July 5, 2015 by jmar198013
My sermon for today at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA was taken from Mark 6.1-13.
The reading we just heard from Mark 6.1-13 begins with a homecoming for Jesus. Mark tells us also that he has an entourage—his disciples—with him. Mark goes on to report that, On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue. I think we tend to skim over that line. Okay, I tend to skim over that line. It’s a synagogue, it’s Sabbath, Jesus is teaching. What could be more natural? And yet—it dawns on me that all the times I have returned to visit my folks in Alabama, I have never been invited to preach. Who knows, maybe they’re afraid of what I’ll say. I remember the first time I ever spoke in the assembly. I was two years old. A visiting preacher was filling the pulpit while ours was away conducting a revival. As soon as the guest speaker approached the podium, I knew what I had to do. Expose the impostor! “Hey,” I shouted, catching everyone by surprise. Before my mother could swat me, I continued, “That guy’s not our preacher! Our preacher’s bald!” And so began my illustrious career of saying shocking things in worship assemblies. And now, I even get paid to do it. Imagine that! So I don’t know how Jesus ended up teaching in his hometown synagogue that Sabbath. Was he invited to speak? Did the local rabbi have the flu? Or did he invite himself to give the lesson? Mark doesn’t say. But let’s assume that Jesus was invited by the locals to teach. What was his lesson about? Mark doesn’t tell us that, either. Sometimes I get a bit frustrated with Mark. He can be a bit sparse when it comes to details. What Mark does say is that, Many who heard him were surprised. Surprised why? That Jesus was that good? Not hardly. Mark turns right around and says that, They were repulsed by him and fell into sin. Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth sort of fizzled out that day. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to be surprised. Mark reports that, He was appalled by their disbelief. Tell you the truth, I’m kind of shocked that Jesus was caught off guard by their reaction. Shouldn’t he have known that the people he left behind in the old town stayed put for a reason? They were set in their ways, and whatever Jesus said unsettled them. Surely Jesus knew that much about them. But then again, maybe Jesus was an optimist. Maybe he dared to hope that he could nudge their vision beyond what they already knew. That their eyes and hearts would be open to what God was doing to heal his creation. But their hospitality wore thin real quick. And according to Mark, so did Jesus’ healing power. And the way in which Jesus’ ability to work miracles in Nazareth waned along with the welcome of the townies prompted me to ask a question: Is there a connection between hospitality and healing? And that’s the question my lesson for today will explore.
Jesus’ work in his old neighborhood was effectively squashed by the mistrust of the people. Mark tells us that Jesus was unable to do any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them. Well, it’s not like healing a few sick people is no big deal. I’m sure it was a big deal to them. But what has always tripped me up is Mark reporting that Jesus couldn’t do miracles in his home town. Jesus couldn’t do miracles? Since when? I mean, just a few days before, Jesus had accidentally healed somebody. Remember the woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years? Right, she snuck up on Jesus and touched his clothing and was healed. Now all of a sudden, Jesus is unable to do any miracles? Doesn’t this bother you? I suspect it bothered Matthew, because he cleaned it up a bit when he told the story. Mark said that Jesus could do no deed of power there. But Matthew says that Jesus did not do many deeds of power there (Matt. 13.58). So was Jesus unable or just unwilling? I suspect that what got in the way of Jesus’ miracle-working in Nazareth was a breakdown in hospitality. Now, whatever could I mean by that? Did you notice when Jesus goes from homecoming guest to a stranger not to be trusted? It was when he began to teach in the synagogue. Something about his message provoked hostility and suspicion. People started murmuring, Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? People who have known him his whole life no longer have any room for him. Jesus has come to share healing and hope. To nurture a plot of heaven’s kingdom within and among them. To invite them to experience God in a profoundly new way. But because they see him as a dangerous other rather than a welcomed brother, they cannot receive what he has to offer. So it’s a breakdown in hospitality we’re seeing. Hospitality and hostility don’t mix. You can’t welcome what you perceive as a threat. On the flip side, something that a real wise dude named Henri Nouwen said 40 years ago comes to mind. Henri said that, “in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.” The inhospitality of Jesus’ hometown was a tragic loss for them. Because of it, Jesus was unable to do any miracles there. From this story, we learn that God’s power comes as a gift to those who live “in such a way that God may feel at home in [their] midst.” The question is, then, how do we learn hospitality toward God? For surely that requires humility and patience and wonder, and the world we live in doesn’t exactly nurture us in those directions. I think Mark tells us this story to teach us that hospitality toward God begins with our willingness to accept Jesus. Jesus is God’s hospitality toward us. And we learn the humility, patience, and wonder required to welcome God by learning to welcome his Son.
