Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hometown heroes

Texts: 2 Cor 12 2-10 (power in weakness); Mark 61-13 (Jesus rejected at Nazareth)

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where his reputation as a healer and preacher in other towns in Galilee has preceded him. Mark doesn't tell us what Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, but he writes that Jesus' neighbours are amazed by what he says.

But instead of being happy with his powerful words and healings, the people from his hometown take offence and reject Jesus. They wonder how a simple carpenter like Jesus could have become a powerful preacher and a miraculous healer, let alone the Son of God.

Today, I use this brief mention of Jesus' hometown to spark a discussion among us about our hometowns. This is the first Sunday morning service since I arrived here last July where all three congregations are worshipping together. I hope that we can use this time to reflect on our hometowns and how they shape our ministry.

Near the end of this reflection, I am going to open the floor so that others can share stories of our hometowns. Such sharing, I believe, could help me know our three towns better. I also hope that it will help all of us reflect on how each town shapes us and shapes our work in ministry.

The rejection that Jesus suffers in Nazareth weakens his ministry. Mark says Jesus cannot perform miracles there. He connects this weakness with the lack of faith shown to Jesus in his hometown. Then Jesus repeats an old proverb: "A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and among his relatives."

Prophecy is one of several roles we adopt in the church. I use a list of five words that begin with the letter "p," to remind myself of five different roles of ministry  Those words are pastor, priest, pedagogue, preacher and prophet. Memorizing these "Five P's" helps me remember the wide-range of the church's mission. I hope that briefly running through them will help us all think about our work in the church.

First is pastor. A pastor is a companion to people who are sick, troubled, or mourning the loss of a loved one. The root of the word in Latin means shepherd, which reminds us of the image of Jesus as the shepherd of his flock. Those of us who spend time visiting people in the hospital or helping neighbours during a bad patch are the pastors among us.

Priest refers to the role of conducting rituals such as baptisms, communion, weddings, and funerals. Such rituals connect us to our sacred values of faith, hope and love. While the role of priest can be undertaken by any of us, it is the one of the five in which ordained ministers are most likely to preferred.

Pedagogues are teachers (pedagogue just being a fancy Greek word for teacher.) All of us who have taught Church School classes or organized study groups are part of the ministry of teaching. 

Preachers proclaim the good news of God in Christ and relate our ancient Scriptures to events in our communities today. In a charge like Borderlands, there are several strong voices who are willing to take on this role when we are between ministers or when the minister is away on study leave.

Finally, prophets. Prophets speak against injustice and sin and call a community to return to God's path of love. Prophecy is the role that Jesus said hometowns cannot easily accept from one of their own.

Protestants support the idea of the ministry of all believers, something that I mentioned at Joyce' Nelson's funeral last week. It suggests that all of us in the church are called to be ministers in the five roles -- pastor, priest, pedagogue, preacher and prophet. None of these roles are necessarily easy. But with God's grace, any of us can and do carry them out in different times and places.

Except, Jesus warns us that ministry can be more difficult in one's hometown. He suggests that people who know us best might be the ones least able to accept our authority to preach, heal, or prophecy . . . 

I wonder if Jesus' statement about hometowns is still true today. Hometown does not have the same meaning today that it did in the First Century. Nowadays, most of us move many times in their lives. Because of these moves, "hometown" more likely now refers to where one lives at present rather than the place where one grew up.

Take my own life. I was born in Kingston, Ontario at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. When I was three years old, my parents moved us to Cornwall 150 km to the east and where I lived for the next 12 years. When I entered Grade 11, we moved again to Belleville, 250 km back to the west. And when I went to university, I moved still further west to Toronto, which is where I have lived for most of my adult life. So which one of these is my hometown? Kingston where I was born? Cornwall where I spent my most formative years? Toronto where I have lived longer than anywhere else? Or Coronach where I now live?

