July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The first five chapters of Mark have been a sort of, Discipleship: 101 course. We’ve learned what the kingdom of God looks like, we’ve seen the importance of having faith, not fear, we’ve watched Jesus heal people, and cross boundaries to get to them. It’s been a tough course, but a fulfilling one. Today’s part of the story delivers two more lessons: first, a lesson in rejection, as Jesus is rejected by those in his hometown. Second, the disciples are sent out, two-by-two, for a hands-on learning opportunity, an internship of sorts, and to risk rejection themselves.
The past weeks I have been pairing the Gospel reading with an Old Testament reading, but this week, I chose the epistle instead: this wonderful text from 2 Corinthians about God’s power being made perfect in weakness. It seemed like the appropriate choice to get us ready to hear the Gospel story in which Jesus is rejected by his own people, and then is unable to perform any miracles, and then Jesus uses that experience to give a pep talk to his disciples before sending them out into a den of wolves, telling them specifically what to do if they should fail in their mission. I’m sure they feel weak and powerless – so hearing the God’s power is made perfect in weakness is good news!
Today’s texts are about vulnerability, about failing and falling, about rejection – and they speak to our constant efforts to avoid having to endure any of these things! As you listen, remember some times when you have fallen, when things haven’t gone as you hoped and worked for, when you have been rejected, criticized, or wounded. Listen for what God’s Word has to say to us in these inevitable moments.
As you may have heard, last week was the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering, an event that happens every three years, and draws 30,000 youth and adult leaders from Lutheran churches across the country into one city for a week of worship, service, dynamic speakers, fellowship, and inspiration. Many youth cite this as an event that changes their lives, helps them to understand what it means to be a Christian, and makes them feel closer to Jesus. We didn’t send anyone this year, unfortunately, but I did thoroughly enjoy reading the Facebook posts from my colleagues who were there, and various articles and interviews about the event all week. One in particular that really struck me was about how the youth were moved by the speakers they had at mass gatherings. The article said, “It was the first time many of our youth heard people of faith speak openly about taboo topics such as substance abuse, eating disorders, racism, gender identity, rape, and cutting. The honesty and inspiration in these well-crafted monologues moved many in our group to tears of recognition, seeing their own struggles reflected in other teens and adults brave enough to share their stories.”
What a concept – and what a gift! – for faith-talk and God-talk to be relevant to our daily struggles! We are sometimes tempted, I think, to keep our church life separate from our “real” life, and the various challenges we face. We don’t want to talk in church about uncomfortable topics, like politics, or money, or sex, or immigration, or racism, or anything controversial because we come to church to feel better, and those things are too fraught with negative feelings and disagreement. We want to “all get along,” leave feeling better than we came, and not stir any pots. And we really would rather not have to examine our hearts too deeply in the presence of others, and thus risk revealing to anyone the real pain and fear and doubt that we feel about issues that we would rather not talk or even hear about anywhere, and certainly not in public.
And yet, it is into these painful realities that we need the good news of the gospel to be spoken most of all! This is the brokenness Jesus came to heal, to which God can offer us grace and guidance. And so, we absolutely should be talking about these things in the context of our faith, yes, even at church!
And that is precisely why Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. 2000 years later, we may miss a lot of what made this story of a miracle-working carpenter so radical, radical enough to get the man killed. It was a different time and culture, we miss the nuance of the original language, and there is a certain amount of familiarity causing us to miss how remarkable this story is. That is part of my job – to help you see just what a political, controversial, and sometimes downright uncomfortable figure Jesus was!
Take today, for example, where Jesus tackles a big trigger for pain and vulnerability: the fear of rejection. In the first half of our Gospel reading, we see Jesus experience rejection, and in his hometown no less! “We know this guy,” they say, “and we know he’s no better than any of us. Who does he think he is, anyway?” I think we’ve all been there, on one side of that conversation or the other. The crowd’s reaction speaks to the ways humans make judgments about people when we think we know how they ought to be. That person must be uneducated, we think, or poor, or a ne’er-do-well, or a terrorist, or a racist, or elitist, or… you get the idea. We dismiss one another based on what we think we know about them. It’s very human: people did it to Jesus, and they do it today. And in seeing this interaction with Jesus, I hope we can recognize: “Maybe I do that to others… but also, it really stinks when someone does that to me.”
