by David Baer, July 8, 2018
Text: Mark 6:1-13
Summer is here, and it’s time for people to hit the road. Our family is planning a vacation for next month, and maybe you are too. Or maybe you’re about to depart, or you’ve already been. Maybe your trip is about exploring a new place, or returning to an old familiar home-away-from-home, or maybe it’s more about spending time with family. Are you someone who likes to plan every last detail of the trip, or do you like to leave things to serendipity, counting on the unplannable and unexpected to make it worthwhile? Whatever your travel style, you know that being on the road is different from being at home. You’re away from familiar routines and comforts. Sometimes it’s exhilarating, and sometimes hair-raising. But being at home and being on the road are two distinct modes of living, aren’t they?
Today’s gospel holds up two pictures for us to see. The first picture is “Jesus at Home.” In it, Jesus addresses his hometown synagogue with the good news of the kingdom of God. He talks to his neighbors and extended family and friends about the inbreaking of God’s reign. We don’t have his exact words, but we can guess, based on the things he’s done and said so far in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has compared the kingdom of God to a sower who scattered seed everywhere, and in some places the seed failed to take root or got choked out, but in some other places it sprouted and grew and yielded an abundant harvest. And we’ve seen in Jesus’ actions that the harvest of the kingdom doesn’t come from the places everyone would expect. Jesus has scattered the seed of the kingdom into forgotten and forbidden places. Jesus has healed on the sabbath. He has touched a leper and a woman made unclean by disease and made them well. He has even crossed over to Gentile country and healed a man possessed by demons. So if I had to guess at the message Jesus shared with his hometown synagogue, I’d say he told them not to assume they were the most fertile soil for the seed of the kingdom. I’d guess that he told them about how God’s grace had come to the poor, the unclean, the outcast, and that he’d invited them to rejoice at the goodness and mercy and power of God.
We’re not told what was in the sermon. But we are told that the sermon was a disaster. “Who does this guy think he is?” the people ask one another. “Where did he get all this?” They call him “son of Mary,” which is an insult, by the way—to identify someone only by their mother is to call the identity of their father into question. It means, “He’s the son of Mary and goodness-knows who else.” “Why should we believe Jesus of all people, this kid who grew up right here, this carpenter, this manual laborer has some kind of divine power?” And their doubt, their unbelief, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With such a lack of faith in this town, Jesus was only able to heal one or two people.
So let’s call this picture “Jesus at Home.” Where Jesus is most comfortable, where people know him the best, hearts are closed, faith is small, and God’s power to transform may not be extinguished, but it sputters and fizzles. “Jesus at Home” is a picture of failure. Jesus’ own people have rejected him. His proclamation of the kingdom of God has fallen flat.
But immediately afterward, Jesus leaves home, and he sends the twelve disciples out to carry the message into other towns. Call this picture, “Disciples on the Road.” Jesus sends the disciples out to do battle with the unclean spirits and to heal afflicted people. But he sends them out shockingly unprepared for their journey: no bread, no bag, no money. He lets them take one tunic to wear, but forbids them a second tunic that they could use to bed down in at night in the open. Depriving them of the means of providing their own food and shelter, Jesus tells the disciples instead to look for a place to stay and eat among the people they’re trying to reach. And he tells them not to move from house to house, but to stay in the same place until they leave town. “Disciples on the Road” is a picture of risk and vulnerability. They are going to be totally dependent on the people they’re there to serve, and as Jesus implies with that famous bit about shaking the dust from their feet, it’s an open question whether those people are even going to want them there. And if I were one of those disciples, I’d be the first to say, “Hey Jesus, have you considered what it’s going to look like when we roll into these towns asking for a handout? Are these people going to believe we can help them, when we’re the ones asking them to feed and house us? They’re going to think we’re incompetent or crazy or scam artists. They’ll never believe we’re on a mission for the kingdom of God.”
But the results speak for themselves. The disciples cast out many demons, and they anoint many sick people with oil and cure them. Jesus himself, when he was at home, failed. But the disciples on the road, vulnerable and in need, find roaring success. What gives?
In the story Mark tells about Jesus, faith is the human disposition that invites God’s kingdom into the world. Last week we heard Jesus tell the sick, unclean woman who touched him that her faith had saved her. She shouldn’t have been in the crowd. She shouldn’t have touched Jesus. But she reached out for the blessing she knew was there, and she was healed. And we heard Jesus tell Jairus, after he heard his daughter had died not to be afraid, but only to have faith. It was useless to bring Jesus back to his house. The worst had already happened, and nothing could be done. But Jairus brought Jesus back home anyway, and Jesus raised his daughter from the dead and reunited her with her parents. Faith is what led the friends of the paralyzed man to break a hole in the ceiling so they could get him to Jesus. Faith, in this story, is the audacious pursuit of a blessing that law and reason and custom tell you you have no right to expect. Faith is what the people of Jesus’ hometown lack, because they don’t think this upstart Jesus could possibly have anything they need.
But for the disciples on the road, faith begets faith. By putting themselves in the hands of their hosts, they’re demonstrating faith—faith in their hosts, of course, but also faith in God. It’s their faith that opens others’ hearts to faith, so that they can hear the message about God’s kingdom, believe it, and experience healing and transformation.
I came across a story this week, in a David Brooks column about Fred Rogers, on the occasion of a new documentary about his life and work. I haven’t seen the movie yet—though I’d like to—but I was struck by this incredibly revealing story about the man with whom I spent a half-hour every afternoon when I was in pre-school and kindergarten. Brooks relates a story from an earlier profile of Mr. Rogers by Tom Junod:
[Mr.] Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.
The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”1
And that, right there, is why Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, was able to bring God’s grace to so many children and adults. He didn’t think like someone at home, but on the road. He didn’t think like someone who has all the comforts and strengths he needs, but someone very much dependent on the people to whom God sent him—in this case, a child with cerebral palsy. He had faith—faith in the power of this child’s prayers—and that’s the kind of faith that begets faith. David Brooks points out what an world-spinning grace there is in this: “And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.”1
If our faith is going to serve the kingdom, it has to look more like “Disciples on the Road” than like “Jesus at Home.” It has to be carried by people like us who don’t have everything we need, who look to relationships with our neighbors—whether Christian or not, whether churchgoers or not—for prayer, for nourishment, for emotional and spiritual support. Who are the people around you who seem the most in need? What would you happen if you asked one such person for their prayers, if you presented yourself as someone with your own needs, your own search for grace? Because faith begets faith, and in the space between people who approach each other in faith and receive love, the demons are driven away, the sick find healing, and God’s kingdom breaks through.
So may you leave this place today to live as disciples on the road. And may you discover that the kingdom has come near to you, too, and that the God who is renewing the world is renewing your life, forgiving your sins, binding up your wounds, and giving you hope. Amen.
David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good.” NY Times. 5 Jul 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/opinion/mister-fred-rogers-wont-you-be-my-neighbor.html. Accessed 7/7/2018.