Saturday, July 7, 2012

Protecting Our Faith

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. (Mark 6.11)

Talking a Big Game

Quickly in the Western film’s evolution a standard scene became a fixture in its grammar. It comes soon after the movie establishes that the good people of a dusty outpost have suffered greatly under an intimidating gang. A meeting is held—usually in the town’s little church or schoolhouse—to figure out what can be done. The citizens pressure the sheriff to confront the villains. But when he asks for help most refuse, leaving him and a handful of irregulars to the big showdown. Providence sides with the good guys and the thugs are routed. Yet these films typically end on a sour note. After restoring order, the sheriff moves on. He knows this won’t be the last time outlaws besiege the town. Once again, he’ll appeal to the people for support. Once again, they’ll resist and expect him to do the impossible. But the next time may not go his way. The sheriff rides into the sunset, looking for a town where his talents and courage aren’t taken for granted—where doing the right thing isn’t left solely to him and a ragtag few.

This is the situation in Mark 6.1-13 (Sunday’s Gospel). Jesus comes back to his hometown, Nazareth, trailed by a ragtag crew of disciples. He stands in the synagogue to teach the good news of God’s kingdom. Yet the villagers don’t warm to His message. Something about Jesus has changed during his time away from them. He’s talking a big game—overcoming evil with good and trusting God’s power instead of relying on tradition—and His far-fetched ideals offend the Nazarenes’ pious complacence. “Where did this man get all this?” they ask. (v2) With news of Jesus’s exploits preceding Him, His friends, family, and neighbors expect Him to do great things for them, too. 

What they don’t anticipate is Jesus isn’t a one-man show. His ministry centers on recruiting other people to assist in the world-changing task God has given Him. When the Nazarenes—who should be first in line to rally around their local boy’s cause—learn that, the show’s over. Jesus rings down the curtain with a scathing observation: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” He says. (v4) Mark points out that their disbelief amazes Jesus and ties His hands so that, other than a few simple healings, He “could do no deed of power there.” (v5) Like the sheriff who can’t rely on the townspeople for support, Jesus gathers His disciples and moves on.


Rather than end with Jesus riding into the sunset, Mark does a sly bit of narrative splicing that makes us privy to how the Nazarenes’ rejection affects His ministerial philosophy. Realizing He’s dangerously close to leading a cult of personality that makes Him the star and reduces His following to a fan club, He decides to send out the disciples in pairs, deputizing them as teachers and healers to wrest control from unclean spirits they meet. (v7) He instructs them to travel light. They’re to carry staffs and wear shoes for self-protection. Everything else—bags, bread, money, and changes of clothes—must be left behind. If they enter a welcoming place, they’re to remain there until their work is done. No doubt smarting from His shoddy reception in Nazareth, Jesus stresses the disciples don’t need to hang around where they’re unwanted. “As you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them,” He says. (v11) The disciples do as told and have much success. They proclaim the gospel, cast out demons, and cure many who are sick. (v12-13)

This dust-shaking business speaks to the bruised kids in all of us, I think. There’s a bit of “that’ll teach ‘em” in it, perhaps even a little immaturity in liking how Jesus approves a gesture to signify we want not one speck of filth that collects around places where we’re not wanted. And Jesus frankly says that shaking off the dirt of hostile people is meant to be “a testimony against them.” Yet it’s possible there’s more to this than proving a point—particularly since Jesus is always far less concerned with condemnation than consideration for others. So in this case, we must also ask who might these “others” be? And He answers our question before training us how to react to unfriendly people. In part, we shake off the dirt of rejection for the sake of those who welcome us. To understand this, we need to know a little about social courtesy in Jesus’s time.

Safe, Healthy Places

Today, when welcoming outsiders to our homes, we take their coats and give them something to eat and drink. It’s a ritual of hospitality designed to make them feel at home and know we’re eager to spend time with them. In Jesus’s time, the hospitality ritual includes washing guests’ feet. It’s meant to alleviate visitors’ concern about tracking dirt into the home—to mitigate the possibility the host will regret opening his/her door. Thus, when Jesus tells the disciples to shake off the dust of unwelcome places, He’s directing them not to burden good people with filth they pick up elsewhere. Moving on means letting go. Finding more hospitable company requires us to shake off people and places that reject us. In a way, Jesus tells us to avoid behaving like spurned lovers who pollute—and in some cases destroy—healthy relationships by clinging to pain and outrage we should have left behind long ago.

Yet Jesus is talking about more than relationships. He’s teaching us how to protect our faith. When seeking kindred spirits and communities of faith, He emphasizes we should find places where we’re accepted and work there. We don’t have time to waste on people who doubt our witness or question our legitimacy. Our calling comes from Christ, Who sends us to those eager to welcome us and hear our message. They don’t deserve the dirt of hostility any more than we do. Hanging around where we’re not wanted is of no benefit to anyone. But in moving on, we must take care not to track the filth of past rejections into havens of hospitality and burden those who welcome us with messes they didn’t make. Moving on means letting go of past harms and making ourselves at home in safe, healthy places.

In our search for welcoming faith homes, we take care not to track the filth that collects around hostile people and places into safe havens of hospitality.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Do the Math

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18.21-22)

“’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” was one of my grandmother’s favorite hymns. When she sang it to herself, she turned it into a prayer by replacing “Him” with “You”:

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust You
How I’ve proved You o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus
O for grace to trust You more

I often hear her when I read Jesus’s admonition that we should forgive those who offend us many times (“seventy-seven” in some translations, “seventy times seven” elsewhere). I imagine Peter giving Jesus one of those “Really?” looks, and Jesus nodding with eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Trust Me.” All of this forgiveness calculus comes after Jesus lays out a very specific protocol for handling differences with fellow believers. He hasn’t mentioned forgiveness, but it’s clear that He’s concerned about unaddressed slights and sins enslaving His followers. Peter catches Jesus after the lesson and asks, “Should I forgive a repeat offender seven times?” It’s a plausible question, albeit a somewhat self-aggrandizing one. Since the Transfiguration, it’s increasingly apparent that Peter’s being groomed to take over when Jesus is gone, and he wants to reassure the Lord he’s got the right stuff. To his surprise, Jesus says he's grossly miscalculated what will be asked of him—either he’s off by 70, or a factor of 70. In any case, Peter’s magnanimous offer isn’t nearly enough. Really?

When we do the math, we realize the magic isn’t in the numbers. It’s in the product. Multiplied forgiveness goes beyond incidental pardon and seeds in us the daily practice of grace. Christ calls us to a transcendent state that frees us of weights we take upon ourselves by withholding forgiveness—heavy chains of resentment, confusion, despair, and cynicism. It’s not as simple as telling those who wound us, “It’s okay.” It’s not okay for someone to hurt us, denigrate us, or inflict violence of any kind on us. Yet the only way to overcome our pain and disappointment is to return grace for ill will. To do as Jesus says requires us to trust it’s in our best interest to repudiate insults with grace. So when we rework the equation, replacing the numbers with Christ’s meaning, this is what we get:

Forgiveness X Trust = Grace

Forgiveness multiplied by trust yields Christ-like grace—the same bottomless grace we seek for ourselves, no matter how many times we fail. Do the math. Forgiveness isn’t really about mercy we extend to those who fail us; it’s about witnessing the grace Christ extends to us.

Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus
O for grace to trust You more