I’m sure that everyone has seen the movie, Back to the Future by now. The story follows Marty and his professor “Doc” Brown as they travel back in time in a homemade time machine housed in a Delorean sports car.
But one of the interesting story lines in the movie revolves around Marty’s dad, George McFly, who is seen as weak and cowardly, fearing rejection and always living up to the expectations of the bullies in his life. George was allowing others to answer the question of who he was for him. But at some point in the movie, Marty convinces the younger version of his dad to stand up for himself, and suddenly the entire storyline changes, all because George McFly suddenly had a new way of seeing himself. A new way of determining his own value. A new way of answering the question, “Who are you?”.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples go to Jesus’ hometown. Before this, Jesus had been performing miracles; calming a storm, healing a woman with a blood disorder, raising a young girl from the dead, and preaching about the kingdom of heaven. And so when he came to his hometown, he began to teach in the synagogue there, just as he had been doing throughout the entire region. And all the people who heard what he was saying were amazed. They were astounded, and asked, “Where did this man get all of this?” Where did this man get this wisdom that he is teaching us with!? Where did this man get this power to do these mighty works!? They recognized both the power of his words, and of his actions. And they were amazed.
But then something happens.
Then they begin to question what is happening here.
They begin to answer the question posed to Jesus, the question of “Who are you?” with their own answers.
Isn’t this the carpenter? Carpenters obviously don’t have the training to be wise in the ways of God.
Isn’t this Mary’s son? My wife was the midwife who helped with his birth, and we’ve known him all his life.
Isn’t he the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And aren’t his sisters still living with us? What makes him any more special than his siblings that are still here?
And they took offence at him. His very presence in the synagogue, “pretending” to be a spiritual leader, incited their wrath, and they were scandalized by his presence there as one who would presume to teach them.
They knew him from when he was but a boy, and here he was taking on more authority than he ought to, more than he was allowed to, given his history, given what they knew about him.
And the result, Mark says, is that he did not do many works of power there. Instead, Jesus marveled at their disbelief.
Why? Because what is judgement but a form of disbelief? What is judgement but a lack of faith in what might be, based only upon what we see, and what we think we know?
They judged him by his job.
They judged him by his family.
They judged him by his history.
They judged him, despite the mighty works of power they had seen, and by the words of wisdom coming out of his mouth.
The question they were driving at, however, is “By whose authority do you speak like this, and by whose authority do you do these works of power?” Because look at him, he’s just a grown up version of the little kid we’ve always known. Where did he get this authority?
We, of course, have the blessing of hindsight, and know that Jesus was not just the brother of James, and the son of Mary, but also the son of God, the Christ, who had the very authority to teach and to heal.
But the people of his hometown only recognized Jesus for who he used to be, and were offended that he would take on more authority than they judged him to possess.
As if to underscore Jesus’ authority, Mark shifts the story back to the disciples. It says that Jesus sends them out, two by two, and that he – Jesus – gave them the authority to cast out unclean spirits. Jesus gave them very specific instructions on what to wear, and what to take with them: Do not take bread, do not take additional supplies, do not take any money on your belts; wear sandals, and only one tunic. Odd instructions, it might seem, but these things would make them dependent upon others for food and shelter. Dependent upon those to whom they were preaching a message of repentance.
But the theme of questioning people’s worth continues even here. If the disciples were traveling, looking like homeless beggars, some might be inclined to ask, “Who are you?” and to then judge them as unworthy of remaining as a guest in their house and their town. Jesus tells them to knock the dust off their feet and to continue on their way when confronted with this judgement and disbelief. But these men had been given the authority over unclean spirits, and wherever they went they cast out many demons, anointed many sick with oil, and cured them.
Think for a moment what those townspeople failed to experience, because of their judgement over those they deemed unworthy. In their minds, they saw some homeless wanderers, asking for food and shelter, and didn’t realize that these homeless wanderers could offer so much more.
