Great Expectations

A Sermon for 5 July 2015

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:1-6. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Where do you turn when you have a nasty noise in your car engine? A mechanic, right? Who do you call about that achy pain that just won’t go away? Your doctor. Quandaries about the Divine? Well, you might expect a pastor would be your best bet. . . . Whether we realize it or not, we live according to a lot of assumptions. We suppose particular people are best suited to help us with certain things. We wouldn’t want a lawyer doing our open-heart surgery. Or a plumber pulling our teeth. How about a carpenter opening us to the mysteries of God? It doesn’t quite fit with our expectations of the expertize required.

But sometimes the most unlikely of candidates can turn out to be the exact ones needed. A couple years ago, it was baptism day at the church among which I was serving. Sweet little Caitlin was being brought. And man that kid had lungs! From the moment her parents got her from the nursery to be baptized until the moment they took her back out, that child was NOT happy! She screamed throughout her entire baptism. . . . During the sacrament, we did all the usuals – including asking members of the congregation “do you promise to nurture this child in the faith?” In that church, all the children were gathered up front for baptisms so we asked them to make promises too. We questioned the peering children: “Do you promise to be good church friends, loving Caitlin, and teaching her about Jesus?” . . . Well you know how it is when questions like that get asked in our worship rituals. Whether we mean it or not, we say aloud the words printed in the bulletin. But how seriously, really, do we hold to such vows? So that there are eager lines out the sanctuary door of folks jumping to help out with children’s Sunday school and Wednesday night classes too. Does anyone really mean: “Yes! I promise! I heartily will nurture this child of God!” Or is it just another something to which we mindlessly, passionlessly ascribe?

The baptism proceeded. Still screaming, baby Caitlin was handed over. The water trickled down her brow. The prayer, the blessing, Amen. Caitlin’s parents and all the church’s children were released from the front. . . . There, children didn’t stay in the sanctuary for the rest of worship but went to their own children’s worship back in a classroom. The stampede was underway. I went along that morning, trying to wrangle the running children. Outside the sanctuary door, I nearly knocked into 8 year-old Christopher. He stood motionless, his back to me. Heading down the hall, I instructed, “Come on, buddy, let’s go on back.” He didn’t move. “Christopher, come on,” I insisted. Still no response. I finally returned to where he stood, face to face with him. His eyes were closed — nothing. Suddenly, his eyes popped opened. I asked: “Christopher, what’s up? You okay? It’s time to go on back to Children’s Worship.” I was preparing myself to have to handle some sort of why-I-don’t-want-to-go excuse. By that time, he and I were the only ones left in the hallway. “I know,” he said. “I was just saying a prayer for that little baby. She was crying so much I thought she really might need one right now.” . . . And a little child shall lead them, Isaiah records. . . . No sooner did Christopher tell me what he was up to, than he took off to Children’s Worship. I was left standing astonished by his instantaneous commitment to baby Caitlin. He definitely took his “I do” seriously! In my haste to smoothly chorale all the kids back to their classroom, I nearly missed it. I wasn’t expecting such a profound wisdom from one so fresh in the faith.

That’s kinda how it was another day long, long ago. Folks gathered for worship. Sabbath rest in the synagogue. Perhaps they were hoping the priest would have a reviving lesson that day. But they didn’t quite get what they were expecting. Instead their neighbor Jesus got up. Him they knew well: the little boy who grew up down the street. Mary and Joseph’s kid – the eldest of their clan. Five boys and who can remember the scads of sisters according to Mark’s gospel. I have a feeling that visions of the boy Jesus playing with the other neighborhood children ran through the worshipers’ minds. A couple could recall the time the child got lost on the trip back from Jerusalem. And when he’d come to call on their pretty daughters. But then this Jesus went off the deep end. Not long ago he ran out on the family. Left his carpentry work to meet up with that rabble-rousing John the Baptist. Out yonder in the wilderness John was stirring up a heap of trouble. Proclaiming folks needed to repent for sins to be forgiven. But that’s not the way sins get cleansed! The priest makes our sacrifices, the gathered synagogue-goers thought. Jesus had gotten messed up with that John guy. Next thing you know, he too was out shouting all sorts of stuff. Like the kingdom of God being near and other such nonsense. Jesus had become a disgrace to his family – not to mention an embarrassment to his hometown. No one wants to get on the map as the generators of the latest lunatic. Supposedly he had denounced his family the last time they tried to take him home – away from crowds that believed he had gone mad. He said his mother and brothers were the ones gathered with him – the ones doing the will of God (Mark 3:34-35).

Now here he is back in town. Joining in Sabbath worship. Yet, it isn’t just some announcement about the up-coming mission project that he stands to make that day. Rather, this lowly, un-trained carpenter gets up to unlock ancient mysteries about God. Not quite what any is expecting! After all, assumptions about who does and who doesn’t know what run pretty deep. If some completely unqualified handyman gets up to start teaching something new about God – something never before named – something revolutionary, like say a kingdom in which all the tables are over-turned. Power, prestige, and privilege completely reversed? Well, we might not be too keen on listening either. . . . Homeboy Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. So they shoo him off center stage.

How often do we do it? How often do we miss the marvelous lessons of God because our minds are made up already? We can’t imagine anything good coming from that kind. So, instead of listening, we walk away. Mumbling, “what do they know anyway?” We keep ourselves comfortably in our pre-conceived worlds. Not having to stretch too far. Not opening ourselves to something different. Because it’s scary, and it’s challenging, and to be honest: too often, we’re too tired to try. . . . It’s nothing new really. Human beings have rebelled against the unexpected since the beginning of time. All the while, at least according to what we learn from Scripture and from our own lives too if we’re paying attention, God has been using the unexpected to do the most marvelous of things. From Father Abraham and barren Mother Sarah, to the scoundrel Jacob who becomes Israel, to that little exiled nation, to a child miraculously born to a betrothed young lady, to first followers who were totally unqualified in the eyes of the world. Right down through history to you and me: regular ole’ people who come together to worship the God whom Jesus embodies. . . . The double-edged, good news for us is that God does use the most unlikely of candidates. It’s the best way to see the unleashed power beyond us: the strength of God, who always makes something out of what seems to be nothing. Who turns death into new life. And makes a way where there seems to be none. It’s the God beyond all our expectations who won’t let our limited imaginations have the last word.   . . . Thanks be to the One who always will exceed our ingrained expectations!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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