Sunday, July 8, 2012

What's Essential is Enough

It was a Sunday night nearly 30 years ago. I turned on the local PBS station to watch "Monty Python's Flying Circus" at 10:30. Instead, Channel 9 presented a science fiction show that in many ways felt as if it were written by the Pythons. It was about a humanoid alien who traveled in time and space and called himself the Doctor. While this eccentric character with his ridiculously long scarf looked and sometimes acted like Harpo Marx, he thought like Sherlock Holmes. From that moment on I was a fan of "Doctor Who."

The show will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, one day after the 50th anniversary of the deaths of President Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. Even taking into account the gap between 1989 when the original series was canceled and 2005 when it was relaunched, it is the longest running science fiction show ever. And it has gone from a cult show (at least in America) to a big international hit. But the funny thing is that its most enthusiastic fans are found in the United States, not in its native United Kingdom. It's not that there aren't British fans of the show; it's just that they have a different attitude there. The original series was badly funded and most fans joke about the wobbly sets, risible special effects and the monsters with the clearly seen zippers running up their backs. The series made up for this with thought-provoking scripts and good actors. But even in regards to the new series with its higher budgets, British fans seem much more prone to criticizing any and every aspect of the show, including the writing, the music and whether the show has become too popular and mainstream or too complicated and fannish. They get downright mean as if the people who make the show are either too stupid to understand what they should be doing or else are deliberately sabotaging it. They seem to not so much delight in the show as delight in tearing it down. Other fans have noticed this and so do the actors who often seem to prefer American fans and their conventions to those of their home-grown base. It's as if the British fans treat the show as many a little girl treats her Barbie: she can pull off its head and cut off its hair and scribble on it with crayons because it is hers to do with as she wishes.

Jesus must have felt like that Barbie when he returned to his hometown after his well-received tour of Galilee. Instead of celebrating their local boy doing well, they have a hard time believing the words he preaches are his. "Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?" They go on to say, in effect, "we knew you when you were a snot-nosed kid and we know your whole family and we're onto you. We don't know where you're getting this stuff but it ain't coming from you, buddy boy."

Now the Pharisees, to give them credit, at least realized that Jesus was channeling supernatural power. They misattributed it to Satan, which showed how desperately they were trying to rationalize what they could not deny. The folks of Nazareth didn't even go that far. They just couldn't believe anything good could come from that strange carpenter, the one whose mother got pregnant before she was married (and rumor had it he wasn't really Joseph's son), the one who came back from Egypt with whatever odd accent he had picked up there, the one who was always showing up the other boys and sometimes the rabbi in Torah school. "You telling me God speaks through the likes of him? Yeah, sure."

What's odd is that they aren't denying the wisdom of his words. But maybe it isn't so odd. I once corrected an error of fact made by an anti-theist commentator on a Huffington Post article on the Bible. "Well, somebody's been studying their Bible!" he retorted. Which struck me as bizarre. He was insulting me for knowing what I was talking about. The only thing I could conclude is that he thought most Christians were ignorant and stupid and he was counting on that to score points off of them. (To be fair, some so-called Christian commentators do come off that way.) When I said, in effect, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts, he was stung by being shown up as someone whose point of view was unfounded. He couldn't deride me for being wrong so he did so for my being right. It's like the phenomenon seen in some schools where kids don't want to do too well lest they be attacked by their classmates for being "stuck up" or "the teacher's pet" or for "thinking he's better than us." I swear it seems like certain politicians are afraid to appear knowledgeable about some issues for the same reasons.

What you think informs how you act and the biggest shock about Jesus' homecoming visit is that, as Mark puts it, "he could do no mighty works there…" Now how is that possible? Did Jesus lay his hands on people only to have them leave unhealed, still prisoners to their illnesses? I don't think so. Mark does say "…except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled at their unbelief." I think the significant words there were "few" and "unbelief." If the townspeople did not have faith in Jesus, if they didn't trust him to be a prophet sent by God, much less his Son, then they probably wouldn't go to him to be healed in the first place. Jesus could only heal a few because only a few trusted in him enough to present themselves for healing.

Also this is the last time we see Jesus preach in a synagogue. He is getting so much opposition from the Pharisees and experts in the law that he starts preaching outdoors. Thousands flock to him. But the respectable people quit inviting him to preach on the Sabbath. And perhaps Nazareth, hearing all of the negative talk about Jesus, didn't want to look like it was coddling a heretic. They let him speak, as a courtesy, and then dismissed what he had to say. And perhaps some of the people who were sick, sensing the general disapproval of Jesus, hesitated to go to him for healing. They traded a chance to be healed for a show of community solidarity, or at least, they didn't want to be targets of social censure. I've seen people turn down healthy options for sillier reasons.

