Good morning. I would like to begin by thanking Rev. Barrett for inviting me to her parish to preach and all of you for your hospitality this Sunday at St. Stephens. I am grateful to be here among you all for worship and fellowship. Let me also add that my own parish of Christ Church Blaine is praying for you. As one of them observed sagely, they have had five years to get used to me and you will only have about eight minutes. Hopefully their prayers are strong!
We are creatures of habit. We create routines. Over time, these habits or routines become engrained in us, in our households and even our cultures. For example, when travelling, there can few things more surprising than ordering a safe and familiar meal, say French Dip, and then having something entirely different served to you. In my case, I ordered a French Dip sandwich in New Jersey and was expecting a white bun, some roast beef, and a side of au jus. What I got instead was a muddy red dipping sauce. When I tried to inquire politely about the dish, in that voice you us to hide your panic and bewilderment in public, I was informed that in New Jersey au jus is mixed with tomato paste. “That isn’t how you make this,” I thought. Followed by, “these people are weird.” And yet, I wonder how many people from New Jersey when visiting the West Coast are appalled by our thin, salty au jus that is missing a kick of tomato in it.
Our habits and routines over time become codified. They prescribe how we greet one another or avoid eye contact on the street. These traditions become fossilized in our worship. As Episcopalians we DO NOT hold hands during the Our Father like those Catholics we think with relief. And we also come to have these same codified beliefs, expectations, and visions of ourselves and one another.
In the Gospel of Mark, recent events were not going as Jesus had planned. The disciples he had called to follow him, were proving to be very human. They argued with one another. They tried to curry favor and pull rank. And not a single one of them seemed to get the teachings Jesus was so carefully instructing them in. As one Episcopalian I know quipped, “I don’t mind following Jesus, but I am highly skeptical about the company he is currently keeping.”
And then Jesus arrives in his home town of Nazareth. Instead of being received well, he is questioned. Instead of being praised for his wisdom teachings and miracles, he is doubted. People are offended by Jesus. They don’t believe what they are seeing, because they know who Jesus is. The carpenter, the son of Mary. The brother of James. The story of who Jesus is, and his place in the town of Nazareth is already written in the minds and hearts of the people who live there. They know his genealogy. Their children grew up with him. Everybody knows everyone else’s business. Maybe it’s like that in your hometown too. Maybe it’s like that here in Oak Harbor. It can be a double-edged sword. In one sense, these expectations and stories, these traditions and habits we have create a close-knit community. It helps keep us safe when we know our neighbors and can watch out for one another. We almost instantly know when something is off. On the other hand, it can limit and blind us. Maybe it is like that here in at St. Stephen’s. Everyone has a role to play. And if you step outside that role, there can be chaos. How often do we say, “Well, you know how she is…” or “I don’t know what got into him, he just went crazy!” When we have set stories we tell about others, it can limit the possibilities for growth and for good. Look at Jesus, he couldn’t do much with the people he knew the best, his hometown, because their hearts were closed. They already knew who he was and would not receive him as the one he would become, the Wisdom
Teacher, the Messiah. “Oh,” they said, “that’s just Jesus.” or “Who does he think he is putting on airs like he is smarter than the rest of us.” And don’t we do this too? Who does she think she is, speaking up like that? What was he thinking stirring up all those bad feelings?
We let our habits set like concrete. We let the stories we tell about one another harden about us like a shell that we are unable to grow out of toward the light. And this is true in my own life as well. A little over two years ago, I began to have some strange thoughts. A small voice started asking some uncomfortable questions in my life. Questions like, “What might God be calling you to?” or “Do you think God may be asking you to serve him in a particular way?” And I did my best to ignore it. To doubt it. To say, well that is just crazy. I was a middle-aged man, newly married, happy to sit in the pews on Sunday. My spouse was only nominally Christian and mostly attended church on an occasional Sunday to humor me, or if he knew that a particularly spectacular baker would be hosting the coffee hour after church. I had just finished grad school and was not having great success in finding a job that I was happy with. I was looking to do less with my spare time rather than more. But the voice persisted. It wouldn’t go away, even if it never got very loud. There were no special effects. No burning bushes for me.
