Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pentecost 5
Proper 9
Mark 6: 1-13

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My twenty-three year old son didn’t want to be my friend on Facebook when I first asked him. He wasn’t very pleased to learn that many of my friends and I use Facebook, the social networking site. He said he liked Facebook much better when it was restricted to college students only. But my friends and I are hardly alone as older users, as many of you who are Facebook users well know. An article published in the New York Times a few months ago noted that Facebook usage increased 276 per cent among people aged thirty-five to fifty-four in the second half of 2008. The author of the article estimates that there are about seven million users in the thirty-five to fifty-four age bracket.
But these seven million users are a small number in comparison to the twenty-five million users under the age of twenty-five. Those of us in the aforementioned older age bracket, and in even older age categories, came to Facebook in middle age or later, with our adult identities already formed. The author of the Times article raises the question of how Facebook will affect the development of adult identity for users who begin using Facebook as early as middle school. It used to be possible to disappear after high school and try out a new identity—the class overachiever might party for a while and the class slacker might find a studious side he never knew had. But how will a person try something new when her high school self is preserved on her own page and on the pages of her friends? Will Facebook make it even harder to break out of roles a person has outgrown at home and in his community? It was difficult enough to do that in the old days before Facebook and other social networking sites. Many of us have had the experience of moving away from home and acquiring new knowledge and competence. We’re shocked when we return home for a holiday feeling like we’ve achieved a lot of growth and are treated as the person we used to be instead of the person we’ve become. This treatment is infuriating, and it might actually undermine our ability to perform at our new level. We might think there’s something wrong with us, but actually we’re up against the perennial human problems of resistance to change and expectations influencing our ability to perform.
Since Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, he isn’t exempt from these problems. In today’s gospel reading, he struggles with the contrast between who he actually is and his hometown’s ideas about him. Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus quiet a storm in response to the disciples’ distress. In last week’s gospel reading we saw Jesus as an effective and respected healer. Jesus’ reputation as a healer was strong enough that Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, approached Jesus as his last hope to cure a desperately ill daughter. While en route to Jairus’ house, a woman who’d suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years reached out and touched his cloak, believing that just touching the clothes of such a powerful healer as Jesus would make her well. The woman was indeed healed. This delay made it appear that Jesus came too late to save Jairus’ daughter; the people there said that the girl was already dead. But Jesus healing power worked again, and the girl got up and walked, much to the astonishment of those present. Jesus healing abilities have been shown to be effective. Also, Jesus’ healing abilities are highly influenced and supported by the faith of those who benefit from the healing.
But however great Jesus’ renown might be elsewhere, his family and his hometown aren’t impressed. Jesus’ own family actually doubts his sanity. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, in the third chapter, Jesus is in a house where so many are gathered around him that he and his disciples aren’t even able to eat. Those assembled there were clearly very impressed with Jesus, but Jesus’ own family was not. They weren’t interested in listening to him; rather they went to try to take charge of him because they thought that he had “gone out of his mind.” At the same time the scribes from Jerusalem accused Jesus of demonic possession.
Jesus doesn’t exactly fare much better when he returns to Nazareth and gets up to preach in the synagogue. The locals are more outraged than impressed. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…?” It’s inconceivable to these Nazareans that someone from a relatively humble background could have anything to say that was worthwhile, let alone worthy of gathering crowds in other places. Rather than praise Jesus’ teaching, they would rather question how he could possibly have attained such a level of learning. Referring to Jesus as the “son of Mary” rather than as Joseph’s son constitutes a dig at the legitimacy of his parentage. The Nazareans question Jesus’ worth as an individual and also as a native of Nazareth. It’s almost as though they believe their own negative image in the region. If you recall, in John’s gospel the question is asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
By preaching as he did in the synagogue, Jesus appeared to have offended the norms of his community. People of his station from his community weren’t supposed to possess great learning and insight, much less display it. In such an atmosphere of hostility and lack of belief in Jesus’ abilities, Jesus found himself unable to perform the feats and miracles that he had been able to do quite recently. Apart from a few modest healings, Jesus “could do no deed of power there.”
Expectations are clearly important. Where there is faith, Jesus can perform miracles. Where there is little or no faith, Jesus finds his powers considerably diminished. Many of us have had the experience of flourishing under teachers or mentors who expected great things of us or of withering under those whose expectations of us were low. Clearly lack of belief in a person is damaging to individual performance. However, the potential damage goes far beyond that of hampering personal development.
When an individual, a community or a group does what the Nazareans do to Jesus, they close themselves off not only to the gifts of a particular individual. They close themselves off to the workings of God in the Holy Spirit as well. It’s pretty obvious that’s what happens when his community takes offense at Jesus exceeding the expectations of his humble origins. And fortunately for us, Jesus wasn’t deterred by his reception in his hometown. But what about other people, those of who are mere mortals and not the Messiah?
I’m thinking of Pauli Murray, whose life we celebrated this past Wednesday at a special Eucharist at St. Titus Episcopal Church. Plenty of people didn’t see the Holy Spirit working in Pauli Murray, and they put obstacles in her path towards living out God’s dream for her. The University of North Carolina didn’t think African Americans had any place in their law school, so Pauli studied law at Howard University, an African American institution. Her fellow law students at Howard didn’t think a woman had any business attending their law school, and she was actively discriminated against by her fellow students and the faculty. During the McCarthy era, Pauli was turned down for a position at Cornell University because her references, who were Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Philip Randolph, were considered to be too radical. And finally, Pauli Murray was ordained priest in our church at a time when relatively few believed women were suitable for ordained ministry.
But fortunately for Pauli Murray, and for us too, there were people in her life who supported her pursuit of God’s dream for her, who nurtured this dream even in the face of all the naysayers. They saw that the Holy Spirit was working in someone the larger society considered an unlikely person—an African American woman from Durham, North Carolina.
So I ask you to look around at the people in your lives and notice where the Spirit is moving in them. The Spirit may be working actively through apparently unlikely people in our communities or even in our own homes. The Spirit may be working actively through people whose backgrounds and histories might suggest otherwise. Who ever thought an African American woman born in 1910 and growing up in Durham would ever become a lawyer and an Episcopal priest? And whoever thought that a poor Jewish carpenter from Nazareth would be the savior of the world? Amen.