Listen to our service and sermon below:
Thirteen hundred years ago, the great Tang Dynasty of China descended into civil war after a rebellion was launched against it. The time of the Tang Empire is generally thought of as the high point in Chinese civilization, a golden age in its long history. And then the An Lushan Rebellion began and the country fell into chaos and war. Over the next seven years, thirty-six million people were killed or displaced – making it one of the worst man-made disasters in human history.
The great Chinese poet Tu Fu lived and wrote during this time of upheaval, capturing the turmoil and horror of living in a time when neighbor has turned against neighbor. And now, all these centuries later, living in the disintegration of our own country’s golden age, some of Tu Fu’s poetry feels as relevant today as it did all those centuries ago. Like this bit from Overnight at the River Pavilion:
Wolves howl. I cannot find rest
Because I am powerless
To amend a broken world.[i]
As I read headline after headline, as I feel outrage after outrage, Tu Fu’s words feel pretty true to me – how about you? “I cannot find rest because I am powerless to amend a broken world.” With so much broken already, with so much that still is breaking, what can any of us do except for rage and grieve, or else just try to ignore the news of the world and focus only on our own little lives? We don’t have the power to fix all that is broken. And it feels awful to feel so powerless.
Did you know that there was a time that Jesus felt powerless, too?
Last week, we heard beautiful stories of his healing power – how a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years was healed just by touching the hem of his cloak; how he raised a 12 year-old girl from death just with his words: “Little girl, get up.” From the first days of his ministry, he had been teaching, healing, and casting out demons. And from the beginning, the people were astounded, remarking to each other than he taught “as one with authority.” (Mk 1:22)
With his words and his touch, Jesus overpowered illness, evil, and even death. He came to say and to show that God’s reign is at hand, the eternal realm of God has broken into the present moment to overturn evil and to transform the world, and he calls people to repent – to turn from their old ways and towards God’s realm of life, to participate in and embody the kingdom of God in the present. And the crowds responded. They prayed impossible prayers, sought impossible help from him. And with his words and with his hands, he changed their lives.
Now Jesus comes home. He begins there just as he began his ministry in Capernaum in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel – he goes to the synagogue to teach. Again, he teaches with authority and people are astonished. “Where did he get all this wisdom?” they ask each other. “Where did he get the power to perform miracles?” And these are not neutral questions. There is judgment here. There is, “Who does this boy think he is?” here. They even ask, “Isn’t this the carpenter, Mary’s son?” And make no mistake, there is shaming in that question. They know that Jesus is someone who works with his hands, not a member of the educated class, not someone who has had the luxury of time and means to dedicate himself to learning the Law. Now they see him as trying to rise above his station. And they aren’t just judgmental. They’re actually offended by his power. Sometimes when God gets too close, it just feels too threatening.
Jesus doesn’t seem surprised by their reaction. And we really aren’t either, are we? Sooner or later, we all have this kind of encounter – people we thought would celebrate with us, or wish us well, or take pride in our work, instead judge and reject. They can’t embrace who we are; they can’t accept who we’ve become. Sometimes, it’s the people closest to us, Jesus says in your hometown or among your kin or in your own house, who can’t see or accept or celebrate new and sacred realities that are breaking out in our lives.
But it’s also true that sooner or later, all of us are ourselves are like Jesus’ hometown crowd, right? Blinded by familiarity, we don’t expect great things from people we already know; or, feeling threatened by someone else’s success, we turn from envy to judgment; or, clinging to our old, familiar, safe understandings, we can’t even see beautiful new truth as it emerges in the life of someone close to us. When someone we know changes from who we thought they were, it can push us to wonder if we ought to have changed, too. It’s easy to feel threatened. It’s easy to want someone to change back. What Jesus encounters in Nazareth is familiar to all of us. It’s hard to make room for new truth – especially if that truth might challenge us to change.
And while Jesus isn’t surprised by their reaction, what happens next is surprising. Mark tells us that, because of the lack of faith in his hometown, Jesus could do no deed of power there. Well, except cure a few sick people, he adds. But mostly, Jesus was powerless. And it’s startling, because we’d rather not think that his power is so dependent on whether or not people believe. But Mark tells us that Jesus was amazed at their “unbelief,” and the word there isn’t really “unbelief” it’s a word we don’t have: “unfaith.” It’s not about what they think. It’s about what they do with what they think. The people in Nazareth believed that Jesus was teaching with wisdom. They believed that he was healing with power. They just didn’t recognize it for what it was: that the Reign of God was breaking into the world and asking something of them. Or if they did, they were threatened and offended by God’s power showing up in such an unsanctioned way, calling for them to change. So they couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it.