It is at this point that we might pause and reflect on the fact that we are both, at times, the disciples, as well as the various townspeople who rejected both them and Jesus.
Each of us, when we come to understand the reality of Jesus, becomes a part of the body of Christ. And it is through each of us that God chooses to bring about God’s plan for the world, each according to their own ability, and according to God’s desires. Each of us is sent by God for this purpose. And if we are all sent by God, then all those we meet might very possibly also be sent by God.
Think of what we might miss out on, if we were to look at them, and ask, “Who are you?” and deem them to be less than what we hoped for. Think of the opportunities we might miss out on to see God’s work in the world, because we look upon others, and judge them by their position in life, their family, or their history. Think of the changes in storyline that might never happen, because of our own judgement and disbelief that God can work through those we deem incapable.
If there was someone who could be judged for his history in this world, it would be the Apostle Paul. Before his conversion, Paul went about the ancient world, looking for communities of believers, so that he could put to death the leaders of those groups and break apart those fledgling communities.
In many places, Paul was judged. Judged for his history of damaging those that belonged to the newfound faith in Christ. Sometimes even by those who were supposed to be his allies once Paul had come to join the faith and joined the way. Paul knew rejection. And Paul knew what it meant to be turned aside based on judgement and disbelief based on his past actions and family history.
But if there was anyone who also had reason to boast about his work in this world, it was Paul. He had been trained in the ways of religion, rhetoric, and in public leadership. He had moved about the ancient world, teaching others about Christ, starting and growing communities of believers wherever he went. He knew he had the right to boast about what he had done, but he refrained from it, in part, he says, because he had been given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep from thinking too highly of himself.
Whatever this thorn was, Paul wanted to get rid of it, but in his prayers, God told Paul repeatedly, that this ailment would remain.
Why? Because Paul wanted to answer this question of “Who are you?” or “Who am I?” with an answer of “I am of great importance in God’s work in this world.” And God wanted Paul to answer the question of “Who are you?” with the response of, “I am someone God has sent, and it is only through God’s grace and power that the work I do bears fruit.”
Whatever this thorn was, Paul experienced it as a weakness – a defect – and he wanted to rid himself of this thorn because it made him dependent upon others, an attitude that is not unlike our own culture’s view of weakness. Yet it was in that dependence upon others, that admission of weakness, that God’s grace was made perfect. Paul was reminded that he both could not, and should not, do this work on his own. Paul should instead turn to others, and ask the question “Who are you?” and see that they too were part of God’s plan in the world, a part of the body of Christ, doing good works.
Here again, we can pause and reflect upon the idea that we are, at times, both the townspeople that rejected the disciples, as well as those sent by God, like the disciples and Paul.
The confusion arises, however, when we play both parts simultaneously.
We may be confronted by an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to become more involved, and sense the urgency and necessity, but then stop and ask ourselves, “Who are you?” And we answer it with determinations of our own weakness. We begin to wonder what we really have to offer, or deem our own abilities too insignificant to make a difference. We stand back and judge ourselves with disbelief.
Think for a moment about the opportunities we might miss out on, if we answer that question by passing judgment on ourselves, our position in life, our family of origin, or our own histories.
God’s power is made perfect in our weakness too, provided we are willing to admit that weakness and seek the interdependence with others who are on the same journey toward becoming more like Christ. It is by recognizing that everyone is part of the body of Christ, and part of God’s hand in this world, that we become a beloved community, one that sees God in everyone, from those rejected by society to those standing at its pinnacles.
We may not have the luxury of going back in time and changing things in our past, like Marty McFly did for his father George. But we have the luxury of changing our present perspective, which may change our whole storyline.
When it comes to ourselves, we can choose to answer the question of “Who are you?” with the answer of “I am God’s hands and feet in this world, and God’s power is made perfect in my own weakness, because I am God’s beloved apostle.”
And then we can turn to others, and answer that same question with, “And so are you.”[This sermon was delivered at The Episcopal Church of St. Matthew in Tucson, AZ on July 4, 2021.]
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.