results and consequence of something primary, essential, and deeper happening within us.  That has to be unlocked and accessed first.  

The point for Jesus is not going out and changing the world; it is changing people… who then go out and change the world.  And it is not changing people into something new and different; it is changing them into who they really are and always really were, but didn’t know it.    

That’s what he means by “believe.”  It is not about our opinion or what we think.  It is certainly not our views about historical events, or our verbal and cognitive acceptance of certain theological doctrines.  Believing means trusting in who we really are as human beings created in God’s Image.  God has revealed this to us in Jesus Christ, who is the Son of Man, or the Human One, with whom we each share in true humanity.  It means placing our wholehearted faith, hope, and trust in Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Not at first out there, but within.  It means his is your way, your truth, and your life.  Christ becomes real in you; more to the point, in him you become real.  You participate in him and therefore in the divine nature itself.

And real people do real things and make a real difference in the world.  

Don’t get obsessed with the superficialities, says Jesus.  Don’t get swept away by the turbulence.  Go deep.  It’s not about the bread; the bread points to something more profound and real.  As long as it’s just about the bread then we are stuck in politics and economics, where even if you throw out the corrupt old boss you discover the new boss is just as bad, in insignificantly different ways, because we haven’t changed anything fundamental.  We just moved some pieces around on the board.

But if you turn away from the old boss in your heart and soul and mind, and allow the true boss, Jesus Christ, the Image of God, the One sent from heaven into the world, to emerge in you, then everything changes.  Then you will be spiritually fed by “bread” that doesn’t perish, but feeds you for eternal life.  Then you live forever because you have discovered that forever actually lives in you.

III.

So when Jesus says that what we must do to be doing God’s work is believe in him, it doesn’t mean do nothing.  It means, as they say in 12-step groups, “let go and let God.”  It means “give me the steering wheel of your life.”  It means “become the me that is in you.”  It means “follow me.”  We do God’s work by having Jesus work in and through us.

Jesus says, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world….  I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

God’s “bread” which gives life to the world is God’s holy Word, who is Jesus Christ.  Just as bread gives life to people when they eat it and it literally becomes them, so also God’s “bread,” gives life to the world by becoming flesh in Jesus and being “consumed” when people hear and follow his teachings, and when he gives his life on the cross.  In this way his life comes to permeate the whole world.

We come to him and trust in him by participating in him and his mission, which means we are also, in his name, the “bread” that gives life to the world.  We empty ourselves of our self-important, self-righteous egocentricity, and identify as he does with the world’s brokenness and weakness, its failure and disease, its rejection and exclusion.  We offer ourselves in love for the world, as Christ does, and so the world is redeemed in him through us.  

In a sense, we who follow Jesus are the “bread.”  We are broken and distributed when we share the love of God with others, enabling them to find the bread, the Presence of Christ, within themselves.  Together we gather to share the bread of his life and teachings together.  Which is why the epitome of Christian life is expressed in this Sacrament where we share the bread and the cup and so share in Christ himself.  The idea is that this sharing becomes our way of life, and its pattern is extended in the way we live once we leave this place.  We continue as a people of self-offering and redemptive sharing, spread throughout the world like light, or salt, or leaven.

We have to be the bread now.  We have to be the ones who bring life and blessing into people’s lives.  We have to be the catalysts for healing, enabling others to know the faith that is in them that they never realized was even there.  

We have to be the people of humility and generosity, gentleness and joy, openness and acceptance, freedom and peace, compassion and hope, witnessing always and only to the living Presence of Christ in the world, in our hearts, in the soul of everyone and everything that God makes.  We have to be the ones who are sent into the world, not to condemn the world or anyone in it, but that the world might have life in Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

+++++++

Passover in Galilee.

John 6:1-21
July 29, 2018

I.

In the gospel readings for these past few weeks Jesus has been spending a lot of time in boats, going up and down the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Here the gospel makes the point of reminding us that the Romans had renamed this body of water the Sea of Tiberias.  Tiberias was a Roman Emperor, and all such lakes and seas were claimed by the Emperor.  So Jesus is basically trespassing on the Emperor’s lake while he is in the business of preaching, teaching, healing, and otherwise setting up an alternative to the Emperor’s regime.