When Jesus calmed the storm one night at sea, the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” And the only answer is: this is God-with-us God-in-the-boat. But the people in Nazareth could only answer, “This is Mary’s boy, the carpenter. Who does he think he is?” And because they refused to recognize God’s presence in their midst, they made it impossible for God to work in new ways among them.
We see in their story that here is a power that we hold, whether we realize it or not: the power to close down what God can do among us, or within us, or with us. How much of God’s power do we shut down? How much of God’s power do we refuse, by our blindness, our small rejections, our outright resistance?
When Jesus was rejected and his power was resisted, he did not do as the poet Tu Fu did, or as you and I are often tempted to do. He did not give in to his powerlessness and let it make him restless and despairing. Instead, he shared his purpose and his power with his friends.
He leaves his home town, calls the twelve and gives them the authority to do what he’s been doing, to carry on his mission. Up until this point, the disciples have been following him around the countryside, listening and learning. But now we see what following him really means – it means joining him. It means being partners in his work, partners in proclaiming that the Reign of God is at hand, partners in God’s power to bless, to heal, to renew, to call people towards transformation.
And Jesus sends them out two-by-two, a sign that this work really is a partnership, not just with him, but with each other. He charges them to take nothing with them except a staff and sandals – not a bag, not money, not an extra tunic. Their neediness, their reliance on the hospitality of others, will be a reminder that, wherever they go, other people have power, too – power to reject and resist and shut down what God can do, power to receive and be blessed, power to turn and change and then to go and pass the blessing on. The disciples went with the same message Jesus was proclaiming, doing the same work Jesus had been doing, given the same power of God to do it.
And when the disciples go out to the villages teaching, healing, and casting out demons, they accomplish more than they do anywhere else in Mark’s Gospel. They move out into the world together, beyond fear, beyond belief or the limits of belief. They accept the power given to them, and then they act on it. They proclaim the Reign of God at hand; they participate in its power.
And here’s the thing – they didn’t mend the whole broken world, not all of it, and not for all time, and not on their own. What they did was go out into the villages around Nazareth – just their little bit of world. They went out and did what they had the power to do in their little part of the world just right there. And the results of what they did there and then are still reverberating around the world to here, to now.
That’s our calling, too. That’s our power, too. We have enough power to bless, to heal, to transform the little part of the world right around us. And when we participate in the realm of God in that way, who knows what will come of it?
But we feel powerless, so we don’t believe things can change. We are too familiar with the broken realities to recognize the power of God already unfolding in our midst. It is our unbelief that hampers the power of God to work in us, or on us, or through us, or with us – or through others.
Yet the truth is, we are charged with God’s power. God has called us into purposeful, powerful partnership, for the healing of the world. We won’t mend the whole world, not all at once, and not on our own. But we’ve been given enough power to share with each other, to say and to show the truth that God’s reign has broken in, already, right now, to live the reality that God is present and good and trustworthy. We may feel powerless, but we have all the power we need to bless, and to stand up to evil, and to heal, and to share the transformative grace of God with the desperate world all around us.
Eleven years ago this afternoon, it was a Sunday, it was sunny, and our family was on a beach in Florida with our then three year-old sons, when one of them, just a few feet from where we were unfolding beach chairs, simply disappeared. We frantically searched the shore and the water, minute after panicked minute yielding nothing but endless shore and endless water and no little boy. Thinking he was surely in the water, already lost to us, and feeling completely powerless, all I could do was pray impossible prayers. “Save him. Bring him back to us. Help him. Help us.”
After several minutes, a young woman who had been helping us look for him, who had said to me from the beginning, “It’s okay, we’re going to find him,” suddenly noticed a small depression in the sand near our beach chairs. She asked me if that was there when we had gotten there. I looked at the millions of depressions all over the beach and told her I didn’t know. She stuck her hands into the sand there, gasped as she felt the top of Rob’s curly head underneath, looked at me and said, “He’s here.” She started digging, others started digging, they found our son, they pulled him out, he was okay, and he is okay, and we are okay.
He had fallen into a small hole dug in the sand, and it had collapsed on him, all in the blink of an eye. None of us had seen it happen. He was buried there for several minutes. The young woman who found him would later tell us that God’s Spirit told her to look in the sand. And that was so impossible. But she listened. She partnered with God’s power to participate in what some of us would call a miracle. She didn’t mend the whole that day. But she mended our world. She changed our lives. She saved our family, because of her partnership with God.
And what about you? You have more power than you can imagine, and so do I. How will you be God’s partner in blessing, in healing, in changing, in loving your world?