A Hometown Prophet

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Good morning,

It is a wonderful privilege to be here at Marsh Chapel with some many friends and former students and collogues on this warm July day. I am especially pleased to be in Marsh Chapel and be reminded about how much I really do love being a professor at BU, as much as I’m enjoying my summer vacation.

I’ve been living in Maine the last several weeks, helping my parents out with their farm and trying to finish some writing projects which are going so-so. As some of you may already know, living in rural Maine means driving, a lot. It takes a half an hour to get to the nearest book store, grocery store, or home improvement store and even longer if I want to access certain, probably unnecessary luxuries urbanites like myself have come to depend upon for our daily maintenance. So I’ve been driving more than usual which means I’ve been listening to more radio than usual most often MPBN the public radio station in Maine. Can we just stop for a moment to say thanks to MPBN, WBUR, and public radio in general? I would not survive summers in Maine without it. As a result of all of my radio listening, I am highly informed. I am also however, getting tired of listening to prophets. Between call-in shows and news programs, I’ve heard just about every sort of reaction to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare by now. Especially from those running for president, but also from just about every other sector of our society as well: journalist, politicians of every strip, law professors, the proverbial man on the street, pundits from one think tank or another; all of whom who are busily spelling out what will certainly happen next, what this means for our future. A great number of the voices on my radio are not unexpectedly prophesizing doom in the form of government intervention, lack of access to medical treatments, a sicker population, and even death panels, which have reappeared under the guise of purported set of policymakers eager to pull plugs and deny life support. For some, Obamacare is yet another sign of the decline and fall of American civilization. Others however are glad for anything that gets us closer to healthcare for all, even as they spell out the limits and unintended consequences of this new law.  As for me sitting in the car listening to the radio, I just find myself happy that first Romneycare and now Obamacare have made it possible for our older son to remain insured under our policy until he is 26. Now that he is 23 this really matters to us as a family. I am also hoping that this change will allow a friend of mind with a pre-existing condition to find a way to get out of a truly soul-killing situation at work while keeping health service for himself and his family; that is my prayer. If Jesus were consulted, perhaps he would agree that healthcare coverage is a good thing. After all, as Mark says in our gospel lesson today, though Jesus could do no deed of power in Nazareth, he healed a few sick people anyway. Healing people seems to have been among his priorities.

At any rate, driving around rural Maine thinking about our sermon series this summer and working on a chapter about the Book of Revelations that is due by the end of July, which swiftly approaches, I find myself in prophesy overload.  What is it about American culture that makes prophesies of doom so very popular? Why do we love to envision dystopia instead of utopia in our movies and on our TV shows? Do we really need to destroy New York City one more time, and do we need to interpret events as sure signs that further misery must certainly be on the way. Must our public prophets be so fixated on telling us what’s wrong with the world, or our Christians recount once more how near God’s judgment must surely be. Must we be kept in a constant state of fear and discouragement? I sometimes think the drip drip drip of bad news and prophetic warnings about a worse future has done more to alienate and isolate us one from another than it has provoked change for the better or helped us find a way to be a people of faith. And when this never-ending stream of bad news is combined with assurances that the day of finally initiated destruction and punishment are inevitable, don’t we risk putting ourselves on the side of the very things we supposedly hate? I mean really, why bother to fight the tide of suffering if God is going to destroy everything anyway? Shouldn’t we just concentrate on saving the righteous few while leaving the rest to their fate, however horrible?

I am also worried that today’s gospel lesson doesn’t much help me in my current malaise, at least not at first reading. After all in Mark, Jesus instructs his disciples to shake the dust off their feet if the village they visited didn’t welcome them. This testimony to them, or against them as the NRSV has it, appears to contain within it some sort of ritualized threat. Some manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark take the point further, adding the warning, truly it would be more tolerable for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than it will be for that city. By shaking the dust of their feet the disciples were saying, “good bye, good riddance, and good luck to you when God’s judgment comes, you’ll be sorry.” Is that what Jesus was trying to tell the residents of Galilee then? Listen to me and my disciples or else? I think it is possible to read Mark’s gospel this way and certainly people have, including those who are even now claiming that the end will come in this generation, that God’s punishments are swift and sure and that only those who are righteous in those particular ways that current prophets of doom understand the term, will be saved.

