I remember my first year of ordained ministry. I was 26 years old. I had attended the church since high school. I’d been a seminarian under care for ordination. And they had sent me out as a short term missionary. When I received a call to ministry there it seemed perfect. But I discovered that it’s hard to be taken seriously as an adult when you’ve been known as a child. More than being rejected I felt patronized. They were very nice about it during the first year.
But in my second year I hosted a retreat for families called Struggling Free. It was an attempt to bring a message of social justice to a congregation that didn’t seem to know much about it. I figured they would want to know about it, just like I had. After the retreat two different men took me out to lunch to let me know that, while they were sure it was a misunderstanding, the message I was bringing to the church was communist, and it would be better if I stopped right then.
So Jesus isn’t the only one who knew that the toughest place to change is home. And it’s not just that others react in a certain way to us. We respond the same way. Not only prophets are without honor in their own house. Anyone who’s ever wanted to change anything has at some point experienced resistance and rejection from family and friends. Farther away from familiar settings we usually get a less emotional reaction. There’s less at stake, so people don’t react as energetically.
Before we look at the story of the resistance Jesus faced in his hometown, we need admit that the subject of resistance is tricky. It cuts both ways. Typically people resist change. Sometimes that’s good, and often it is just a reaction of fear. But today we talk about sacred resistance, as we resist efforts to turn back the clock on all kinds of social advances. Jesus was resisting the oppression of the Roman and Jewish systems. His former neighbors were resisting his resistance. So it’s not just about resistance; it’s about discerning between constructive resistance and damaging resistance. And it’s about recognizing our own resistance to the message we mostly embrace.
Mark tells two stories of resistance: in his home town, and toward his disciples on their mission. In both cases people were resisting the message that something new was happening. Some villagers the disciples would visit would reject them. They did not welcome the message. Jesus said to shake off the dust on their feet. His family and hometown struggled to accept him. He was receiving lots of attention; that made him a model son and citizen. But in his last run in with his family he told them in not-so-diplomatic terms that my mother and my brothers are those who do the will of God – not the most endearing way to relate to family! In a small town, rifts in the family don’t go unnoticed. The whole town of Nazareth was scandalized by Jesus’ unorthodox words and actions.
Scandal is an interesting word. Scandals occur when people we see as models of something we admire do something we don’t expect. One theologian (Robert Hamerton-Kelley) argues that scandals begin when we assume that we could be our model’s equal; that we could do the same thing. The truth is, we don’t just want to be equal; we want to surpass the model. The only problem is that if we pull that off, the person stops being a model. So we don’t really want that to happen because we only have the desire to be a certain way because of the model. So our desire is a contradiction: we want to both surpass and be surpassed by our model. We attack and cherish, hate and love, diminish and exalt the model. We love what we hate and hate what we love. Scandal is at the core of our anxiety (and our addiction)
Think about it. Mark says that Jesus both impressed and scandalized the hometown crowd in Nazareth: many who heard him were astounded. Where did he get all this? Such wisdom that has been given to him; so many deeds of power are done by his hands! But he also scandalized them: Isn’t this the carpenter, Mary’s son , and brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon; and aren’t his sisters here with us? The proverb, a prophet is honored everywhere except in his own home sums it up. People’s envy means the model will both attract and repel at the same time. The crowd wants to both be like him and destroy him, precisely because he is so attractive.
Jesus promised and gave evidence for a new beginning just when nothing new looked possible. The townsfolk noticed that Jesus life had been strangely and inexplicably changed. That energizes! Jesus was trustworthy – he made a difference! Yes, his words and actions could be abrasive; but the ones who received him and his gifts, and let their reality be reshaped, didn’t notice the abrasiveness. It wasn’t against them; it was against a way of ordering society whose death they had long affirmed!
But where there is no belief, there can be no energy. It’s possible to resist being energized. Those who are free to embrace newness don’t need to resist. But those who value the old way must resist. Jesus had contradicted the norms of society about what’s clean and unclean; he questioned moral distinctions upon which their religion and society was based. When basic beliefs are called into question, it jeopardizes all the justifications of political, economic and social inequality. Like Jesus, we need to question the beliefs of this administration.
Family values used to be code for a particular model of family. We don’t hear that phrase now that the same folks support separating families. But even as we advocate for not separating families we must note that Jesus insists that there is a higher priority than family power and obligation. Meant to help us become independent adults, family power often aborts the process and becomes a source of oppression. Many know the experience of being reduced to someone’s child, and thus be no one in particular, whether by a family system, extended family or a local community; whether outwardly or inwardly. For some, to be saved means to be set free from such shackles.
Our world is deeply divided around these and other issues. And our leaders are exacerbating the divisions. The White House continues to offer deeply divisive depictions of political opponents and oppressed minorities. That serves a political calculation designed to energize supporters, while dividing a nation. People of faith must actively resist those divisions, politically and personally.
In the church, debates about morality teeter between dialogue and division. How do we find the clarity to decide in all these situations when it is time to “cut and run” – and shake the dust off our feet on the way – and when it is time to stay and negotiate? Both can be ways to respect resistance. Agreeing to disagree is sometimes a form of respect. So is compromise. Even in the Episcopal Church, this week’s convention divides between those who want to keep the Prayer Book the same, and those who want to update it to reflect changes in language and society since 1979.
Jesus showed that clarity comes partly from being in a healthy emotional state. He entered Nazareth, and instructed the disciples to enter other towns, with a joyful countenance- assuming that people would receive them and want to be in relationship with them. When that didn’t happen, he told them to leave that place and find a more welcoming environment. He wanted them to experience a balance between being welcomed and being resisted.
I’ve shared before about experience I had attending a workshop on changing racism. Some of us were standing around afterwards as one of the facilitators told us how intentional she was about seeking out people who make her feel good about herself. She knew that her wellbeing and her ability to be compassionate depend on having more welcoming responses than resistant and critical ones. She said she actually asked people to tell her good things about herself. I was shocked by the idea of asking for a compliment. I was taught to never do that. But I’d also never thought about balancing criticism and positive feedback.
Maybe that’s part of Jesus’ personal spiritual practice as well as what he instructed the disciples. Intentionally balancing welcome and resistance strikes me as both a mission strategy and a psycho-spiritual strategy. As mission strategy, respecting resistance by shaking the dust off as we leave takes into account that new movements aren’t going to gain strength unless they focus their energy– at least initially – where there is a positive response. New movements don’t have the energy to deal with a lot of resistance.
As a psycho-spiritual strategy it takes into account that followers of Jesus have a counter-cultural faith. The mainstream is not going to welcome it. In that situation we need the psycho-spiritual encouragement that we are following the right path. A colleague told a story about a student at Occidental College who told him: “I’m involved in all kinds of groups on campus that support social justice. One day it occurred to me that I do all this is because of my Christian faith – so where is the Christian community on this campus that can support me?” We must encourage each other to keep believing. As the letter to the Hebrews says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another.” (Heb. 10:24-5)
Of course, that could awaken more resistance, since some of the resistance comes from within the church. But if we encourage each other, eyes might be opened to the reasons inside us that we resist our own message and that of others. An environment of mutual affirmation makes us feel safe enough to face our own resistance, and not just take positions based on pleasing or opposing others. In that environment, resistance to our message from our own community can expose our own resistance to parts of the message we have ignored because it was too threatening to us. That helps us become more whole. So the work of resistance is never just one way, and it is not always obvious. It requires discernment and self-awareness.
Sisters and brothers, Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. May God grant us the courage to resist all that opposes God’s reign, and to overcome our resistance to what God wants, but which can cost us greatly.