Neither he nor, later, the Apostle Paul, appears to think that the practice of using Roman property and privilege to undermine Roman rule is at all contradictory or hypocritical.  They are both proceeding under the assumption that, according to Psalm 24, the whole Earth belongs to God in the first place, and if the Emperor thinks he has stolen something from God and declared it to be his own, he is mistaken, even if he can force people to pay him for what they catch in “his” lake.  So Jesus has no qualms about “stealing” back for God something that has always belonged to God anyway.

This point is underscored first by the fact that it is Passover; it is actually the second Passover of Jesus’ ministry.  The previous Passover, a year before, we may recall, Jesus instigates a riot in Jerusalem over the invasion of commercial interests into the Temple.  “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” he yells, as he is overturning money boxes and using a whip to drive out of the Temple the livestock earmarked for sacrifice.

Originally a barley harvest festival, Passover had been for at least a thousand years the annual celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  It’s an extremely political holiday, like Israelite Independence Day.  Only the nation is not independent, which means that celebrating Passover is not just a religious observance but a deliberate, in-your-face statement aimed at the conquering, colonizing Romans.  The Romans always sent extra troops to Jerusalem for Passover, just in case the people got out of hand with this “independence” stuff.  (Perhaps the Romans wished they would just make Passover it a religious holiday.  Maybe the Romans would have preferred that they keep religion and politics separate.)

This Passover, though, Jesus is not in Jerusalem.  After last year he may not be allowed to go to Jerusalem.  Certainly the police would be watching for him.  So he celebrates this Passover up in Galilee.  That is the context of his sitting on the hillside with his disciples and attracting a crowd of 5000 people.  Instead of going to Jerusalem for the holiday, which is the tradition, these people decide to spend Passover with Jesus.  They come to Jesus as the new Temple instead of the old one.  

They know what he has been doing for the sick, that is, those in bondage to disease.  They know what he has been preaching about the Kingdom of God.  Maybe they want a piece of this liberating action.  What will he do this Passover? 

The next Passover, by the way, in a year, he will be back in Jerusalem where he will give his life for the life of the whole world on a Roman cross.  

II.  

So Jesus, his disciples, and 5000 people are all on this hillside together.  and when it gets late in the day, Jesus asks one of the disciples, Philip, a rhetorical question, to test him.  He says, “Gee, Phil, wherever are we going to buy enough bread for all these people to have dinner?  Didn’t we see a Panera in the last village?”

To which Philip replies, “Jesus, even at only 4 bucks a head it would take about 20 grand to buy food for this many people.  That’s like half a year’s pay back when we were fishers, before taxes.  We don’t have that much scratch.  If we had that much in the money box, Judas wouldn’t even be able to pick it up, because this is the first century and money is pieces of metal.”

Another disciple, Andrew, is listening in.  He helpfully pipes up that there is one kid here with enough foresight to bring a bag lunch for himself, consisting of five cheap tiles of matzoh and two dried fish.  But of course, that is not nearly enough for so many people.  Imagine a thousand people each getting a crumb from sheet of matzoh.

But Jesus has other plans.  If the previous year’s Passover demonstration is about not making the Temple a market-place, this year the point is that we’re not going to make the Earth a market-place either.  In Mark’s version of this story, the disciples advise that Jesus send the people to the market to buy food.  Jesus, however, rejects the market-based solution to this or any problem.  He says, in effect, “This is Passover; we’re done with Pharaoh’s economic system of buying and selling, because we remember when we were the ones being bought and sold.”

No.  Jesus does not send the people to go get on lines at foodtrucks.  He does not have them fend for themselves at the market where the people with money are satisfied and those with no money go hungry, and where the prices are jacked up due to self-serving mythologies like “supply and demand,” and so forth.  

He has the people sit down.  He takes up the pieces of bread from the boy.  He gives thanks to God, possibly according to the traditional Jewish blessing recognizing that God is the One who “gives us bread from the earth.”  Then the distributes the bread and the fish to the 5000 people.

