Hometown Blues (preaching Mark 6:1-13 on July 8, 2012)



On the evening of Palm Sunday of the year 2001 I arrived at a parish church in my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts.  I came to serve as priest and pastor there.

One thing you need to know about the city of Lynn is that it has understood itself as comprised of the distinct areas of East Lynn and West Lynn almost since its founding in 1629.  And though the twain do meet, they also tease each other, each one seeing itself as the better Lynn.  For example, in West Lynn they say that the only good thing about East Lynn is the bus to West Lynn!

So I show up, an east Lynner coming to pastor in West Lynn, and in a parish with dozens of relatives from both sides of the family as parishioners!  Early on one gentleman said to me with a smile, “We coulda taken anybody from anywhere – but an East Lynner?  This is a test!”

Well, it turned out fine, at least from my point of view.  I was welcomed and supported, and more importantly we worked and served and prayed together.  Although I have to admit that as I read this Sunday’s Gospel and prepared to preach it occurred to me that perhaps it all worked out peacefully because there was nothing prophetic in my words or deeds while I was there!  For Jesus, coming home to Nazareth, it’s a different story right away,  He receives a clear message of rejection, one that moves him to quote a saying to the effect that dishonor to prophets comes only at home.

At this point in his ministry Jesus’ words and deeds were getting massive attention all around.  Word had reached Nazareth.  Mark earlier had noted that Jesus’ family had decided that he had lost his mind and they wanted, in effect, to take him into protective custody.

So these people had heard his teaching, or at least had heard tell of it.  They’d witnessed his deeds of power, or at least heard descriptions from some of those in other towns who had been overcome by amazement at what Jesus had done.  Remember, he  has just come from raising the daughter of Jairus and healing the woman who had been so sick for twelve years.

This is the context in which he arrives at his native place.  And they say (if I might translate this into East Lynn-ese): “Wait a minute, not so fast.  You’re not some fantastic rabbi.  Where do you get off pretending to be a teacher of wisdom?  How can you do amazing deeds of power?  You’re an ordinary guy.  We know your family.  They’re right here.  We’ve seen you grow up.  You’re a carpenter.  You’re nothing special.  How dare you pretend to be!”

There’s even a sharp, if veiled, reference to questions of Jesus’ legitimacy.  People were known then as “son/daughter of fill in name of father.”  But Jesus is described as “son of Mary.”  Even if Joseph had died by this time, here there is a barely hidden taunt.

One thing we have to know is that this was a society with no upward mobility.  Not only was it not expected, it was thought to be wrong.  If you are born a carpenter, that’s you.  There will be no putting on airs and taking off to be something or somebody else.  And so, as Mark says, the people of Nazareth “took offense” at him.  Or as the Greek text has it, they were scandalized by him.

But if what his fellow citizens of Nazareth thought of Jesus is interesting, Jesus’ response to them is fascinating.  That response comes in three parts, or perhaps four.

First (and please excuse me if I note that I enjoy this), Jesus insults them.  Talk about the humanity of Jesus!  The proverb he quotes basically says to the Nazarenes, “Hey, it’s not my fault or the rest of the world’s if everybody else can see me and hear me and relate with me better than you can manage here in good ol’ Nazareth!”

Secondly, Jesus is unable to do deeds of power there, as he had done elsewhere.  Wow!  This is worth looking into.  As Mark writes, “He could do no deed of power there.”

Thirdly, he was “amazed” at their unbelief, at their lack of faith.


The last two of these responses of Jesus to what happens on his homecoming to  Nazareth say reams about what faith is.  In a nutshell, faith puts you in relationship.  If I have faith in you, I trust you.  And that opens possibilities between us that otherwise would not be there.  If we have faith in Jesus, we enter into a living relationship with him.  This opens massive possibilities between us.  It establishes a channel, deep and true, for the power of God to enter and work in our lives.

But there is yet one more response Jesus makes to the experience at Nazareth.  On the heels of this disappointment, Jesus sends out the twelve apostles on their first mission, providing instruction on what they are meant to do and how to do it.

Sending the Twelve out to preach and heal at this moment of his own failure in his hometown, Jesus is saying something powerful.  The message to the folks at Nazareth and by extension to anyone who sees nothing extraordinary in Jesus, seems to be this: the Kingdom of God is opening up, right here, right now.  You, like everyone, are invited.  But if you say no, if you decide against, the Kingdom is still coming.  The mustard seed still is going to grow.  There’s no stopping it.  The only difference will be that you are depriving yourself of the healing, the wholeness, and the joy of citizenship in that Kingdom, depriving yourself of living where the love of God is in charge.

Now, you’ll take away from the sixth chapter of Mark today what the Spirit of God gives you to take.  It might not have much to do with anything that I’ve said!  But let me put a few possible suggestions forward.