So why does our gospel reading include the commissioning of the apostles to preach and heal two by two? I think it's because of what Jesus tells them not to bring. They aren't to bring food. No bread, no bag to carry fruits and nuts and cheese. Furthermore they aren't supposed to bring money. So no buying food or other necessities on their mission. And while they may take sandals, they aren't to wear a second tunic. This would often act as a blanket at night. So Jesus is leaving them to rely on the kindness of strangers. Middle Eastern hospitality was a highly regarded virtue. But it might be hard to come by when you're preaching repentance and doing so in the name of some preacher so controversial they aren't letting him into the synagogues anymore. So what was left for them to take with them? Faith in God.

If they couldn't rely on having any physical necessities, they would have to rely on God to supply their needs. They would have to trust that he would open people's hearts to the good news and not be too disappointed that Jesus wasn't with them himself. If they didn't trust God, they might freeze up with anxiety and fear. The scariest day on a new job is when the orientation training is over and the boss says, "You're on your own." Now you have to call the client cold. You have to speak into that mic and tell the world you're going to entertain them for the next few hours. You have to go into the patient's room and give that injection. You have to go down into general population and tell the inmates you're the new chaplain.

Of course as Christians, we know we're not alone. But that doesn't mean you won't have butterflies in your stomach. Just as being brave doesn't mean you don't have an undercurrent of fear in you, faith doesn't preclude the presence of doubt. As the father of a sick child said to Jesus "Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief." The vital thing is to have more faith than doubt. You have to realize that feelings don't matter at some point. You decide that God is trustworthy, no matter how you feel, and you take the next step. Some critics crowed when Mother Teresa's diaries revealed she fought with great doubt. Yet she continued to pray and obey Jesus, taking care of the sick and dying. That was a greater display of faith than if she had no obstacles at all.

On June 15th of this year, Nikolas Wallenda walked 1800 feet, less than a mile. I go farther than that on my morning walk. But he was walking across the widest point of Niagara Falls, 200 feet above the water. He was the first person to walk a tightrope directly across the Falls themselves. Would it have diminished his accomplishment to know that at age 12 he said he wouldn't go into the family business of being a high-wire artist? That he told a reporter, "It's just not worth it. We're risking our lives out there. We could die."? That he had a significant slip on a tight-rope walk just before his Niagara feat? If anything, it makes what Wallenda did even more impressive.

Wallenda doesn't use a safety net because it gives you a false sense of security. One of his uncles actually died despite having a safety net. And that's what Jesus was doing with the disciples. He wouldn't be there if they forgot a key point to the gospel. He wouldn't be able to step in if they botched a healing. And if by nightfall they found no one willing to take them in and feed them, they knew they would be sleeping on the ground, shivering and hungry. With nothing to fall back on, they had to trust God.

When you get stripped of everything, that's when you learn what's really necessary, what's absolutely essential. At Nazareth, Jesus learned that the folks back home didn't support him. They wouldn't have his back. On the road, the disciples learned that they wouldn't be able to fall back on something they had on them. Both Jesus and the apostles know they will have to do God's work relying only on God's help.

In the end that's the only thing we can really count on. Physical things break down, wear out, get lost or stolen. Safety nets may fail. People die. Our relationships change. I found out that as many as 55% of inmates have their families desert them while they are in jail. When things get really tough, you find out whom you can rely on. You can always rely on God. When wealth is worthless, when material things cease to matter, when family and friends flee, when your body breaks down, God is still there for you. As Paul wrote to the Philippians from his prison cell, "In whatever situation I am, I have learned to be content. I know what it is to live humbly and I know what it is to live with more than enough. In any and every circumstance, I have learned what it's like to be well-fed and to hunger, to have plenty and to be in need. I can do all things through him who empowers me."

You know what Nik Wallenda was doing that night as a billion people watched him walking with no net on that 2 inch diameter cable over that roiling chasm? He was praying and praising Jesus Christ. The Guinness Book of World Records will say that he walked across Niagara Falls alone.

But he and we know better.

1 comment:

  1. Another thought provoking, encouraging sermon,Chris. Encouraging because it brings back the sense of Christ's humanity, his experiencing and so knowing what we go through too, so his comfort comes from a shared place.

    Thank you, Bobbie