None of the gospels explain or adequately even describe how the people are fed.  But they are.  And that is the point.  Jesus comes into a situation of scarcity and lack, and somehow turns it into abundance.  Everyone is fed.  They even collect 12 baskets of leftovers.  

It is probably, aside from the resurrection, the most spectacular and characteristic thing Jesus ever does.  He feeds people, starting with almost nothing.  It becomes the one thing the church would continue regularly to do, both in terms of the ritual by which those who follow Jesus are identified and constituted — the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper — and in terms of a continuing mission of generosity and service in the world to those in need.

From that Passover on, everything the church does it does “eucharistically,” that is, as an expression of heartfelt thanks to God for amazing, astounding, miraculous abundance.  It is the one thing that Jesus specifically commands us to do regularly and frequently to remember him: taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing bread together.

III.

A normal politician who could do such things would immediately have lawn signs printed up and bring this trick on the road.  Once the people realize what has happened, they go bonkers for Jesus.  “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” they exclaim, quoting Deuteronomy 18.  They are ready to take him on their shoulders, carry him to Jerusalem, and make him king by force.

A politician who can produce bread is golden.  The Emperor in Rome kept the support of ordinary Romans by distributing free bread.  Leaders will always tout and grab the credit for a booming economy.  If Jesus could do this bread thing on a regular basis, he could walk into Jerusalem as king tomorrow.

Instead, as night starts to fall, Jesus leaves the crowd and withdraws further into the hills by himself, until they can’t find him.  The disciples get into the boat to sail back home to Capernaum without him.  A strong wind kicks up, and the sails are not effective, so they have to resort to rowing.  After three or four miles of this hard work, they see in the darkness, Jesus, walking towards them.  On the water.  And they are terrified.

Jesus says, “I Am.  Do not be afraid.”  And immediately they find themselves inexplicably floating onto the beach at their destination, Capernaum.

The people wanted to bring Jesus up to Jerusalem and make him their king.  What they didn’t realize is that he is already the King.  Not just of this cranky little country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.  He’s King of the whole place!  All people.  All creation.  Time and space itself.  Being crowned king in Jerusalem, or even Emperor in Rome, would be a nearly infinite step down for him.  

He has not come to show us one way among many.  His is not a new, trendy political or economic philosophy.  His way is The Way.  He has come to connect us to what is Good, True, and Beautiful.  He plugs us into the Love, Peace, and Justice at the heart of all that is.  He connects us to God.

We will see now that Jesus does not come to grow the economy, a metaphor for which is this provision of bread for everyone.  As we will see in his subsequent teaching, he comes to overturn and replace not just the economy but the limitations and shortcomings of human life generally.  He is not about winning at the same old game; he is about a different game altogether.

IV.

He is the Way.  He is the Truth.  And he is the Life.  By following him in his Way, by trusting him and obeying him, we participate in the divine nature itself.  We become real and alive.  We live forever in the form he reveals to us, not subject even to waves or wind or gravity or time, not jerked around by circumstance, or the petty disturbances and turbulence of mortal existence.  

Following Jesus is not just some helpful hints for coping or even thriving in this existence.  It’s not about being rich, or popular, or powerful.  It is so much bigger than this that people don’t get it, as we will see.  They want a king who will merely provide bread for their bodies. 

Jesus is offering something beyond all that.  It includes healing and nourishment, it includes community and affection, but these are by-products of who we really are, which we discover in him.

He is asking us to move out of our fear and set our sights far higher than just survival or even worldly success.  He is bringing us home and calling us into our true nature as children of the living God.     

+++++++

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

If You Build It....

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
July 22, 2018

I.

After his disciples return from their missionary journeys, and after the gruesome death of his mentor, John the Baptizer, Jesus seeks a quiet and secure place to go for what we would call a time of debriefing.  They have a lot to talk about.  Mark does not tell us how successful the disciples’ mission is, just that they reported back what they had done.  

