The Woods is Full of Preachers

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 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?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he 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. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 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.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

 

For those of us who are fortunate enough to have a place we call “hometown,” I’m sure this passage evokes all kinds of feelings. One of the best and worst things about growing up in a small town is that everybody knows you, for good or ill. The familiar is not a bad thing, in fact it can be quite comforting. However, you often find out just how difficult it is to change, grow or, God forbid, innovate, if you are the one trying to introduce a new idea into an overly familiar system. The process itself can often overwhelm the system’s ability to receive new information and wreak havoc on relationships, shutting down any new thing altogether or simply becoming mired in process. So, we can feel Jesus’ pain when he makes the frustrated statement, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Ouch! It hurts because it’s true.

Church systems often function much like hometowns. A group of people that have often been together a long time and identify around a very familiar set of rules and regulations, denominational polity or whatever, and tend to rely upon the familiar as framework, an entire reference of being. Without it, without our Sunday morning services complete with bulletin and PowerPoint, our regular preacher, or the regular rituals that we’ve become accustomed to practicing, and in perfect order, our fragile system that we like to think of as an absolute just becomes overwhelmed, uncomfortable, threatened and often begins to reject any new thing. Often, the energy of new things becomes mired in the collective consciousness, otherwise known here as the system, that is dominated by the fear of change. Yet history and science warn us that any system that loses its ability to adapt is in danger of extinction.

That is why prophecy has always been a tradition that speaks subversively to the established order, calling it to embrace its collective fears and overcome the dangers of stagnation. Prophecy works this way because much is at stake, the growth of the soul of the individual through relationship with God, the path to healing and wholeness, and the community’s call to justice for the oppressed, the two are inextricably linked and we call it the gospel. The cry is always to “come out of her my people,” come out of mindset of the entrapment that institutionalization can often bring, clinging to the comforts of stratified social and economic structures that have become more important than the mission itself. The challenge is not necessarily to de-institutionalize, but to learn what it means to defect in place. To quote Richard Rohr, to be the community of Christ is to be willing to say, “Thy kingdom come and my kingdom go.” To learn to channel the Divine in human structures is always the challenge, sometimes we get mired indefinitely.

The gospel deconstructs the worlds we build, our precious towers to God, it always has. The gospel is and has always been good news for the poor. It is also a kingdom on the move, unsettled, restive, traveling light, with the keys to the handcuffs of injustice dangling on its belt, at the ready. This radical message is one that is often rejected by those who prefer the comfort and predictability of the established order over the call to the radical hospitality of the gospel. So Jesus tells us in this passage, in no uncertain terms, that if anyone rejects this gospel, the followers of Christ are to shake the dust off their feet and keep moving.

This all reminds me of a time in my tradition, Methodism, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when preachers, men and women, rode horseback through the woods, shaking the dust off their feet and clothes whenever they arrived in gathering places all across the newly forming nation with a message from God: “Repent and believe the gospel!” Powerful stuff.

My grandfather’s parents were what he called “fire brand Methodist” and the country church that held his family’s loyalty was spilling over at the brim every Sunday, he recalled, in his childhood days. Converted to Baptist as an adult, he would say of his childhood church, whenever we passed it down the dusty, gravel road, looking forlorn, “There was a time when the Methodists had Spirit.” He became Baptist when they lost it, as his story went, sometime around the 1950’s. He never understood the Baptist practice of searching for pastors. Baptists perform a search and call for pastors while Methodists appoint them through a Bishop. He would often exclaim in his frustrated, latecomer Baptist state whenever his church lost a pastor, “Well, just go out in the woods and catch one, the woods is full of preachers.”

He had a point.

Jesus sent his followers out without supplies, telling them to take no extra clothes, no food, no water, no money. At some point, we are to understand that this discipleship thing is not about money or possessions. I’m certain the early circuit riding preachers understood this fully, often having to overnight in the woods, living for long stretches without supplies, the passion of the gospel driving them to crank the wheels of the Methodist machine, the bottom man, and a few brave women, on the totem pole of organized religion, those preachers in the woods.

I’m sure my grandfather never imagined that I would follow in their footsteps, though I always had an affinity for the woods and horses. I often thought he harbored suspicion towards the settled clergy, for all those who gave up on the traveling church, opting for the comfortable rituals of the established order.

