July 4, 2021, Finding God in the Ordinary, Mark 6:1-6 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
We might think that if God himself walked into St. Philip’s, if Jesus opened those front doors some Sunday morning and came in and sat down in one of our pews, surely we’d know him right away. We would fall to our knees in worship and adoration and joy as soon as we saw him. Or would we? There wouldn’t be any halo above his head. He wouldn’t have any mystical glow around him. It’s unlikely that he’d be dressed in the robe and sandals of a first-century Jewish peasant. How would we recognize him? Would we recognize him?
When Isaiah described the future Messiah about 700 years before Jesus was born, he wrote this: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
It was the biggest surprise in the history of the world that when God came among us, he chose to come to us in weakness, unimpressive, despised. Paul put it like this: “Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born as a human being” – and not a beautiful, powerful rock-star kind of human being. He was a peasant kid, son of a common laborer, nothing much to look at, not much of a resume. Until he went out and began his ministry, preaching the good news of the kingdom to the poor, healing the sick and blind and lame, casting out demons. Then the stories began to travel ahead of him, and a lot of people began to sit up and wonder who exactly this man was.
But on the day that we read about this morning, Jesus had gone back to his hometown. It was the Sabbath, and he was invited up front to read the lesson – this would have been the synagogue he had attended many many times in his boyhood. If you had been there as a visitor, Jesus would have been indistinguishable from every other Jewish man sitting there in the pews, or whatever kind of seating they had in the synagogue.
But to his old neighbors and his family members he was nothing but a local boy. They were pretty sure they knew everything there was to know about him, and they weren’t all that impressed. They passed his mother, and his brothers and sisters on the street every day, and they were nothing particularly special.
Not that they hadn’t heard the rumors. Supposedly, huge crowds of people were coming out just to hear him teach. People said Jesus had been known to heal every disease you can imagine, to make lame men walk again and blind men see. Some people said they’d seen him cast out demons. There was even a very recent rumor that Jesus had brought a little girl back to life. The daughter of a very important man, it was said.
But that was clearly unbelievable. It really was all just a little much for them to accept. Jesus was too ordinary, too unimpressive. Too familiar. The whole idea that the carpenter’s boy was claiming to be some kind of miracle-working prophet: well, frankly, they found that offensive. They were pretty sure all the hype about Mary’s kid was just fake news.
We know all this about Jesus, but I think it is a very hard thing for us to really grasp this concept: that the God we worship chooses to operate in the realm of human weakness. Our weakness.
It’s hard for us to get that, because just like our Lord’s old neighbors in Nazareth, we’re not so crazy about ordinary human weakness ourselves. And the truth is, we can’t know if we would recognize a hypothetical Jesus sitting in our pews. But here’s what we can know: do we recognize him in the familiar people around us? Do you recognize God in your next-door neighbor, in the person ahead of you in the checkout line, in the person you’ve married to for half a century, in the people you’ve known your whole life: whose flaws you know as well as your own? Or better than your own?
What if they’ve never darkened the door of a church?
What if their kid is always getting in trouble of one kind or another?
What if you’ve seen them drink a few too many beers?
What if they’ve told you the same story a thousand times?
Can you recognize God without the halo, without the glory, without the beauty, without the status? Can you recognize God in a plain old unimpressive human being? Because that’s exactly where he’s chosen to be. “Whatever you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do for me,” he tells us. He chooses to take his place with the outcast, the unworthy, the unacceptable, the forgotten.
Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of his neighbors, his old friends, his own family members. They saw Jesus in his poverty, in his weakness, in his ordinariness, and they took offense at him, just as we are sometimes offended at the idea of his presence in our cranky neighbor or our mailman. And sometimes I think we might even take offense at the idea of God in us, in ourselves, with our all-too-familiar, tiresome weaknesses and flaws? Do you ever think, do you ever believe, that you could be so much more useful and acceptable to God if you were better educated, if you have more resources, if you were better at expressing yourself, if you were more organized or more talented or younger – or maybe all of the above?
It is very easy to be offended by our own ordinariness. Like Paul, we get sick and tired of those things we see in ourselves as weaknesses and hindrances to being all that we feel we really ought to be. Paul begged God three times to fix whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was. He begged God to make him what he, Paul, considered to be “whole”. But God wouldn’t do it. Instead, he told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul, in his characteristically extreme way, cried out, “OK, then I’ll boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” And Paul was right. Because that’s exactly how our God works. We think God would really love us better if we were just not quite so much ourselves. But it turns out he already sees us with all our imperfections and flaws and he couldn’t be more in love with us. He couldn’t be more at home with us.
We tend to expect to see God at work in people we recognize as Giants of the Faith – people like Pope Francis or Mother Teresa. At Convention I’ve noticed at healing services that there are long lines waiting to ask prayer from certain people. We have great respect for men of stature, men of faith and wisdom. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, our expectations of seeing God at work are not so high when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning, or when we look at the person across from us at the breakfast table, or when we look at the person beside us in the pew. Then very often all we are able to see is the ordinary, the all-too-familiar, and just like the people of Nazareth, we fail to see that the God of the Universe is at work. Right here. Right now.
God could have chosen to be born as the High Priest over Israel, or as the son of a synagogue ruler like Jairus. He could have chosen to be born to be the Pope, or Billy Graham. But he didn’t. He chose to be born a carpenter’s son. He chose to grow up in a place that was a lot more like Norwood than Jerusalem or Rome, a place utterly ordinary and unimpressive – remember what Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The answer, Nathaniel, is yes – everything good came from Nazareth. And his grace is sufficient, his power is made perfect, in weakness, which just happens to be the one thing we all have in abundance. He did not despise the womb in of a virgin. He does not hate anything he has made. He is not limited by our limitations. Because when we are weak, then he is strong. When we are ordinary, he is extraordinary. When God is familiar, then just think how blessed we are.
We use the word “common” around here quite a bit. Our newsletter is named CommonLife. Our thrift shop is named Common Cents. And there’s a reason for that. The word “Common” actually has two meanings. “Common” means shared. Luke wrote of the newly formed Church that “they held all things in common.” At communion, we say we share a “common” cup. In fact the very word “communion,” like the word “community,” is related to the word “common.”
But “common” also means ordinary, familiar, lowly, humble. Like ourselves. Paul wrote, “Consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus.”
Because we worship a God who doesn’t despise what is common. Not only that, but a God who chose to love what is common. Which is the very best of news for us commoners. He chose common fishermen and tax collectors to be his friends and to lead his Church. He scandalized people by hanging out with common sinners and lowlifes. And even better is that he chose to take on our commonness – to become familiar with us out of his great love for us. The people of his hometown were offended by his very commonness. But consider the wonderful mystery of a God who even has a hometown. And then let us learn to see and love him in the familiar people around us, even ourselves, not being offended by our commonness, but glorying in our community with him.