Think about this.  Is there somebody in your life right now through whom God may be doing new things, and great things?  Perhaps a person from whom you’ve learned not too expect too much in the past?  Perhaps a family member?  A friend?  A co-worker?  Someone who comes to church with you?  Maybe it is you, yourself?  If so, I would encourage you to be a non-Nazarene on this occasion: open up to the possibility that something new, unexpected, and good may be happening right now.

Then think about this community of faith, this congregation, this Grace Church.  How is God’s Kingdom growing here and now?  Where is new life being manifest?  Where is enthusiasm?  Where is charity hugging away?  Where is healing happening?  Where is joy breathing fresh, even in the muggy air of summer?  Are we tuned in and open to God’s work going on among us?  Or is it happening beyond our awareness?

Finally, is Jesus sending us on mission today?  He always sent them out two by two.  Who is your partner on this mission?  Jesus Gave detailed instructions on how to dress, how to travel, what to say and do: what are you hearing in your heart?  The mission of the Twelve was to issue a call to repentance, to a change to a better way, to a fuller life.  They freed people who had been held by evil.  They healed the sick.  And in all this, empowered by God, they were successful.  In our time, on mission in God’s sight among our own people, do we expect success?  Do we expect to be heard?  Do we expect new freedom and new vitality to be our traveling companions?

Five years after my arrival I left that parish church in Lynn.  It was and is still my hometown, but it had also become something more: a place of mission, a place where God’s Kingdom is taking root.  There have been major changes, shifts, decisions and renewals in life for me since then, as happens for all of us.

Through it all our invitation and responsibility is to welcome the coming of Jesus and to respond to his call to believe, to be healed, and to go on mission in his name.


“Wild Kingdom” or “Chance of Reign 100%”

English: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japa...
English: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japanese Knotweed, inflorescence; Karlsruhe, Germany. Deutsch: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japanischer Staudenknöterich, Zugespitzter Knöterich, Spieß-Knöterich, Japanischer Flügelknöterich, Japanischer Rhabarber, Japanischer Buchweizen, Japanischer Schirmknöterich, Infloreszenz; Karlsruhe, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Texts: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34]


For three months of the summer of 2005 I lived with the Benedictine monks in the community of Glenstal Abbey 9-miles outside the city of Limerick in Ireland.  In that region known as the Golden Vail, sharing the day-to-day life and routine of the almost fifty members of the monastery community, it was for me a powerful and golden summer.

The simple and profound way of life that Benedict bequeathed to his brothers and sisters 1500 years ago is often summed up in the short phrase, “Ora et labora.”  “Prayer and work.”  At Glenstal we gathered together in the abbey church several times every day, beginning at morning’s first light and ending with night prayer in the early evening before bed.  The brothers are doing the same today, and have done so every day since I was there, and for decades before.  And each member of the community, in turn, had one or more areas of work that were his sole or sometimes shared responsibility.  One was the cook.  One was the infirmarian.  One was the guestmaster.  One was the head of the school Glenstal runs.  One was the Abbot, and so on.  I worked in the library.  I helped wash the dishes every evening after dinner (though that was just because I liked to!).  And I was given the task of dealing, in one small section of the monastery’s many acres, with the dreaded Japanese Knotweed.

Fallopia japonica,” to give the plant its official moniker, was carried into Ireland some years ago because someone thought it was decorative, and easy to grow.  At least the second of these has proven to be uproariously true.  There are now laws against the plant.  It is plant enemy number 1, or thereabouts.  It has no natural enemies to contain it, and it is the enemy of all.  Native species of plant are undone by it, pushed out of the way, and gone.

As one Irish website reports it now: “Japanese knotweed is a tall perennial plant, an aggressive, invasive weed which is found along river corridors, road verges, railway embankments, gardens and on waste ground. It spreads very quickly and often becomes a serious problem in the areas that it invades, causing environmental damage and costing public and private organizations large amounts of money to contain. Tarmac and concrete often do not stop the spread of Japanese knotweed. It has been known to push up through foundations.”  Fallopia japonica is frighteningly aggressive, grows so fast that you can almost watch it, and had come to live at Glenstal Abbey.

So Brother Anthony elected to send the neophyte lily-white American out to do battle with this dreaded plant form.  I was armed with a spade, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow.  Anthony brought me to the current battleground, introduced me to the foe, and withdrew.  I started digging.  And digging.  And digging.  You have to get the d- (blessed!) thing out by the root, without breaking the root, or it will come up again by morning.  I was both amazed and horrified to find that the Japanese knotweed root-system has runners that spread way out underground from what you see above-ground.   I followed them 8 and 10 feet from where the plant appeared, pulling them up as I went, and carefully placing them in the wheelbarrow.  If any fell to the ground they would take root again and start to repopulate each tiny square foot that I freed at great personal cost.  I will tell you: I wish I had half the energy that plant has!

Each evening at vespers I was happy to sink into the chapel’s hard seating, lean back, sigh, and let the singing of the psalmody wash away that day’s struggle with fallopia japonica.