I wonder if this isn’t because Jesus is less concerned about measuring the success of what they were doing in terms of how many new disciples they gain, and more interested in the quality of their discipleship.  In other words, their job is to do what Jesus told them to do.  Whether it works or not is completely up to God and not their concern.  

It reminds me of the most famous words of Mother Theresa, who, when asked if she wasn’t concerned that her ministry among the poor in Kolkata wasn’t very successful, quips that “God doesn’t call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful.”  God calls on us to trust and follow and obey.  Whether this achieves our desired results is immaterial.  All we are responsible for is what we are responsible for: our own words and actions.

Discipleship is not a means to some other end.  It is itself the point.  Doing it is its own reward.  We’re not trying to get anywhere or achieve some goal.  Even the Kingdom of God is not an objective.  Rather, the Kingdom of God is realized in discipleship itself.  When we follow Jesus we are manifesting God’s Kingdom.  Even if completely unsuccessful by the world’s standards, even if we’re fewer and fewer in number and poorer and less influential, nevertheless if we are obedient to the Lord it is enough.   

So they all get into a boat intending to sail to a deserted place for a retreat.  Sometimes we need a little distance.  We need perspective.  We need a break from the pressing demands of discipleship.  A time to reflect, assess, recharge, pray, and share experiences is often necessary.  We cannot function for long in discipleship without reconnecting with Jesus and with other disciples.  Without that we burn-out.  Jesus himself would regularly go off alone for prayer.

Any cohesive entity needs boundaries, just as our bodies need skin.  In the early church only the committed, baptized disciples were permitted to share in the Eucharist.  You can’t go to an AA meeting unless you’re an addict yourself.  Building and maintaining a group identity means at some point closing off outsiders, especially toxic and hostile influences.  We can’t be sent unless we are first gathered.

But as they sail along, people see them from the shore, word gets out, and crowds show up.  In this passage we hear about two incidents of this.  Jesus’ reputation at this point is that he attracts a large number of people wherever he goes.

Obviously, Jesus has something that the people value, something that makes a big difference in their lives, something that changes for the better the way they look at the world and the way they actually live.  Jesus does not set out to be popular; but he has become so as a by-product of his ministry. 

II.

Mark is careful to point out the diversity of the crowds.  He says they come from villages, cities, and farms.  This makes it a multi-class group.  Some commentators suggest that the crowds even include both Jews and Gentiles.  We know that there are include men and women, and even children, in the crowds.

In other words, this is not a movement limited to one class or one group of people.  Jesus infamously reaches out even to suspect and outcast groups, like prostitutes and tax collectors, showing no anxiety about who that might offend.  Granted, not many of the elite ruling class in either government, the economy, or religion tend to show up, except to challenge Jesus.  They were doing fine and had no need of his message.  They certainly didn’t want the social order overturned as Jesus implies is necessary.  But at the same time, they do sometimes come to Jesus for healing, and when they do, Jesus heals them without question. 

If you have what Jesus calls “the ears to hear,” that is, if Jesus’ message resonates with you and speaks to you, you are welcome.  

And Jesus tends to do his work publicly in the local market-places, which is interesting because he appropriates the places of commerce and business to basically give away his teaching and his healing.  It would be like going to the mall and setting up a kiosk with free merchandise.  He uses the market-place to establish a kind of anti-market-place.  He takes the area intended for buying and selling, and transforms it into a place of freely giving and freely receiving.  He exemplifies a sharing model.  

The Lord does two things with these diverse crowds in the market-places, Mark tells us.  He teaches and he heals.  

His teaching is not just the passing along of information.  It’s not merely facts and dates and statistics. We know that what Jesus teaches is thought of as “new,” and that it carries its own authority, which is considered more authentic than the derivative authority they are used to from their religious leaders.

Mark includes very little of actual instruction from Jesus.  In Mark Jesus says almost everything in the form of parables.  Parables are deliberately difficult to understand, which is a point he makes back in chapter 4.  This begs the question of why people would go to such trouble to gather to hear someone relate parables they did not understand.  Mark’s point is to let Jesus’ teachings be visible and apparent in his actions.

