The High Ground
The first sermon I ever preached was in my home church. I spent many long hours preparing it and only a few very short minutes delivering it. My first sermon, though pathetic, was greeted with enthusiasm and kind encouragement by my home congregation. They were generous with their praise to encourage me to keep moving forward in my call to ministry. I delivered my first sermon with a home court advantage. I was surrounded by people who loved me and cared deeply for me. My first sermon was not confrontational in any way. It did not demand much from my hearers. Why would I want to draw conviction down upon people who were so supportive and loving?
Jesus first ministry works at home in Mark 2 went well. “When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (Mark 2:1-2 NRSV) He received a warm greeting. The crowds gathered. The paralytic was healed. The word was spoken. All were amazed and glorified God. This was ministry done from the high ground.
As pastors we are trained to do ministry from the high ground. We work hard to develop environments that will lead to success, growth, and acceptance. We work hard to silence our naysayers and elevate our praise singers. We surround ourselves with agreeable and willing disciples who will follow our lead. We make sure our high ground environments are resourced and well-funded. We make sure that our success, popularity, and places can be sustained over the long haul. We invite crowds to gather in person or virtually, filling the places where we are in control. Good leadership has become synonymous with consolidating power and influence. From our ministry high ground, we choose our target audience, the latest media, the best curriculum, our favorite texts, the most relevant topics, the voices we give credence to and the voices we diminish. Often if we lose control of too many of these things for too long; if we lose the high ground, people begin to question whether we are really called to ministry at all.
In our gospel text from Mark 6, Jesus teaches on the sabbath in his hometown synagogue. He had been traveling, healing, teaching and casting out demons. His ministry had gained momentum. Jesus had gained some notoriety as well as some critics. Now back in his hometown it looks at first like the high ground of homecourt advantage will kick in once again. Mark 6:2 tells us, “Many who heard him were astounded.” Suddenly however, the safe and comfortable high ground begins to slip away amidst some pointed questions.
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! 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.
In his comments on Mark 6, John J. Pilch identifies two issues raised by Jesus’ hearers that call into question whether Jesus should be speaking to them at all. The first is a problem of parentage. Pilch notes, “In the Middle East, a son is always identified by the father (e.g., Simon bar [= son of] Jonah; James and John, the sons of Zebedee). Identifying a son by the mother’s name usually signals some confusion about the father.”[i] The hometown crowd brings up the scandal and uncertainty of Jesus parentage by referring to him as the son of Mary. They remember a pregnancy out of wedlock. They remember Jesus’ youth and his family. While Jesus the oldest had been off gaining a name for himself, who was caring for Mary? Was it one of his brothers, James or Joses?
The second issue raised is one of Jesus’ vocation which seems to stem from the parentage problem. “Is not this the carpenter?” What is a carpenter doing proclaiming and healing? How had Jesus changed from an artisan to a prophet? How had he come to have wisdom and power beyond his station? The problems of parentage and vocation leave the hometown crowd offended at the thought that Jesus could tell them anything about the scriptures or what the kingdom of God was all about.
Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Jesus encountered a ministry season where momentum was stopped. Home court advantage was gone. He was in a place where he was perceived to be without honor; a place where he could do no deed of power. The unbelief of his hometown hearers was stunning. So how did Jesus respond to the losing the high ground in his hometown. When ministry seems stalled, how did Jesus move forward?
Jesus does three things that seem like they could not possibly work to jump start his ministry work; he shakes off the offense, gives away authority and takes resources away from his disciples. In our hunker down, work harder, consolidate power, resource and recalibrate kind of church climate, Jesus’ method is madness. Rather than rehearsing and analyzing the criticism or attempting to retake the high ground, Jesus pulls a Taylor Swift and shakes off the hometown offense, choosing instead to go about among other villages teaching. Rather than gathering his high D, inner leadership power and conquering his critics, Jesus gives power away and sends his followers out in teams of two. Rather than building up his war chest so he can launch a counter-offensive and take ground for the kingdom, Jesus sends the disciples with nothing but a staff and the sandals.
