Buying the Ticket

Today's lesson is made up of two quite distinct parts.

  • Part one: Jesus' visit to his hometown, Nazareth.
  • Part two: Jesus sending his disciples out two by two.

These two parts are distinct not only because each is a story unto itself, capable of standing alone, but also because they stand in such vivid contrast to one another.

The first is a story of failure. After initial enthusiasm, the people of Jesus' hometown, turned against him. He was, Mark tells us in verse 5, "unable to do any miracles there." But the second scene is a story of success. The disciples, again Mark tells us, "cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people and healed them."

Isn't that odd? Jesus, who up to this point in Mark, had been teaching with power, healing, and casting out demons, could do nothing, while the disciples who are so often missing the point, even missing in action, are powerful and effective.

The two parts are so different and their difference so unexpected that it will come as no surprise that many commentators urge the preacher to pick but one of the two stories or parts to preach on--and not both . . . Still, they stand together . . . perhaps there is a reason for that? Maybe old Mark was onto something?

Together these two scenes have something to tell us, not only about God and God's power, but about our part in God's power. Together they tell us about the power of faith and also something about the power of sin. Together they tell us something about what happens when ego and pride get in the way--when we get in the way--and what happens when hope, faith and expectation clear the way, and God takes central place.

The journalist Tom Friedman once told a story in order to explain why the Middle East peace process seems so frequently stuck. It was a story about a man named Goldberg. Every week when the results of the lottery were announced, Goldberg prayed to God, "God, why don't I ever win the lottery? What have I done wrong? I've been a good man. Why shouldn't I win?" Again next week the lottery winner was announced and again Goldberg was disappointed and he cried out to God. "What will it take, Lord? I am a righteous man, an honorable man, a hard-working man. Would it be so hard for you, just once, to let me win the lottery?" The clouds parted, the heavens opened and a voice came forth out of the heavens. The voice said, "Goldberg, give me a chance--buy a ticket!"

Two stories, two distinct stories, set cheek by jowl. In one they bought the ticket. In the other they refused.

But why? Why did they refuse? Let's look at that first story, part one of our text, Jesus' visit to his own hometown. We might imagine that now things would go well. We might assume that here Jesus would be received with joy and affirmation by those who knew him well. And initially he was. The people of Nazareth, those who had known Jesus as a boy and young man were surprised--astonished--by his wisdom and power. But quickly their surprise turned to offense. "Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son? And they took offense at him."

Why? What happened? He was one of them--at least he had recently been one of them. But there may lie the problem: that one who had so recently been just one of them should suddenly now be so far above them. Did that feel like a slight? Who does he think he is? Why him and not me? Just yesterday, it seemed, they had looked down upon him as a boy. But today his words and demeanor asked that they look up to him. Was that hard on their pride?

During the last Presidential election cycle, I wrote a newspaper column about Barack Obama's faith. Among the emails I received in response was one that I can only describe as a sneer. The writer had known Barack Obama in high school and couldn't put his memory of that boy then, a kid standing under the bleachers smoking a cigarette, together with the man he was today.

To be honest, I can kind of get that. I think of a person a generation younger than me. Once she had been my student, even a protégé of sorts. But now her wisdom and attainments have far surpassed my own. Sometimes I have to check myself to make sure I have the grace to look up to someone that I once looked down upon--if with affection.

There's a warning here to us all: don't let the blessing of an earlier companionship or different relationship blind you, at a later time, to a true messenger of God.

But perhaps the matter at hand goes even deeper than this all-too-human tendency to envy another or to feel slighted by the success of someone whom we knew, or thought we knew, back in the day.

After all, who today would we think of as Jesus' hometown crowd? As his own people? Well, maybe, that would be us, the church? Does it ever happen that at least sometimes we are those who are blind to God's presence, indifferent to God's power? Is it even remotely possible that we who think we know Jesus best may at times honor him least?

