Something to Do

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

There’s something kind of raw about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life that I sometimes find disconcerting but almost always find invigorating. This week it’s the story of Jesus’ appearance in his hometown and, in particular, Mark’s confession that Jesus “could do no deed of power there.” What?!

Okay, so before unpacking that little pronouncement, let’s spend just a moment with the details of the story. Jesus has come home to preach, and of course the town folk know all about him; after all, they watched him grow up. That isn’t easy. I’ve preached in the congregation I grew up in, too, with former teachers, soccer teammates, and girlfriends in attendance. You know what I mean? Collectively, they know way too much about you for anything you say to sound — at least to yourself — credible.

With Jesus, and especially in Mark’s account, though, it goes even deeper, because while he is described as “a carpenter” and his mother Mary is referenced, no father is mentioned. Matthew and Luke clean this part up a bit, invoking and inserting Joseph’s name, but Mark either doesn’t know Joseph or doesn’t think he’s important. Which suggests that there may have been some whispering going on about Jesus while he grew up: Was he brought up only by his mother? Did he even have a father at home? Is there some hint of impropriety here? The point is that when the crowd places him, it’s not just sentimentality that’s operative, but the whole thing may also be a way of positioning Jesus, of putting him in his place. Which means that their reaction might not be so much of a, “Wow, look at the local boy made good!” as it is, “Well, look who’s come back, and too big for his britches to boot, but we remember where you came from, boy.”

If this is true, why such a reaction? Emerson Powery in an excellent commentary on this passage suggests that in a shame/honor culture prestige is a scarce and finite commodity, and so giving honor to one person means necessarily taking some from another. So perhaps they felt that his fame threatened their wellbeing in some way.

Or maybe it was just really hard for them to imagine that someone as ordinary — and perhaps someone with as tainted a background or upbringing — as Jesus could possibly make good. Perhaps, that is, they could not reconcile the ordinary with the extraordinary and felt shown up somehow by comparison.

Whatever the reason, they refuse to acknowledge him and this, somehow, seems to limit Jesus’ power. Which — when you think about his ability to raise a dead girl to life with a single word or that all the woman who had been bleeding for so long had to do was touch the fringe of his cloak to be healed — is really pretty astounding.

So what’s going on here? And, further, why does this scene make me so uncomfortable?

I think the two questions are related. Mark seems to suggest here that Jesus’ reception affects his ability to work, to make manifest the kingdom of God through what he calls “deeds of power.”

And I think I find that troubling because I’ve been schooled to think — actually to defend and count on the fact that — God doesn’t need us, that God isn’t inhibited by our faith or lack thereof, that indeed what I believe or think or do matters not even a little bit when it comes to God accomplishing God’s purposes.

I mean, isn’t one of the central elements of the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” precisely that it’s all up to God. God is the one who justifies. It’s by grace, not by our work. Our faith is really just an awareness of and trust in what God has done.

All true, I confess. But what if what’s at stake here isn’t a matter of God’s ultimate purposes or our eternal destinies. After all, it’s not like Jesus couldn’t do anything there. I mean, I’m sure the people he healed were glad of his miraculous ministrations. What if, rather, Mark is simply inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we have actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the manifestation of the kingdom. To say it another way: this isn’t about salvation, it’s about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world.

If that’s the case, then maybe we can get over our knee-jerk fear about “works righteousness” anytime we talk about “doing” anything and ask our people to consider in what ways they are encouraging or inhibiting God’s work in their lives, households, communities, and the world. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea, in fact, to take a few moments in silent prayer to contemplate those places we feel we may be resisting God’s activity in our lives. Is there some area — some regret we can’t get over, some grudge we can’t let go, some hurt that has come to define us, some addiction that imprisons us, some anger that has taken hold of us — that we are having difficulty entrusting to God? Similarly, is there some opportunity we feel God might be inviting us to or some challenge God may be setting for us that we find difficult to embrace or entertain.

Notice, these questions aren’t about the quality of our salvation; rather, they are about the character of our Christian life. And if we are disposed to invite our people to ponder them — noticing that just as in this Bible story it matters how the people receive Jesus — we might just be surprised at the conclusions they reach, the things they let go, and the great deeds they dare.

Just so, Working Preacher, what you do matters as well, and I am so grateful for your ministry.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Here is a prayer I first heard while at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Menomonee Falls, WI. It seems perfect for just after the sermon or as an offertory prayer. My thanks to Pastor Meredith Musaus for passing it along:

L: Let us pray together.
C: 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 fill 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.