Falling Forward

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor ©2024

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/B • July 7, 2024

Mark 6:1-13

Jacquelyn and I like to travel to Spain. One of the benefits of her being a flight attendant is that we can fly inexpensively, so once a year we pick out a new place and pre-see it. What I mean is, Jacquelyn watches travel videos about the place, I look at suggested things to see. We get a sense of what it’s like to walk around before we ever set foot in the place. I mention all this because we’ve been reading through the first chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and that’s what he’s doing: giving us a tour, a preview, of what it looks like to walk with Jesus. So far, we’ve been to Capernaum, which is a bit like going from York to Harrisburg, we’ve been across Lake Galilee to an area that’s mostly Gentile and back again. We’ve seen him attract crowds, heal people in amazing ways, we’ve been amazed as he stilled a storm, so amazed we had to ask, with his friends, “Who is this?” Now he’s come home; now he’s back in Nazareth, where everyone knows him and his family lives. What can we learn about our life following him from this moment?

I wonder what it’s like for him to go home. Is he tired after his trip? Your mother is always glad to see you, so there’s that. It turns out he has a big family: four brothers, some sisters. Are some of them married with little kids running around? Moms always have some special thing they make for returning sons; my mother’s was coconut cream pie. The story says on the sabbath, he gets up and preaches at the synagogue. That was hard, I’m sure. I’ll let you in on a little preacher secret: it’s a lot easier to preach to a crowd of strangers than a little group who know you. I remember my first sermon at my home church. I was just 18 and they all knew me, I’d been leading the youth group and speaking in worship for years. They were proud to have one of their own going into the ministry. Everyone was very nice afterward but I heard someone say to my mother, “You must be so proud of Jim”, to which my mother replied more or less, “Well yes but you know it’s hard to listen to someone preach when you remember changing his diapers.”

So Jesus preaches in the synagogue; this is actually the last time in Mark we hear about him in a synagogue. It’s not clear what sort of reaction he gets. “Where did this man get all this?” Commentaries are divided on whether we should read this as praise or sarcasm. I think the latter and I think that because of what follows. Remember where we’ve been with Jesus: to the neighborhood, where he healed a man with a withered hand, though a storm he stilled, across the lake to Gersa, where he exorcised demons, to Capernaum where a woman was healed by just touching his clothes, and where he raised a little girl who had been thought dead. One amazing moment after another, but here at home, it says simply, “He could do no deed of power there…” Jesus is amazing until he gets home, where he fails. Right there, in front of the home town crowd, in front of all those family members, all those people he grew up with: nothing, fails, can’t do anything.

I know what that feels like. I worked in a growing church during seminary and when I graduated, I went out to a little Congregational church in Seattle that said they wanted to grow. There were about 25 of us most Sundays, a group that had split off from a large church downtown and bought a small building in the northern suburbs. I knew what to do; I’d read all the books on how to grow a church, I had the technique down. It took me a year but I convinced the church we should go out and call on people in the neighborhood. Now our neighborhood was a strange mix of everyone from single moms to retired folks to up-and-coming workers. I was sure this would work. It took hours and hours of planning, we printed up a really nice brochure, rehearsed what to say and finally off we all went one day. Our little group made about a hundred visits. I had calculated that we should expect to get a ten percent return, so figuring some of the visits would produce whole families, we got ready for 20 or 30 new people. We made sure there was extra food for coffee hour and waited. Nothing happened. No one came: not one visitor showed up on Sunday. The only immediate result was that some woman called me during the week and asked if we could help take care of her mother. It was a total failure. I was depressed for months. 

Jesus fails; we all fail. Are we failing as a church? Are we failing as churches? Last year, about 4,500 Protestant churches closed in the US. I could go on and cite statistics about church attendance and other measures, but that would just be even more depressing. What can we take from Jesus’ failure? What does he do? What Jesus does is keep teaching. “He was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about the villages teaching.” The other thing he does is send out the twelve in pairs. He gives them authority, he gives them directions. I’ll say more about that next week but for now, notice that what Jesus does about failure is to expand his ministry by sending out six pairs of healers. Notice when he sends them. It’s not after a mighty work; it’s when he fails. Jesus fails but he fails forward because of his faith in God.

That doesn’t look like failure, does it? Maybe the problem is our definition of success and failure. In Seattle, our definition of success was a lot more people sitting in pews. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, was smaller and harder to track. The people in that church didn’t come from the neighborhood and had never cared much about it. But after some time walking around there, meeting people, they started to care. We changed some rules about membership; we learned to be grateful and welcoming when someone did show up and a few of those people stuck. We had a small choir you had to audition to join; we got rid of the audition and just let anyone sing, including a woman who couldn’t read a note of music but had a beautiful voice. The church building was next to an elementary school. We had discovered there were a lot of single parent families and after talking to the school social worker, we discovered there were a lot of kids who went home to empty houses, so we created the first latch key program in Seattle, an after school program where volunteers helped kids do homework, played games and fed them a snack. 

I’d love to say that the church took off and grew into a big, strong place, but it didn’t. When I left a couple of years later, it was still small, but it was a different place. It was a congregation where people were busy with various ways of helping in that neighborhood. At the end of this story in Mark, no deeds of power have been done. Except this one: those twelve guys who have just been following Jesus around are now off, practicing what Jesus preached. Is that success? What do you think? What is success following Jesus? Is it looking rich and powerful, or listening to him and doing what he says? This is what he says: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  [Mark 1:15]. Every day,, we hear bad news: Jesus says, “Believe in the good news.” This is the good news: you are a child of God; so is everyone you meet. Living in the kingdom means acting like it. So does living in the neighborhood. Amen.