SJF • Proper 9b • Tobias S Haller BSGThe verse that I just read, which comes near the end of today’s Gospel reading, is one of the most amazing verses in the entire Gospel. “He could do no deed of power there.” What makes it amazing is the fact that the “he” in question is Jesus Christ. Think about that: Jesus could do no deed of power there, except to cure a few sick people. To do more than that, he was powerless. Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, was powerless!
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.
Now if anyone made that claim without the support of the Scripture, no doubt he’d be branded as a heretic or an unbeliever. But there it is in black and white — in his own home town and among his own people, Jesus was almost completely powerless. So what was it that robbed him of his power, which was abundantly manifest in all the other towns round about? What was it about his own home town that rendered him unable to do the wonderful things he did elsewhere?
Was it something in the water? Was it a subterranean deposit of kryptonite? Was it something about the city itself — some ancient curse on the city left over from the days of the Exodus? No, it was much simpler than that. It wasn’t the city, but the citizens.
There is an old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and this was certainly true of the folks in Nazareth. And it was that familiarity and that contempt that robbed Jesus of his power. The folks in Nazareth knew Jesus from when he was a little boy; and they knew as well that he’d been born some few months shy of nine — a slur they continued in the mocking question they asked in our reading: calling him the son of Mary and not the son of Joseph! They knew him from when he made mud pies in the puddle out by the waterhole. They knew him as the fresh kid that used to talk back to his teachers. They knew him as the carpenter who got his head full of wild ideas and disappeared into the wilderness — only to return surrounded by stories of miracles performed everywhere else — but not there in his own hometown. And so with chips on their shoulders the size of railroad ties, they confronted him with the contempt reserved for someone who has supposedly made it big somewhere else but doesn’t look like much here — because “they knew him when.”
And this attitude of disbelief, of judgment, of offense and antagonism, made it impossible for Jesus to do a deed of power there. He could not lead them where they were unwilling to follow.
This is a lesson for anyone who wants to be a leader, whether in the church or in business. Being a leader of a congregation, I take the ministry of leadership very much to heart. But also being someone who serves under obedience to a bishop of a diocese, and to a Presiding Bishop as part of a whole church, I also take to heart the flip-side: the ministry of followership. Just as being a leader takes certain skills — patience, wisdom, inspiration, the ability to communicate — so too it takes skills to be a good follower: common sense, willingness to listen, trust, and perseverance. And these ministries go together in the dynamic and exciting work we call the church. A leader without followers is on a lonely path; and followers without a leader — as Jesus would say, sheep without a shepherd — are lost.
The people of Nazareth think they know who Jesus is — what they really know, however, is their memories of the boy and young man growing up, memories that are getting in the way of any new experience, of any new revelation of the Jesus who is now among them, full of grace and power. He can do nothing new for them, because all they can think about is what is old. They will not follow him because they can’t imagine there is any place that he might lead to which they haven’t already been.
This is one kind of bad followership. But there’s another kind that can be just as destructive, just as much the a spanner in the works of the church. This happens when, instead of dissing the leader, putting him or her down, people go to the other extreme and imagine that their leader can do no wrong — that he or she is perfect, or must be perfect.
This is what happened in the Corinthian congregation to whom Paul wrote — that same troublesome congregation that was a source of so much woe to Paul and later to Clement. The Corinthians were, it seems, extremely impressed with people who were very, very spiritual. They loved it when their leaders spoke in tongues, and exhibited all sorts of other fabulous powers. They had fallen under the spell of some that Paul called “super-apostles” and had begun to look on Paul himself as a bit of a second-class act. I mean, he wrote these great letters, but when he showed up, he was just this guy, who put his toga on one shoulder at a time just like everybody else.
Well this attitude just pulled on Saint Paul’s last nerve, and in the portion of his second letter to the church in Corinth from which we heard today, he has become a mite sarcastic. Speaking of himself in the third person, he talks of one who has been carried away into the heavens and heard eternal secrets and mysteries. He builds himself up - but only to lower the boom. He builds himself up, but then says, this is not the point. It isn’t mystery and miracles and revelations about which one should boast. It isn’t about the resumé: it’s about getting the work done. It isn’t about the minister — but the ministry.
