A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on July 6, 2003.
Based on Mark 6:1-6 (Proper9, Year B).
There’s nothing more vague on a business card than the title “consultant.” It’s mysterious. It doesn’t offer any clue as to what the person actually does. It presumes that the individual has advice to offer. For a price, of course. And there’s a further presumption that the person has some special knowledge to impart that is well worth the hourly fee. Part of what adds to the aura of the consultant is that he or she is unknown. The consultant is not part of an organization’s hierarchy. The consultant is an outsider who can come into a situation without any preconceived notions or institutional baggage. And because the consultant comes from the outside, there is instant credibility. For some reason, we tend to respect the opinions of those we don’t know more than those we do. It’s an odd fact of human nature that doesn’t make much intuitive sense but it plays out in our personal and professional lives again and again. A spouse or a friend may make a suggestion but until a perfect stranger comes to the same conclusion, we won’t take the advice.
Our gospel passage from Mark offers the perfect scriptural example of this phenomenon. The ultimate authority, Jesus, is rebuffed because of his familiarity. The same Jesus who was healing people and performing miracles all over the countryside, returns to his hometown to teach in the local synagogue. And his message of salvation, which was received with great enthusiasm in places like Capernaum and Judea and Cana, was rejected in Nazareth. And more than just rejected, Mark tells us that the folks in his hometown took great “offense” at him. His teachings, received elsewhere with such eagerness and amazement, angered them.
From the perspective of his friends and family, this isn’t a story of a local boy making good but of a local boy getting a bit too big for his britches. Jesus might have been a great prophet or consultant in Samaria but his act wasn’t going over well at home. The natives were getting restless with his holiness shtick. He was the carpenter’s son after all. They new Jesus when he was a little kid. Their own children had grown up with him and played with him and gone fishing with him. And now he comes back to town as this famous holy man talking about God being his father. But they knew who his father was. And it was their neighbor Joseph. It most certainly was not God.
So in his own hometown Jesus faced jealousy and outrage, resentment and anger. Such is the lot of the prophet. Unlike modern-day consultants, Biblical prophets lived in the very midst of their communities. And it’s tough to speak the truth in a community in which you are actively involved. One of the beauties of being a consultant is that you can fly into a place, give lots of advice, speak the truth, talk on your cell phone, leave a bill, and then get out of town. There’s not much accountability since you don’t need to live with any of the ramifications or fall-out of difficult decisions that are implemented as a direct result of your advice. It’s the community’s leaders who have to pick up the pieces when the consultant hits the road. But when you’re a prophet in the Biblical tradition, your calling is to hold the community’s feet to the fire, to re-call them to faith in God, and then to stay put, reiterating the message again and again. You don’t get to say your peace and leave. You don’t have the luxury of hopping on a plane for the next meeting in the next town with the next group. You’re stuck at home to face the wrath of people who don’t want to hear your prophetic message because it just might conflict with how they would prefer to live their lives.
And when you’re a prophet who’s expected to speak the truth to people who may not want to hear it, life’s not easy. God makes it clear to Ezekiel, in our first reading, that the life of a prophet is not a cushy existence. Ezekiel’s task was to call the rebellious Israelites back to faith in God. No matter the consequences or the hatred or the discomfort, Ezekiel was to speak God’s word to them. Whether they listed or refused to listen, Ezekiel was to speak God’s word to them. God says to Ezekiel, by way of a sort-of pep talk, “Do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.” Being a prophet doesn’t sound like much fun. It’s certainly not great for the ego. And you can’t even bill by the hour.
In his return to Nazareth, Jesus was treated like a prophet. And as he says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown.” In other words, it’s a lot easier to speak a difficult message to those who don’t know you than to those who do. And for us, this bids us to listen all the more carefully to the messages in this life that we would normally be inclined to ignore. Keep your heart and mind open to the prophetic voices that surround us. They may be spoken in church or at home or even by some consultant you may encounter. The prophetic voices are often the ones that challenge us to change our comfortable ways. We tend to tune them out or disregard them as irrelevant. But they’re not. Prophetic voices may be difficult to hear and even more difficult to appropriate into our lives. But then, the most life-transforming messages usually are.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003