by Ellen Sims
texts: Ezekiel 2:1-7; Mark 6:1-12
Today’s scriptures kept me tuning in to the tone: the tone of voice from Almighty God in the Ezekiel passage and Jesus’s tone and the tone of the people of Nazareth in our Gospel text. What we say is sometimes less impactful than how we say it. A challenge for many in this period of divisiveness in our culture is HOW we express our concerns and hopes. For Christians HOW we talk about the kin*dom of God matters as much as WHAT we say about that reality into which we are living.
This past week pictures and videos taken at the prayer vigil we sponsored with BELONG were shared on social media. When I saw pictures of my invocation, my face looked grim, sad, strained. When I listened to my prayer, my voice was weighted with sorrow and a tone of biting condemnation for the treatment of children separated from parents. I’m sure the tone police would have cited me for exceeding the sternness limit allowed in a public prayer.
I do value respectful public discourse. But there is a time for gracious speech, and a time for impassioned protest; a time for conciliatory efforts, and a time for clear condemnation. There are times when those calling us to keep a polite tone are really urging us to let injustice persist. Jesus’s tone was not always nice.
So let’s pay attention to the tone in today’s scriptures. Both Ezekiel and Jesus were prophets entrusted with speaking words no one wanted to hear—words of correction and challenge and change. Ezekiel was charged to speak to a “rebellious” and “stubborn” people. But I’ll use prophet Isaiah to summarize what all the biblical prophets said about offenses against God and how one repents of such offenses. Isaiah emphasized that true repentance is not about just feeling sorry for hurtful deeds but turning away from them: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” (Isaiah 1:16). That is, we must turn away from a way of life and instead: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (1:17). True repentance REORIENTS us to a different set of values. Repentance, as Jesus also preached it, REORIENTS our priorities and turns us toward a new way of living together. Such a radical reorientation is disorienting to others still trapped in a culture of injustice, oppression, and indifference to the “widows and orphans.”
A true prophet proclaims words, often in a stern tone, that get under your skin and mess with your mind, though sometimes . . . sometimes the prophet’s words will open eyes and point an awakened people to repentance. But a prophet, as today’s Gospel story famously asserts, is seldom honored in his or her hometown. Elsewhere the people followed Jesus expectantly—but his reception back in Nazareth was different.
You may recall several Sundays ago reading in Mark 3 that Jesus’s mother and siblings tried talking some sense into him when people were saying he was out of his mind. Mary and his brothers and sisters stood outside a house where people had gathered to hear Jesus. Perhaps his family had come to take him home and out of the public eye. But he ignored their concern and focused on those gathered around him inside, never responding directly to his own family. Instead of replying to his family’s concern and in a tone we can’t know for sure, Jesus asked (pensively? sarcastically? authoritatively? acerbically?): “’Who ARE my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Since then, Jesus has been crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee, healing and preaching, but in our text today he returns a second time to Nazareth and the synagogue there. And it seems at first that the hometown crowd is impressed. Their tone initially seems commendatory. “How did the carpenter’s son become so erudite?” they wonder. “Wow! Where did this guy get all this?” they ask—maybe genuinely impressed. But as this story unfolds, their tone takes on a touch of jealousy or perhaps disdain. Soon those compliments turn to skepticism and scorn. Or perhaps they were insincere all along, which we realize when we’re told the people “took offense” at his abilities and power, maybe because the insecure felt threatened, or perhaps because they came to realize how radical and demanding was his message.
Detecting their scornful tone, Jesus spoke directly to his hometown critics. He reproached them by saying that he was considered a prophet everywhere except his hometown. But as a result of their scorn, “he could do no deed of power there.”
