He was amazed at their unbelief.

Sermon Given July 4, 2021

I think most of us have had moments where we have felt rejection deep within our bodies. It’s a stinging ache that can make it hard to think or breathe and it just hangs out in the body for a while. It’s a hard feeling to shake. Its voice can repeat, “You should have known better.” “You’re nothing.” “People hate you because of what you did.”

Jesus knew what it was to hold those kinds of feelings and think those thoughts too. And the hurt, the pain, came from people closest to him. These were his friends, his neighbors. They had watched him grow up and sat together who knows how many times in the Synagogue, studying the Torah and talking about God together. But there was tension in the room, maybe even before Jesus spoke. In Mark, this is the first time Jesus has been in Nazareth since he came to John the Baptist at the Jordan River in the first chapter, so it’s been a long while, though his family has come to try and bring him home once, thinking he had gone out of his mind. This is his home village, but it’s no longer where he lives. So much had happened since Jesus had been in Nazareth, and who knows what preconceptions Jesus’ neighbors and loved ones had as he entered the synagogue space with them. Did they think he had left them behind? Did they imagine Jesus thought he was somehow too good for them?

Whatever thoughts they had, the people of Nazareth felt the need to cut Jesus down to size. Jesus spoke as a prophet to them, and while Mark doesn’t record what he said, we have a general idea of what prophets say. They always call people to change their hearts and lives, to turn from one way of being to another. They invite people to remove habits from their lives that put distance between them and God, the idols we make in our lives and our self-centered ways of living. Prophetic messages can be hard to hear, especially when they are pointed directly at your way of doing things and your life. Jesus was calling out the sinful ways of people in his home village, a village he hasn’t been in for a while. 

Imagine what that would look like in Murray. What if someone who grew up here came back visiting, after having moved out of town, and said everyone here needs to change? At that point, it doesn’t matter how much wisdom is shared, how much insight is gleaned from the conversation, even how much people can feel the Holy Spirit. If Murray’s anything like towns I know in Iowa, some are going to take offense at the message, they’re going to complain and downplay the message. This is Mary’s boy. They’ve known this kid since he was in diapers. They raised him, teaching him everything they know. How can he then turn around and tell them they need to change? What he experiences is small town politics. It’s nothing particularly unique to Nazareth. It happens everywhere. He gets rejected because he is out of line with how things are supposed to be done. 

Still, it hurts. Jesus is utterly shocked that he has been put out of his home synagogue, that those who have raised him are now those who are turning their back on him. Nazareth is more than a village, it’s an insular community. One of the dangers of insular communities is they’ve got a lot of structure in place that enforce a particular status quo. If you’re inside the structure, you know the rules of how things go and it can feel quite safe and secure as long as you follow the rules. As long as you don’t challenge the community, these places have a sense of timelessness and tranquility about them. Things never change. But once you begin to challenge an insular community, that’s when the ugliness of the system comes out. The timeless feeling comes at a cost, because if things never change, bad and harmful things can’t change either. God Almighty might be calling them to something new, but the power structure can’t support it. So even Jesus gets kicked out, and the Nazareth elite shut their doors on him. 

But even with the power structures shutting Jesus out, there were people who believed and followed. Even when he was completely rejected, there were still a few who were healed, their faith in Jesus made them well. Because even in insular communities, there are those who are open to change. Even within the structure there are people who want more, who either challenge the system from within or eventually leave. These are people who may have felt that kind of rebuke before. Maybe they were seekers and asked questions about their community that were never answered in a satisfactory manner. Maybe God just got a hold of them and they had to seek Jesus out.  Jesus sees them and blesses them. Jesus heals them and makes them whole. But even then, Jesus is flabbergasted at what happened in Nazareth. It’s always hardest when those closest to you turn on you. 

I wonder if Jesus then had to take a bit of a break, to rest and regroup. Feeling that kind of rejection takes it out of you and he may have needed to simply go somewhere alone and pray. But the message doesn’t take a vacation, even if Jesus needs to. He knows it is bigger than him and that even if he steps back for a bit, it will continue. It’s not all on his shoulders. So he calls the twelve together and sends them out two by two. Even though they might be rejected as well, he still wants them to be open to the possibility that they may be embraced. 

One of the side effects of repeated rejection is the long lasting belief that can hide just below the surface, a belief that no one will accept you for who you are. Jesus wants to purge that thought from his mind and from the minds of his disciples. The only way to purge that thought is to practice openness, to be willing to let people surprise you, not pre-judging  those around you.  Who knows who the Spirit could use or how God might work in their lives? 

So Jesus makes them radically vulnerable. They are sent out having to rely on others for food, shelter and clothing. They have to trust in others to provide for their needs. That kind of vulnerability scares me a lot. I may be willing to go to places I’ve never been and work with new people, but I’m going to take with me money and clothes, I’m going to know where I will lay my head. I can’t imagine doing otherwise. But the disciples did just that. They became homeless and penniless for the sake of the Gospel.

