Can you feel it? The movement, the energy, the anticipation that strike like lightning bolts throughout Nazareth, illuminating the village with hope. Jesus is coming home! Tradesmen close their shops and gather at the square, half-way up Nazareth’s steep hill, where the markets brim with goods. Children race and dart through and around their parents’ legs to get right up front for they have heard the rumors about Jesus. He’s a healer. He casts out demons. And all sorts of people follow him. Elders peer from the windows of their home, wise rabbis gather along the side of the road to catch a glimpse of the young boy grown into a man to whom they used to teach the stories of the Torah.
But then something odd happens. The joyful anticipation in their hearts turns to hushed whispers and raised eyebrows. “Oh I know what kind of woman she is, just look the brightly colored scarf, loosely draped around her shoulders and the way her eyes seem glued to Jesus,” says one voice in the crowd. “Oh, wasn’t he the one, the brusque Roman soldier who gave us a hard time, along the dusty road that led down to the fishing village of Capernaum?” says another. “What is he doing with Jesus – or rather more importantly, what is Jesus doing with him?” The crowd instinctively and collectively draws in their breath, takes a step backwards, and tempers their exuberant welcome to the hometown boy who left as a carpenter’s son.
Mark tells us nothing then of where Jesus stayed, what he did those first few days at home, or even what he said in the synagogue. But we can imagine that the air in that space on the Sabbath was electric, filled with a tension that holds excitement and dread at the exact same time, as though they were two sides of the same coin. Jesus is finally back in the synagogue where he was raised, where the words of the Torah he read at his bar mitzvah come flooding back to him, where the happy faces of his cousins who were married in this very spot fill his heart again with a joy and love which spills lavishly into the room. Those who the young boy who played in the streets, who helped his father in the shop, who was always the life of the party, always the one people gathered around at large extended family occasions, wondered what had become of that person, for that good Jewish boy surely wouldn’t have ushered people into their village who don’t look like them, think like them, or live and move and have their being like them. There’s tension in the room. We hold our breath, waiting for an outburst, something to relieve the tension and set things right.
Our text tells us that many were astounded by Jesus’ teaching. Now, I was astounded by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding. My heart was set on fire. I wanted stand up and applaud and shout a few alleluias and was so proud to claim myself as an Episcopalian. My heart was inspired and re-committed to the message of the Way of Love. So, if the crowd who heard Jesus, who also heard the message of the way of love, for that’s all the Jesus could have talked about, for that’s all that he was, the way of and the way toward love, were astounded, then why didn’t they react similarly to me, with applause or shouts of mazel tov, or an embrace of his inspiring message. Instead, they derided him. He offended them. I imagine their faces looked a bit like the faces on some of the royal family, a bit afraid at what just has been unleashed, a bit skeptical of the radical nature of love proclaimed by a man they didn’t recognize, a man who didn’t look like them, didn’t think like them, didn’t live or move or have their being like them.
So, to understand the crowd’s response, we need to look more closely at the Greek word (ekpliktikó) which is translated in our NRSV Bibles as astounded, which we imagine to be a good thing, to mean amazed and bedazzled, as we probably all were with Michael Curry’s sermon. But there’s another meaning for that Greek word that we may want to reclaim from the NRSV translation. Ekpliktiko also means scared, frightened, or to strike out in panic. That’s the “ekpliktiko” that the crowd had. They immediately began to question his reputation, where he had gone to school, how did he learn all this, what books has he been reading – and then innuendos about Jesus family background, calling him the Son or Mary, not Joseph’s son, allowing that scandalous statement to float above the crowd for a bit, like incense offered to above, to allow those stinging words to settle upon each of the hearers and to promote distaste or distrust. You can almost hear them say, “I don’t care if he can make the blind see or the deaf to hear or the dead to rise, I know him personally, and he’s nothing but a carpenter’s son”. “Oh, and by the way, that table he made, it’s not all that good anyway.” Their hearts filled with resistance to this man God was using to usher in the way of love. They were scared it would cost them too much to follow, they were frightened of the people they would have to look at through Jesus’ eyes, and they struck out in panic.