The idea of hometown stability came to my mind when I chatted with Helen Curran on Thursday evening. She told me that she had lived in her little house on Churchill Avenue for almost 60 years, since she married and moved to Coronach from her family's farm near Shaunovan. Not only has Helen not moved in almost 60 years; her children and grandchildren also live in Coronach, which makes her family quite unusual in my experience. 

In my family, a reunion with my four siblings and my mother -- like the one we enjoyed at the end of June -- is a rare achievement since we now live in three different provinces. Of course, other families are even more far-flung, sometimes with family members living on different continents. 

A famous example of the latter is provided by President Barack Obama. When he first ran for President four years ago, I was struck by a family portrait printed in the newspaper from his half-sister's wedding in Hawaii in 2003. At the centre of the picture was Obama's grandmother, originally from Kansas but then living in Honolulu. Beside her was Obama, the child of a Kenyan and an American, his wife Michelle, the descendant of Black slaves who had grown up in Chicago, Obama's half-sister whose father was from Indonesia, and her husband, who grew up in Burlington Ontario with parents who were from China by way of Malaysia. Whew! Now, what hometown would Obama's family say they were from?

Regardless of whether we have a strong sense of hometown, the place where we live shapes our lives and hence also our ministry. Which brings me back to the three towns of Borderlands.

Any observations I have about our towns after one year still seem superficial. Each town appears to be shrinking in size, despite the mine and the power plant. We are isolated from the rest of Saskatchewan with poor roads and services, especially health care. The culture is largely rural, even though many people no longer farm, or at least no longer gain their livelihood exclusively from farming. The strong connections that bind people together are reflected in the large size of most funerals. The beauty of the countryside, the sunshine, and the sharp swings in our weather affect us all, largely in positive ways, I believe. But beyond that, I don't yet have a lot to say about this beautiful place in which we live.

So partly for that reason, I now want to open the floor up for sharing. I hope some of us will be willing to speak to questions like the following: what do you consider to be your hometown? Have you always lived in Rockglen, Fife Lake, or Coronach? If not, when and why did you move here? And what do you believe are some of the elements of our towns that influence your work in our churches? 

The floor is now open . . . 

Thank you all for contributing. I appreciated hearing of your experiences. 

To close, I refer back to our Scripture readings today. Both of our readings -- the one about Jesus in his hometown, and the one from St. Paul -- talk about weakness. The lack of faith of Jesus' neighbours in Nazareth weakens his ability to minister among them. St. Paul talks about his mysterious "thorn in his flesh." But St. Paul also reminds us that in weakness lies God's strength. Paul's insight is one of the cornerstones of Christianity, in my opinion.

Ministry strikes me as both endlessly complex and difficult -- and then in the next instant, as easy and effortless. It moves from difficult to effortless when touched by the grace of God.

We don't need to be wise, strong, or experienced to accept grace. Like Paul, we can be foolish and still accept grace. Like Paul, we can suffer from a "thorn in the flesh" and still accept Grace. Like Paul, we can consider ourselves to be weak in many ways, and still accept grace. 

Paul also reminds us that Jesus' path of faith, hope and love is one that leads to the cross. The power of God's love is revealed in a willingness to die in the face of injustice and sin. In this willingness to die, our illusions, anxieties, and false idols also die. In this willingness to die, grace appears.

Our union with God's Spirit flows from the defeats of life. When, with Grace, this union happens, our ministry flows effortlessly.

Effortless ministry does not mean that it will be "successful." It does not mean that we won't sometimes be rejected by people in our hometown. Nor does it mean that we don't have to pay close attention to our surroundings and the people in our families, churches, neighbourhoods and communities. 

What it does mean is that we can do our work as pastors, priests, preachers, pedagogues and prophets without anxiety. We can undertake our ministry in the realization that God calls us, supports us, and saves us regardless of any resentment  we might receive from the people in our hometown.

Love calls each of us to ministry -- to support one another, to remind ourselves of our sacred values, to proclaim the good news, to teach our tradition, and to speak out against sin and injustice. God supports us in this work in all our hometowns. And it is to God that the glory and honour of our ministry lies

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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