Sermon preached at Christ Chapel, Seminary of the Southwest
February 3, 2016
Open our ears, O Lord,
to hear your word and know your voice.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills,
that we may serve you today and always. Amen
I have a love/hate relationship with today’s Gospel reading.
On the one hand, it is a great “epiphany” story that shows us one way Jesus revealed himself and his mission. It shows him returning home in a position of authority and facing a tough audience. And then when Plan A doesn’t go well, he gets entrepreneurial with his ministry and implements Plan B. “Then he went about among the villages teaching.” He took his disciples and his good news out to the rest of the world…
On the other hand, this story is also revealing about the people who “know Jesus best,” the people who saw him grow from a boy to a man, who know his family and the kind of work he does. Sometimes, this story is called “The Rejection of Jesus in Nazareth.” To me it feels a little different from rejection.
Jesus’ hometown friends and relations are not rejecting his ideas, the content of his preaching. They don’t even outright send him packing. What they do instead is dismiss him, cut him down to size, put him in his place. They are condescending to him.
Now, there is a lot that might make a seminarian like me feel right at home with Jesus in this story. After all, I will be an inheritor of the itinerant ministry he started after this hometown debacle. Like the original disciples, we modern day disciples follow Jesus into places where his message might get a hostile – or at least dubious – reception. We are armed with authority to preach. And like them, we will very likely have to be ready with a Plan B and a Plan C, because in the church today, Plan A is already not working as well as it should.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we are sent from here and from our home parishes to take the Good News to communities of strangers, new parishes, new towns, perhaps even new states. We won’t be going back to the places that know us best.
So, there is a lot here to identify with. A lot that might validate us as followers of Jesus who are active in the church and know a lot more about him than your average person on the street.
I really love the story for all of that. It makes me feel inspired and relieved to know that Jesus and his disciples took this message out into the big scary world, to new people, to strangers.
But I said I have a love/hate relationship with this story and here is the part that challenges me. That’s a nice way to put it. Here’s the part that rubs me the wrong way and makes me feel really uncomfortable:
If Jesus has a hometown in the 21st Century, with friends and relations who “know him better than your average person on the street” – it is the church. And maybe even worse, it might be a seminary like this one. Who thinks they know Jesus better than we do? Who knows more about authority in the church, knows who can and should teach?
How often do we, and the church as a whole, say things like…
- You don’t have the authority to say that.
- We don’t do it that way here.
- In Nazareth they said: “Where did this man get all this?”
- “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”
- In the South, we might simply say, “Bless her heart.”
If this story makes me want to identify with the disciples who followed Jesus home and were willing to follow him out to the villages. It also makes me admit that I am like some of those hometown folks, at least sometimes.
One of the humbling things about the Incarnation is that in Jesus, God assumes all of human experience, even the most painful, humiliating parts of it. And with the reaction he gets in Nazareth, the painful human experience I see Jesus enduring is that he is being mansplained.
I am betting that many of you know what mansplaining is – and have even experienced it yourself. But if you are lucky enough not to know, here is a definition:
Mansplaining is explaining something to someone – usually a man explaining to a woman – in a condescending and patronizing way. And it is explaining something without regard for the fact that the one being explained to knows more about the subject that the explainer.
(If you have never been mansplained, I bet you might have been teensplained. Or toddler-splained. For many of us, it is part of the human condition.)
Writer Rebecca Solnit – who is one of the people credited with first articulating this phenomenon – says that mansplaining comes from a sense of both overconfidence and cluelessness. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me, documents a fabulous case in which, after introducing herself as the author of a book about high-speed motion photography and technology in late 19th C. America (which is a pretty niche subject) her new acquaintance interrupted her and began holding forth on the topic himself, telling her she really should read a definitive new book on the subject. The book she herself had written. And told him about.
This is a pretty much how the synagogue in Nazareth treated Jesus when he taught them. The hometown folks in Nazareth are both overconfident and clueless, they think they know who he is and what he is capable of, and so they have limited what they are willing to hear from him.
When we identify with the disciples and Jesus in this story, it is because we’ve been dismissed and put down, too. People who know what to expect of us don’t want to hear or see anything else.
But we also do it to others. Individually and collectively as the church, we dismiss people – not because of what they say, but because of who we think they are. We do it to individuals and to whole communities. Dismiss them. Reject their preaching. Condescend to their witness. Refuse to see Christ in them.
We do a lot of ‘splaining in the church. We ‘splain to women. And to various ethnic groups. We ‘splain to people whose “way of being” in the world doesn’t give them authority to teach us because they are poor or gay or deaf or carpenters. We ‘splain to youth a lot.
There is a lot of fret in the church about America becoming a nation of unbelievers, that in the realm of religious belief, the “nones” (those with no particular religious affiliation) are the fastest growing segment of the population. But one lesson in today’s story is that it might not be “nones” who are the most resistant and unwelcoming to Jesus’ and his disciples– it might be the people who claim to be the closest, it might be hometown folks. Like us.
The Gospel says Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.” That is, he was amazed at the unbelief of a congregation of believers. Their unbelief was not a matter of rejecting the content of Jesus’ message. Their unbelief was their inability to see or hear the message from a well-known but unexpected source.
- “Where did this man get all this?”
- “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”
There is a lot about Jesus and his ministry that is outside of what was expected. Familiar, but surprising. But the people in Nazareth could only see what they expected to see. Do we have the same problem? Do we “already know” what Jesus has to say about the problems we face every day? Do we really already know everything the teachings of our tradition?
For those of us inside the church, the disciples and the hometown folks (most of us are both) the challenge is to share the Good News in the villages outside our comfort zone. For those of us inside the church, the challenge is also to learn the Good News from people we think we know well – people who might surprise us if we’d let them.
And sometimes, the one who might surprise us the most is Jesus himself.