The church has lately fallen into a situation not unlike that of the Corinthians: we’ve gotten very focused on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of our leaders. If you look at the profiles that parishes put together in seeking a priest, or dioceses in seeking a bishop, it is clear that in many cases the people are searching not for leadership, but magic! They want someone who will turn around a dying church or diocese, increase the membership, repair the old buildings, inspire the youth and reinvigorate the elders, and all without increasing the budget! Oh, and if the priest can walk on water, that would be great!
The problem is that the only priests and bishops who appear to walk on water are the ones who are treading on the submerged bodies of their drowning congregations!
This quest for perfection was brought home to me in my experiences at General Convention. I served on the committee that was charged with reviewing the six priests who had been elected as bishops in the months prior to the meeting, to offer a final recommendation on whether they should proceed to the final consent by the clergy and lay deputies. In all but one case, there were few problems. Each candidate was introduced by the current bishop, and then warmly endorsed by a number of folks from their electing diocese.
In one case, however, there was a problem. But the problem wasn’t with the people that knew this bishop-elect best, the people of his home-town, so to speak. The people who elected this man, who had served for a decade in their diocese as the current bishop’s right hand man — they were enthusiastic about him: they had seen him at work. People from all over the spectrum, conservative and liberal, urban and rural, supported him and assured the committee that he was the right man for the job, and would continue the excellent work he had done as canon to the bishop, once he was promoted to the office of bishop himself.
No, the problem was not with the home-town folk, but with the candidate himself, for he had a blemish on his personal life: he had been through two failed marriages, and was now married a third time. What would we be saying to the world if this man were allowed to be a bishop?
It is a tough question; and we wrestled with it for a long time on the committee. Ultimately it came down to the same question raised in the Corinthian church: is it the perfection of the minister’s life, or the work of the Spirit evident in his ministry that takes precedence. I suppose we’d all be happier if every minister were perfect: but as Scripture reminds us, there is only one who is perfect — and even he was rejected by those who could not see his perfection through the blindness of their own expectations.
God’s power is indeed made more glorious in that God uses such broken vessels as all of us are to do his work — for God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
Yes, it’s true this man was married three times — and yes it is true that that isn’t good. But God can make use of imperfect people to do his perfect will. Why, Jesus himself even once made use of someone who was married not just three times, but at least five times — and she became an apostle to her people and brought them the saving message of the gospel like life-giving water welling up in the desert of their lives. And there she is: we’ve even got that five-times-married woman in a stained glass window right here in Saint James Church! Her story has been told for nigh on 2000 years, and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed she will be remembered when many others, perhaps more perfect than she, are long forgotten.
For she is remembered not because of who she was but because of what she did: when the saving word was given she accepted it, and instead of keeping it to herself, this follower became a leader — she received the word and carried it to her people, and she brought them to Christ. What is important is carrying out the mission — not the character of the missionary.
Ultimately good followership is as important as good leadership. And even more ultimately, we trust and know that God will work through all of our failings: the failings of leaders as well as the failings of followers. Paul reminded the Corinthians that Jesus wasn’t received with open arms — but had his arms stretched out upon the cross for our salvation. Jesus wasn’t popular and celebrated, but despised and rejected — and it is in this weakness that God’s power is manifest.
For God’s power, even made powerless by the unbelief and rejection of those to whom Christ came, whether in Nazareth or Jerusalem, where he was done to death by the very ones he came to save — — God’s power is made perfect in this weakness. For even though the weak flesh perishes, yet in the power and glory of God so too it rises, imbued with Spiritual power that puts to shame all mere earthly skill.
Such is the nature of our true leader and shepherd: will we undertake the ministry of followership, each of us in our own station, each of us with our own gifts and strengths — and weaknesses — to do God’s work in building up the church? If he leads us, will we follow? +