Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Proper 9B

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

As a preacher’s kid, a preacher’s wife, and as a preacher myself, I have moved quite a number of times. I’ve had lots of hometowns - Sewanee, Leesville, Kingsport, Atlanta, Ponte Vedra, New York City, Oxford, Spartanburg, Meridian, and now Jackson. I love going home, anywhere that has been home, anywhere that, for a season, grew in me as I grew in it. In every hometown of mine there are places and memories so familiar and vivid that it is as if I have traveled back in time when I visit them. The evergreens in our front yard in Sewanee, under whose branches I had my own secret house, are still there. I still sometimes drive the stretch of interstate between college and mom, and am comforted when I see the sign that says “Welcome to South Carolina”. The skyline of New York City makes me long for its streets. I’ve even passed by the Hardees restaurant near Leesville, where we could stop for a roast beef sandwich on our way home from summer camp. And just last night, I went to the lakes at Bonita, where we took our son to watch his first fireworks show, and once again saw the sky light up in honor of our nation’s birthday.

Other things are not at all the way I remembered, either because I have grown up and changed or the towns themselves have. The playground at Sewanee Elementary School now looks half the size I thought it was when I used to run out at recess. The trees in my mom’s front yard are twice as big as they were the last time I lived there. And the homes in Oxford have multiplied so much I got lost trying to find our little blue rectory on the hill when I was there last summer. Still, whether our hometowns haven’t changed a bit or are unrecognizable, whether they are places we love to visit or try to avoid, I suppose Dorothy was right - there truly is no place like home.

I wonder how Jesus felt going home to Nazareth. He hadn’t really been gone very long, just a few years, but so much had happened to him. Jesus had left Nazareth a carpenter, a craftsman like his father, Joseph; he was returning a prophet, a miracle worker, a messiah who now called God father. Jesus had changed, but I suspect Nazareth had not. At all. It was still the same small town he had grown up in, and all the same people were still there, doing the same things they had been doing when he left.

Which is what he should have been doing, too, according to ancient social and family codes. If you were born a carpenter, you stayed a carpenter, and when the time came you became head of your family and your children would become carpenters. In all of Nazareth, perhaps only Mary guessed Jesus would build kingdoms instead of houses. But even she was alarmed when she heard what her son had been saying and doing ever since his cousin, John, had baptized him in the Jordan River. Mary had begged Jesus to come home before he brought ridicule upon himself and his family. Did it pierce her heart to hear him say, Who but those that listen to me and do the will of God are my mother and brothers?

But now he was coming home, to teach, to preach, and maybe to eat a homecooked meal and sleep a night or two in his old bedroom. We’ve been journeying with him these last several Sundays filled with signs and wonders. Jesus calmed a storm. Our lectionary leapt over an account of him casting out a demon. He healed an incurable disease. He raised the dead. It was time to go home, back to the places he had known as a child, back to the people who had raised him, to the place that had grown in him and as he grew in it. Was there a tree under which Jesus had a secret house when he was little? Was there a sense of comfort as he passed a marker at the outskirts of town? Did the scrubby trees look taller, or the streets narrower? Did Jesus think Nazareth would welcome him home?

Word of his miracles and whispers of messiah reached his hometown before he did. People were talking about him and his delusions of grandeur. A carpenter couldn’t know what he knew. None of Mary’s other children did the things he could do, or claimed to be able to do. Ordinary craftsmen and farmers and laborers didn’t have time to study Torah enough to teach it, but Jesus walked right into the synagogue as though it were his own house and began to speak God’s word to all who were gathered there.

And the more Jesus displayed his deep wisdom of divine things, the more the people of Nazareth were amazed - not because they saw him for who he really was, but because they saw him for who they had always known him to be, the kid who grew up just down the street. Some of them had chased him and his friends out of their stalls in the marketplace when they were just giggling little boys who got underfoot. Some of them had tousled his hair when he went with his mother to the well each day. They had known Jesus all his life, his likes and dislikes, his habits and hobbies, his strengths and his weaknesses. What was this power he now presumed to possess? What was this wisdom? What was this healing touch? Hadn’t they been his teachers? Hadn’t they tended to his skinned knees and stubbed toes? Wasn’t he just like them, born into his lot in life, where he’d better stay unless he wants to get on the wrong side of those who actually do have power?

