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Hometown Blues
Dr. Todd B. Jones
July 8, 2012

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Mark 6:1-13

Connie and I returned last night from eight long days and nights in Pittsburgh, my hometown, where I served as a commissioner to the General Assembly of the PCUSA, one of 688 elected to carry on the work of the national church.  We had a tenth floor room that looked out on the confluence of the three rivers that form the downtown of this great city.  More importantly, our room looked out on PNC Park and the Roberto Clemente Bridge that leads across the Allegheny River to one of the best ballparks in America.  We only found time to make it to one baseball game all week, but that game was won by the Pirates with a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning.  It was one of the most exciting and best baseball games I have ever seen, and my team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won it.  They actually won seven of eight ga

mes while we were in Pittsburgh and took over first place for the first time since 1992.  Actually, the Pirates have had a losing record for 19 straight seasons, a record of mediocrity unrivaled in the history of major league baseball, or major league sports of any kind.  So to see my favorite team win an exciting game and move into first place was a thrill.

At General Assembly, I was asked to chair the Committee on the Confessions of the Church.  There is no assignment I would rather have been given, as it meant our committee got to deal with matters of serious theology.  (There are many things I find disappointing about the Presbyterian Church, but I love our theology found in our Book of Confessions.)  We adopted a new and vastly improved translation of the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism, one we did in conjunction with the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  It included the original 1563 scriptural citations omitted from the often flawed 1950’s translation that we had been using.  It is accurate and easier to read, and with this will come a new book and study guide written by my dear friend and colleague Craig Barnes, who came to lead worship for our committee one morning.  We also voted to begin the process once again of adopting a new confession for the Presbyterian Church called the Belhar Confession.  Belhar was written in 1985 by the Church in South Africa in response to the practice of apartheid, and it states that “the unity of the Church is both a gift and an obligation,” and is based solely upon Jesus Christ.  Sixty-five percent of the world’s Presbyterians now live in the global south, and this will be the first confession that allows the voice of the Church in the southern hemisphere to be heard.  Our committee ran the table on the business we presented to the Assembly, so all in all, it was an exhausting, but a very good week spent in my hometown. 

Things did not go as well for Jesus when He returned to His hometown of Nazareth.  Jesus had been gathering huge crowds in Capernaum and other places in Galilee where He was healing the sick, casting out demons and calming storms on the sea. In Mark, when Jesus calms the sea with a word, the disciples look at one another and ask, “Who is this man, that even the winds and waves obey him?” So Jesus returns to His hometown and on the Sabbath He began to teach in the synagogue.  At first, many were “astounded” or “astonished” at Jesus’ teaching.  But then they start to reflect on who He is.  “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?” “Familiarity breeds contempt,” we like to say, and here we see it.  John says in the prologue to his Gospel, “He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not….” So they “take offense” at Jesus.

They are “astonished” by the way Jesus teaches, but they cannot get past the fact that it is Jesus, whom they have known all His life.  He is, after all, the “son of Mary.”  Some scholars think that the failure to mention Joseph may be a sign of a slur, a reference to the questionable status of Joseph in the birth of Jesus.  Maybe this was born of whispers in the small town of Jesus’ childhood.  Jesus’ origins were too familiar for them really to allow His message to be taken seriously.  And it is always easy to find reasons to be cynical, or reasons not to believe.  They rejected Jesus because He was, in a word, too human. 

When I read a passage like this, I always find myself asking, “How would I have reacted?”  Would I have been able to believe, to hear Jesus’ message, or would I have allowed my own cynicism and doubt to “switch off” Jesus?  I venture to say that we all have our fair share of skepticism, we all struggle not to let our expectations blind us to what is actually before us.

So their skepticism draws from Jesus a well-known aphorism from the ancient world.  Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” The Gospel of Thomas offers another form of this same saying of Jesus: “No prophet is acceptable in his village; no physician works cures on those who know him.”

Familiarity breeds contempt.  I read recently Walter Cronkite’s memoir written in 1996, A Reporter’s Life.  We tend to think of Walter as the esteemed journalist who towers above all other television news reporters.  But did you know that CBS News fired Cronkite not once, but twice in the 1950’s?  They tried him as the host to CBS Morning Show, trying to beat NBC Today Show in the ratings.  After Cronkite failed to improve their ratings, they dropped him from the show, much like NBC just dropped Ann Curry from the Today Show.  Then they tried Walter again on CBS Morning Show, this time with a promising young performer from North Carolina named Dick Van Dyke!  After six months, they fired them both, citing the lack of chemistry! 

Familiarity breeds contempt.  It can also blind us to the truth before our very eyes.  Mark loves irony.  The folks in Nazareth are at first astonished by Jesus’ teaching.  But in the end, it is Jesus who is “amazed.” But He is “amazed at their unbelief.”

This is the most troubling part of the story.  “And Jesus could do no deed of power there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And He was amazed at their unbelief.” Jesus’ powerlessness is not primarily about Him, but about us, about those who are unwilling to believe the great things Jesus can do in a life, or in our world.

The clear message here is that if they had believed in Him, Jesus could have done a great deal more.  The spiritual climate of a people, or a church, say, its sense of expectancy, its openness to the power of God at work through Jesus, will in fact have a great deal to do with how much God’s power can accomplish.  What about us?  Are we open to Jesus?  Can we still be astonished by His teaching?  Do we believe in His power?  Do we think Jesus still can make a difference in our church and in the world?

I want to say “yes” to all those questions!  I don’t ever want to be the reason Jesus is not heard, or is not believed, or cannot be powerfully present in our midst.  How about you?  “Come, Lord Jesus!”


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