And the main actions of the Lord that Mark tells us about are his healings.  His healing is an outward, tangible expression of his teaching.  In Mark we get this more indirect view of Jesus’ message; we hear it in the parables, and in his responses to others’ questions, and we see it in his healing ministry.  

III.

Jesus is moved to set aside his intention of finding a secluded space for a retreat because he is filled with compassion for the people who come out to him.  Compassion overrules Jesus’ agenda for taking his disciples on retreat.  He has them land the boat, and he ministers to the needs of the people.  

Compassion ought to overrule just about everything, as we see in Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan.  Indeed, we see this in Jesus’ ministry generally as his healing work gets activated whenever someone in need approaches him.  Jesus automatically identifies with individuals in their brokenness and pain, and that identification itself unlocks the trust within them, enabling them to be restored to wholeness.

Compassion is the key to Jesus’ ministry.  Therefore, it is also the key to ours.  It is God’s compassion, God’s loving identification with us, God’s overflowing mercy for us, God’s heartbrokenness at our suffering and lostness, God’s gift of grace and forgiveness, that is expressed in the Incarnation in the first place.  It is not our achievements and skills and triumphs that bring God close to us so much as our failures, defeats, losses, and hurts.  

It is like with our own children.  We gush with joy and pride when they do something excellent.  But there is something deeper and more gut wrenching we feel when we see them struggling, lost, confused, or broken.  The word that Mark uses for compassion here is literally that: it says Jesus is “moved in his guts” when he sees the people coming to him in their need and pain.  “They were like sheep without a shepherd,” he says, meaning that they were vulnerable and liable to be attacked by wolves.

This kind of empathic response we see in Jesus is an indication of the true humanity we share with him.  We cannot ignore, we cannot but be moved by another’s suffering.  It touches and affects us deeply.  

Most of the time we have to block out the suffering of others just so we can function.  This is when we are locked in our own egocentricity and not accessing our humanity.  When we step over a homeless woman, or are barely conscious of the people injured in a car accident as we pass by, or even when we hear of the parents and children separated at our own border, or of civilians being bombed in Yemen, or Syria, or Gaza, or any of the constant flood of horror and misery that technology now allows into our daily experience, and don’t react to or worse react only with careless judgment, condemnation, or rationalization, then we are rejecting Jesus himself.  We are separating ourselves from God’s compassion and forgiveness, and from life.  

Compassion has always been the place where we identify most with God.  Compassion without prejudice, without conditions, and without limit: that is the example of Jesus and the calling of every disciple.

IV.

It is this compassion that is the big attraction for people.  That’s why they come to Jesus, even way out in the middle of nowhere.  His compassion is active and effective.  

It is commonly and accurately said that the church has to go out to where the people are, and this is true to Jesus’ ministry.  He has just sent his disciples out in twos to the villages of Galilee.  

At the same time, when the word gets out, people come to him. 

There was that movie years ago called “Field of Dreams” in which Kevin Costner has this odd vision that if he just builds a baseball field on his farm all these dead players would come back to life and play there.  “If you build it, they will come,” his little girl tells him.

I think it is the same with Jesus.  If Jesus builds through us a house of compassion, a place of acceptance, forgiveness, and love, a temple of peace and joy, will they not come?  If Jesus builds by us a place of healing and renewal, where people are built up and brought together, will they not come? We are the Body of Christ and individually members of him.  Why aren’t people coming to us in droves as they came to him?

Well, we have a lot of bad history — and bad current events — to live down, for one thing.  Christians have a miserable reputation, and unfortunately it is mostly deserved.  Historically, Christians are often notorious for having nothing whatever to do with what Jesus is about, and even for working for all kinds of evil things that Jesus rejects.  

But through it all there is always Jesus Christ.  Remarkably, he still has a sterling reputation.  And he is the One we need to be.  He is the One we need to follow, trust, and obey.  The more in tune we are with him and his mission of boundless compassion and healing, the more the love of God is allowed to pour through us into our world, the more we will find people coming.

