All Saints Margaret Street

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Evensong & Benediction Trinity 2

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar

TRINITY 2, 2019    EVENSONG 

Readings:  Genesis 27.1-40; Mark 6.1-6

When I was training for the priesthood, one of the object lessons in how not to preach a sermon was Alan Bennet's 'Beyond the Fringe' sermon which took as its text words from tonight's first reading:

'My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.'  Tonight I am not going to speak about Jacob and Esau, but about our passage from St. Mark. 

'And they took offence at him.'

For much of the Church's history, Mark's Gospel was the poor relation; thought to be an abridged version of Matthew – shorn of much of Jesus' teaching.  It had no infancy stories and its treatment of the resurrection was brief. 

Biblical scholarship has established its place as the first of the gospels to have been written and helped us to see its distinctive theological stance. The three year Eucharistic lectionary ensures that Anglicans, Roman Catholics and others who only attend the Eucharist on Sundays, hear far more of it read in church. 

This evening, having heard Mark telling us of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, I would like to suggest one important reason for the Church to read Mark: his clear-eyed, relentless and unsparing realism about how people respond to Jesus; both then and now. 

In an age and culture in which it is not easy to believe, it is tempting for those of us who do to imagine that it would have been so much easier had we been there when Jesus was alive: if only we could have heard him preach;  if we could have witnessed his miracles. Mark will have none of this!   In the chapters which come before our reading, we hear of him preaching and healing in the synagogue at Capernaum. There he does make a deep impression on the people – he is one, they say, who teaches with authority. 

He speaks of the reign of God with a directness very different from the scribes with their careful dependence on precedents. This hardly endears him to those expert interpreters of the Torah.  We hear of the beginnings of opposition and rejection that will culminate in the alliance of religious and secular authorities which sends him to the cross.  

His family, too, hear of his activities, - not what you'd expect from a small town carpenter - and are clearly anxious - not just for him but for the family name. When he is told that they have come to see him, he responds: “Who is my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.”  This redefinition of family overturns the loyalty to clan which was of paramount importance in his culture. The scribes join in again; this time accusing him of being allied to demons.  

This evening we hear of him returning home to Nazareth after his first round of preaching and healing. People have heard of the impression he has made. He is invited to preach in the synagogue where he would have worshipped all his life. Any layman could be asked to do this by the synagogue officials.  

Mark tells us, using the same word, that, just as earlier in Capernaum, so now in Nazareth, the people are 'astonished,' 'amazed,' even 'knocked out'  - as one translator puts it  -  at his preaching.    But this positive response soon turns sour. The crowd begin to pose questions which are tinged with hostility. 

“Where did this man get all this? 

What is this wisdom that has been given to him?

What deeds or power are done by his hands?

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us?” 

These reflect a pattern of speculation in all the four gospels about the source of his teaching and power to do mighty deeds. 

The reference to him being a carpenter is not flattering. It implies his undistinguished background and lack of education or training apart from the manual skill of his trade.  How can he presume to teach us?  

Referring to him as Mary's son, hints that the circumstances of his birth had the suspicion of scandal about them: Was Joseph really his father? 

“And they took offence at him.”  The outcome of their speculation about his background, education and family, is a 'scandal', a stumbling block to belief that anyone so like themselves, one of their own, about whom they thought they knew everything, with nothing in background or education to recommend him, should be so possessed of power to preach and work wonders. 

We know his mother, his brothers, his sisters; they live in the same town, we see them everyday. As folk say in Scotland: 'we kent his faither' or, in this case, his mother.  They are not prepared to go beyond the limitations of their own prior experience. It's a typical small town or village response to someone who seems to be getting ideas above his station.  

But more than just a matter of familiarity breeding contempt, this comes from the mentality that geographical and social origins determine what a person is and what his capacities will always be.  

So, rejecting any possibility that such wise words and wonderful deeds could have come from God, they reject Jesus and stumble and fall. 

 He responds: “Prophets are not without honour, except in their own home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Jesus is now following in the tradition of the rejected prophet, the servant of God without honour, the teacher of wisdom unlistened to. 

'He was unable to do any mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.'  The reason given for this inability is their lack of faith.  This inability to do any mighty work in the face of the lack of faith shows that Jesus was not a wonder-worker performing mighty deeds in order to win people to his cause. There is no compelling of people into belief. 

The temptation narratives in Matthew and Luke dramatize this truth. They speak of the pressure on him:

to respond to physical needs such as hunger for food, instead of seeing the deeper needs of people for the word of God; to grasp at political power and influence and to perform compelling religious signs.  

These would satisfy people and win them to his cause but they would not open them to the word of God, and the call to conversion, repentance and belief. 

'He was amazed at their unbelief'.  The same verb already used of the people who marvelled at his works. This section of the gospel ends on a very negative note. Jesus will not be found preaching in a synagogue again. 

This rejection by his own people speaks to us today, not just as a piece of historical information, but as a contemporary warning and a challenge. 

In the Gospel story itself, 'his own people' refers to those he grew up with in Nazareth: friends, relatives, neighbours, and even those members of his family whose names are listed. In the context of the Gospel's earliest readers, 'his own people' was extended to include the Jews whose rejection of their own Messiah was so shocking.  In our context today, 'his own people'  should be understood not as some external group, Jews or Muslims, atheists and unbelievers,  but as the community that claims him as its own, claims to be his, that is us, the Church.  

In addressing unbelief in the Church, this passage speaks to the relationship between faith and wonderful events.  

On the one hand, because of their unbelief, Jesus could do no mighty work among his own people except to lay hands on a few sick people and heal them. The clear implication is that if they had believed in him Jesus could have done much more. The spiritual climate of a congregation, its sense of expectancy, its openness to the power of God at work through Jesus Christ, will have a great deal to do with how much God's power can accomplish in that community.  Our unbelief does not render God impotent, but when it is dominant in a congregation its dampening effect on the mighty acts of God in that time and place is evident and sad. 

On the other hand, the reason his own people did not believe in Jesus was that they thought they knew him so well.  It was inconceivable to them that God could be at work in the commonplace. To persons who, echoing the Pharisees' demands for signs (Mark 8.11), seek God only in the exotic and the marvellous, the text suggests that the one we meet in these gospel stories is the one we know well in the familiar patterns of corporate worship, in the common disciplines of the Christian life, and in the lives of ordinary people around us.  Yet, this 'common' one is the Holy One in whom the Kingdom of God draws near. We should not expect that encounter to leave us unchallenged. Indeed, the more it disturbs us, the more likely it is to be genuine. The challenge is to allow Jesus to disturb us.