How many of you here have ever felt judged or rejected based on who you voted for, what you do for a living, where you live, or how you look? How many of you have felt like what you have to offer, your particular gifts, have been rejected or unappreciated – by a work place, by your peers, by your family? It doesn’t feel very good, does it? It’s not very good for the self-esteem, is it? I have felt that way, like I am seen only for my very worst qualities and none of my best, and it has taken me months or even years to overcome the damage to my self-esteem. Can anyone relate?
Does it help to know that Jesus also endured that feeling?
Jesus, after he was rejected by his hometown, goes on to use his experience to prepare the disciples for the same thing. You see, after several months of observing Jesus in his ministry, Jesus is now sending out the disciples to do their own ministry. He gives them many instructions, about packing light and relying on the hospitality of strangers, but what I notice especially this week is this bit about shaking the dust off of their feet. I used to see this as an insulting gesture, but it’s not – it’s a Jewish ritual symbolizing separation from anything that would defile you, make you unclean.
Today we don’t really think about defilement in the same way. I don’t think menstruation, for example, or touching or eating a pig, or what have you can defile me. But you know what can? Fear. Fear of rejection, yes, but also fear of outsiders, fear of difference, fear of change. Fear of failure. Fear that what people are saying about me when they reject me or my gifts might actually be true. Fear that I am worthless, or insufficient, or worse yet, that my insufficiency is not only harmful to me, but is actually hurting someone else I love – like you, or my children, or my marriage. All of these fears – they defile me: they make me unclean and unable to serve God as I’m called to do. They cause me not to act my best. They make me believe that God made a mistake with me, that I am not lovable, not worthwhile, not the beautiful child of God created in God’s image that I know, deep down, that I am.
I’m not proud of these fears. And I also know I am not alone in them. I know other people feel them, I know we as a church community feel or at least have felt them, and I know that our country feels them. I can see those fears play out in the way we treat one another, the ways we insist that our way is the only way, and that other people are deplorables, or snowflakes, or bleeding hearts, or racist, or just plain ignorant. I can see our country’s fear of loss and insecurity play out in our unwillingness to welcome the stranger (can you imagine today, in this climate, if travelers were told to rely upon the hospitality of strangers?). These sorts of treatments of each other do not come out of love, nor out of trust in a loving God. They come out of fear. They are defiling.
It is not a comfortable situation, to live in such fear, nor to be confronted with it. We all have been there. Oh, we may try to shake the dust off of our feet and move on, but sometimes it clings to us and gets tracked all over the floor of the house, staining the carpet. Or, we may find some satisfaction in leaving the dust there, thinking that layer of dirt will protect us from the things that we fear. It can be so hard to shake off the dust of our rejections and failures, our mistakes and regrets. And that dust can indeed become like a thorn in our flesh, getting into our wounds, and aching and irritating us every step of our lives of faith.
And yet, look at this good news buried at the end of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: Paul has asked three times for God to take away that discouraging irritant that he so wants to shake, but rather than take it away, God says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say he will boast in his weakness, in all those things that he might have perceived as things to avoid talking about, things to hide from the world – because it is in these things, these real human experiences that we all share, that God’s power is made truly known.
I am rarely impressed by someone who has it all together. What truly inspires me is someone who is riddled with flaws and weaknesses, and yet still manages to shine God’s love and grace into the world – not despite their flaws, and their mistakes, but because of them. Like those speakers at the ELCA Youth Gathering who shared candidly with 30,000 people about the ways they had faced the real issues that teenagers face in their daily lives, allowing the youth and adults alike to recognize that God is there with us, even in our failures and rejections. Like Jesus, using his own experience of rejection in his hometown to inform the disciples how to face similar challenges. Like so many faithful saints that I have met in this congregation and beyond it, who have shared the ways that God’s grace shined brightly through the darkest times of life.
“I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness,” Paul writes, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Spoken as someone who has seen and believed how the weakest position of all, what should have been seen as an utter failure – death on a cross as a common, political prisoner – came to be used as the means to offer all of us eternal life. Do we dare believe that God can do that with our failures, mistakes and rejections? Do we dare hope that God could use these deaths, these struggles, these embarrassing times of our lives that we don’t want anyone else to know about – do we dare hope that God could use them to shine God’s grace into the world? Do we dare trust that God is using every struggle we face to better equip us as beckons of the hope of Christ?
The real question is… how can we dare not believe, and hope and trust in that?
Let us pray… God of power, we fear that we may be crushed under weakness, failures and rejections, yet you have shown us how you use weakness to reveal your power. Help us to trust in that promise, to shake the dust off of our feet, and lift our eyes to you to see how you would have us reflect your grace into this broken world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.