Sermons That Work

Hometowns, Pentecost 6 (B) – July 4, 2021

July 04, 2021

RCL: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

What do you think about when someone mentions your hometown? Maybe it’s the sight of your mother’s overabundant garden or running through the backyard to get to your grandparents’ house. Maybe your hometown holds fond recollections of playing summer baseball or walking to the corner store—a few coins in hand—with your best friend. Maybe it’s a creaky porch that your family used to occupy every Saturday morning, or your father’s distinctive recipes, those familiar smells rising from the stove. Maybe you remember how hot and sticky the summers were, or the dozens of times your back ached because of shoveling snow.

A hometown can communicate comfort and security. There is something about driving on well-traveled streets, of walking into a restaurant and seeing people you know or who know your parents and cannot believe how you’ve grown. There can be profound warmth in such a familiar world.

Sometimes, though, hometowns are less the stuff of dreams than they are of nightmares. Hometowns can trigger instances of deep trauma, resurrecting decades-old anxieties. Maybe the memories of your hometown are not comforting at all. Maybe they’re pockmarked by being chastised for your faith (or lack thereof), dismissed for your crazy political beliefs. Maybe your hometown is the place you first looked evil in the eyes, where you were ostracized for who you knew yourself to be or what you wanted to do with your life or whom you loved.

Hometowns conjure up all kinds of memories and emotions. Over the years, they become saturated with profound import and meaning and can even take on a life of their own. Hometowns can be lifegiving and heart-rending and everything in between. Today, our gospel text from Mark recounts Jesus returning to his hometown with his disciples in tow. And for all the pleasant moments that might have brought to his mind, there were, we hear, some pretty significant challenges.

Now, the gospels don’t give us much on Jesus’ upbringing; his family picture albums seem pretty sparse after the wise men depart from the inn. But based on a handful of textual clues, it is safe to assume that Mary and Joseph were devout Jews who trusted in God’s plan and provision, and that Jesus would have been the beneficiary of such a faithful rearing. Remember that scene where adolescent Jesus is at the synagogue for three days, sitting amidst the religious leaders, peppering them with questions? Take that and run with it. Let your imagination fill in the gaps of his formative years.

Nearly twenty years later, Jesus sets out from his home, invites some working-class guys to accompany him, and begins his formal ministry. He’s seen all over the place, traveling in and out of homes and villages and cities around the Galilee, teaching and healing and calling others to a new sort of life. Along the way, Jesus utters some cryptic sayings about the kingdom of God and near-blasphemous statements about his relationship to God. Throughout Mark’s gospel, he tells those who witness these things not to speak, for fear that their testimonies will fall into the wrong hands.

But word spreads, as word tends to do, and people flock to Jesus, either for their own sakes or for the sake of another. Some want to be made well in body or soul. Others, it seems, want to see a miracle with their own two eyes. In Mark 5, immediately before our text today, crowds congregate to glimpse Jesus casting out demons in the land of the Gerasenes. Others attend to him raising the daughter of a synagogue official and healing a woman with a blood disorder. Jesus has been busy, and away from home, but the road now leads him back to Nazareth.

Surely Nazareth was a place of some comfort for Jesus. Surely it held smells and sights and sounds that forced him to stop and think of playing in the dusty alleys or sitting down to a Sabbath meal with his family. But whatever nostalgia flooded back was quickly stemmed by a demon of a different sort; Jesus names it as a lack of faith, a collective inability to see the hand of God at work because of past assumptions: “Where did this man get all this? . . . Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

If a hometown is a comfortable place, it’s understandable why a prophet would not be welcome there. Prophets are not dictated by comfort or custom but driven by divine obligation. Hometowns are places often bound, sometimes paralyzed, by precedent. Prophets come to unsettle, to startle a people into new ways of seeing the world, and to demand them cease their spiritual backsliding. Hometowns occasionally toe the line of the status quo. Prophets disrupt the status quo, speaking light and life into the creeping darkness of what has come to be “normal” or “natural”.

Thinking about a hometown is an exercise in thinking about the complexity of being human, our myriad, everyday habits—some good, some not so good. It’s about appreciating the intricate beauties of a place we’ve called home for years. But it’s also about shrewd ways we insulate our lives from failure, from fear, from “those people.” What are the hometowns we have created for ourselves? Where are the places of comfort that have brought us grace? Where are the sealed-off places where we are doing our best to insulate ourselves and curate a nice, clean life, untouched by those we deem filthy?

It’s understandable why we would be hesitant to let Jesus into either one of these spaces. Why would we want to disrupt that which is good and cozy, especially in a world where good news can be hard to come by? Alternatively, why would we allow ourselves to be stretched and challenged, for our lives to be undone, willingly, with all the awkwardness and unease that can bring?

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

It is uncomfortable to let a prophet’s presence wreak havoc in the corners of your heart, in your own house, among your own people. But letting God speak into what we think of as the warmest, coziest places of our lives might increase our souls’ capacity for love—for both God and our neighbors. If we allow Jesus’ prophetic presence to sink in, something like scales might well fall from our eyes, encouraging us to see those who were, for the longest time, invisible. We might start to witness walls of hostility and division come down, or cease to be built in the first place. We might learn to welcome those whom we, at one time, labeled “unsafe” or “other” or “criminal”.

What might it look like for us to be disrupted by Jesus the prophet here and now? There are no pat answers; each life is different and experiences grace and healing uniquely. But I would wager that it would look like taking stock of “how things have always been done” and exploring how the church can proclaim and enact hope in transformative ways. Opening ourselves, our communities, our neighborhoods, and our nation to such a prophet is not easy. But doing so can bring about beautiful fruit and leave us, like those in the synagogue, “astounded” at God’s words and works. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Andrew (“Drew”) Harmon is the Senior Associate Rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, La. Prior to his coming to St. James, he served as a parish priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. In addition to parish ministry, he has worked in university ministries at Clemson University, retirement community chaplaincy, and as undergraduate theology instructor at Marquette University, where he completed his Ph.D. in Historical Theology.

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