It’s not easy.  It’s not something we can decide to do.  But we can let go of ourselves and fall into God’s grace, so that God’s goodness and forgiveness and justice emerge in us.  So that Jesus himself may emerge in us, and through us into our world.
+++++++   

 

A Homeless Prophet.

Mark 6:1-13
July 8, 2018

I.

In the first part of this passage, Jesus goes back to his home town, which in the other gospels is identified as Nazareth.  He has developed a reputation as a wonder-worker and teacher.  But these people in the village that has known Jesus since he was a boy, don’t accept his new mission and his apparent powers.

They basically reject him.  “Where did this man get all this?” they ask, rhetorically.  He has gone from being the Jesus they knew for a couple of decades, to “this man,” a stranger.  “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”  This is not what he would have learned at Nazareth High School!  “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?” 

“They took offense at him,” Mark tells us.  They want the Jesus they remember.  They want the guy who took over his father’s carpentry business.  They expect the loyal son, who should have stayed home in the first place and not gone off to live in Capernaum, which is no doubt where he learned “all this.”  

You’d think they’d be proud of him.  You’d think they’d put a sign at the entrance to the village that said, “Welcome to Nazareth, Home of Jesus Christ.”  (Actually, I think there’s a sign like that there now.)  But, like all prophets, what he is doing is dangerous and could jeopardize their reputation and security.  

Jesus didn’t go off and become a rock star or an NFL quarterback.  He identifies with the prophets, and he is claiming to be the Messiah.  These are politically charged titles liable to attract the negative attention of the Roman Army, which had no problem razing whole villages to the ground and slaughtering whole populations if they were suspected of producing or harboring seditious figures.  That is just a basic part of the playbook for conquering, colonialist regimes that have to subjugate people by mass terror.  They destroy such villages in order to “save” them.

No.  The people of Nazareth preferred that Jesus leave them out of his mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  They would be happy to affirm that they had no king but Caesar if it kept them off Caesar’s radar.

That’s why Jesus reflects that “prophets are not without honor except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”   Prophets are problematic for their own people.  Not only do they nearly always aim their prophecies first at them, but too often the retribution the authorities visit upon prophets manages to engulf their families and friends as well.  Other people — on other times or places — who do not have to suffer the consequences of guilt by association with a prophet, they will admire and revere prophets, but not their own.

II.  

Unfortunately, I wonder if this little incident cuts a little too close to us.  After 2000 years of Christianity dominating western culture, sometimes I wonder if we aren’t like the people of Nazareth.  I wonder if we often don’t prefer the domesticated, normal, easily defined and controlled Jesus we used to know.  We act like he’s our guy.  We call ourselves Christians, we wear crosses, we come to church, we read the Bible.  There are churches in every town.  Jesus is one of us!  We’re a Christian country in a Christian civilization.  We grew up with him.  We know his family.  

It reminds me of that scene in the movie, Talledega Nights, where Will Ferrell and family gather around the table to say grace to “the Baby Jesus.”  We like the dependent, harmless, unthreatening Jesus we can just carry around with us.  The Jesus who needs us more than we need him.  The Jesus who fits in with our agenda, our society, our laws, and our family.  The Jesus whom we can mold into our image and who isn’t going to say anything challenging for 30 years. 

Over the centuries we have counted on this Jesus to provide a blessing on whatever we want.  He approved and encouraged our wars.  He was okay with slavery and even lynching and torture.  He supported our laws and our government.  He advocated the subjugation of women and the supremacy of white people.  He was fine with cutting down forests, burning fossil fuels, and driving species’ to extinction.  In other words, this domesticated Jesus, whose work and family we all know, is basically fine with whatever ever we want to do.  Because why wouldn’t he be?  He’s one of us!      

The problem is that the church has always had within it this time-bomb called the New Testament.  As long as we had that there was always this chance that someone would read it, and then Jesus himself might actually show up.  Not the Jesus we conveniently remember.  Not the Jesus we grew up with.  The real, living, grown-up Jesus; the Messiah and prophet of Israel.  That Jesus, the Jesus who is fomenting apocalyptic revolution everywhere he goes, healing, exorcizing, commanding the weather, raising the dead, proclaiming a new kingdom… that Jesus could arrive.  And that’s a problem.