I would like to call our attention to another feature of Mark’s story, the verse, “And he could do no deed of power there except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Isn’t that curious? Jesus was unable to perform miracles in Nazareth, really? From Mark’s perspective and ours today in this chapel, Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and the son of Man, so surely Jesus could do whatever he wanted to do. I checked Matthew’s version and he appeared to have the same reaction I did, when he read Mark. Editing the problem away, he simplified the verse to read, “Jesus did not perform many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”  Of course, from Matthew’s perspective, Jesus could have performed miracles, but he chose not to since he was annoyed. But, that’s not what Mark says, according to Mark, Jesus could not perform miracles, he was not able to do it, though he did manage to heal a few people. Then Mark adds, “And he was amazed because of their unbelief.” So the NRSV that’s printed in our bulletins this morning reads, “unbelief,” but I would like to amend that translation of the word pistis to suggest instead, lack of faith or unwillingness to trust instead. As I often tell my first year Greek students, pistis and its opposite apistis were doing words, a fact that sometimes lost in our words belief and unbelief. Perhaps a Protestant emphasis on inward transformation, that transformation that takes place when one believes in one’s heart in Jesus Christ, has helped us to forget that in antiquity and maybe today pisitis, faith, trust, loyalty, and also belief, involved doing things like getting up and displaying our loyalties in our daily actions.

Back in the day when Mark was written, one could have faith and show loyalty to one’s city, one’s gods, one’s family, and even the emperor. This pisitis was clearly visible and was supposed to be seen by all. It seems to me then that the apisitis, the lack of faith of the people of Nazareth offers a possible key to Mark’s interpretation of events that transpired there. The rejection of their hometown prophet by the people of Nazareth in my reading was related not to some lamentable failure in their part to believe to assent to a set of doctrines, inwardly, within their souls, but to their inability to trust in and therefore show loyalty to the good news that Jesus wanted not only to share but also to do, to do with them and for them. Because that’s what Jesus was up to, good news. It’s the gospel of Mark remember. According to Mark, before Jesus arrived in Nazareth he expelled a demon by the name of Legion from a truly miserable man who lived among the tombs of Gerasenes, he cured a women who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and as a result had lost everything to doctors, who couldn’t heal her. We know something about that in our culture. And Jesus had raised a twelve year old girl from the dead. If those are not a series of acts that bring good news I don’t know what would be.

Whatever wisdom Jesus was teaching in the local synagogues, that wisdom that led his former neighbors to marvel at him, I suspect that his words and his actions had more to do with healing, health, and hope, than with end times judgment, God’s wrath, and the current list of reasons why we should be filled with despair. If so, then the problem in Nazarath was that Jesus’ former friends and neighbors could no longer hear and enact good news in their daily lives. And using their familiarity with Jesus and their family as an excuse it was this inability of act on the basis of renewed hope that prevented their hometown hero from performing a deed of power while he was there. But, why should they believe in good news when the drip drip drip of bad news had taught them to expect the worst. I can just imagine how it would be hearing every day of the latest abuses of the Roman prefect, the latest conflict between the local Galileans and the local Judeans, the latest Roman tax hikes, the empty fishing nets, the daily March of scarcity, illness and want, you name it. Perhaps bitter experience had made it clear to them that expecting the worst is the more sensible and frankly the safer way to live. So someone is ill, a cure can’t be found and she has lost everything to doctors, what else is new. Ok many are struggling to find food and shelter and a living while others have so much more than they need. Show me a village, or a city, or a nation where that isn’t true. Yes, to adopt Marx’s terms, Nazareth as we know was burdened with a foreign government quite understandingly it didn’t much like. I can just imagine Jesus’ neighbors asking him, “Do you really think that demon or those legions can be expelled?” Believing in good news, acting like good news can and will maybe happen is really just too painful. You of all people should know that mister hometown boy.”

