Having grown up in Burnaby, our local celebrity pride and joy was Michael J. Fox. He also grew up in Burnaby, and so we’d hear and share stories about someone who knew someone who knew someone who was his neighbour, or was in his grade, or taught him in high school. Then later our Burnaby claim to fame has been Michael Buble. And if you are a sports enthusiast, or even if you aren’t – there is the hockey player Joe Sakic and the soccer star, Christine Sinclair.
These ordinary people from my hometown, have done extraordinary things and have had recognition on the world stage, becoming a household name not just in Burnaby but far beyond. Many of us have similar stories of our local brush with fame, or someone we once knew who went on to do amazing things.
Today’s scripture passage is about the hometown boy who began to rock the world – and how the hometown folks could not wrap their heads around it. Jesus, the charismatic leader who was a reflection of God, returned to the place of his upbringing. However, the neighbors could not get past seeing him as the young man from down the road who was handy with a hammer and a chisel. They could heap on accolades about the work of his hands and even his thoughtful nature, but accept him as a prophet? A messenger from God? Impossible.
Our gospel writer tells us this story, showing us that sometimes our personal expectations play a crucial role in what we see and experience – AND in what we overlook.
I heard about an activity that shows how difficult it is for us to notice something when we are expecting something else. Here’s how it works. You sit down at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards. They flash six of the cards at you very quickly, and then ask you to identify them as best you can – “Let’s see, nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs – oops, what was the next one?” Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get some of the ones you missed the first time.
The third time they go through it so slowly that you begin to wonder what is wrong with you, because you still can’t identify one of the cards. It is not until the cards are all laid face up on the table that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been rigged. Someone has changed the rules, rules that prevented you from seeing what was really there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black. Sometimes our expectations prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us.
Or there’s the “Stroop Effect” experiment. In this experiment, you are to quickly say the colour that you see in front of you. This sounds easy, right? But there’s a catch. The colour that you see, is in the shape of a word – and the word is a different colour spelled out. I’ll put a slide up so you can see what I mean. So the word BLUE is printed in a red colour, and so your brain really wants to read the word blue, instead of name the colour RED. Our expectations prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us.
This seems to have been the case for the folks in Nazareth when Jesus returned to his hometown for the first time after launching his ministry. Today, Nazareth is a bustling city of traffic and commerce and a population of 77,000, but in the time of Jesus, scholars believe this hilly and rocky community had only about 50 families – most of them related to one another. Today, Nazareth covers 14 square kilometres, in the time of Jesus it existed on the equivalent of two football fields. In other words, the Nazareth Jesus came home to, was tiny enough for everyone to know everyone else.
To set the context for today’s passage, it is the early days of Jesus’ ministry. He has been traveling on foot in the region around Galilee. Each time Jesus and his followers entered a community, Jesus wowed the people with his wisdom and healed those with infirmities. Strangers quickly recognized that Jesus was one of a kind. When he taught, his words resonated with something deep in their souls. He gave people a new way of approaching life and he restored something they thought they had lost forever – hope.
Word began to travel from village to village about this amazing man who taught with authority, who possessed a healing touch, and who lit a flame in people’s hearts. All Jesus had to do was step foot into a village and excitement drenched the community like a cool rain in the heat of summer.
With the wind at his back, Jesus marched up the steep hill to his home in Nazareth with his disciples tagging along. Perhaps Jesus had told his faithful followers about the warm hospitality that was sure to embrace them. Nothing is said about the day he arrived, but when the Sabbath day rolled around Jesus and his disciples went to the small synagogue.
I suspect those who had been traveling with him could not wait to see the impression Jesus made on the people from his hometown. Initially, as they would have predicted, Jesus was a hit. But within minutes, questions began to surface. Someone turned to the person sitting next to him and said, “How did he become so wise so quickly? Where did he gain his knowledge and his capacity to heal?”
Skepticism rippled through the room. Someone stood up and remarked, “Isn’t he Mary’s boy, the carpenter?” And the initial astonishment turned into judgment. “Hey, we know this young man. He’s a laborer, not a teacher; a hired hand not a healer.” Their mockery was embarrassing and painful.
Can you imagine the level of frustration in Jesus? Can you picture how put out he was with his cousins and friends and neighbors for not taking him seriously? Their rejection must have stung badly. They were closed to the possibility that he was more than they thought he was, and their skepticism curbed what Jesus was capable of accomplishing. Mark writes that because of their refusal to believe, Jesus could do practically nothing. The episode ends with Jesus shaking his head, stunned by their lack of faith.1
After the debacle with the hometown folks, Jesus called together the 12 disciples and sent them out in pairs on a healing mission. Our passage says that Jesus 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.”
Jesus gave one more instruction. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Is Jesus licking his wounds from the beating he took in Nazareth and telling his disciples to curse those who treat them the way he was treated? Or, is he saying, “You cannot control how others will respond to you. You can only control your own actions. You can commit to God’s way and forge ahead, and not allow distractions and obstacles and other people’s attitudes to thwart your mission.”
He invites the disciples to go out and spread God’s message of love in households – at a relational level – not preaching from the mountaintops, but on a one to one basis. Their ordinary actions are making an extraordinary impact in the lives of the people that they encounter on their journeys. What they are doing matters. It matters to God and it matters to the ones they meet.
Each day we have a choice – we can choose to partner with God’s intent and action to bless and care for God’s world or we can choose not to.
We may struggle at times to sense God’s grace, or to believe that we are making a difference, but each time we pick up the phone and call a friend or neighbour who might be lonely, we are choosing to be an agent of God’s love. Each time we hear a racist comment and speak against it, we are choosing to be an agent of God’s love. Each time we write a letter to our local politician in advocacy for the marginalized, we are choosing to be an agent of God’s love. Each time we greet a stranger on the pathway while we are out walking, we are choosing to be an agent of God’s love.
God invites us to a life of holiness rooted in everyday acts of kindness that are so ordinary as to be easily overlooked yet extraordinary in the difference they make to those around us. Where might we be more open to receiving the gifts and presence of God, especially when those gifts are given through the ordinary, everyday, even mundane people in our lives? Are we missing out on a more vibrant experience of God’s grace because it comes not as we are expecting, in the unusual or exotic but merely through the forgiveness of a spouse, the patience of a child, the support of a colleague or friend?
God has chosen each one of us and sent us out to be instruments of God’s peace and agents of God’s love. God doesn’t choose us because we are qualified, but experiencing God’s grace and love, qualifies us to share that with others we meet.
But God does more than choose us, God also blesses us. God blesses us to be a blessing and works through each one of us to love, bless, and care for this world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Dr. Gregory Knox Jones