Title: Weakness and Perseverance
Texts: Mk 6:1-13, 2 Cor 12:2-10
Date: July 5th, 2009
Author: Dave Nickel
1. The church we attended in Phoenix had a “mentoring” program. Through this program, I was asked to mentor a high school student named Dan. I agreed to try, but I didn’t know what it meant to “mentor.” I supposed Dan and I would hang out for a couple hours each week, sharing stories and maybe talking about the future.
My “mentoring” was a lesson in humility for me. Dan proceeded to make me look silly in everything—from tennis to golf to soccer to basketball.
Still, I tried to be a big brother figure to Dan. We had conversations about more serious topics. One evening, we spent a few hours in Jack-in-the-Box discussing the “myth of redemptive violence.” This conversation stemmed from that week’s activity, which I am not proud of. We just viewed one of the most violent movies I have ever seen, on my request. At best, I was a questionable mentor.
I have not seen Dan in the past five years. We have not played any sports or seen any movies together, but we are still friends. We communicate via email. And Dan continues to put me in my place. He just completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy — a discipline that baffles me. And Dan challenges my theology.
A few years back, I got an email from him that made me feel like the epitome of bad mentors. After assuring me that he was not going through an existential crisis, Dan wrote that he could no longer say with sincerity that he believes in God. He hopes that God does exist; he hopes love and justice will prevail. But in all honesty, he dismisses these hopes as highly unlikely.
And, while he appreciates Jesus’ call to radical love, Dan does not find the Jesus of scripture normative for how humans should live their lives. For Dan, Jesus is not the Son of God. Christianity is merely an attempt to find meaning in a life that seems pretty meaningless.
For a few months, I responded to Dan’s questions as best I could. I also shared some of questions of my own. And, along with Dan, I recognized how ridiculous my own hopes are. I realized that he’s right, my faith is unreasonable. And it hurt to arrive at these realizations.
So I stopped being so intentional in my responses. It hurt too much to acknowledge the ridiculousness of my own faith. Dan kept asking questions, but I stopped trying to respond to them. I realized that, for better or worse, my faith does not provide me with coherence. I want these interactions with Dan to be in the background as we explore the two New Testament passages this week.
2. First, the gospel reading. To locate this story in Mark, Jesus has just finished expelling demons, calming storms, curing diseases, and raising the dead. His ministry seems to be firing on all cylinders, and Jesus and his disciples return to Nazareth.
Envision a local sports team. It has just completed an extremely successful road trip. The locals have kept themselves up to date on the team’s successes, and all are excited that the team has returned for homecoming. There’s a pep rally outside the local synagogue and everyone is there. And the captain and superstar of the team, Jesus, begins to speak.
But, during his speech, the hometown crowd turns on Jesus; they are unimpressed. They ask: “Who is this guy? Isn’t he a lowly carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son? Who does he think he is anyway?”
In response to these questions, the author records the first of two direct quotations from Jesus found in this passage. Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Jesus acknowledges that his homecoming is an exercise in rejection. It is an exercise in humility bordering upon humiliation. We are told that Jesus can do “no deed of power there.”
Along with humility, we see another side of Jesus. It is not the “fundamentally available” one that Isaac described last week. Instead, Jesus is so shocked by the unbelief of his own neighbors that he moves on to other villages. In his amazement at their lack of faith, Jesus leaves. In response to his childhood friends and family, who reject him, Jesus takes off.
3. Jesus continues teaching, but his ministry shifts. After being rejected himself, Jesus turns and commissions his disciples. I can hear them asking, “Really Jesus, what makes you think that we will be accepted if you yourself were rejected?” But Jesus ignores any such concerns. Directly after his own authority is rejected, Jesus gives authority to his disciples.
And Jesus prepares them for ministry. The author records the second direct quotation from Jesus in this passage. Jesus instructs: “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
The disciples will be rejected and the author finds the only part of Jesus’ commissioning that necessitates word-for-word transmission are Jesus’ instructions how to react when they experience rejection. The disciples are not to retaliate; they are not to take offense. They are to imitate the humility of their teacher. They are to shake the dust off their feet and move on. In the face of rejection, Jesus instructs the disciples to forfeit their availability and leave. Like Jesus, rejection for the disciples necessitates moving on.
Let’s pause for a moment and think about the fundamental availability of God discussed in last week’s sermon. Isaac described God’s availability as: “steadfast love—[It is] not just that God is able to love when he needs to… God is a love that isn’t flaky; it’s steadfast, unmovable love… [It is] a love that is always available.” How is Jesus embodying this steadfast love in this week’s passage? Isn’t he being a bit flaky? Isn’t he instructing his disciples to do likewise? Shaking the dust off one’s feet does not seem to embody steadfast love. Such an example and instructions make me nervous.
So, what is Jesus up to? I am sure that I don’t know. But I will make a few speculations, and I hope that you will be willing to speculate more during sharing time.
4. Jesus sends the disciples out two by two. Each disciple will not be allowed to rely on his own strength. In these journeys, the disciples will rely on one another. And they will carry no bread, no bag, no money, and no extra clothing. They will rely on the hospitality of others. It seems that Jesus is advocating a different sort of availability. It embraces two traits: individual weakness and perseverance in community. Jesus advocates a life of love which graciously receives. It does not rely on one’s own strength or intellect, but, at the same time, it does not throw in the towel.
So, how does this relate to the epistle lesson, in which the Apostle Paul “gladly boasts” of his weaknesses? How do Jesus and his disciples react to the “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” of which Paul boasts?
First of all, it seems that Jesus endured such things in his rejection. Jesus did not take a straw poll to see how ready people were to receive his message; he began teaching and was then rejected. The movie “The Last Temptation of the Christ” portrays one of Jesus’ townspeople hitting him with a stone. Such an act is not recorded in Mark, but it could have happened. No doubt there were some types of persecution that accompanied this rejection.
Second, strangely, the author of Mark writes that even though Jesus could do no deeds of power, he still cured a few sick people. Jesus’ ministry continued, even when it seemed that it could not.
Third, how difficult would it be to move on after being rejected in your home town? How difficult it must have been to continue teaching. Jesus continued to proclaim the same message that those who knew him best rejected outright.
And, finally, after the instructions for how the disciples were to deal with rejection, the author does not record their being rejected. He writes “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” In pairs, the disciples humbly persevered. They did not know the entirety of Jesus’ message, but they followed his instructions. And God was available through them. It is possible that, in this passage, Jesus is demonstrating and advocating a weak sort of perseverance.
5. So, what do we do with the rejection that each of us experiences. How do we embrace our own weakness, and at the same time, embrace the perseverance God’s Spirit gives? How do we know when we have persevered long enough: when it is time to shake the dust of our own feet and move on?
Let’s return to my story from earlier. This is the only way that I can attempt to deal with some of these questions. Honestly, I struggle to try to communicate the gospel of Christ to someone who is intimately familiar with it, but who does not see it as normative.
Dan continues to ask for honest dialogue. I need to participate more freely, even when Dan makes me feel silly and points out that my faith is unreasonable. I can only do my best to humbly proclaim the message as best I understand it, and hope that God’s Spirit will speak through me. And I can only point to the glimpses of God’s kingdom that I have seen: in the stories I have heard from others.
I hope that God will help me persevere despite my own weaknesses. I hope that Dan will see that God is most available when we are weak. And I am confident in these hopes through the testimony of the church. God has worked and continues to work in and through the lives of many weak people. This work provides us with glimpses of his reconciled kingdom. As God told the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Let’s boast all the more gladly of our weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may continue to dwell in us.