Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Lections for the Fith Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary Year B)

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

Do you take pride in being from a big city, or from a small town? It seems to be a human trait that we like to compare the place we live with other places which we find to be less desirable. Ask a long time resident of the Annapolis Valley why they like to live here, and in my experience they will say things such as “the people are so friendly”,or “I don’t have to lock my doors at night”. Ask the same people how they feel about Halifax and odds are they’ll say “too expensive” or “too violent”. But the reverse is just as true. I’ve known city dwellers who love the culture and the fast pace, who can’t sleep without sirens and traffic noise, who aren’t happy unless there’s a Starbucks just around the corner, and who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Timmies. How many comic films have you seen where a very urban, chic city dweller is forced to go live in the sticks, and is totally at sea in rural life? I think this dynamic explains the humour behind Garrison Keillor’s fictitious town of Lake Woebegone (or Dan Needles’ Persephone Township). On the one hand ,. Lake Woebegone celebrates the innocence of small town life, but on the other hand it allows Keillor, a New Yorker who writes for sophisticated, urban audiences, to gently poke fun at Hicksville and its small-minded inhabitants.

In our scripture readings today we find a similar tension between the big city and the small town. We started with a vision of the big city in Psalm 48, which describes the city of God, a place so mighty and so magnificent that it fills the kings of the earth with terror. This psalm was probably written as a hymn of praise for Jewish pilgrims visiting the holy city, a place filled with the praise and worship of God. It expresses their wish and their belief that Jerusalem is set apart from all other cities, because with its great temple it is the place where God comes to earth and lives among his people.

Next comes the small town, and what a contrast that is to the city described in Psalm 48. In our gospel reading from St. Mark we get Nazareth, and what a contrast that is from the holy city of the psalm. Jesus comes to back to Nazareth, the little town where Mary and Joseph raised him, and he runs into a brick wall of scepticism and suspicion from the folks who knew him back then. It doesn’t matter that he now has disciples, or that crowds flock to hear his teaching or to seek healing from him. To the folks in Nazareth, it’s as if Jesus is putting on airs, like some local boy who went to the city and is now acting all jumped up around the people who knew him back then.

Here’s another translation of today’s gospel, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, which captures the home town reaction well.

He left there and returned to his hometown. His disciples came along. On the Sabbath, he gave a lecture in the meeting place. He made a real hit, impressing everyone. "We had no idea he was this good!" they said. "How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability?" But in the next breath they were cutting him down: "He's just a carpenter – Mary's boy. We've known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?" They tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling. And they never got any further. Jesus told them, "A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child." Jesus wasn't able to do much of anything there – he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that's all. He couldn't get over their stubbornness. He left and made a circuit of the other villages, teaching.

The Nazarene’s reaction reminds me of a story the journalist Andrew Cohen likes to relate about Lester B. Pearson, the great Canadian prime minister, as proof of his thesis that Canadians are too comfortable with the ordinary and with mediocrity. The story goes that one night some people at a cocktail party in Canada learned that Pearson had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, to which one woman was heard to say "Well, who does he think he is!". The people in Nazareth are like the woman at that party. They can’t believe that Jesus, one of their own, would want to stand out on the larger stage, especially given his background. Did you notice that the people refer to him, not as Joseph’s son, which you’d expect in a male-centered culture, but as “Mary’s son”, suggesting that these people still delight in the scandal that surrounded Jesus’ unusual birth and lineage.

Perhaps Mark includes this story in his gospel because jokes about Nazareth always got a laugh in his day, and in fact there are other Nazareth jokes in the New Testament. Early in John’s gospel, Nathanael can’t believe that the Messiah he’s supposed to meet actually comes from Nazareth (“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" John 1:46) and elsewhere in John there are several sceptical comments about Jesus coming from Galilee, the region where Nazareth was located ("You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee." – see John 7:41, 7:52).

