Sermon by Father Joshua Daniel
Year B Proper 9
Sermon Text: Mark: 6:1-13
(Pictured: Sisters of Nazareth Convent)
In the early 19th Century a handful of nuns left their village in France and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, specifically to Nazareth where they believed they had been called to serve. They arrived safely and began searching for a site to build their convent. In the neighborhood of the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation (the historic site where tradition holds that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the coming of Jesus) they found a property that was available for sell–not more than a block away. The sellers were an Arabic, Palestestinian family who had held the property for some generations. Hoping to increase the value for these Christian women they told them a story about the ancient roots of the property. In the medieval ages, perhaps even earlier, there had been a man who had lived there known as the “honest man”–or something near that, I can’t remember the exact details. Paying that fact some attention the women made a fair offer and the land was eventually sold to them. They established their order (called Sisters of Nazareth), and a school for the palestinian children, and a health clinic for the town. They became greatly loved and admired by the community in which they lived. And they remain so even now.
Fast forward nearly 150 years. A group of archaeologists (I believe in the 90s) gained permission from the Sisters to excavate part of the site and see if there was any proof that anyone of historical importance had lived there. After some time of carefully digging they found what was eventually determined to be a 3rd century Christian mosaic and altar. Now in the world of middle-east archaeology this is the “holy grail” so to speak of discoveries. When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and thereby made Christianity legal throughout the empire, he commissioned his mother, Helena, to build churches throughout the Holy Land marking cities of great religious significance. She had churches built at the site of Jesus’ execution, at Jesus’ resurrection, at the Sea of Galilee, and also in his hometown, Nazareth, where the locals still knew which home Jesus had lived in. What distinguished these sites was exactly what the archaeologists had found: a 3rd century mosaic and altar.
Just below the discovery of that ancient church they found a 1st century dwelling. Something that could not be described as much more than a cave dug out from the side of a hill. But what they had found was something more than just a simple home, two thousand years old. It did not belong, they concluded to a mere legend–to the “honest man”–but rather, what they had found, many have come to believe, is the actual home of Jesus the son of God. The home of Mary and Joseph and their family. The very home in which Jesus was raised.
A year and a half ago I got the chance to visit Nazareth and stayed at the Sisters’ convent, my room about 70 feet above the very place Jesus likely slept as a child. Many archaeologists believe that Nazareth, in Jesus’ time, in the 1st century, was indeed a simple place. Likely consisting of no more than 12 families. It was a remote town, nothing fancy, even the small fishing villages at the Sea of Galilee were at least a day’s journey away.
When my group arrived one of the nuns took us down into the bowels of the site. Down, down, down, many stairs, peeling back hundreds and hundreds of years of history. We got to see the church likely built by Constantine’s Mother and then she took us into the home of Jesus.
At each of the sites we visited during our pilgrimage I tried to steal myself away and find a place quiet to pray and soak up the place. [Almost got locked in the cave where Jesus grew up.]
Seeing it first hand, so small and and with a distinct prehistoric look, today’s gospel is not a stretch to understand. You can imagine the small village together at synagogue. They had heard of the power of Jesus. The passage today even seems to imply that they believed the stories they heard. They say, “Where did this man get all this?” and they exclaim, “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” They are astonished. And yet merely because they personally know his family–his brothers and sisters–merely because they know where Jesus took his first steps and grew into a man–the very town in which the all live–they refused to listen. They dismissed him.
There is a painful tension here. It is pride that leads them to dismiss Jesus. Pride that brings them to say, “Don’t presume to teach us!” And yet that pride seems to be motivated from the belief that something (as great as Jesus represents) is not something they believe might emerge from their community. They seem to say “Greatness cannot come from us.” Or even, and sadder still, “Because of who we are, God’s presence will not live amongst us.”
There are two stories here. The first of Jesus returning to his home village and being received poorly and the second is of Jesus sending out his disciples for the first time. What links them together? In this narrative form it’s as if Jesus is embodying the difficulty he expects them to experience. It’s as if Jesus is saying to them, “Even I cannot reach the people who knew me best. When you go out, you will experience difficulty.”
Another remarkable aspect of this text is that Jesus underlines what the community in Nazareth missed in the very way he sends his disciples out. He sends them out two by two and the gospel tells us that “he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff, no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” The simplicity that they are called to requires nothing more than a single tunic!
What the people of Nazareth missed is that they assumed that the presence and messenger of God would look rich in power and means–or at least that the presence and messenger of God would not look familiar to them. They saw that Jesus could do powerful acts and yet they could not see through their own prejudices and projections.
One of the things that’s hard to preach on in an Episcopal Church is–and I’m going to say the word out loud, now, so prepare yourselves: “Sin.” It’s a word that for many of us makes us a bit red the face, makes the sweat glands open up a bit, makes us look down at our watches and begin to wonder how much longer the sermon could go on for. And that’s understandable. In our culture what often gets labeled as “sin” is whatever is culturally uncomfortable. The church has often used theological language to justify the prejudices of the society it lives in. But notice that Jesus sends out his disciples to preach repentance. Repentance of what? If Jesus’ trip to Nazareth is any indication it is the natural inclination we have to think that God is needed, that God exists, but just not here. The call to repentance is often a call for us to leave our well formulated beliefs about what God is like and where God can show up and be open to see God in a new way.
And this is the very difficulty of the Gospel. Jesus is in our midst. Will we have the courage to see him? God is not best seen in Rome, nor even in the Holy Land, not even in any of the fancy churches closer to home. Jesus can appear in the most unlikely places. In a child, in the stranger, at Starbucks, or in the rice fields. The difficulty of the Gospel is that Jesus is in our midst, and we have, at one point, likely dismissed him.
We are confronted by a lack of imagination. The people of Nazareth had to take what they had seen a thousand times and see it differently. But in this there is hope. Jesus comes back. When we fail, we are not cast out. Jesus comes again. And it is in the love and mercy and forgiveness of God that our hearts are slowly melted, our prejudices slowly unmasked, and we are by the grace of God able to see what is right in front of our eyes. Jesus calling us to come and follow him.