Sermon preached by Todd Willison at the
Church of the Advent
on Sunday, July 5, 2009, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
In thinking on the passage I am to preach on this morning, Mark 6:1-10, I have been reminded of two episodes in my life that I would like to share with you: one from my somewhat distant past and one from more recent memory. First, I remember the time that my father came to my bedside to tell me he was moving out of the house, leaving my mother, and going off to live with another woman that he had fallen in love with. He assured me that very little would change, that he still cared about me, and that he would always be my father. But we were distant to begin with, and I could not help but feel completely rejected by him. After the separation, when I asked to spend time with him, he refused to spend time with me unless I could accept the presence of this other woman in his life, something I was not yet prepared to do. It became clear to me that he had made a choice, to prefer this new woman above my family and I, and though a mature adult might appreciate the complicated reasons that lead a man to make such a choice, at 11 years old, I was unable to recognize any ambiguity in my father's decision. He had made a clear choice to reject us and to accept another in our stead. And this created a barrier between my father and I that I am sad to say has still, to this day, never been breached.
Also, I remember the time just over a year ago when a girl that I dated intimately and came to care about told me that she no longer wanted to see me. While there was talk early on of “remaining friends,” it became increasingly evident to me that she no longer wanted me around. I pushed her on this, and she pushed back by pushing me still further away. To say the least, I did not accept things well at all. I continued to press her, attempting to communicate with her even after she had asked me not to. With each thwarted attempt at communication, I just made things worse, damaging further not only her opinion of me but my own sense of self-respect as well. Why did I persist like this, even beyond the bounds of what was appropriate? I persisted because I did not want to face the truth of the matter and I irrationally believed that I could somehow change the cold, hard reality that was staring me straight in the face: I had been rejected. There were two unambiguous options before my ex-girlfriend. She could keep me in her life or she could reject me from her life. And she chose to reject me. I was shut out by her and by all the friends that I had come to know through her. It was an excruciating feeling, one that I could not seem to cope with or reconcile myself to no matter how hard I tried. I was rejected, and to fight this or to try to change this only intensified the feeling of rejection that plagued me.
It has been due to these types of experiences in my life, that I have come to the opinion that my least favorite word in the English language is rejection. I think “rejection” is the worst feeling I have ever known. Though I have experienced rejection many times, from family, from friends, and from girlfriends, rejection remains something that I still do not know how to understand, cope with, fight against, or change. If you've ever been rejected, I think you know what I mean. Rejection puts an irreparable rift in our reality that just feels WRONG. I think the avoidance of rejection might just be what motivates humans the most in the expenditure of their energies, even more than the pursuit of money, sex, and power. I believe that we strive to succeed, to keep our jobs, to please our peers, and to continually impress the new people that we meet so that we can protect ourselves against that one bitter feeling that seems to know no cure once it has set in: that feeling of cold, unambiguous, irreconcilable rejection.
The first thing that strikes me when we look to our text this morning is that it is the first instance, in what is considered to be our earliest gospel, of Jesus Christ experiencing genuine, personal rejection by his peers, the kind of rejection that, frankly, really hurts. Granted, Jesus has already been criticized by the Pharisees at this point, and has been accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub. But his response in these circumstances, already mentioned in the earlier chapters of Mark, indicates little to no suggestion of personal offense. He responds wittingly to the Pharisees, using Scripture against them and never missing a beat in terms of fulfilling his ministry of healing, discipleship, and hanging out with the tax collectors and sinners. When he is accused of being demonically possessed, Jesus makes it known that the Pharisees blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and not personally against himself. Despite the harshness of the Pharisees' attacks against him, Jesus seems, up to this point, relatively unfazed.
But this hometown rejection, in Nazareth, which we read out about in our passage this morning, seems to affect Jesus very differently. I may be reading this into the text, but I get the feeling that Jesus must have been deeply hurt by this negative response to his ministry in Nazareth. Frankly, he seems a bit paralyzed. Granted, while in Nazareth, he lays his hands on a few sick people and heals them, but we are told that Jesus could “do no mighty work there.” It is as if he is briefly stunned and has to recollect Himself. His earlier response to the Pharisees was always to continue his work in spite of their criticism. But his response in Nazareth is to stop his work and to reflect, or as our text says, to “marvel,” on the deeply personal nature of the rejection he has just experienced, explicitly lamenting that it is only here in his own hometown, amongst his own relatives and those who have known him and his family throughout the years, that he and his ministry are now unambiguously refused and dishonored.
Thus, we see in this episode at Nazareth, more so than in any other episode we will read about prior to the crucifixion, the words of the gospel of John become tangibly realized: “He came to his own and his own people did not receive him.” It is here, in Nazareth, that Christ comes to know his first true taste of excruciating rejection by those who were his own. In Nazareth, Jesus begins in a very real way to sympathize with the rejected, and it his sympathy with rejection that continues to be one of the most compelling features of his life for those who are His followers. Indeed, Christianity's most prized symbol is that of the cross, the symbol of Jesus' rejection by humanity.
As Christians, we choose to orient our lives and our worship toward the cross, making it the primary symbol by which we engage our reality. Why do we do this? I believe it is because we are compelled toward a symbol that can effectively address humanity's urgent and irresistible need to reconcile with the most painful feature of our reality: that of REJECTION. We are rejected throughout this life by strangers and by friends, by enemies and by loved ones. Many of us are rejected from schools, or from jobs, or from social groups, or from insurance carriers, or from banks, or from those we had set our highest romantic hopes upon. We are ultimately rejected by our own bodies and by our own physical, biological, and chemical atmosphere, which will one day reject us and forcibly remove us from the air that we breathe and the grass that we feel beneath our feet. Even our own tombs will reject us, as time and natural decomposition will return us to the dust from which we came.
But the cross is a powerful symbol and effective in its response to rejection, for in the symbol of the cross, we find Christ who lived and died as one who stood with the rejected. When Christ was rejected at Nazareth, he did not wallow in self-pity or capitulate into fear. No, he responded with action by sending his disciples on a mission, with a message of hope to be received by those who had ears to hear it, a message that tells us that rejection is not the end of the story. Rejection is something that we must bear, as Christ himself bore, but we can bear it knowing that we are ultimately accepted by God. How are we accepted by God? I do not mean to sound trivial, but I only know one answer to this question. We are accepted by God through grace, grace which is a profound mystery, grace which can neither be received by nor reduced to any doctrinal or ethical formula. As Paul Tillich writes in his famous sermon, “You Are Accepted,” to experience grace is simply to be struck “by a wave of light” that “breaks into our darkness” in which a voice seems to say “You Are Accepted.” For this grace is quite simply, according to Tillich, “the acceptance of that which is rejected.”
To know such grace and such acceptance as this is in Tillich's words “to be able to look frankly into the eyes of another ... to be able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us,” to be able to “overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature.” Tillich continues to write, “in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience moments in which we accept ourselves because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we.” This is the message that we preach. Jesus Christ came into the world and lived as one rejected by his own people. But to those who do not reject, but rather open up their hearts to graciously accept and to be accepted, Christ offers the promise of becoming accepted children of God, “born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God, who is full of grace and truth.”
We have lived through times in which the church has splintered repeatedly over issues of who the church should accept and who the church should reject. I urge you in this congregation today to go forth in remembrance that unconditional acceptance and grace to everyone is what Christianity has to offer to humanity. You now have the opportunity this week to grant that unconditional grace and acceptance to every person that you encounter, answering the rejection they experience in this life with love.