Saturday, February 8, 2020

“Planning to Fail” - February 9, 2020

Text: Mark 6:1-29

Jesus is on a roll.  His ministry of healing and teaching is becoming known far and wide.  As we have read in Mark over the past few weeks, Jesus has done amazing things.  He has healed a man whose friends dropped him into the house through a hole they cut in the roof.  He has calmed a storm on the lake.  He healed a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus has just healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, and then raised Jairus’ daughter back to life.  He is on a winning streak, you might say. 

And then he heads to his hometown of Nazareth.  You can imagine the anticipation.  He speaks at the synagogue, and everyone is amazed.  They are astonished at what he is saying, startled at the power and authority with which he speaks.  So far, so good.  The people in his hometown synagogue recognize his obvious gifts.

But then the questions start.  Where does he get this stuff?  And what about all those miracles people are talking about?  Isn’t he a carpenter?  Isn’t he the son of Mary?

While one would think that Jesus’ ministry would be a source of pride for his hometown – “local boy made good” – people were surprised and even somewhat offended to hear his teaching. 

Why were they so surprised?  Part of it was familiarity.  They knew this guy.  They knew his family.  It seemed that perhaps Jesus was getting a little too big for his britches.  I have known people who returned to the church they grew up in to become the pastor, and it’s not always easy.  Folks will remember changing his diapers in the nursery, or that snotty-nosed little girl from Sunday School, and it is difficult to see them as a religious leader.

A good part of the reaction to Jesus had to do with first century class structure.  “Isn’t he a carpenter?” they asked.  Jesus was part of the skilled trades – in that day he would have been thought of as an artisan.  Which sounds kind of cool today, but in first century Palestine artisans were considered working class or even poor.  In a very class-conscious society, it would be somewhat unusual for someone like to Jesus to be asked to speak at the synagogue.  But Jesus is clearly special, and he is asked to speak.

The problem is in what he says and how he says it.  It would have been downright offensive for someone of a lower social class to speak in the way that Jesus did.  In a nutshell, Jesus didn’t know his place.  He didn’t stay in his lane.

And then maybe you noticed that Jesus was called “Mary’s son.”  Joseph is apparently out of the picture.  We don’t hear of Joseph after Jesus goes to the temple with his family at age 12, and many believe that he died shortly after that.  He may have simply been called “Mary’s son” because Joseph wasn’t around, but some have also conjectured that this is a way of saying that people considered Jesus to have been an illegitimate child.  People still remembered the controversy over Mary becoming pregnant before she was married.  This could have been another dig at Jesus and his authority. 

The reason that the people didn’t trust Jesus and the reason he could do no more miracles among them is because Jesus is a hometown kid and they thought they knew him.  And based on what they knew of him, he shouldn’t be able to say and do the things he was saying and reportedly doing. 

There was a lack of faith in Nazareth.  The people could not believe that God could be found in the commonplace – that God could be at work in someone like Jesus.

Now, in our reading today we have three separate stories.  Jesus is rejected in his hometown, Jesus sends out his disciples, and then there is a report about the death of John the Baptist.  The sending of the disciples is surrounded by rejection and defeat.  While Jesus has been drawing crowds and performing wonders, he is also well acquainted with difficulty and with opposition.

We will come back to the disciples, but I first want to look at John the Baptist.  What we have here is kind of a flashback.  Several weeks ago, in Mark chapter one, we read about John baptizing Jesus and then that after John was arrested, Jesus began his ministry.  Here we have the details on what became of John.  As Jesus’ ministry becomes known and King Herod hears about Jesus, he thought that Jesus may have been John the Baptist come back from the dead. 

King Herod had a kind of love/hate relationship with John.  He thought that John was a good and righteous man.  But John had criticized Herod for divorcing his wife and then marrying Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife.  Now if his brother had died, this would have been no problem – and in certain circles even expected.  But Philip was very much alive.  John had been arrested after speaking out about this, and Herodias wanted John killed.  But Herod respected John, and would not allow him to be harmed.

This leads to the story of how John the Baptist came to be killed.  At a great birthday celebration, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the gathering of military commanders and leading men of Galilee.  As one commentator put it, “When we read that the girl was dancing, we can be pretty sure she wasn’t clogging.”  She is not named here, but the historian Josephus identified her as Salome, and in legend and tradition her dance became the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Herod is so taken that he offers to give the girl whatever she wants, and after a quick consultation with her mother, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Herod is put in a terrible position – he has sworn to give the girl whatever she asked, and in front of a large group of people.  He chooses to save face rather than save the life of John.

John’s ministry had been stopped in its tracks.  Those who challenged the status quo too much were met with serious opposition, and this reality hangs over the ministry of Jesus and the disciples.  And then Jesus came to his hometown, where he was met with rejection.  Because of their lack of faith, all he was able to do was to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them.  Which sounds pretty impressive to me, but what he could do in Nazareth was limited.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ preaching to his hometown congregation, they run him out of town and actually want to kill him.  It does not go well for Jesus in Nazareth, and it hurts to be rejected by your hometown.