If my interpretation is right, then Jesus could not perform a deed of power in Nazareth because no one was willing to play on his good news team. His fellow Nazarenes were simply too attached to their despair to allow themselves to even desire a change for the good and to lend themselves to making good prophesies come true. And who could blame them, but in a world were even good news, my son Axel’s access to healthcare, my son Leander who survived a broken neck because doctors at Brigham and Women’s knew what they were doing, my dad’s heart attack didn’t kill him last summer, and my friend with the pre-existing condition who can dare to imagine a better life. When even this good news can get drowned out by threats of doom and fears of the bad things that will surely come, I would like to be on the side of good news this morning. The good news we can actually proclaim. The good that Jesus actually did by healing even a few. I might go so far as to argue that the threats of doom and the insistence that we only see gloom keep us from envisioning deeds of power that are actually already in our grasps. Those positive changes for the better however small, that help us live, honor our neighbors, and remind us that God made the world for good.

Listening to Moth Radio on my way back from the mountains last week, told you I’ve been listening to a lot of radio, I heard the most wonderful heartfelt story by Alif Shfalk, a Turkish writer struggling with writers block and her journey through it. I know about writers block. She described her sense, after a devastating earthquake shook her neighborhood, that she had once again had lost faith in what she was doing. Her heart is like the pendulum, she said, that swings back and forth between a necessary optimism that enables her to keep writing and this other darker loss of faith she could no longer believe that her writing, her work, was worth much of anything. In face of larger works in the world, really why bother? Yet, at some point she noticed something else, a difficult neighbor with whom she could finally share something, enemies on the block with whom she for a moment became friends. And the small ways that people manage to reach out to one another out of empathy. “That’s what we writers want,” she concluded, “Something to remain, a spark of empathy and the possibility of a change.”

Trusting in the possibility of some good news is hard, or at least it has sometimes been hard for me, and I’m probably the most privileged person I know. Big deeds of power however, seem to require that we risk it. And by big deeds of power I don’t mean flashy predictions by prophets who purport to know exactly what God has in mind, or who can boost of their fitness at biblically inspired detective work. Paradoxically the Markian Jesus tells his disciples the gospel he is sending them to profess requires not flashiness, but a walking stick, sandals, and a single cloak. This gospel requires vulnerability and a willingness to trust even our very lives to the wellbeing of strangers, come what may. This gospel, Paul adds, is made evident in weakness, however powerful and amazing our visions and startling our revelations, even of paradise. The prophesy I think the Markian Jesus is trying to get us to hear, is not one of doom, but of the daily good news of the many blessings we all have and the possibility that maybe, somehow, we can do, be, and know good news ourselves. And so as that pendulum swings toward why bother, or worse, self-satisfied predictions of the doom of someone else, I think Jesus is saying stop it, listen, look, notice, even now I am healing a few people; even now a spark of empathy can ignite; even now good news remains possible.  Yes, there will be bad news, I’m sure I’ll hear more of it as I continue to drive around the state of Maine. There’s no use pretending otherwise, but do we really need to hurry it along? Why not be harbingers of hope and allies of health and people who wish well for others? Yes, bad things are happening, really really bad things and hiding our heads in the sand will not make them go away. Yes we can rest assured that more bad news is coming tomorrow and frankly the weight of sin and suffering is and will continue to be heavy, but whatever the final bad news will be assuming that such finality must and will someday come, our daily job, our daily task is to be people of the light, if we can possibly manage it. As the Psalmist put it “We are to ponder God’s steadfast love and wonder at the beauty of our beloved city.” As Mark suggests, we are to go out on our journeys ready to encounter one another, openly assuming the best from our neighbors, even when experience has taught us bitterly to expect the worst. Above all we are to anoint with oil those who are sick, not to tell them that they deserve the misery that’s coming to them.

On a beautiful summer day in the state of Maine, in a flash rainstorm at the top of Mt. Washington, after a long climb with friends and watching people be kind to one another, perfect strangers meeting in the general store, on the T, in the subway in New York, and even on the roadways going back and forth from one place to another, all I can think is, who wants all this doom anyway? Can we please stop wanting it? May we err today on the side of good news? May the drip drip drip of daily sorrows fail to win the day and may God’s true prophets speak to us of hope and wholeness and refrain from wishing for the worst.

Amen

 

~Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust

Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, Boston University

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