Perhaps the reason for their strong emotion against Jesus was that they heard in Jesus’ way of being, in his words, and in the company who followed him, the challenge to change, to look hard at and to accept people who don’t look like them, who don’t think like them, who don’t live and move and have their being like them. The hometown crowd filled their hearts with resistance to the vulnerability and love Jesus offered them and expected of them. They wanted to close off their hearts to his words; words which would have opened their eyes to their own unjust ways, to the people in the village who went to bed hungry, to the widows who begged every day by the village gate for someone to toss them a stray coin, to the people they were supposed to be taking care of as they obeyed the Law –the children separated from their parents, who became orphans because their parents couldn’t take care of them and had only hoped to have given them a better life. What about Jesus makes them so angry? Perhaps it was because through Jesus, God was asking them to use their lives for good, for the way of love, that God was asking them as insiders to bring in the outsiders and to call their whole town into ministry.
There are times each of us resist the way of love. Sometimes it’s because we get angry at Jesus for asking us to say yes to others or to a particular call or to reconcile with someone we’d rather not, because the costs to the “yes” seem too great. Sometimes it’s because we think we’re too ordinary to do this extraordinary thing called love. Sometimes it’s because we see in others what we fear most in ourselves or that which we most want to hide, or most hate about ourselves deep within and pushing the “other” away feels so much easier than diving within to see our own pain.
Resistance to the way of love. We all do it. In some ways it seems to be a natural part of any relationship, to God or to another. And when we feel it the most, we know it’s time to let it melt away, for it always contains a point of transformation for us, if we can.
In our story, Jesus goes on to send his disciples out two by two—and that’s brilliant because walking two by two, by being in close relationship with someone else (a spouse, a partner, a friend, a child, a spiritual companion, a teacher) gives us plenty of opportunities to resist the way the other is and to become practiced at letting the resistance go. When we say “yes” to being in relationship, in a two by two partnership, or a larger community of faithful people, the real work of the way of love happens. Transformation slides into our hearts, melts away our desire to be in control or for our desire for others to be like us. I think this is why most people find the support of a caring community essential in their spiritual work of growing more like Christ. We get a lot of practice of noticing and letting go of our resistance to those who are different than we are. We get a lot of opportunities for transformation.
To borrow a phrase from Mother Carenda’s sermon last week, all we have to do is to “brush up against grace”, to figuratively touch the cloak of Jesus, for this resistance to the other to melt away, for spaciousness to fill that space, for us to see with penetrating eyes the pregnancy of each moment for love, for forgiveness, for acceptance to emerge.
So often, the points of our real resistance to others, the parts we hold most tightly against others, also hold the deepest invitation for a new possibility offered to us by God, for a heart turned toward tenderly attending to those around us, to tending to and nurturing the natural rhythms of our spiritual lives, so that we may see the beauty in the space between us.
When I was in Haïti last year, my son Andrew and I were in open space near the village quai, where everyone from the village was gathered to celebrate flag day, the day they tore the white band out of the middle of the French flag to make it their own. There was music playing, speeches proclaimed, school children marching and dancing, flags waving and joy abounding. I must admit, I was feeling a bit out of place. Everyone but me was feeling astounded, the first definition of the word (amazed, bedazzled) and I was feeling a bit astounded, the second definition of the word (a bit scared, feeling a bit uncomfortable about being pointed at as being one of the two white people in the village, my son being the other one, with us and our white skin being quite an anomaly, and I was feeling a bit panicked about not understanding the language anyone was speaking, I stood off to the side of the celebration. Suddenly a little dark-skinned hand slipped into mine. I looked down into the eyes of this sweet young girl, wearing a dress with pink flowers on it, with pink sneakers to match, and a smile as large as the sun. I brushed up against grace that day because that little girl, whose name I’ve forgotten but whose memory is in my heart forever, chose to let the resistance of someone very “other” to melt away, who chose to follow the way of love, and who saw the beauty in the space between us. I know I was transformed when my hand held onto hers because we each chose to accept the invitation hidden deep within our impulse to resist someone other than us.
When we “brush up against grace”, in all the many ways it comes upon us, we are invited into our own grief work, into our own places we need to offer or receive forgiveness, into our own truth telling, so that the resistance can melt away until we find our truth, the truth of God, the truth of the way of love, that we will take to our graves.
We always have a choice. Let us find places of our resistance to others. Let us hear within them God’s invitation for us to become whole. Let us live out our lives in the truth of God’s love, step by step, two by two. Amen.