In today’s reading from Ezekiel God is calling him into his role as a prophet to God’s people. What we don’t see this Sunday is that God has given Ezekiel quite a vision in Chapter 1 and Ezekiel falls on his face, likely terrified of what he had just been shown. And God tells Ezekiel to get up and then fills Ezekiel with enough energy to get him up on his feet. What happens in verse 6…just after today’s reading ends is that God tells Ezekiel in verses 6 and 7, “…do not be afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words…be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks…”
I wonder if Jesus was thinking of this line when he went to Nazareth and saw all of the familiar faces in his hometown. When he taught about the kingdom of God and was met with skepticism, with scorn, with indifference by those who he knew best. By those he had spent his life with, working among, and growing into community with.
In Mark’s gospel today, we are told Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Jesus was human, even while he was God. Jesus was surprised and likely hurt. He may have had some set ideas about who he was and what God was saying to him, about the kind of leader he was among the disciples who followed him. And all of Jesus’s assumptions, the stories he has been telling himself, the very facts of his life as he knew them all come crashing down in Nazareth. And there is not much that the Son of God can do about it. He laid hands on just a few sick people. The Messiah, blocked. Limited. Undone.
And we can do this with ourselves as well. The bible is filled with people called by God who doubt their own qualifications and talents, who may not have any qualifications and talents at all. Moses is my favorite. Here we have an introvert who hid out from the law among sheep for years. He is a criminal and a terrible stutterer. And then God is telling him to pack his bags and head back into the land of Egypt because he is going to be a spokesperson to free the Jewish nation. We have the laughable example of the apostles, especially Peter. As Bishop Curry recently preached, when Peter assures you not to worry because he has your back, you had better be walking backwards! And today we have Paul saying much the same thing. Paul fully admits he is weak. Paul then tells
the Corinthians that what he lacks, God will Provide.
In the same way that God filled Ezekiel with a spirit to enable him to stand up and listen, when under his own strength Ezekiel could not, He fills us up. We can call this grace. We can call this the Holy Spirit, but the record of God’s people is clear. Regardless of who we were. Regardless of where we come from or where we have been, when God wants to work with us, he will supply all that we need. He knows our weaknesses and he will surpass all our doubts, expectations, and flaws every single time.
What happens after Jesus is confronted with the obstacles and limitations of Nazareth? What happens? He begins sending the disciples out two by two into the surrounding areas to preach and teach, to heal and bless, to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That is the funny thing about Jesus of Nazareth, he is always about his Father’s business. In the Gospels, Jesus never says Worship Me. Not once. Jesus instead says, “Follow me.” Follow me into sharing the Good News. Follow me into new life. Follow me into the Kingdom of God.
A friend of mine in Alcoholics Anonymous taught me the prayer that he and his sponsor said every time that they met. A sponsor in AA is someone with more sobriety than you who has been through the 12 steps and guides you through them. But my friend taught me the prayer they used, and they called it the “Set Aside Prayer.” It goes like this: God please help me set aside everything I think I know about myself, my disease, these steps, and especially you, for an open mind and a new experience with myself, my disease, these steps, and especially you.” What a wonderful prayer. It acknowledges that we get stuck in our habits and in the stories we tell ourselves. It acknowledges that we are aware of our own limitations and our limited perspective. It asks God to help us forget not what we know, only what we think we know, what we are so certain we are certain about. It says open us up God that you might come in.
I’ve used an adapted version of this prayer in my own discernment process for holy orders, asking God to help me set aside everything I think I know about who I think I am and what I think about the process and the people involved in discernment. It has helped me to be present in the moment, and to be a bit more open in my experiences, to actually experience them rather than process them through my own biases, prejudices and opinions.
Today let us ask ourselves what God may be calling us into. Where might Jesus be asking us to follow him, in this hour, in our current circumstances of our lives and with those closest around us? Christianity is a relational faith. This means that it can only be practiced and lived out among other people. We can say our prayers at home, but Jesus is calling us into the world, into our own everyday lives, to be about his Father’s work. And so, I’d like to pray with you today, would that be alright with everyone? Let us bow our heads, “God please help us to set aside everything we think we know, about ourselves, our community, your call for us in the world, and especially you, that we may have an open mind and a new experience with ourselves, our community, your call for us in the world, and especially you. Amen.”