In his spiritual autobiography "Now and Then," Frederick Buechner writes of his off-the-beaten-path (at least for a seminary-trained, ordained Presbyterian minister) encounter with Agnes Sanford, a Christian healer. "The most vivid image she presented," writes Buechner, "was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back, unable to do any mighty works because the ministers who led the services either didn't expect him to do them or didn't dare ask him to do them . . ."

That's quite an image: Jesus standing in the church, his hands tied behind his back. Then Buechner added this: "I recognized immediately my own kinship with those ministers." And as I read, I whispered my confession, "And I recognize my kinship with you."

Is it possible that we in the church, Jesus' latter-day hometown crowd, are sometimes the least likely to call upon him, the last to turn to him, less likely than many others to be open to his power and promise, his mystery and his grace?

Often today we in the church seem more focused on ourselves--whether our proud accomplishments, our current projects, or our persistent problems--more on these things than on God's power and truth.           

Not long ago I visited a once prominent church, a church that had for decades been known far and wide as the home of great preachers and a center of great social causes. Like many, however, this church had declined in recent decades.

When I arrived to give a lecture there, I was met by an officer of the church. As I was early, he asked if I would like a tour of the grand facility. As we walked he told me that twenty years ago he had feared for the future of his church. In fact, he said, "I was pretty sure than by now we would have closed our doors. You see, we were just fifty elderly people left in this great sanctuary." Then he brightened. "But something has happened. Something has changed. We're experiencing a kind of renewal, a revival."

"Really," I said, "that's wonderful." "Yes, these days we have four or five hundred people in church. We have new ministries in the community. We are seeing new people, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight."

"How do you explain this?" I asked.

He thought for a moment, his hand on his chin. Then he said, "Well, it wasn't all our new minister, but he has made a difference."

"What's he done?"

"Well, he got us studying the Bible . . . yes, our minister gives a wonderful Bible Study. In fact, he can give you the entire message of the Bible in just six words."

Inwardly, I groaned. "Another fast operator?" I thought.

"And what might those six words be?" I asked skeptically. My host, an older African-American man grinned broadly. "The six words that summarize the entire message of the Bible? 'I am God and you're not.'" We both laughed.

"I am God and you're not." Sounds kind of silly perhaps, but I don't think it is. It's not about you, not about us. It's about God.

That once great church had become so focused on its past glories and singular prominence that they had forgotten, my guide said, the real source of the church's power and of its life . . . the power of the living God. Their collective pride and ego had prevented them from buying the ticket.

Now humbled by their decline but blessed with the leadership of a pastor who understood that it wasn't really about them, they had turned to God afresh, calling upon God to guide them, praying to God to renew them. They had acknowledged their own need for healing and for change. They had come to know God and God's power in a new way, in a new time. They had taken risks in faith. They had bought the ticket.

When Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, he did not--though it must have been painful for him--reject them in turn. He did not take offense. He only sadly shook his head and then moved on. He moved on, sending his disciples out, two by two, to preach, to heal and to teach. He said something interesting to them: they were to travel light, to "take nothing for the journey" but the clothes on their backs.

In these times of change and challenge for the church or in times of challenge in our personal lives, God may be telling us to "lighten our load," even helping us to do so. God is calling us to let go of some weighty assumptions about how we have always done things. God is telling us, like that once prominent church, to leave behind those big, bulky suitcases stuffed full of "pride" and "ego." Maybe God is asking us to surrender some truly heavy stuff--like the old conflicts we've been bearing or the grudges we've been nursing? God is using this time of challenge and change to strip these things from us so that we might travel light again, relying upon God's power alone to guide us and trusting God's grace to uphold us.

Jesus Christ is here now--in your hometown, in your church, in your community, in your life. Will you receive him? Will you buy the ticket? The price of a ticket is . . . faith, wild, risky faith, bold, trusting faith in the power of God in Jesus Christ who makes all things new.