Because when the real Jesus actually shows up, we often don’t quite recognize him.  When he doesn’t say what we think he’s supposed to say, we get confused.  Forgiving sinners? Turning the other cheek?  Giving up our wealth?  Accepting Gentiles?  Kingdom of God?  What?  

What happened to the nice, middle-class, Anglo boy we all grew up with?  What happened to that caucasian guy with the flowing hair looking vaguely into space, like the famous picture of him that was in every church when I was a kid?  What happened to the guy who supported all our projects and overlooked or even helped us rationalize all our atrocities?  What happened to law-abiding, patriotic Jesus?  What happened to the Jesus who conveniently hated all the people we hate?  What happened to the Jesus who was so popular in the 1950’s that we couldn’t build churches fast enough?

III.

What happens is that the real Jesus comes and shows that the Jesus we remember wasn’t real.  The safe Jesus, the Jesus that tells you what you want to hear, the Jesus that supports all your plans and projects, the Jesus it costs you nothing to follow?  That version of Jesus is imaginary.  We made him up.  In fact, the case can be made that that Jesus is really a kind of demon, an evil spirit designed to block God’s mission.  Jesus was not able to do many deeds of power in Nazareth, among those who were so nostalgic for the fantasy Jesus they remembered that they didn’t trust the real One when he walks into town.  

So Jesus turns to people who have no corrosive distorted memories of him.  He shrugs off Nazareth, and goes to the other villages of Galilee where they are able to listen to him and accept who he is.  

He also sends his 12 disciples out in groups of 2, giving them strict rules about poverty, insisting that they maintain their dependence on the local people they are serving.  This is not a colonialist project.  There is certainly no violence involved.  On the contrary, the disciples have to bring enough value in their ministry itself, that is, what they are doing has to make their lives so demonstrably and tangibly better, that the local people, poor as they are, will gladly support them.

He gives the disciples “authority over the unclean spirits.”  This is generally not what we see in the movies.  Rather, “unclean spirits” may be seen as the foul and toxic ideas that divided and stratified society by reducing some to “uncleanness.”  These are the demons of exclusion and inequality, that leave some people outcast, destitute, silenced, and disenfranchised.  

Jesus has them lead people into repentance, which means having new and different ways of thinking and acting.  He has them modeling and teaching after his own example these actual practices of inclusion and welcome, sharing and generosity, forgiveness and peace… the same things we have seen Jesus do himself.  In this way, by gathering people together into real communities characterized by equality, the real Jesus heals, transforms, liberates, and renews the life of the people.

Not everyone is going to go along with this.  Some villages will be like Nazareth and prefer the oppressive “safety” of the states quo.  They will prefer the stability of inequality and social stratification.  They will prefer to wallow in their fantasies about the way things used to be, back when Israel was great.  Jesus says that in those cases they should just shake the dust off and move on to the next town.
IV.

Jesus preaches a gospel that “works if you work it,” as they say in 12-step groups.  The evangelism described here brings actual good into people’s lives and relationships by encouraging sharing and equality, and discouraging the idea that some are more clean, and therefore more worthy, than others.  It dissolves the enmity and competition, the constant comparing and assessment, that divides a community and keeps it enslaved.

This model of the gospel community has to start in the churches, the outposts of God’s Kingdom, in which people are gathered and healed, and from which people are sent to share with others the power and goodness of God’s love.  This mission is so effective in making life better that those who participate in it will support it.

The negative example of when this doesn’t work is Jesus’ own hometown of Nazareth, that would rather retain their conventional memories of Jesus than risk trusting him and his mission.  For them the cost and potential downside of legal jeopardy is too great.

But Jesus’ mission works when people realize they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following his teachings.  Thus they live together, not in some defective vision of the way things used to be, but according to God’s vision of the way things really are, in a politics of equality, an economics of sharing, and a spirituality of repentance that express and embody the Kingdom of God.

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