Welcoming Jesus probably sounds like a swell thing to do, especially for a room full of Christians. Probably we imagine that we have already welcomed Jesus. We’re Christians, after all. Baptized believers. When we sing, “There’s a stranger at the door—let the Savior in,” we know this is to encourage other people to welcome Jesus. But I want to suggest that welcoming Jesus isn’t a one-time event. It requires a life-long commitment of hospitality to the strangers who come our way. This is what Jesus reveals to us in Matt. 25.31-46. There he names all sorts of people unwelcome in our world: the poor, the hungry, those who lack adequate clothing, the ill, those in prison. And he says: I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me (Matt. 25.40). Now some suggest that Jesus’ qualifier, the least of these my brethren, shows that he really means that we are only responsible to show hospitality to hungry, naked, sick, persecuted Christians. But I say that misses the point. I say that Jesus has adopted all those poor, hungry, naked, sick, imprisoned people as his siblings. When he says these brothers and sisters of mine, he is announcing his solidarity with them. He knows how it feels to be rejected, forgotten, written off, and booted out onto the street. Our story in Mark is an example of just that sort of thing. Okay, let’s make this personal now. I’m going to make the radical suggestion that the church is like Nazareth—we are Jesus’ hometown on earth. Are we going to welcome him or not? It’s easy to welcome the Jesus who loves us; who teaches us how to be better parents and spouses and neighbors and citizens. But are we—am I?—willing to welcome the Jesus who doesn’t always affirm us? Are we willing to show hospitality to the Jesus who might barge in here one day, chase out our sacred cows, and turn over some tables? If we’re going to be able to welcome that Jesus when he shows up, we’re going to need some practice. And our practice is offering hospitality to those who seem to have absolutely nothing to offer us. That’s demanding, dirty, and dangerous work. But that’s how we learn to “provide hospitality to the Jesus who seems to have better things to do than satisfy our needs.” We look for him in disguise among those who have needs to be satisfied. Our hospitality to them is hospitality to him. That way, when the rambunctious, rebel Jesus shows up in our midst, he will have no reason tell the church that, Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households. We—the household of Jesus—will be able to welcome him and the disruption he brings. Because we have already learned to allow our lives to be disrupted by those the world considers inconvenient.
Mark said that the unbelief of the residents of Nazareth limited Jesus’ miracle-working among them. According to Luke’s version of the story, it was even worse than that. Luke reports that, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff (Luke 4.28-29). Although Jesus was appalled—shocked and hurt—by the response he got in his hometown, he didn’t shut down. Personally, I think that if everyone in Gurley, Alabama responded to one of my sermons by trying to toss me off Keel Mountain, I’d re-think my career options. But with Jesus, it only provoked him to expand his territory. Mark says that after the fiasco in his hometown, Jesus traveled through the surrounding villages teaching. Not only that, but he sent out his twelve apostles in pairs to continue his work. I think it’s important that Mark said at the beginning of the story that Jesus’ disciples were there to witness his rejection in Nazareth. The Twelve would obviously have been among them. I suspect that the prospect of going out into new towns after what they had seen happen to Jesus in his own town made them nervous. I’d be a bit surprised if Jesus sending out the Twelve didn’t go like novelist Christopher Moore imagines. Has Jesus say: “I’ll give you power to heal, and power over devils. You’ll be like me, only in a different outfit . . . People will persecute you and spit on you, and maybe beat you, and if that happens, well, it happens. Shake off the dust and move on. Now, who’s with me?” And there was a roaring silence among the disciples . . . And they all looked at each other. Jesus then has to tell them, “Spread the good news, the son of man is here! The kingdom is coming. Go! Go! Go!” What’s more, when Jesus sent them out, he instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick. Their walking orders required them to rely on the hospitality of local households: Whatever house you enter, remain there until you leave that place. Jesus also told them what to do if a certain place turned hostile, as Nazareth had to him: If a place doesn’t welcome you or listen to you, as you leave, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them. That’s really a way of saying, We came to share, not to take. We came for your benefit, not our own. And as we go, we will take nothing you haven’t freely offered—not even your dirt. Jesus wanted them to rely solely on hospitality. Knowing me, I’d be the smart-aleck who’d answer, Why Jesus, so they can run us out of town like they did you? And there we’ll be, no food, no money, no credit cards, no cell phones. Stranded. I mean, if Jesus got booed down and yanked out of the pulpit in his own hometown, what would happen to the Twelve among strangers?