Friends, let’s pause right here to let verse 5 sink in. Because of their disdain, “he could do no deed of power there.” Let that comment caution us against belittling someone else’s sense of calling. Let it warn us against speaking in a discouraging tone about someone’s attempts to bring about a project of love and care. A discouraging tone from family and friends prevented Jesus from doing deeds of power in his hometown. And they discouraged him because they understood that he was ordinary. As were his disciples. Of course, that’s the very message Jesus proclaimed: God’s kin*dom happens with ordinary folks in all their ordinariness. The later Gospels will characterize discipleship as somewhat more selective, and by the time John’s Gospel is written, there’s a rigid demarcation for who is in and who is out of the Jesus movement. But Mark’s Gospel implies a disciple is anyone who joins the community and chooses to take on the mission of Jesus. Not a high bar. So the hometown guy returns home with an unimpressive entourage, and then he fails to work the miracles that had been attributed to him.
However, Jesus’s failure to do deeds of power in his own hometown perhaps made possible a crucial and world-altering shift in Jesus’s tactics, which in turn made it possible for his movement to endure to this day. Maybe the skeptical family and neighbors did Jesus a favor. At verse 6 we see that Jesus, discouraged, leaves Nazareth to move from town to town with his disciples and at that point “began to send them out two by two.” One writer speculates, “The way Mark frames the story, it seems as though Jesus gave the twelve disciples authority over unclean spirits and sent them out in pairs because of his own inability to effect much change himself at home” (Raven, Sea. Theology from Exile: The Year of Mark, Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity. 199). Ironically, because he failed to have much impact in Nazareth, Jesus adjusted his strategy to utilize his disciples more fully, and by instructing his disciples in a method of mission that was simple, communal, and reproducible, Jesus made it possible for others to continue his mission after he was gone.
What WAS this new strategy Jesus used for ushering in the Kin*dom of God?
First, it was a method of empowerment. No longer were the disciples just watching Jesus do deeds of power. No longer were they simply listening to his parables. They were setting off in pairs to do kin*dom work themselves. These ordinary folks were in charge of ushering in the kin*dom!
Second, this new means of ministry was a minimalist method that required vulnerability, a key characteristic of the kin*dom. The disciples were to “take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but [were] to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” and depend on the hospitality of strangers (Mark 6:8-9). One commentator says, “In a country occupied by a hostile foreign power where vandals and highway robbers were endemic, this [method] is a clear choice for nonviolence and a radical abandonment of self-interest” (Raven 199). This way of ministering to the people also produces community. Relying on and living with strangers creates new community. After all, you probably had to be nice to your hosts if you wanted to get fed that night. So community is a byproduct. God’s Kin*dom is marked and made by vulnerability, nonviolence, and selflessness — within a caring community.
And what was the disciples’ message? Today’s reading from Mark concludes: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent” (6:11). Like the Hebrew prophets of old, like Ezekiel and Isaiah, the Jesus disciples boldly called the people to recognize that dominance and power are not God’s ways. God works through and for the lowly. As modern Jesus followers, we, too, must reject (repent of) our infatuation with money and might and instead work for justice and compassion.
Finally, what was the outcome for the twelve disciples? “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (1:12).
Yes, those unremarkable disciples carried on Kingdom work. It turns out that the spread of the Gospel is rooted in the simple strategy Jesus resorted to when his deeds of power failed and he then had to authorize his disciples to carry forward the Kin*dom goals. You and I, ordinary folks that we are, follow in this tradition.
Friends, the work that Jesus began continues today because he shared leadership with his disciples.
But he shared something else, too. He shared a vision. No doubt in hopeful tones, Jesus described his vision of the coming Kin*dom of God where love would reign, where the first would be last. Beyond the methods and strategies for doing kin*dom work, you are I depend on a VISION of God’s now and coming Kin*dom. We gather each Sunday to recapture that vision.
From my earliest days of planting the seed of a church that has become Open Table, I held to my heart this quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The tone on which I want to end is hopeful. Open Table was birthed and will thrive NOT because we read the right books on church growth or use the best marketing strategies or give sacrificially. We will be used for Kin*dom work because we “long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Jesus had a vision of God’s vastness, a Kin*dom of boundless love and justice. I’m LONGING for that reality. I’m aching to be part of it. How about you?
Dear Lord, we pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen