Gracious God – we open the bible and long to receive your word – open, we pray, our minds and hearts to receive that word with all its comfort and in all its challenge. Amen.
Rejection must be one of the most painful experiences of life.
Whether it’s failing the 11+ or a job interview, coming to terms with a failed marriage, the breakdown of a parent and child relationship or an interruption to a friendship – rejection can crush us and bruise us.
Sometimes we don’t even trust our own take on life and wonder if what we think we are experiencing is really rejection at all or just a misunderstanding on my part – come back to it in a few days, weeks or months and my perspective might have changed.
As we make our way through Mark’s Gospel this liturgical year we find ourselves today in two passages that are dominated by the theme of rejection.
As the narrative unfolds Jesus is becoming more and more visible and Mark chapter six describes his entry into the arena of public faith.
In his home town he attends synagogue, and in the ‘roast preacher’ session after the sermon he is resoundingly and cruelly rejected. This is a candidate the Synagogue PCC or Eldership would never dream of asking back for a second interview or preach!
Biblical linguists tell us that this phrase used in verse three that they ‘turned against him’ is one used elsewhere in the gospels to describe a change of mind. People who might have believed, started out with a willingness to listen and give it a go – but then decided to push it to one side.
In a way I think we all recognise some of the dynamics at work here in Nazareth. This was the local boy come home and in that sense Jesus was anything but a clean sheet of paper for this community. Perhaps they simply knew too much about him and all the baggage and prejudices of the past obscured any clear and generous mindset with which they would listen to him now.
Here are three possible rumblings that could have been gossiped along the back pew as he preached that day: Shouldn’t he have stayed at home once Joseph died and taken over the family business? Look at him preaching, and to think he comes from a carpenter’s family, that’s even below the status of a peasant farmer in our society. Others said, ‘This is Mary’s Son’ - and that’s the only time in the New Testament Jesus is ever referred to like that, and the only time in Mark his mother is named. None of this is a compliment – usually he would have been referred to as Joseph’s son – so the title they used for him that day just opened up once more the scandal and dubious origins of his birth.
It’s significant that in Luke’s account of this disastrous sermon at Nazareth it’s the content that is described as explosive. Yet in Mark it’s not so much what is said but who says it that lights the blue touch paper.
And maybe we all do the same thing in a way. We often judge and evaluate the message through the messenger.
I’m sure this would never happen here but it must be a temptation for any church looking for a new priest or minister to hope that they would look the part, be an attractive age and even come from the right background.
Sometimes we might even think that’s what General Elections are about with our politicians. Who wore the best clothes and came across as the nicest guy in the five weeks of campaigning.
When it comes to leadership what’s more important: style or substance?
Could it just be that at Nazareth Jesus’ listeners simply didn’t hear the message because the past with all its misconceptions and prejudices just kept on getting in the way?
And then, straight after this story we hear Jesus commissioning the twelve disciples to go out two by two into the local villages teaching and preaching. If their message was rejected they were to do something dramatically symbolic – by taking off their sandals and shaking the dust from their feet, they were acknowledging that they were no longer welcome and it was time to move on.
Even today we talk about people voting with their feet!
At AFC we have a bi monthly reading group and we’ve recently read Father Vincent Donovan’s classic, ‘Christianity Rediscovered’. He was a priest working in Africa who became so disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of long standing mission centres, be they schools or hospitals, in communicating the challenge of faith.
With the grudging permission of the Vatican he devised a different mission strategy of spending a limited time visiting each village, living in his tent on the boundary and calling together the elders sharing with them the stories and message of Jesus. He would then leave them to share that message with the villagers and he would go off elsewhere, coming back in a few weeks time to hear their response. At this meeting he would ask the elders for the villagers’ reaction – had they accepted or rejected the stories and message of Jesus. If it was the former he would stay on and help disciple these new converts, if it was the later the very next day he would pack up his tent and move on. Now in truth the book takes 162 pages to describe that more fully but in essence that was Donovan’s method – not too dissimilar from that described in Mark 6.
The truth is there are many gospel accounts that don’t speak about success when it comes to sharing the ideals and challenges of God Kingdom but the way it can be rejected and dismissed. But as David Livingstone used to say: God is a perfect gentleman – and that surely means he will not force anyone to believe and trust in him against their will.
Now in closing I just want to say something that is utterly opposite to the theme of today’s passage and it’s just the thought that actually the overriding presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospels is that of someone who accepts us, welcomes us, embraces us with love and , forgiveness offering us new beginnings.
Just recall the way Jesus – even at the end of a tiring day made time to welcome and bless children. Of the way he broke through the taboos of his society and touched lepers and showed understanding to the demon possessed. This is the Jesus who opens the door to a late night caller, Nicodemus, a member of the council and stays up half the night offering this thinking, searching man a new paradigm for faith that was all about being ‘born again’.
It seems to me that the massive sculpture of Jesus above Rio de Janeiro gets it spot on, a Jesus with open arms – arms of both blessing and welcome.
And that must surely be our continuing inspiration in our own pilgrimage – the ideal before us is to offer that same hospitality to others that Jesus showed but maybe didn’t always receive.
A newish hymn has a line that I know some of us are reluctant to sing because we’re not sure we actually mean it – it has the refrain ‘All are welcome, all are welcome in this place.’ And when a church has said that – and made that offer of inclusivity – there will be both challenging and beautiful times ahead.
At the moment AFC has a new poster up – a suggestion from a member of the congregation who saw something similar whilst in Cornwall – alongside some Liqourice All Sorts there is the invitation ‘All Sorts Welcome Here’ – the simplest of messages – the most challenging of ideals for any congregation. Yet it is surely an ideal that is so central to the values of the Kingdom of God that we must do everything in our power never to lose it from our sights because it’s buried under some obscure committee agenda or an ecclesiastical culture that is actually miles away from the radical gospel message preached by Jesus.
There is, of course, one picture of hospitality, welcome, inclusivity and acceptance for which we can all give thanks this morning. And it is the profoundly precious gift given to our three congregations through the COTHA Covenant enabling the sharing of Holy Communion not only between us but also providing for the Eucharistic Presidency to be offered by any ordained minister from St Michael’s, St John’s or Amerham Free Church. So it’s been my great delight to be invited by your clergy here on more than one occasion to officiate at the Communion Table. Such Eucharistic Hospitality goes deep and is a beautiful sign of the mutual respect that has developed over many decades between our three churches on the hill.
So today let us thank God for inclusivity and the acceptance that is offered to us by him. And with that as our inspiration may we too long that all may indeed feel welcome in this place - in the name of The Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.