Parish Eucharist 8th July 2018
Is this not the Carpenter?
I’d like to begin with an excerpt from a recent conversation between two eminent politicians. One said to the other,
‘You know, the disappointment about not winning affects me deeply, but the thing that really matters is that I tried. I gave it everything I had, intellectually, emotionally, politically, and financially. I gave the campaign all the energy I had; I gave it everything…But the reality of politics meant, I realise now, that I never could have won…’
Not long before she died tragically in May this year, Tessa Jowell, who spoke those words, had a public conversation with Frances D’Souza at Westminster Abbey. They discussed power, public life, and morality. In what we’ve just heard, Jowell was reflecting on her campaign to be the Labour candidate for Mayor of London. The sense of pain and vulnerability is palpable, and honest about the reality of failure in the midst of a long career that charted complex territory with deep integrity in the constant scrutiny of the public eye and of Parliament.
Our Gospel this morning, does not tell us whether or not Jesus was disappointed or even felt he’d failed when he was rejected by his own home town and the people of Nazareth. But the Gospel does tell us that because of the people’s lack of faith, he was not able to heal or to convince. We meet Jesus in this passage of Mark’s Gospel as he is teaching in the synagogue he has known since childhood. Mark doesn’t tell the reader the content of Jesus’ teaching, but focuses instead on how his audience react to that content. His hearers react with incredulity. There are many kinds of incredulity. There is the incredulity accompanied by wonder – an amazement at seeing something new, unprecedented, even delightful. There is also the incredulity accompanied by disdain, where a sense of amazement drives a growing certainty that that which seems unbelievable is just that. Not believable, not possible, beyond the pale. It is the second type of negative incredulity that Jesus encounters in this story.
The group ask rhetorically about where Jesus’ wisdom comes from, who his family are, what his background is….and the implied answers do not tally with what Jesus is saying, doing, or being. Instead of being received with wonder, or welcomed with hospitality, he is being received with something like an exasperated scorn.
Looking more closely at the questions posed by Jesus’ audience is revealing. They ask about his family, referring to his mother and siblings. This would have been unusual, even accusatory, with this historical audience. If he is, as the Gospel has it, ‘the son of Mary’, who is his father? Why not say ‘the son of Joseph’? And they certainly don’t believe that he’s the Son of God.
The synagogue at Nazareth is, in this story, populated by members who connect earthly status and power with the power of God. This does not fit together at all with the image of Jesus they have in front of them. Jesus does stay, for a time, offering love, offering healing, offering peace. But very little happens. He gives it all he has. He offers freely, he opens his heart, his eyes gaze on those who saw him grow up, with compassion and mercy. And his offer is not reciprocated.
Jesus’ own reaction is notable too: he’s ‘amazed’, we’re told, at the lack of hospitality he receives. Amazed. Love itself, with a capital L, has arrived in Nazareth. And Love himself, Jesus the guest, and Jesus the host, is met with a combination of disinterest, apathy, disrespect, and rejection. Jesus may offer love freely, but for that love to be received effectively, it needs to be received freely too. Love is a gift. It does not have to be accepted. The Church Father St Gregory Nazianzen said of this dynamic, ‘Something essential for healing is required on both sides.’ Jesus is not forcing anyone to love him. What is offered in love and humility must be freely received in love and humility.
In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples how to go out to meet people and offer that same love and hospitality. Go in pairs, he says. Be interdependent, form a community of inclusivity with every person you meet who is willing to accept it, do not do this alone, do not imagine you can or should do it alone. The Gospel is always collaborative. These pairs of people should also carry next to nothing. They should arrive in every new place, vulnerable, humble, not presenting themselves as people with any wealth or status or credentials, but just as human beings, offering nothing but Christ’s own peace.
When Jesus teaches the disciples, he teaches them that authentic relationships cannot be based on status or arrogance. Let go of your ego, Jesus suggests, and walk together, and maybe something beautiful will happen. It’s not a guarantee, and some people and places will not be able to receive your offer of peace or your offer of love. But the way of love cannot be built on anything but humility and hope. And when people and places do receive that love, and do reciprocate, this love in us and through us does more than we can ask or imagine.
Like Jeremy, I like social media and use it often. Yesterday I saw a tweet that has been retweeted 24 000 times. It’s not from Beyonce or Stephen Fry, but from the University of Reading, so that number of retweets really is exceptionally high. The tweet says: ‘We've had feedback over the last week that some people are unhappy with our plan to offer up to 14 scholarships to refugees living in the local area. To these people, we would like to say: Tough. Jog on.’ The public affirmation for their scholarship programme has been overwhelming, and rightly so.
Across my first week in this parish, the subject of refugees and hospitality has come up in many conversations. The vital importance of authentically offering people belonging, support, and a new kind of homecoming is precious in this place, and each time I speak with someone new about it, my heart is full of gratitude for you all, and for the journeys that have brought you here, whether you have been here for fifty years or whether this is your first Sunday in the congregation. Your hearts are open. What a gift you can be to those who urgently need this openness.
So, having focused on how Jesus and his disciples are not welcomed, and on what can happen when they are welcomed, I’d like to turn to one word in the Gospel and explore it for a moment in relation to community.
The word is ‘carpenter’. In the synagogue at Nazareth, one of the scornful questions the group asks is, ‘Is not this the carpenter…?’ In Greek, the word for carpenter is ‘tekton’. It only appears in this story in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it appears in Isaiah and in the second book of Kings, referring to tradespeople who construct the temple and work collaboratively for the common good. (Is 41:7, 2 Kings 12:11-12). Another possible translation of the word is ‘builder’. The crowd scoff, ‘Is this not the builder?’ implying that someone with such basic skills, with so little status, could not be capable of authority or wisdom.
That question, like the others, goes unanswered, but it hangs in the air and opens our minds. Jesus is indeed the builder. And builders are wonderful people. The skilful care with which wood can be transformed from something unremarkable into something beautiful, into shelter, into a sign of God’s presence, into a gift, into a home, is something that surrounds us every day. And Jesus is the builder, the source of creativity, the source of our desire to build too, whether at Nazareth or whether today, as this service, in the workshop of the heart.
To be in that workshop together, collaboratively building the Kingdom with our shared commitment to hospitality, to inclusion, and to peace, we come to the altar together this morning to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, that holy builder, in the Eucharist, Christ makes us truly equals, and shows us we are equally precious to God.
Today’s Gospel focuses on giving and receiving (and indeed, denying and rejecting). How surprising and how exposing it can be, when we begin to see the vast love with which God desires to embrace us, and call us home to his table. The finest poem I know about hospitality and the Eucharist is George Herbert’s poem, Love Bade me Welcome. If you know this poem well, perhaps in today’s context you will hear something that strikes you differently. If this poem is new to you, I hope that it offers you a new way of experiencing what divine love might look and feel like.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me,
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here’.
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand
And smiling, did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marred them;
Let my shame go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love,’ who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.