As much as I grew to detest that plant (with all due respect to the Creator!), at least as much was I shocked to find the spirit of Japanese Knotweed described by Jesus in the parable in Mark’s Gospel as being the spirit of the reign of God.  The kingdom of God is like seed that is dropped on the ground; it sounds almost accidental.  There’s little sense of purpose and intent in it.  But it grows, without care, all by itself, until the harvest is ready.  The kingdom of God is like mustard seed.  Mustard seed is not only a modest little seed, as Jesus notes, but it is also one with a voracious appetite.  Place it in the earth and it grows crazy, as Jesus no doubt knew.  It’s hard to control.  It makes a mess.  It gets all over the place and is likely to compromise whatever else you may have had in mind for your garden.

The scholar John Dominic Crossan illuminates what those of us who are not up-to-date on all things plant-life might miss in Jesus’ choice of starring plants in his parable: “The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like.”

What?  Let’s make sure we have this straight.  Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is invasive, uncontrollable, and basically a nuisance.  Let it in and nothing will ever be the same.  And, it must follow that if the Kingdom of God is described fittingly in this way, well then so must be the Ruler of that Kingdom.  It’s just as we’ve always feared, by Jesus’ own testimony.  Let God in, and you’ve given away the farm.  Nothing will ever be the same.  Set any limits you want.  God will overrun them, sooner or later.  Assert your control all you want.  It won’t work.

It’s kind of like the reverse of the story about a man who bought a house with an overgrown garden. The weeds had long since taken over the garden and it was a mess. But slowly the man began to clear the weeds, till the soil, and plant the seeds. Finally, he had made it into a showcase garden. One day the minister from church came to visit, and when he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he said to the man, “Well, friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden.” To which the homeowner replied, “You should have seen it when God had it by himself.”

The Kingdom starts small and quiet, but it doesn’t end there.  It might be nearly invisible for years at a time.  So you might look at your life, or at the state of the world, or at what we do here from week to week as we gather, and wonder if anything is changing at all?  Is anything growing – in me or around me?  Has the reign of God taken root?  The answer is a definitive yes according to today’s Scripture.

It’s like the little guy – just over 5 feet tall – who showed up to try out for a lumberjack job in Alaska.  The man in charge wanted to take care of this quickly and discourage the little man to go elsewhere.  So he gave him the heaviest, largest ax, brought him to a tree hundreds of feet tall, and yards in diameter, and told him to chop it down. Within minutes the tree had been felled. The amazed foreman asked him where he’d learned to chop trees so powerfully. The little fellow replied, “When I worked in the Sahara forest.” “You mean, the Sahara desert.” Said the little lumberjack: “That was after I got there.”  He may have been small – like the mustard seed, like the innocent knotweed when it arrived first as an immigrant to Ireland, like the reign of God when it is first announced – but once he came, everything changed.

Where can we see the kingdom of God growing, the reign of God being revealed?  It may be in the most unlikely messes, practically unimaginable.  I hear Jesus’ parable today, his yes subversive speech, and my imagination is engaged in new ways.  Perhaps yours as well?  Is the Kingdom of God being birthed in the suffering streets of Syria?  Somehow, in that clash of power and yearning, somewhere in that bloodbath of the innocent, somehow . . . could God’s own Kingdom be coming about?  Could the end of that story be something dramatically other than sorrow and pain?  In the political tensions so obvious in the United States in this election year, could the reign of God be evident here?  In the dueling speeches on the economy, in the diametrically opposed takes on what is self-evident in the immigration crisis, in the dearth of truly civil discourse, somewhere deep within this muddle is the fallopia japonica of God’s Kingdom taking root?  Is it sending runners underneath our lives, connecting our deep sorrows, our losses and grief, with the plentiful support and relief that others have been strengthened to provide?  Is it running wild in the background of our church’s life, bringing new things to happen in ways unforeseen, attitudes, methods and approaches that will bear new fruit in a future we cannot yet see or hear or touch?

If Jesus is right (how is that for a preacher’s phrase?) – if Jesus is right, then the answer to all of this is yes, in a manner we’d best not strive to define or limit.  The God who took the eighth and youngest son of a small-town sheep-owner and anointed him King of Israel, David the Great, can do it.  Is doing it.  Through Samuel God chose David, gave him the Spirit, and then to all appearances walked away to see what would happen.  “In this corner, the sitting King of Israel with no desire to give up his seat, Saul!  In this corner, the pretender to the throne, a teenage shepherd with beautiful eyes, David.  And offering no further guidance or assistance that anyone could measure for the longest time: the God of Israel or anyone who spoke in his name.”  It looked like a recipe for disaster, and it really was.  But it was also, and no less truly, another planting of God’s seditious, destabilizing, and sanctifying mustard seed.   That seed is still being scattered on the ground. We are still sleeping and rising and paying it little heed.  But the seed is sprouting and growing.  And the good harvest will come about, in its time.  In its own time.

Jean-François Millet: The Sower, 1851