Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 July 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
As we speak, a rescue mission is underway, deep in a cave in Thailand. A soccer team and their coach, trapped by rainstorms more than two weeks ago, are fighting their way home through water and darkness and danger. I have had to force myself not to think about them too much—their suffering is beyond imagining. And the challenge before them is the stuff of nightmares—to perform herculean tasks for which they are not prepared under enormous pressure with life and death stakes.
When those boys do come to mind, I pray for them and their families, and then I follow Mister Rogers’ advice in times of trouble. “Look for the helpers.” There are many. Highly trained, courageous men and women have been tending to the team and, if anyone can bring them safely home, they can.
But the other thing I do when events emerge unexpectedly in my own life is to quickly assess my options. Instinctively, I craft Plans A, B and C—escape routes, alternative interpretations, other possible and acceptable outcomes.
But this morning, for twelve boys and their coach, there is only one acceptable outcome. And it is dangerous beyond imagining.
Only two chapters ago in Mark’s gospel, after miraculously stilling a storm at sea, Jesus’ disciples whispered to one another, “Who is this guy, that even the wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4.35ff)
Jesus was the master of great outcomes, surprising results, he was a proven producer of miracles.
But today, after having healed and hushed, exorcised and animated in other places, the crowd flips that question on its head, “Who is this guy, that we should obey him?”
That crowd, that sarcastic crowd? That was in Jesus’ hometown. Those were the people who had thrown Mary a baby shower and watched Jesus play T-ball. They were the people who hired Joseph to remodel their kitchens and shared bicycles among their children. They were the people who had loved him first, but had, for some reason, come to hate him.
Everywhere else he went crowds were astounded at his abilities, couldn’t get enough. The audience in Nazareth was astounded, too, but not in a good way. They were astounded not at his wisdom or reputation, but at his hubris. “Who is this guy? When did he get so smart? How did he do all those things?” They made fun of his parents and his brothers. They turned their backs.
Didn’t they know who he was? Hadn’t they heard what he could do?
Jesus was ruler of wind and sea, tamer of demons and friend of sinners. Everywhere. Everywhere but there.
Their unbelief was so intense it stumped him. Mark writes, “Jesus could do no deed of power there. He laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” And then he left.
In a world—then and now—that evaluates us solely on the basis of outcome, Jesus failed. How is that even possible?
Until that humiliating moment, Jesus had done nothing but succeed. But suddenly, in a place he thought he knew, there were roadblocks, walls, impediments, limits. The message landed on deaf ears and cold hearts. But he had so much work to do, so many ears eager for his words, hearts open to his love. You can almost see the wheels turning as he looks at his disciples and says, “Okay, Plan B. You go, too.”
Before they could object, he gave them two gifts. First was the gift of power—power to preach, to heal, to exorcise, to teach. And the second was the gift of limits. No bag, no coat, no cell phone. “Go—some will receive you; some will laugh you out of town. But go anyway, and keep going.”
What an interesting ministry model. Bang your head against doors until one opens. Not very efficient. Or inviting. But not surprising either.
The goal of Jesus’ ministry was not “success” that could be measured in numbers or quantifiable outcomes. If it was, he would have equipped them a little better. The goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring the good news of salvation to as many people as he could. To do the work, regardless of the outcome.
Because here’s what Jesus learned in Nazareth and what he taught his disciples: we are not responsible for the results, only for the work. The outcome is not ours; only the opportunity.
And then there are Hannah and Nathaniel—two of Jesus’ tiniest disciples. It seems they bring little to the business of discipleship. They can’t even walk yet, let alone spread the gospel message to distant lands. But that is not their work. We don’t baptize children and then plot their progress on a spreadsheet. We don’t evaluate their parents’ capabilities based on progress toward fulfillment of baptismal promises: Ten Commandments? Check. Apostles Creed? Check. Justice and peace in all the world? Needs improvement.
Hannah and Nathaniel’s work, their baptismal vocation, is to be loved.
And our work is to love them, to model patience and forgiveness and welcome and durability. To make this place, among God’s people, a safe and nurturing home.
Years ago, a friend’s grade school daughter begged her Dad to come outside and play catch with her. When they got outside, she took the ball away from him and said, “Dad, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll throw the ball in the air and you shout “Hurray!”
That’s what we do for Nathaniel and Hannah and all who are in our care. “Hurray!” Without reservation or hesitation. Then, when roadblocks, walls, impediments, limits emerge, they will have the strength and confidence and skills to do whatever work Jesus calls them to do. Not to worry about results, but to work fearlessly, joyfully, trusting all the outcomes to God.
That’s where Jesus’ business plan differs from ours. In every other arena of our lives, we are measured by outcomes. Results matter. Productivity matters. Efficiency matters. But not here; not for us.
Let this be a place where you are not measured or evaluated or compensated in relationship to the volume or value of your work. Ours is the work of ministry—of teaching and healing, feeding and forgiving. The results of that work? Only God knows.
As we speak, subterranean rescue efforts are being carried out far from here. Those who do the rescuing bring exceptional skills to bear, doing everything they can do. But even they have limits. They cannot control the outcome. So, they do what they have been trained to do. What will come of their work? We cannot know now.
Jesus sends us into the world with gifts and limits. Gifts of grace and mercy. Limits of control. We are responsible for the work, not the results. All of that, all of us, belongs to God.