We Remain Unfinished
Garrison Keeler, of Prairie Home Companion fame, invariably began his weekly monologue with: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my hometown…”
What do you consider to be your “hometown”?
Is your hometown the place where you were born– or the place where you grew up? Or the place where you are living now?
I recently returned from visiting my mother—who turns 99 years old next Sunday and who still lives in the house that I grew up in—in my hometown: Babylon, Long Island, New York.
If you ask my wife, Anita, what her hometown is, the question does not compute. “I grew up in the Navy,” she explains.
In the gospel portion for this Sunday we hear that Jesus has come to his hometown. In his hometown, St. Mark indicates, Jesus is not known as a savior, he’s not known as rabbi; in his hometown Jesus is considered to be just a carpenter. “Oh, look—It’s the carpenter, Jesus!” “The carpenter has come back home to visit his family.”
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?
On the Shabbat, Jesus in his hometown synagogue begins to teach those who will listen, and many who heard him, St. Mark says, were astounded.
They said, Where did he get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
And they took offense at him.
St. Mark says: “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”
My first reaction on hearing this—that “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them—is: this is a pretty big exception! “He could do not deed of power there—EXCEPT he laid his hands on a few sick people and he cured them! I don’t know about you, but I find this to be pretty impressive. Jesus healed people. There was a power in Jesus that healed people. We saw this happen in last Sunday’s gospel with the woman who had an issue of blood: she reached out and touched Jesus’ cloak, and at once she was healed, her twelve-year polluting malady came to an end.
Despite the fact that St. Mark said that Jesus “could do no deed of power there”—he did indeed cure some people there.
The next thing that I notice is that on account of the people’s lack of faith in Jesus, he could do no deed of power there. The original Greek word that is here translated “deed of power,” is the exact same word that us most often translated “miracle.” So you might just as well say that on account of his hometown people’s lack of faith in him, he could do no miracles there.
A miracle is not magic. A miracle requires participation. Unlike magic, a miracle requires relationship. And this relationship of faith seems to be what is lacking; and what seems to be blocking their placing faith in Jesus is—ironically– their familiarity with him. “Is this not the carpenter?” Their very familiarity with Jesus leads them to dismiss and discredit him.
Jesus is in his hometown. He is among the people who have known him the longest, and I’m sure would consider themselves to know him best: He is “the carpenter—the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon… and we know his sisters, too.
They think that they know Jesus. But it is apparent that they do not really know Jesus. And their thinking that they know Jesus is what cuts them off from recognizing who he truly is. Jesus is too familiar to them. “Prophets,” Jesus exclaims, “are not without honor, except in their own hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
It is alarming to think that those of us who believe that we know Jesus best may be the very people who are most cut off from experiencing who Jesus Christ truly is. And the effect of this over-familiarity is to dis-empower Jesus from doing the deeds of power that otherwise he might do.
That our unbelief can shut down even the power of Jesus to do deeds of power, to work miracles, to reveal transcendent power—this is quite disturbing to realize. It leads me to ask two questions.
The first is, who among the people that I live my life with might I be shutting down by not recognizing who they might truly be beneath their familiar exterior? What gifts might they have to offer if I were only open to receiving them!
And the second us about Jesus himself: how may my lack of faith be limiting what Jesus can do to heal, to raise up, to protect, to affirm, to nourish in our needy world?
I tend to take for granted—ironically– those who are closest to me. An evangelical friend with whom I used to pray, would persistently remind us that when Jesus commands “love your neighbor,” your first neighbor is the person who are living with—not the next door neighbor, but the same door neighbor, sometimes the same bed neighbor. Don’t forget to pray for your first neighbor. The power of Jesus to heal may be waiting in them to reach you.
When I lived in Atlanta a hospital chaplain colleague of mine shared with me a revelation that was given to her about one of her “first neighbors.” Lori told me that her first two children were like dreams for her but the third was like a little devil. “His chronic cholic made him a handful from the beginning, crying through the night, and as he got older he just seemed to know how to press all of my buttons, Lori confessed. I got along very well with my first two children but Jason was completely different. It grieved me. I loved this child so much. I hated that he provoked so much anger in me.
One night, Lori said, I had Jason down to bed, and I went back quietly into his room and I stood by his bed, and I just looked at him. I left him and as I approached the door to his bedroom, I turned around and looked back, and a voice said to me—just as plainly as I am speaking with you: “Lori, I have given Jason to you for a reason.”
Nothing else. Just this: “Lori, I have given Jason to you for a reason.” Nothing about what that
reason might be! But this was enough. From that moment on, my relationship with Jason changed—and it has been different ever since.
People in Jesus’ hometown—those who were most familiar with him—dismissed him.
I wonder who it is that is so familiar to me that I am dismissing. Whoever that familiar might be, she or he is someone who God has given to me for a reason.
And it is up to me to discover what that reason might be. And to allow myself to be changed by this realization.
These reflections this morning were prompted by the gospel account of Jesus’ experience of returning to his hometown.
You and I do not share a common hometown. But we do share a common homeland, and today the fourth of July we are celebrating the birthday of our homeland, which we laud as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
This past year in particular we have had good reason to recognize that this country which we share and which we love is not in fact a land in which all people are equally free However brave some people may be, they are nevertheless systematically put down.
For example, consider that the Declaration of Independence which was signed on this date in 1776 depicts the indigenous people of this continent as “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” This is what the children of the Coastal Miwok people– on whose unceded land we worship—may read in the Declaration of Independence about themselves: that they are “merciless Indian Savages.”
Similarly, African Americans may read in our national constitution that they were counted as 3/5 of a person in states in which they were considered not as persons but rather as property to be bought and sold by white people.
I learned recently that George Washington while serving as our first president in the national capital of Philadelphia rotated his slaves back home to Virginia every 5-1/2 so months so that they could not claim their freedom in the free state of Pennsylvania.
We Americans as a nation have much to reckon with if we are to come clean about our past and rectify our present. Only such an honest reckoning can lead to the healing of our social wounds.
I like best the hopeful characterization of America that was declamed by poet Amanda Gorman at the most recent presidential inauguration, when she said:
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished.
And then she calls us out as:
… the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
The homeland of which Amanda Gorman speaks is MY homeland, and it is your homeland. This unfinished homeland is rich with promise and with spiritual resources. In this common homeland that we share in common with a multitude of rainbow sisters and brothers, the dignity–and vote– of no child of God is to be dismissed or degraded.
So help us God.