When atheists come to church (sermon of July 5)
Last week, Jesus, pushing through a crowd, was secretly touched by a woman who’ d been bleeding for 12 years; her bleeding stopped. She who’d been untouchable by the rules of the day touched him; she was then well, and he became untouchable. She gets well. He takes on her “uncleanness.”
And then he touched a 12 year old girl who had recently died. He was now “unclean” twice-over (touching a dead body made him so a second time), but the girl was alive. She gets life. He takes on her “uncleanness.”
And the next thing that happens is that Jesus, the now-famous, compassionate, but scandalously irreligious traveling teacher, goes home to Nazareth. And while he’s been amazing everyone, at Nazareth, Jesus is amazed.
What could possibly amaze Jesus?
1Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! 3Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” 5He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6And he was amazed at their lack of faith.
What’s their problem? And why do they have no faith in him? Is it not because they think they know him already?
Who are these people? It’s a village – anybody here from a really small town? Who would they be? They’d be his childhood friends and his family. It would be a painful rejection. And their inability to trust amazes him so much that they torpedo his ability to do there what he’d done elsewhere.
It’s not the first time that God has called someone to speak to people who don’t hear. Go back a few centuries, and listen to the prophet Ezekiel’s recollection of God’s voice to him:
Ezekiel 2: Ezekiel’s Call
1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” 2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.
3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them.
And this week’s Psalm is yet another voice of one who represented God in a place of rejection:
Psalm 123: A song of ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to you,
to you whose throne is in heaven.
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
3 Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us,
for we have endured much contempt.
4 We have endured much ridicule from the proud,
much contempt from the arrogant.
Nadia Bolz-Weber at Theolog.org jumped into my face about rejection:
We might be tempted to look down our noses at the people of Nazareth for responding to Jesus the way they do. But we would miss an important point: we too disbelieve. We too are apt to restrict what we think God is capable of in our lives and our communities.
I wonder why the Church expands explosively in Africa and South America, but churches in North America are shrinking. Could it be that we think we know who Jesus is and what he does, and we have him – and ourselves – boxed into a small set of expectations that really don’t allow him to break out into us and through us and offer fresh hope to the tired old same old same old world around us?
Back to Mark 6 – let’s read what happens after the scene at Nazareth:
Jesus Sends Out the Twelve
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. [First, he leaves!] 7Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits.
8These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. 10Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” [As he had just demonstrated by leaving Nazareth rather than staying to fuss at them.]
12They went out and preached that people should repent. 13They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Look at that. At Nazareth, Jesus is skunked. They leave. Here, his students can do all kinds of wellness-giving things— the very things he could not do in his home town!
They need nothing except what he gives them. They’re not to argue, but just to move on—as he had done—when people don’t get it. And they go and demonstrate good things and urge people to change their minds and embrace their story. For the repentance of Jesus is different than the repentance of John the Baptist. John’s looked backward at the darkness: repent of your sins. Jesus’s looks forward at light and hope: repent and believe the good news.
[Whether the gospel as it’s perceived today is “good news” is a side-trail that’s worth thinking about.]
A couple of stories, now. Remember these folks?
Unless you’re young, I expect you do. Now here’s a photo of their son, Jay:
Listen to his story:
Jay Bakker is a 32 year old pastor who grew up witnessing both the good and bad of the church. His parents are Jim and Tammy Faye, ministers-turned-TV-hosts who helped start both the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club in the 1970’s, and later founded the PTL (Praise The Lord) Club. At the height of their popularity, they pastored the largest church in the country – until their lives were changed by one of the biggest scandals in American history. For the first time, Jay was exposed to the dark underbelly of religion; an experience that would stay with him to this day.
After witnessing firsthand the excommunicative treatment his family received from the church, Jay wanted nothing to do with God. And so began a new life filled with substances easily abused and nonstop partying created to mask the pain and suffering caused by this surreal rejection. Eventually, Jay was able to conquer his demons and made a personal decision to find out who God really was. What he discovered floored him – God wasn’t some judgmental, condemning deity sitting on a throne waving an angry fist in the direction of sinners – rather, he was an understanding God offering his gift of love and grace with no strings attached. For the first time Jay wasn’t being driven to Christ out of fear; he was being drawn to Christ through love.
As a result of this discovery, Jay started a church for those who feel rejected by traditional approaches to Christianity; this church is called Revolution. The idea behind Revolution is to show all people the unconditional love and grace of Jesus without any reservations due to their lifestyles or background, past or future.
I AM AN ATHEIST AND I GO TO REVOLUTION
… I call myself an atheist.
And I attend services at Revolution.
In this week’s sermon, Jay mentioned that it “blows [him] away” that nonbelievers would come to Revolution. I spoke to him afterwards and explained a little why I come. I recently spent some time with Vince, and he asked me to write about those reasons.
Certainly I am making friends at Revolution, which is a wonderful reason to go. But there is obviously more to it than that. I can think of at least three reasons I go to Revolution. First, I like to have my own beliefs challenged. Second, I do believe Jesus is one of our greatest teachers. Third, I want to be part of a change in conversation between atheists and Christians.[…]
On May 31, 2009, Jay expressed his emotional response to the killing of Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions in Kansas and was shot down in his own church that very morning. Jay was angry at the misguided Christians who felt this murder was justified.
Jay said, “I think so much of our Bible and our theology and our ideas have gotten in such a way that sometimes the world is doing more of the work of the Holy Spirit than the Church. Because they’re out there saving Darfur, going to Africa, helping stop AIDS, using common sense to help people survive. And we’re here fighting and killing and destroying each other over stupid little ideas of theology. We’d rather be right, than someone be safe. We’d rather be right, than someone else have peace. It makes me sad.”
I know that many Christians are not the sort that condone Dr. Tiller’s killer. But it is refreshing and uplifting to me to hear someone inside Christianity who sees hypocrisy in their own community. Ben, the man who first told me about Revolution, once said he goes to Revolution because he thinks he can affect change better from the inside than the outside. I can see this outlook in Jay and others I have met at Revolution, and I like it. Those are the kind of Christians I want to be around. We live in a nation of people who largely identify as Christian, and I believe a lot of them are more aligned with Revolution’s brand of Christianity than the kind carried out in Kansas that day. I don’t want to convert Christians to atheism, but I do wish more of them knew that Revolution existed. For my part, I have offered my Internet marketing consulting to Revolution, because that’s where my gifts are and where I can contribute to growing Revolution’s reach.
I suppose that’s it, really. I want to be part of the revolution this church is claiming to be. I’m open to revolution within myself, and I want to be part of a revolution of open-mindedness in this country. But the revolution won’t happen just because of what Jay says or does. It will take a lot more people than that, and I want in.
When we seek to see who Jesus is and what he does, stereotypes fall away. The gospel becomes good news. People are not afraid. And some – often many – of those who’ve rejected the ideas of God and church sit up and say, “Whoa, what’s this? I like it. I want it.”
What can stand in our way is too much knowing Jesus as someone – or something – we’ve been around most of our lives who really has nothing to say but what we’ve already heard.
But he stirs things up. There will be rejection from those who revere same old, same old.
But those who’ve been standing outside, who’ve been themselves rejected by same old, same old, – the bleeding woman, the deceased daughter – will discover a Jesus who calls no one unclean, who brings hope and life, and who sends us out to do the same.