For some pretty obvious reasons I’ve been thinking a lot these days about travel and adventures. About what it means to leave what’s familiar and comfortable and to voyage out towards distant lands. I have that image from The Lord of the Rings running through my head, with the hobbits leaving the Shire for their great and grand adventure. Traveling can be exciting. Getting to know new places and new people, it opens up your eyes to things in this world that you can never even imagine from the comforts of home. But traveling can be difficult to. I heard once from a global missions professor that the greatest culture shock people experience doesn’t happen when they arrive overseas, it happens when they arrive home and discover that everything looks different.
It’s the experience of getting used to spending time in an impoverished third world nation stepping through the puddles of the wet markets, only to come home and to find yourself incapacitated by the fluorescent lights and the sheer volume of choice in the most basic supermarket. It’s the shock and the fear when you realize that everything around you feels different and yet nothing’s changed and you realize that on some fundamental level it’s you who has changed. Maybe without even noticing it, you’ve become someone different from who you were when you left.
Today’s gospel story is the story of the hero’s return. Jesus, who’s been touring around the countryside causing quite the commotion, has come back to his hometown and he’s teaching in the synagogue. And yet something’s off. His preaching falls flat, his healings don’t work, only this time it’s not just a matter of Jesus realizing that he’d been changed by his ministry throughout the region, it’s the fact that no one else is willing to admit it. They all just mutter under their breath, he can’t do anything that spectacular, we know him! He grew up right around the corner.
It’s a familiar story. It happens still today when someone we know makes it big, when they “get their lucky break”. Even if we are willing to admit it, we like to blame it on externalities: it’s because they had money, or because they had help, etc. It’s hard sometimes not to blame it on those outside forces because if those people really did have the same chances we had then we have to face something about our own limitations, and that flies in the face of all of the competitive spirit we’re taught is good and healthy from our very earliest years.
There’s something rather petty about that though, isn’t there? About being unable to celebrate the successes of others because of jealousy and pride, and yet it seems to be exactly what the townspeople in this story are going through.
GOD CALLING US
But what if life isn’t about competition? What if life isn’t about measuring up to our neighbour, keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak? What if the point of life, in fact, is to live out the purposes God has placed on your heart and in your life? It’s not about whether or not you can do something as well as the next person. It’s not about whether or not they had all the advantages in life. It’s about whether or not you’re doing the work that God intended you to do from the very beginning.
That’s what it means when Christians say we live in faith. It’s not simply a matter of claiming the right creeds, or telling the right stories. It’s a matter of immersing ourselves, head over heels, in the story that God is telling in this world. Living in faith means stepping into that story and allowing it to carry us along like a current in a river, trusting that by following the pathway God’s laid out ahead of us we’ll find some level of meaning and purpose in what we do. Because our purpose and meaning in life doesn’t come from what we accomplish standing next to our neighbour, and they don’t come from the rewards we get, and they don’t come from the praise of others. Even the disciples, when Jesus sent them out to literally change the world, didn’t need the trappings of bread, or a bag, or money on their belts, they didn’t need the flashiest equipment or the biggest budgets, all they needed was the knowledge that what they were doing was important to the world and to God. Our meaning in life comes from our ability to plug ourselves into the plans of the one who knows us, the one who created us.
WORK OF THE PEOPLE
And that, in and of itself, is an incredible thing, because what it means is that God has chosen to share the work of building this world with us. It’s one of the most incredible claims that we make. In Judaism it’s called Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, in Christianity it’s reconciling the world. It’s the power, and authority, and responsibility given to us by God to be vehicles of grace and healing in this world, to become partners with God. The people of Jesus’ home village missed that message. Their thoughts were too small and because their thoughts were too small they were filled with jealousy, not realizing that they could have done the same things that Jesus was doing if only they’d allowed themselves to be caught up in the incredible swell of his ministry. The disciples got it a little bit better because when they went out in pairs to the surrounding villages they went out in power and in authority to carry out that work of reconciliation.
When Jesus sent them out he knew that he wouldn’t always be able to be there right beside them in the flesh. Nonetheless even in his absence he trusted them with the message of the Kingdom of God. He chose them to be his partners in ministry.
St Teresa of Avila’s often credited with the poetic words:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.”
If we truly believe this and we recognize how incredible it is that God would choose us, you and me, to be partners in bringing the kingdom of heaven to life, then I think we can be bold to say that God sees what you do in this life. God knows your strengths and God knows your limitations, and in a very important sense God doesn’t care. God doesn’t care how terrific you are at some things any more than God cares how terribly you can mess them up. What God does care about is that you’re willing to put all that you are into the service of the healing of this world.
Friends in Christ, God sees you, God knows you, and God rejoices in who you are and in what you can accomplish if you simply allow yourself to step out in faith for the sake of the world.