This sermon was preached by Deacon Diane Young on July 8.
Our theme today is rejection. Jesus is rejected by the people of his hometown. He prepares his disciples for rejection when they’re about to go on the road. And God gives his prophet Ezekiel an important message to deliver, but says “they probably won’t listen to you.”
You’d think that God was the source of bad tidings, or some offensive statement. Oh– he was. The message Ezekiel was assigned to give: God is about to destroy you. And the disciples had to tell everybody that they needed to change their evil ways. Just as an aside: when did you last point out to someone that they were going down a dangerously wrong path in their life, and they said, “Oh, thank you so much for telling me. I’m going to fix that right now”? So you know what Ezekiel and the disciples were facing.
As for Jesus, we don’t find out what he was saying to the crowd in the synagogue in Nazareth that made him so unpopular. What he said was no doubt impressive and insightful. It wasn’t what Jesus said that bothered people, but the combination of what he said and who he was—he was a carpenter, from their own boring old neighborhood, a kid they used to see playing in the street, the son of that woman Mary who had a kind of suspicious pregnancy. Ordinariness is a very effective disguise for the Divine.
Somehow, because the people of Nazareth refused to see anything special about Jesus, Jesus lost some of his divine power there. So he left town, and took his disciples with him. He sent his disciples out two by two into the surrounding villages. He gave them instruction: “If people refuse to hear you–if they reject you—just walk away, and shake that town’s dust off your feet. “
I recently experienced that kind of rejection. I was sent out in two-by-two fashion to canvass for a candidate in my hometown. It’s a big election year this year, so you might be going out two-by-two or people may be coming to your house two-by-two, to try to persuade you to vote for their candidate. The folks who led my canvass gave us lots of good instructions before we headed out, just like Jesus did for his team—what to take with us, what to say. And that other equally important piece of wisdom: what to do if someone didn’t want to hear us out. Like the disciples, we were told that we should take our leave, although while we did so we should say “Have a great day!” That must be today’s version of shaking the dust off your feet.
The canvass organizers were preparing us for rejection. That some people would refuse to listen to us was to be expected. But if you’re rejected too often–whether you’re promoting a candidate or selling Girl Scout cookies outside the supermarket—you might think, “Am I doing something wrong?”
That’s why God says to Ezekiel, to Jesus, to the disciples, to all God’s messengers, “If they don’t listen, it’s not your fault. Whether they listen or not, all I ask is that you deliver my message.”
You are God’s messenger in many capacities. You are probably not knocking on the doors of strangers like the disciples did. Instead, you are probably sharing your experience of God with people you’re connected to. As a friend, you are telling stories of how God has been present at different times in your life. As a fellow patient, you are offering to pray for healing. As a parent, you are reminding your kids that their life is a gift from God. As a citizen, you are encouraging your congressman to vote on the side of God’s justice. As part of the Church, you are giving witness to God’s dream for the world.
So we are God’s messengers. And maybe the friend or the child doesn’t want to listen. I get that that is not my fault. I don’t have to feel hurt. I don’t have to keep pushing. But as people of faith, we can’t believe that someone’s rejection of God’s life-giving word is the end of the story. We believe that reality changes, that things get better, that God can make good on anything. We believe that Christ is risen, that death turns to life, that the whole world will be redeemed. So as people of faith, we live in expectation of salvation…but sometimes we must leave the outcome in the hands of God.
Here’s an example. A certain anthropologist had an understanding of the world that did not allow for the existence of God. So she was especially fascinated by the idea that some people, when they pray, hear God speaking to them. For research, this anthropologist spent a lot of time with people who pray and ended up writing a book called When God Talks Back.* She begins with the premise that a person who prays has to unlearn or override basic elements of human psychology, as well as the fundamental human awareness that our minds are private. She does make it sound as if speaking in our mind–to an invisible person–who loves us unconditionally–is unreasonable. It might be as unreasonable as a carpenter from Nazareth being able to elucidate the Torah. At the end of her book, the anthropologist writes, “There is another factor that shapes the way the individual experiences God. That is the real presence of the divine.” She says, “I began to pray regularly…and it changed me…In my own way I have come to know God.”
She started out as a person who had rejected God, even the idea of God, and she became someone who had a direct experience of the Divine.
God is patient and persevering in the face of rejection. After the messenger has done her job, God’s Spirit moves in to work, in God’s time. We have seen that God waits out rejection and then turns it into a cause for celebration. We have known ourselves to be redeemed by the death of God’s son. We have stood at the tomb of the crucified Jesus and seen it empty. As St. Paul said about love in his letter to the Corinthians: God is patient, God is kind. God bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
The other evening at the beach, I watched a man playing catch in the water with his daughter and son. The ball would go to one kid, then back to him, then to the other. The boy needed to make his catches dramatic, jumping at an angle out of the water, arms reaching, then his body falling under the surface of the ocean with a big splash. The first thing to come up from the waves was the orange ball gripped tightly in his hand, followed by his arm (it was like that image of the Lady of the Lake), and then his head and his chest. Then the father, standing silently, would raise his own arms up, acknowledging the boy’s victory.
Somehow I take the seriousness of our Bible readings—about a call to repentance, and the certainty of rejection–and see a God at play. God yearns to engage with us. If the kid’s throw was way off, the father didn’t mind. He’d take off his sunglasses and dive into the water after the ball. If his own throw skipped along to a dead stop because his kid suddenly became much more interested in a crab, the father didn’t mind. He just waited. Patient and kind.
Nearby in the water stood another dad and his son. The dad called to a woman seated some distance away on the sand, “Did we bring any tennis balls?”
A prayer for all of us: May we invite others to take part in life with God. May we be carefree about rejection. May we know the joy of God’s presence. Amen.
*When God Talks Back, T.M. Luhrmann, Knopf, 2012