Of course, Mark tells us, it went very well for the Twelve in the strange villages where Jesus sent them. They went out and proclaimed that people should change their hearts and lives. They cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people with olive oil and healed them. To say it went well for the Twelve is also to say that it went well for the villages that welcomed them. Healing and hope and repentance sprang up in the villages that showed them hospitality. And so we see that there is indeed a close connection between hospitality and healing. God’s healing power works where it is welcomed. The message of the Twelve was a simple one: they invited people to change their hearts and lives. In Christianese, we usually call this repentance. The problem with saying repent is not just that it sounds too “churchy.” It also makes it sound like an event, a moment. An instant transformation. What we see in Scripture is that that repentance is more often than not a process. A journey. A life’s work. See, all of our lives the world has told us lies about who we are and what really matters and how things really work. And those lies become the lenses that we see ourselves and our neighbors and our communities and our work and our enemies through. When we look through those lenses, everything is filtered through fear or jealousy or rivalry or propaganda. This is the hostility that leaves no room for hospitality, because seeing our world this way doesn’t nurture us to be welcoming. Again, Henri Nouwen observed that, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion.” I suspect that the world of Jesus and his Apostles and the earliest Christians was not very different. The invitation to repent is the invitation to rid ourselves of the lenses that distort friends and gifts into enemies and threats. And my friend Mark Van Steenwyk likes to remind people that, “even if you change your mind suddenly, it takes a lifetime to change your lens.” So for these villages where the Twelve worked, repentance—the changing of hearts and lives—began with welcoming these strangers sent by Jesus. It began with their willingness to offer hospitality and receive the gifts their guests brought. They started to change their lenses. The Apostles offered gifts of freedom and healing—they cast out unclean spirits and healed sicknesses. So the hospitality went both ways. The Twelve and their hosts brought gifts and new life to each other. Furthermore, since Jesus made the Twelve dependent on the hospitality of local sponsors—since he made the Apostles guests—the kingdom of God came to those villages as a gift. A gift they chose to receive. The Apostles did not impose their message with force. I’d like to suggest that the mission of the Twelve that Mark shows us contains a template for the work of the church today. No, I’m not suggesting that we have to go out with only sandals and a walking stick and live with strangers. What I am suggesting is that the church needs to be an organic presence of the community. We work for the good of our community and its people, never to our own benefit. We don’t seek to impose or control anything, only to serve. We do the gritty work of casting out unclean spirits: racism, injustice, violence, addictions, hunger, homelessness, human trafficking. We bring healing to Jesus’ adopted siblings, “the least of these,” beginning with offering our hospitality. And we will see the changes in hearts and lives—the process we call repentance—not only in those we serve, but in ourselves, as well. The relationship between hospitality and healing will be embodied concretely in the life of the church.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image, 1975), 67.
 Ellen F. Davis, “Critical Traditioning,” 173. In The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 135.
 Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (New York: William Morrow, 2002), 204.
 Nouwen, Reaching Out, 66.
 Mark Van Steenwyk, The UnKingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 73.
 For the observation that the hospitality-based mission of the disciples served to guard against coercive or heavy-handed tactics, I am indebted to Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 213-14.