Jesus, it seems, was as unlikely a candidate for messiah as David had been for king. The youngest and smallest of his brothers, David was more often in the company of sheep than of other people. He tended to land himself in situations that were sometimes literally over his head, battling giants, avoiding the wrath of kings, going to war. Our reading from Second Samuel made it sound as though David’s coronation had the strong support of the people he would rule, but this is actually the third time he has been anointed as king over a politically divided Israel, and it has actually been years since the prophet first picked him over brothers to be the shepherd of God’s people.

And David became greater and greater. Our scriptures go on to tell many stories of David’s mighty acts as Israel’s king. Of course, they also go on to tell stories of David’s weaknesses, of the ways in which he fell far short of perfection, far short of the stature he had in God’s estimation. And so it is David learns, and we learn, that the greatness he possessed was never of his own making, no matter how many stones he hurled - the power that made David king had always been God’s, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

Jesus was as unlikely a candidate for messiah as Paul would be for an apostle. Over and again (and again and again) Paul writes of his failures, his shortcomings and sins. A thorn was given me in the flesh, we’ve just heard him say. A messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Paul, in his weakness, had been tempted to boast of his rich spiritual life, as his challengers often did in an effort to prove their power. And so it is Paul learns, and we learn, that the greatness he possessed was never of his own making, no matter how many visions he received - the power that made Paul an apostle had always been God’s. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. Who else but God could make a king out of a shepherd, an apostle out of someone so self-centered? Who else but God, who made a messiah out of a tiny, helpless baby? Indeed, in Jesus Christ, heaven made its home on earth, power made its home in weakness, grace made its home in flesh and bone, eternal life made its home in vulnerability. In Jesus Christ, true God from true God loved and laughed, grew hungry and tired, just like us. In Jesus, God worried and wondered and wished and wept just as we do. And in an ultimate act of what the world would call weakness, our own good shepherd, our own mighty king, died just as we do, so that, in an ultimate act of perfect power, we might live just as he does.

Yes, he was Mary’s son...and he was the Son of God. Yes, he was the carpenter...and he builds us up day by day. Yes, his brothers and sisters lived in Nazareth...and they live in Sewanee and Leesville and Spartanburg and Jackson and Meridian and anywhere and everywhere and right here. We are his sisters and brothers, but we are not only his family - we are his home. Will we welcome him? Will we receive him? Will we put aside what power we think we have and acknowledge our weakness, our need of the only one who can calm our storms, cast out our demons, heal our sickness and restore our lives? Can he work wonders here?

In just a few days, the Episcopal Church will gather in General Convention in Anaheim, California. The theme for the event is Ubuntu, an African word that names an ethic of life in which relationship is the core value. I am because we are, is one way of understanding what Ubuntu means. I in you and you in me is another, words that echo the gospel of John in which Jesus speaks of dwelling in us and we in him, of being at home in us and we in him.

Like many generations of apostles before us, we are sent by Jesus out into the world with nothing on our backs but his grace and nothing in our hands but his love. To a world weak and hungry and hurting we are invited to bring the power of God to calm, to save, to heal, to reconcile, and to restore life. We will need to watch carefully for the thorns that would pierce us as we go, the messengers of Satan that would urge us, encourage us, entice us to celebrate all that we are capable of doing rather than all that God is capable of doing through us. The places where we are weak, you see, are gifts through which we understand our need of God’s grace, God’s perfect power, which is all-sufficient for whatever task God calls us to - and make no mistake, we are no less called than David or Paul or the Twelve who went out on foot to proclaim the good news of God in Christ.

Where is home for you? Our presiding bishop asked in her sermon on the day of her consecration at the National Cathedral. Where is home for you? Homecoming, she suggested, underlies our deepest spiritual yearnings, and it is also the job assignment everyone gets in baptism - go home, and while you’re at it, help to build a home for everyone else on earth. Wherever it is that we are from, wherever it is that we have lived along the way, our true home is in Jesus Christ, who dwells in us and we in him. And so it is that we, like his followers before us, live most of our lives on the road, along the way, in the in-between places where we are vulnerable, but where the power of God can work in us more than we can ask or imagine, if we will let it.

There's no place like home.. Amen.

Artwork: "The youngest one was out keeping the herd," by Lucile Butel; Rose bush in my front yard; "Epiphany Triptych: The Baptism," by Kathrin Burleson.

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