Year B, Proper 9: Hometown preaching

July7/8th, 2012, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, Ohio

One summer, my son wanted to buy me a gift. All through our vacation, whenever there was a gift shop or stall, he asked to buy me something, and I kept saying no. I kept insisting that the pocket money he had (which his grandparents had given him) was for him, and that he didn’t need to spend it on me. But he kept asking, and one day, at the Royal Welsh Show, where he had already picked out a little silver bracelet and insisted that he should buy it for me, I let him.

Off he went to make his purchase, and back he came, so proud and so pleased that he could offer me his own gift, bought with his own money, chosen by himself and freely given, and it was only then that I realized how blind I had been, and how selfish in trying to save him from his own loving generosity.

So many stories get stirred up when we read about Jesus and his family. We all have stories of feeling unappreciated in our own homes or hometowns; when those who have become inured to our talents seem to take them for granted and it takes a stranger to recognize our gifts and compliment us on them.

For some among you, it may be that home has been worse than unappreciative. The very places which should nurture and protect us too often are places of danger and anxiety. Family is a complex animal, and it can be friendly and it can be fierce. So it can be difficult to separate, when we read stories about Jesus and his family, our own stuff from his, our own stories from the story we read about a hometown long ago and far away.

Jesus went home. He had been travelling the region for a while, and we have heard how he healed so many people, and taught crowds which made it hard for him even to move about, they were so large and pressing. He was famous. He was celebrated. He was a star.

Then, he came home.

A friend of mine described the difference between envy and jealousy as the difference between desire and destruction. Envy wants what the other has, wishes it could get hold of it. Jealousy knows that it can’t have it, so it wills only to destroy it.

There might have been those who were envious of Jesus, because he had a following, because he had shown himself to be remarkably talented at teaching and opening up the scriptures, and at healing; there were also those who were jealous of him, who wished to destroy what he had, because they saw no hope in it for themselves. And he was astonished at their unbelief, and it must have hurt.

Because Jesus didn’t go there to show anyone up. Jesus went home to share with the people of his hometown exactly what he had been giving to everyone else. There are plenty of different explanations offered in different books for why he couldn’t do the same work there as in other places – the gospel says, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them,” – but to me, that exception says it all. To those who came to him, those few sick people that he cured, he gave his power, he gave his gifts, all that he had to offer.

But so few people took him up on it that there was little he could do. It was a shame, because all they had to do was ask him, and he would have shown them the power of the love of God.

I heard a good word this week which was attributed to Elizabeth Eaton, bishop in the ELCA. She said, “The Jesus we know is not the Jesus who will save us,” or something to that effect. The Jesus that the people knew who had seen him grow up and run around the neighbourhood and chase the dogs and climb the trees and learn slowly to make things of wood with his hands, and whose brothers and sisters and mother had never left town – that Jesus was not the one who would save his people. The Jesus they didn’t know, the one who had been baptized with the Holy Spirit and walked the wilderness with only the devil and the angels for company, who had been filled with the power of God to do astonishing things and to preach amazing sermons – that was the Jesus who might save them, but they never thought to ask him, because they were too busy remembering the Jesus they thought that they knew.

Sometimes we are afraid to ask God for what we want, what we need, what we really wish we could pray for, because we think that we already know the answer. We think that we know how God works, and we are afraid that the answer will be no. Sometimes we are angry, because we think that the Bible and the church makes God out to be all that, and yet we are still suffering, still waiting to see that deed of power, still waiting to be saved from ourselves. Sometimes we are jealous, because for God, it must all be just so easy. And sometimes, we pack God so tightly into a box, into an idea or a theory or a corner of our lives – one hour on a Sunday morning, or ten minutes each night at bedtime – we pack God up so tightly that we imagine that God is too small to be able to offer us anything.

The Jesus we know is not the Jesus who will save us. The God we think we have all tied up and tied down is not the God who has the power to save us. But God doesn’t give up. God tracks down the last lost sheep, the last hair of hope on our heads, and holds on to it and doesn’t let go. And God asks us, over and over, “Can I give you something? Can I offer you something? Will you receive it from me? Will you?”

And if we only allow ourselves to wonder what might happen if we let God be God’s own generous, loving self, without restriction, without resentments or refusals, without reservation, what deeds of power might we see? We are prepared to be surprised and excited by the discovery of a God particle in a Large Hadron Collider deep under Switzerland – rightly so – but what if we were as prepared to be surprised and excited by God? If we allow ourselves to pray as our souls really would like to in their wildest dreams, what healing might we find? If we gave up knowing what was best, and stopped to ask God, and really listened with a fully open mind for an answer, what might we hear? What joy might we discover in the love of God set free? What does God long to offer us?

We all know that there are miracles that do not happen, and they make us afraid to ask for the ones that might. But the Jesus we know, whose miracles are locked in a book of the past, that Jesus is not the one who will save us. The Jesus we don’t know is just waiting for us to notice him in the mystery, in the stranger, in the surprises of the universe, in the everydays of our own home lives. He is only waiting for us to call upon him so that he can show us amazing deeds of power, of healing, wisdom and love.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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