I myself don’t think that Mark’s point here is to pick on Nazareth or to make fun of small-town mentalities (actually, judging from Mark’s very simple Greek style, he didn’t have much big-city education himself). Mark is not interested in the size of a village or town, but rather he’s interested in the size of the faith of the people who live in those villages and towns. Jesus was “amazed” at the “unbelief” of the people of Nazareth (Mk 6:6), but remember in John’s gospel that Jesus is similarly amazed at the ignorance of the wise and educated Nicodemus who lives in Jerusalem (“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” John 3:10). Likewise, it was the educated elite of Jerusalem who taunted and mocked Jesus on the cross, whereas Jesus disciples and followers tended to be, like Peter, simple people from the Galilean countryside. Later in Mark’s gospel, while the disciples were impressed by the size and grandeur of Jerusalem, Jesus rightly predicted that the Romans would destroy this great city (Mark 13:1-3, see also Luke 23:28).

It’s human nature to want to build and to want to build big. It’s part of human nature. Remember that one of the first stories of human pride in Genesis is the building of the tower of Babel. And if the lesson of Babel is that pride can lead to a fall, it is still hard to fault our noblest dreamers for wanting to build great things. Yesterday was July 4th, and I’m sure that many of our American friends were remembering Ronald Reagan’s famous words from his 1989 farewell speech, when he spoke of his oft-stated wish that quoted America would be a shining city on a hill. Reagan said:

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still

If that language sounds biblical, that’s because it has a long biblical ancestry. Reagan was quoting a 17th century preacher, John Winthrop, who was himself quoting from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says you are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." (Matt 5:14). Jesus himself, when he said those words, may have been thinking about Psalm 48, the psalm we read today, which predicts a day when God will establish his city “beautiful in elevation”, “the joy of all the earth” (Ps 48: 2).

We also know from our own painful experience that humans cannot build that shining city. Jesus knew that very well when he set his face for his final journey to Jerusalem, not the ideal Jerusalem of Psalm 48, but the actual Jerusalem, where God’s people would kill their Messiah, the Son of God. That shining city that Reagan wanted America to be is currently trying to come grips with the fact that its lawmakers authorized torture for the last five years. We can build huge cities, but those cities can be as full of tears as they can of rejoicing, as full of hatred as they are full of praise, as full of hunger as they are full of feasting. And we know that we are very good at destroying cities. The only city free of tears and violence and want comes at the end of the bible, the new Jerusalem predicted in Revelations. In today’s gospel, when Jesus sent the twelve out into the world, he did not send them out to build the new Jerusalem. He sent them out to do simple things - to call people to repent, and to show God’s love through acts of healing. Jesus told them that it would be hard work. Some would reject them. But Jesus sent them out anyway, because he knew that the kingdom of God would come of such things.

I asked you at the start if you were proud of coming from a big city of a small town, and I’m sure you had your own individual reactions. I’m sure also that just as you are proud of your place of origin, you are also smart enough to see its flaws. The big city person knows something about the violence, poverty, and loneliness with which many people live their lives. Likewise, the small town person will know something about conformity, hypocrisy, and suspicion of anything out of the ordinary. Big cities and small towns alike are all mission fields, needing the word of God and the presence of God’s people.

The last part of today’s gospel is often preached as a call for ministry and evangelism, and that indeed is what we are called to, whatever our gifts, talents, and resources may be. It doesn’t matter if we live as Christians in big cities or in small villages. It just matters that we recognize Jesus as our Lord, that we honour him and follow him. As today’s gospel teaches us, God cannot do much if our hearts and minds are not open to him. It doesn’t matter if the people we minister or the projects we support are rural or urban or in between. It just matters that we do something. The Annapolis Valley food bank can use our gifts, as can the United Way. It doesn’t matter if we find ourselves in a big city or a small town. It just matters that our eyes and hearts are open to what God calls us to do, and that we see the people around us as our sisters and brothers, all beloved creations of God and all prospective citizens of the city of God.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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