 Jesus shares how they are to stay with those who welcome them, and he also gives them a ritual for if they are utterly rejected. They need a way to move through the hurt and the pain that comes with that rejection. So Jesus gives them the ritual of “shaking it off”. If the town isn’t ready and it’s not their job to try to force the issue. They can remove the vestiges of the town from their feet and move on, knowing that they have done enough. 

I wonder how many of us here today need the space, like Jesus needed the space, to just be for a while. I wonder how many are finding themselves butting heads with systems and getting nowhere, being blocked by the powers to be. How many of us need to find our rituals to shake it off, to give it over to God and know that it is not our fault? 

I have walked through what often felt like an endless sea of rejection this past year. Last year at this time, I was in my last few weeks of a job I actually really loved and probably would have kept if it weren’t for the pandemic. I was part time as the pastor at a senior living community alongside my position as the part time assisting priest at St. Paul’s. But the pandemic threw me into anxiety like I’ve never felt before and the executive director of the senior living community began to hone in on my anxieties and my mistakes. I wasn’t the pastor she wanted. I wasn’t always hope filled and optimistic. In fact, I rarely was. My style is to move through the pain acknowledging it and naming it, not trying to brush it aside, but seeking God in the midst of the hurt. I think she wanted a spiritual cheerleader. So I left. I was burnt and bruised.

I had also just begun a job search. Something we never acknowledge about a job search is how much the no’s hurt, even if you recognize that you aren’t the right person for the job as well. Finding a place takes a lot of energy. I would go through a burst of applications, have first interviews, sometimes even making it to final interviews, and then collapse on the couch when the call came saying they had moved on with another candidate. When I was told this position was mine if I wanted it, I was shocked. My mentor laughed when I told her and said, “You really didn’t think they would pick you, but look what they did.” She was absolutely right. The dust from everything else was still on my feet, weighing me down and I had to shake it off and allow God to put me back into a place of openness and receptivity. 

But something else also happened in that time, something that honestly saved my ministry. I gathered people around me in very intentional ways. I needed the support of fellow priests, so I called together a group. I needed venting space, so I often went and sat in the backyard of my mentor. I refused to let the rejection, even when it still weighed on me, define me. I kept myself open by keeping myself connected in the ways I needed. It was a tough time, but when I wanted to give up, my colleagues would listen, would support, and would say, “Imagine what God has in store for you.” Each time, they would help me break open my heart that felt like it was closing up, and try to put myself in a new place. They sustained me while I searched.

The support of others is how we get through rejection, how we get through tough times. Being in spaces where we don’t have to be okay, and in fact have full permission to vent and share our innermost doubts, can be some of the most transformative experiences of our lives. And I think Jesus sent the disciples out two by two because they needed someone to scream into the void with on those nights when it felt like all was going wrong, partners who could shake off the dust with them and remind them that it wasn’t anything they did, that it wasn’t their fault. Because I can imagine that some of the disciples, no matter how many demons they cast out, would still get stuck on those towns where their ministry was rejected, replaying what they could have done differently over and over again in their heads. But it was never about them, it was always about where the people of that community were and what they needed. Jesus got rejected too. 

Know that whenever you feel rejected, whenever you feel pained, whenever the sting of community rebuke comes your way, that Jesus is there with you, sharing that hurt with you. You are not alone. If we remain open, if we put ourselves out there, there is a place for us. There are people who can surround us, sharing with us even in our deepest sorrows. We do not have to journey through pain alone.

Even in the midst of rejection, even when they felt stuck and unsure, Jesus asked the disciples to continue with a spirit of openness, believing that it was possible. There would be people who would support them, who would uphold them, not just their fellow travel companion, but people in the towns they traveled to. Not every community was too insular to accept the message. The disciples couldn’t discount people based on their place in society or their background. Those who might seem like the least likely person to accept the Gospel might in fact embrace it, and those who seemed like sure things might turn their backs. Humans can be predictable, but they can also surprise even themselves. Being open, the disciples remained available to awe, to the acceptance that they might have never imagined. That didn’t take away the harshness of rejection, but it did provide them with a community that could support them in the midst of the sting. Jesus provided them with more than enough as they kept trying, kept traveling, kept coming with open hearts into communities that may or may not have been open to them. 

Eventually, with supportive others, things feel lighter. Yes, there is rejection. It can even happen consistently, but there is also a beautiful acceptance that builds up and props up, even when nothing is going the way it should be. The people who unexpectedly take the message to heart become a delight. The rejection doesn’t feel so bad when another person or even another community becomes part of your supportive circle. The question turns from, “Who will reject?” to “Who will embrace?” That mystery can drive us forward. 

May we be surrounded by people who can hold us through the rejections of life, sharing spaces of pain with us, and helping us to ritually “shake it off”.  May we go forth into the world looking for community and acceptance in unexpected places, never being afraid to put ourselves out there, even if the outcome seems far from certain. May we find the healing that comes from Jesus’ loving embrace, surrounding us through it all. Amen.