Unlikeliest People

Mark 6:1-13

"He left that place and 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."

Prayer – God of grace and powerful weakness, at times those you have called who are the unlikeliest are ignored, rejected, belittled and unwelcome perhaps because no one anticipated them being your hands and feet in the world. Trusting that we too are called to be your unlikeliest people, we ask you to fill us with your Spirit, and support us by your gentle hands, that we may be steadfast as you are steadfast, living our faith as best we can – amen.

          The Bible is full of miracle stories about Jesus: how he calmed the storm, how he fed the large crowd, how he healed the sick and raised the dead.  Those mighty acts got people’s attention.  They made people take Jesus seriously, even when they could not figure out who he was, exactly, or how they should respond to him.  His miracles marked him as someone with real power, only he was operating outside the normal channels of power, and that always causes problems.  The channels are there for a reason.  They give some people a way of understanding power and gaining access to it.  They give other people a way of controlling it.  Power that is exercised in certain ways by certain approved personnel is official power.  All other exercises of power are suspect, because they challenge the status quo, which has a mandate to defend itself.

          Sometimes that is helpful, when the unauthorized power is destructive power – a band of outlaws galloping through town, or a guerilla army fighting its way to the state capitol.  But the same defenses that keep out the bad kind of power may also keep out the good kind, which is what happened to Jesus.  He showed up from the unlikeliest place – Bethlehem and Nazareth, carrying no one’s badge or seal of approval, and he started acting powerful.  What he said fit no script in the ancient world.  What he did, fit no one’s mold, and so he too was unlikely to have the kind of power and authority one would expect in first century Palestine – God’s unlikeliest person working unauthorized miracles with unauthorized people.

          Jesus’ ministry was off to a strong start and I expect he was eager to share with the people who had raised him – not just his mother and brothers and sisters but also the neighbors who had kept him when his mother was sick, and the shopkeepers who had let him run errands for them, and the old men who had leaned on their old sticks in the heat of the day and told him stories that made his hair stand on end.  He was their son, too, so of course he went home to them, to share the good news that dwelled in his soul. 

          I can imagine they had heard of his doings around the area, the miracles that he had engineered.  He was their hometown boy who had made good, perhaps they wanted to give him the key to the city.  I can imagine his hometown folks were excited to have him at the synagogue, each of them taking credit for the fine young man he turned out to be.  At least until they heard what he had to say – Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said that morning, but it was strong enough to astound them and to make them wonder who’s kid was he anyway, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary . . . ?” 

          They knew good and well whose son he was, but by calling him Mary’s son they cast doubt on his parentage.  No one knew for sure if Joseph was the father of Jesus, so their question regarding his lineage was actually a slur.  They took offense at this Jesus, the unlikeliest person they knew who could command demons to leave and dead children to run play with her friends.  It was Jesus’ first big failure, the only time in all four gospels that Jesus was unable to do something.  His own people rejected him and he got the message.  Jesus was as offended by the people’s closed minds and hearts as they are offended by his teachings – not too different than today I would guess.

          Jesus responds to the crowds’ rejection by sending out the twelve disciples – those who followed him – you know, people who are fishermen and laborers and tax collectors and even those who would betray him.  Unlikely people each and every one.  It’s rather amazing that these unlikely disciples, who haven’t distinguished themselves by the demonstration of their wisdom in understanding anything Jesus has taught them, would be mandated by Jesus to do the very same things in ministry that he had been doing.  These twelve, rather poorly prepared, misunderstanding disciples are sent forth as Jesus’ traveling, empty-pocketed emissaries.  These less-than-stellar underlings performed exorcisms, cured the sick just as Jesus did and were met with the same type of opposition as Jesus did.  Who was going to accept the miracles and words of such unlikely people?

          Why is it that God continues to use the most unlikely people to bring his message of love and grace?  Why do you suppose God doesn’t pick the most religious, the most powerful, the most eloquent to shout God’s message from the mountaintops?  Who would of picked a carpenter’s kid from Nazareth to be the Messiah?  Who would of picked a shepherd to fight a giant and become the leader of the land only to see him broken by his own desires?  Who would of imagined a simple nun leaving her mark on the world through her ministry to the sick and homeless?  Who would of imagined a Hindu lawyer facilitating a non-violent protest for independence in India that would inspire a Black minister in the South to bring about civil rights in our country?  Who would of imagined that a smart-ass from Gastonia would become the pastor of a progressive church in Anderson?  Why in the world would God pick some of the most unlikely people to share the good news?

          When I think about the people who have made a difference in my life, in my faith journey, most of them were just ordinary people.  The most influential person in my faith journey was my grandmother on my father’s side.  Widowed when my dad was two and my aunt four, my grandmother raised them through the Depression, relying on her faith and God’s grace to provide for them.  She shared her faith readily and unashamedly and it made an impression on me growing up.  She was the first person to let me know that I would become a minister one day when I was 13 years old.  There are many who wonder what she was thinking today as much as then.

          Ernie Davis and Pete Carruthers – both were youth pastors at First Presbyterian in Gastonia who cared for me and other teenagers.  They both shared grace and guidance when I was struggling with my sense of identity, my sense of worthiness as a teenager.  They embodied God’s grace to me in a way that helped me on my journey.  Fred Bishop was a retired banker in Asheville who became a friend and faith mentor when I was a young adult.  Fred taught a young adult Sunday School class and he too embodied God’s grace to many of us.  Dan Festa was a chaplain at MCV where I did my training.  Dan took me under his wing and offered me wisdom and guidance as I learned the art of hospital ministry.  Dan provided me with a theology of pastoral care that has informed much of ministry over the last 25 years.  Doug Dickens is a seminary professor and Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor who I worked with for a number of years providing training to seminary students who were considering chaplaincy as their ministry.  Doug too taught me about pastoral care and being authentic in ministry.  And you, this church have influenced my growth as a pastor over the last three years.  You have given me the opportunity to share my faith journey – deconstructing much of what I had previously believed and allowing me the freedom and the courage to proclaim what really is good news.  God made excellent use of ordinary and unlikely people to move me, an unlikely person, on a faith journey, on a mission to make God’s kingdom more real today.

Ordinary and unlikely people are the ones God picks to do extraordinary things in this world.  God doesn’t need us and God isn’t inhibited by our faith or lack thereof.  God is going to accomplish what God intends with us or without us; yet, God has found that doing those things is much easier when ordinary and unlikely people are utilized as messengers, as vehicles, as God’s eyes and ears, hands and feet. 

What is at stake here isn’t a matter of God’s ultimate purposes or our eternal destinies.  What if, the gospel writer this morning is inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the manifestation of God’s kingdom.  What if God is once again inviting the unlikeliest of people, you and me, all of us, to play a role in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world?  Wouldn’t that be a miracle – God using the unlikeliest of people to make God’s kingdom more apparent and more real today – wouldn’t that be a miracle – thanks be to God – amen.

Prayer of the People:

Your church is composed of people like me. I help make it what it is. It will be friendly if I am. Its pews will be filled if I help them. It will do great work if I work. It will make generous gifts to many causes if I am a generous giver. It will bring other people into its worship and fellowship if I invite and bring them. It will be a church where people grow in faith and serve You if I am open to such growth and service. Therefore, with Your help, Lord, we shall dedicate ourselves to the task of being all the things you want Your church to be--amen