Proper 9b, July 5, 2015, Newport UMC

July 6, 2015

Dependence Day
Mark 6:1-13

6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Probably the first thing you should know about me is that I’m not normal. I’m not abnormal in a particularly obvious way, and I’m quite normal in what I will soon describe as an unfortunate way, but in some significant ways I’m just not normal. I don’t qualify as an extraordinary person – I don’t really have an area of expertise, but sometimes I like to do things that just aren’t normal.

About a year ago, in May of 2014, I rode my bicycle from Little Rock to Edisto Beach State Park in South Carolina. It was about a 900 mile trip and it took me 12 days to get there. I got there. I ate a big carryout seafood dinner on the beach. I watched the moon rise, I slept a little bit, I watched the sun rise, I packed up my stuff, I bummed a ride to the nearest Enterprise Car Rental Agency where I rented a car, and then I drove home. Why did I do that – I don’t know exactly. I just felt compelled to do it, and my wife didn’t think I would do it until it was too late to stop me. Sometimes I just like to do things that aren’t exactly normal. I apologize in advance for the abnormal things I may choose to while I’m here.

I had a normal upbringing. Many of you know that I grew up over in Wynne. I think Wynne and Newport probably have a lot in common. Wynne came in to being because it was a railroad intersection, and my understanding is that Newport got started in a similar fashion. I guess this is the place where the railroad intersected the White River. I loved growing up in Wynne, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed growing up in Newport, but I didn’t really want to stay in Wynne when I grew up. I think I was afraid I might become normal. But it feels pretty normal for me to be here in Newport, and I hope it will feel that way to you.

I’m going to talk about Jesus in a minute, but another thing you need to know about me is that I’m not a normal preacher. I don’t really know how to describe a normal preacher, but I don’t think I am one. I’m guessing you will frequently find yourself wondering where I’m going with my sermon. I often wonder the same thing during the course of my sermon preparation. I don’t generally begin with a clear plan, but I find that when I sit with a passage of scripture for a while and I start writing things that seem somehow connected to something Jesus was saying or doing I usually discover something I’m glad to know about him, and I’ll do my best to pass that on.

I assure you, my goal is not to leave you wondering what in the world I spent twelve to fifteen minutes talking about, but listening to me preach may well make you feel like you’re on an odd journey. In fact I hope that’s how you will feel when you hear me preach because I think following Jesus is an unusual journey to embark upon.

I’ll try not to be boring, I’ll try to be honest, I’ll try to be true to the message of Christ, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will improve upon whatever I have to offer. I guess you might say that is my formula for preaching, and I hope you will find it acceptable.

Preparing a sermon isn’t an easy thing to do, but I know it can be even harder to listen to a sermon, and I am mindful of the effort it takes to show up for worship. So I’ll always try to have something to say that you will be glad to hear, but don’t expect it to be normal. All I can say is that I’ll do my best to find the words to express the truth that Jesus Christ is alive and is calling for us to follow him. Maybe that’s what it means to be a normal preacher. I’m no longer opposed to being normal – at least not in the way I used to fear it. In fact I’m sure that I’m very normal in the unfortunate way that I mentioned earlier. I think I’m very much like one of those normal citizens of the village of Nazareth.

This trip to Nazareth was the most futile trip Jesus ever took. It started out good. There was a lot of buzz about Jesus, and there was a lot of enthusiasm about his return. The Chamber of Commerce was pretty excited about the new opportunities he might bring to town, but Jesus returned looking a whole lot like the way he did when he left. He didn’t arrive back home in the style they expected. He didn’t come in exuding the kind of greatness that they were expecting to see. He looked way too normal, and consequently he wasn’t able to touch them in a meaningful way.

It failed because he didn’t live up to their expectations, but the problem wasn’t with what he had to offer. The problem was with what they wanted. And what I’m thinking is that we always get in trouble when we behave like those Nazareans and expect Jesus to provide us with what we think we need. That’s what I actually consider to be normal behavior, and it’s not easy for any of us to overcome that way of living.