Our churches have lost the high ground. Attendance is down. Our methods of measurement no longer function very well. Churches are closing. Churches are riddled with division and a lack of trust. The home court advantage of our buildings and programs has given way to people being more likely to emphasize our scandals and take offense at our approaches. As we emerge from our Covid cocoons, the cry of many is to “get back to normal.” We all need to attend closely to what Jesus calls his disciples to do, because in this moment where we are all looking longingly back at the high ground that we have lost, Jesus offers us a way forward. Our calling is the same as that of the apostles.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two… Now is not the moment to stay put; it is the moment to recognize that we are sent out. Now is not the time to minister alone it is a time to partner. What if taking this passage seriously means that no one should minister alone? We must not return to trying to be Emperor/CEO’s of our own small franchises. Who might Jesus be sending with you into the next season of ministry? Could it be that Jesus is making much of the solo power leader material of the last two decades obsolete? Perhaps our first question for the Lord as we emerge from the cocoon should be, who are you sending me with, rather than who are you sending me too. Whether you are layperson or a pastor, Jesus does not mean for you to minister alone.
…and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. Now is not the moment to hoard and consolidate our power. Jesus is calling us to give authority away and multiply the reach of the good news that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is worth noting that the word for “unclean” here is the word “akathartos” from which we derive our English work catharsis. The term unclean here mean impure or wrongly mixed. How many people in your church and town have been holding their breath for more than a year? How many of the spirits you encounter have been swallowing the pain and the fear, with no avenue of release, no chance for catharsis? Jesus has given his followers authority to cast out the wrongly mixed, unclean spirit. Take the authority Jesus has given and speak release and liberty, cast out whatever in the spirits of those you encounter has mixed them up and left them suffering.
He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. Now is not a moment to store up or buy our way forward. Jesus is calling us in the moment to protect with the staff and keep it simple with some sandals. It is not a moment for extras or waiting for more. Our call is to set out with our partner and with what we have. The prohibitions suggest that the twelve were to depend entirely upon the hospitality of those whom they were sent to serve.[ii]
He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. Now is not a moment when we can minister from the high ground. Jesus calls his disciples to be radically dependent on those they are trying to communicate the good news to. They must receive food from those to whom they are proclaiming because they have no bread nor any means to buy any. They must enter the homes of those they are sent to heal, because they have no money for an inn and no place of their own to stay. Jesus disciples have no bag to carry anything extra. They have nothing with which to barter. If their tunic tears, they must rely on the hospitality of those who they are trying to reach with the good news. Before offering people in the villages the good news of Jesus, or calling them to repentance; before healing, anointing or casting out demons, they must move into a home and surrender to the kindness of strangers. Only from this low ground of surrender, from the grass roots place of humbly and gratefully receiving hospitality can the ministry move forward.
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.” Now is not the moment to try to take back what we lost, or polish our image so we are no longer offensive. Like Jesus, the disciples are called to move on from places they are not welcome. A pre-requisite for the ministry of the Apostles is welcome. They are not to stay and fight in places they are not wanted. Like Jesus had done with his hometown, any place that does not offer welcome the apostles are to shake off the dust and move on.
So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. With the authority given them by Jesus the apostles went out by twos. With no bag, no money and no bread, they surrendered themselves to hospitality and favor of those they were trying to reach with the good news. From the low ground of emptiness and from hearts of humility, they proclaimed and cast out demons, anointed and healed the sick.
Shake off the dust. Send and be sent in trusting partnership with others. Receive authority and give you hearers authority to do the things Jesus did. Don’t minister until you have first been welcomed and have come to rely for your life and well-being upon those to whom you are trying to minister. Gratefully depend upon those who offer hospitality and from that place and heal, proclaim and make whole. When the high ground is gone, hear the voice of Jesus calling you to minister from the common ground of proximity, humility, hospitality and love.
[i] John J. Pilch. Honor. https://liturgy.slu.edu/14OrdB070421/theword_cultural.html
[ii]Kimondo, Stephen Simon. The Gospel of Mark and the Roman-Jewish War of 66–70 CE: Jesus’ Story as a Contrast to the Events of the War (p. 152). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.