He would have agreed with Alexis de’ Toqueville’s famous observation, made as traveled through America in the early 1800’s, that wherever he met a preacher he would also encounter (in the same person) a politician. Perhaps this is what my grandfather sensed in those same keen hunter senses that fed his family on wild game, traveling, as he did from woods to woods, from sharecropper to carpenter, from shop keeper to farmer, man of his own authority, that church and politics were like heaven and hell, they came as a set, regardless of what the founding fathers said.

Today, I serve in what feels like, at times, the haunted woods of old time religion. In these woods, I hear the footsteps of women and men shuffling restively around the ghosts in the pews that far outnumber them. While the circuit riders often played to overflowing crowds where the Spirit roamed freely, often reporting miraculous wonders of healing among the people, their ears still full of the dust of the trail, we are lucky to have the faithful few on Sunday morning, sans the ghosts, of course. It’s confusing that the same church with this firebrand history now seems to be having an identity crisis in the new, new world, and has for decades, now.

I suppose the question for all of those who follow Christ at this confusing time in the evolution of Christianity is “what do we do now?” From our story today, we know what Jesus would tell us, “follow your feet.”

Though the U.S. Census officially eliminated “frontier” as a category in 1890, well into the 21st century, we are surrounded by a new kind of wilderness. It is much like what Mark describes here in chapter 6, the invasion of the prophetic into the overly familiar and stagnant religious establishment. The true gospel always feels like a wild thing in our midst, calling us back to the story beneath the story, the world behind the world, an in depth encounter with God. Calling us out of our comforts.

Whenever we seem to have lost our way, our identity, our connection with our gospel, all we need to do is climb back into our story, it is like a map through the wilderness, it points the way. We see in our story today that we are in a sort of parallel situation. Jesus tries to do some very Jesus like things in his hometown, like being prophetic and healing people, a couple of areas where he shines as the best in his field. But everyone there is so familiar with him that they can’t seem to get on board with what he’s doing and they withdraw their support from him. Their over familiarity prevents them from seeing anything new, it blinds them, in fact, to the very truth that is right before their eyes. Jesus was hurt by this reaction, but what’s more is that their lack of support actually prevented him from doing any deed of power there. Their disbelief stopped him from doing his work! Instead of doing a great work, Mark tells us, he was only able to help a few people and then, making a quick assessment of the what the problem was, he realized, a bit heartbroken, that he couldn’t do anything there, he had to move on. No new thing could ever happen there because they were so devoted to the old thing.

Jesus realized that if any new thing was going to happen, he was going to have to set out on a wilderness journey, the success of the gospel would depend on its ability to shock people out of their comfort zones, the gospel itself would have to be the new frontier, a radical message of freedom for those rejected by the comfortable, overly familiar religious circles. Which, as it turns out, was most of the general populace. The gospel would turn the order upside down and in doing so, many would be set free.

Jesus knew that the principal of how the Spirit does its work is rarely about more but less. In other words, comfort and over familiarity are often things that prevent us from experiencing the wonder and awe of the transformation of the Spirit. In order to find any path to wholeness, we realize it becomes more about subtraction than addition. The willingness to lose our lives so that we might find them, the passage through the narrow gate, the needle’s eye, requires a shedding, not a packing on.

The question the gospel poses to us today is about what we need to lose. Is it fear of the unknown or clinging to the comforts of familiarity that keep us from embracing the gospel? It is only when we are willing to have faith and step out into a kind of wilderness journey, an encounter with the true nature of God and of our very selves, that we learn to trust a deeper instinct and get in touch with what really gives our lives meaning and purpose. In order to take our soul’s journey, the real journey that we’re on here, we have to be willing to subtract the things that are familiar and comfortable, the things that blind us to the truth and often keep us from loving what is dear to God. God calls us from a co-dependence, an unhealthy addiction to comfort and familiarity to a healthy dependence on God’s sustaining presence. Repent and believe the gospel, for the kingdom of God is near.

 

 

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Speaker, Author, Musician, Pastor, Nature Lover. Co-Founder of the Social Enterprise: Dreamweave: Renew Lives, Recyle Products;

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