In this atmosphere of opposition and rejection and failure and potential danger, what happens?  This is exactly the moment when Jesus sends out his disciples.  He doesn’t wait until he is at the height of popularity.  He doesn’t wait until they have had time to study and learn and grow in faith.  He doesn’t wait until they have a slam-dunk opportunity, a sure-fire success just waiting to happen that will give them confidence.  Jesus sends them out when the air is thick with rejection. 

It is interesting the details that we have about Jesus sending out his disciples.  He sends them out in pairs.  They do not go out alone.  They have one another – for support, for encouragement, for safety, for comradery.  When faced with a difficult or daunting task, or when faced with a situation in which we can expect opposition, how much better does it go when we are not alone?  We have all had that experience – when you are facing a challenge, it is nice to have someone working with you, someone who has your back, someone you can rely on.  Jesus understands the importance of community.

He gives them authority.  Jesus empowers the disciples for the work to which he has called them.  Now, this is still fairly early in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples are just rookies.  They are freshmen.  But he doesn’t have them ride the bench.  Jesus doesn’t wait for the rookies to develop skills and gain maturity and ease in to it.  This is on-the-job learning.  They are up to the task because Jesus has sent them and Jesus has given them authority.

I think there is something for us here.  We can feel like we are unqualified.  We can feel like we really don’t have the gifts needed to take on leadership, or teach a class, or sing in the choir, or advocate for justice, or work with children.  We can feel like we may not have what it takes or maybe the time isn’t quite right for us to get involved.  Jesus, apparently, would beg to disagree.  Ready or not, he sends the disciples out.

And then interestingly, he tells them to travel light.  Take no food, no money, no luggage, don’t take an extra coat.  Just take your walking stick.

I thought back to our mission trip to Puerto Rico.  All kinds of logistics.  Getting group airline tickets.  Figuring out how to get everybody to the airport and accommodations for the night before in the Twin Cities.  Reserving vans with rental agencies.  Arrangements with the church where we would be staying.  And a long list of stuff to bring, sun protection, work clothes, would our cell phones work in Puerto Rico, on and on. 

But Jesus says to his disciples, Don’t worry about the details.  There is an urgency to their mission; they don’t have time to put together a travel checklist and they don’t have time to figure out supply-chain logistics.  A heavy load would just slow them down anyway.  They are going to have to travel light and keep moving.

Not only that: traveling light is a way to depend on God.  They won’t be depending on their own resources.  They are to accept hospitality when it is offered.  If someone invites them to stay in their home, they should stay there for the duration while they are in that town.  They are not to shop around for better offers or plusher accommodations.  They are going to have to have faith for this to work.

Basically, Jesus is preparing his disciples to face rejection.  He knows that it is not all going to be sunshine and rainbows.  He tells the twelve that if they go to a place that does not accept them, that will not listen to them, they are to just shake the dust off their sandals and move on. 

I think that is a pretty healthy way to deal with it.  Don’t beat your head against a wall.  Don’t waste your time arguing with people.  Don’t try to be someone you are not in an effort to win over someone.  Just be who you are, share the good news, and if you are rejected, you are rejected.  Just move on.

It can be very helpful to have a healthy sense that failure and adversity are just a part of life.  And we need to understand that our failures and setbacks do not define us.  Our value does not come from what we do or who we know, but simply from who we are – children of God.

It is interesting to note how many people we might think of as great successes had actually endured spectacular failure.  At the beginning of our service we sang “Ode to Joy,” by Ludwig von Beethoven.  Beethoven had an awkward playing style and preferred to write his own compositions rather than play the classical works of his day, as was expected.  His teacher called him hopeless as a composer.  Hopeless.

Thomas Edison’s teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, stating that he was “too stupid to learn anything.” 

Oprah Winfrey was fired as a new reporter because she was “unfit for TV.”  And you may remember that Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, wrote about her life.  She said, “I had failed on an epic scale.  An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.  The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”  She wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter and twelve different publishers rejected the manuscript.  Finally Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book but insisted that she get a day job because there was no money in children’s books.

It has always been this way.  Even the heroes and heroines of faith experienced heartache and tragedy and rejection.  Moses.  Jacob.  Joseph.  Ruth and Naomi.  They all knew failure and disappointment, and the list just goes on.

Jesus sends out his disciples, and he helps them to plan for failure.  Because failure is going to happen.  Tough sledding is just a part of life.  So - we all fail sometimes.  What else is new?  It just means that we are human.

J. K. Rowling spoke at commencement at Harvard a few years ago.  She told the new graduates, “You might never fail on the scale I did.  But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” 

Maybe what we need in our lives - and maybe what we need at First Baptist Church - is more failure.  Don’t get me wrong: we certainly don’t seek out disappointments and setbacks.  We are not out there looking for opposition and rejection.  But the only way to avoid it completely is to do nothing.

More failure would mean that we are making an effort, that we are attempting something, that in the interest of being true to who we are and following Jesus’ call, we have tried something new, something different, something challenging, something worthwhile.  Jesus helped his disciples plan to fail.  I think that maybe, Jesus was on to something.  Amen. 

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