In all honesty, I’m a very normal person. I like comfort, security, entertainment, status, health, privilege, and religious affirmation of it all. I like to go off on an odd adventure every now and then, but I am a normal American. I love having hot and cold running water, electricity, air-conditioning, health-care, cable television, high-speed internet connectivity, and transportation upon demand. I’m not on the top rung of the economic ladder, but in a significant way I’m living the American dream – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that way.

I could give you a list of things I could use some help on, but I’ve got access to what you might call the good life, and I like it. I’m pretty normal in that way.

But I’m also sure that these things I enjoy and depend upon get in the way of my relationship with Jesus Christ – they cloud my understanding of the Kingdom of God.

This dismal story of the kind of reception Jesus received when he returned to Nazareth is followed by this glowing account of the disciples going out with nothing but bare essentials and a powerful message –the good news of the new way in which God had chosen to enter our world.

They didn’t have universal success in their mission, but it was much more successful than the trip to Nazareth because they weren’t distracted by false expectations. The disciples weren’t offering anything but a relationship with the living Christ, and that was a transforming gift.

What we think we need can get in the way of what Christ has to offer. Our stuff can get in the way of our relationship with the living Christ.

On this Independence Day Weekend we truly do have a lot to celebrate. We live in a nation that is better than most nations in the way we get along with each other and how well we provide for one another. We are far from perfect, and I could say a lot more about that, but we keep trying, and I think we keep improving the way we operate as a nation.

But we Christians are called to be more than normal Americans. It’s a fine thing to pursue the American dream, but it’s a far different thing to seek the kingdom of God. And the hard thing to hear is that we are most available to God when we are most dependent upon one another.

Jesus didn’t send his disciples out with limited equipment because they didn’t have access to adequate supplies. He sent them out in that vulnerable manner because he wanted them to be dependent upon other people. He wanted them to need other people because he also knew that other people needed what they had to offer. Miraculous things were able to occur because they were truly open to one another.

There was no guarantee that such serendipitous relationships would occur. Clearly there were times when the disciples were not well received and Jesus gave them clear instructions on how they were to deal with hard hearted people, but the way they went out with built-in vulnerability created a ripe opportunity for God’s grace to abound.
My wife’s grandmother, Linnie, was living over in the Delta town of Dermott when the epic flood of 1927 took place. I remember her telling us about how they had to evacuate their home, and that the most elevated place in the community was the railroad levee, so they and many other people took up residence in boxcars on the railroad levee for several weeks. When she told us what they had been forced to do I responded by saying how terrible that must have been, and after a short pause she said, No, I think that was about the best time we ever had.
And I think we all know what she was talking about. There is nothing better than living in genuine community with other people. When we live with both dependence on the grace of others and concern for the wellbeing of others we experience the most elemental form of freedom and security that there is. It’s a form of freedom and security that we lose when we become dependent on access to surplus and when we trust our wellbeing to the reliability of our devices. It’s the form of freedom and security that comes to us when we let go of our usual way of living and abide in the Kingdom of God.
It’s hard not to seek freedom and security in the normal ways that we do, but the good news is that we aren’t left to our own devices, and our lives often get disrupted in ways that allow us to experience the nearness of God’s kingdom and the true comfort of Christ’s living presence.

God doesn’t generally come to us in the way that we would choose, but God does provide us with what we need. God isn’t normal – God is gracious!

And thanks be to God for that! Amen


4 Responses to “Proper 9b, July 5, 2015, Newport UMC”

  1. Lois G. Russell Says:

    I am so glad you shared this wonderful message. And I am so glad to now feel that it’s okay to “not be normal.” May this new assignment be a productive, happy one for you. I know you join me in being relieved that Garland once again dodged the bullet of being washed away. And the levees held the water from the field around our farmhouse, though many acres flooded and about five acres were washed away. My best to you and your family…..Lois Gene Russell

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Says:

    Good sermon. Love, Jack

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Miss you already. There’s no one that I know that can navigate a circuitous path as well as you. It’s about as close to “living into the Mystery” as any of us can get. It’s those of us who believe in certainty that can be mightily disappointed. But then, that’s part of the adventure.

  4. twmurray Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read my sermon and for your kind words!

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