Sermon preached at Chapel of the Apostles at The School of Theology at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN on 10/23/14, St. James of Jerusalem day, by Katie Hargis. (Matt. 13:54-58)
Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this? (Matt. 13:54-55)
With these questions the people of Nazareth greeted the return of one of their own. Jesus, teaching in the synagogue, seems to have had no standing with his own townsfolk. Where did he get all this, they wanted to know, as though knowing the answer would supply the credibility Jesus lacked.
Thus we come to a familiar problem: upon what basis are we to cast our faith? In what teaching shall we trust? Whose witness is the true witness, and whose wisdom reliable? We have been taught, and wisely so, that we ought to research and consider carefully where we place our trust. We want to know as much as we can before we decide; we want to make knowledgeable decisions. And this is all well and good. But if we rely too much and too long upon the opinions of experts, the sources of our knowledge…after a time we come to distrust ourselves and others.
Why is it so hard to accept truth or wisdom or genius from someone we think we know? Why does greatness seem much more authentic when it comes from a source that is somehow removed from us? The adage “Familiarity breeds contempt” is no where more apt than in this gospel reading of Jesus and his family and neighbors.
Can’t you imagine all of the little old church ladies in Jerusalem asking: Is this not the son of Joseph? Didn’t we use to see him playing in the street with the other children? Isn’t he the one who got left behind in Jerusalem that time and caused his parents so much grief. Didn’t he go off and leave his mother to wander about the country side, stirring up trouble? Didn’t he become some kind of itinerant prophet? What is he saying? He’s got a lot of nerve trying to tell us what to believe, all the authorities think he’s dangerous, out of his mind, filled with demons.
The truth, we think, should come from “on high,” should be carried by someone who is coming down the mountain with two stone tablets in his hands, and a blinding glow about his person. Not the neighbor kid. Not the guy who works at the desk next to you. Not the person who sits across from you at lunch. That isn’t truth, that’s just, you know…rambling and speculation, or an attempt to justify personal actions or a way to advance an agenda to his own benefit. Why is it so hard to believe that our sibling or spouse or friend could actually be presenting us with God’s truth and wisdom, right here, right now, right in our face?
Why is the quality of the message so diluted by the proximity of the relationship? We know their quirks and blemishes, their Achille’s heel, their addictions and failures — they got all of that wrong, how can they be a source of God’s love and wisdom?
Even more to the point, how could the truth possibly come from me? I know myself, I know what I’m really like, what lurks in the hidden corners and under the floor boards of my psyche, my secret life, and truth could not possibly have survived that kind of contamination or cohabitation. I think, that as we obscure our vision of friends and family with so much baggage and knowledgeable assessment, that the truth could come up and bite us and we still wouldn’t know it! We have so camouflaged and covered over that place within each of us that does contain our connection to God’s truth, love, and wisdom that is there with us at all times.
Not only can’t we share it with anyone, we can’t even see it, feel it, or recognize it within ourselves, and live into it’s life giving power and healing source of love. We have an innate urge to distrust the faithfulness and organic authenticity of what calls out to us from within us, be it a deeper understanding of truth or healthy life goals that are about answering this call from God.
But, as Jesus answered the call from his Father and was given the truth of God’s love to live out and into, so James answered that same call through his brother, Jesus. Somehow he found a way to overcome the history between the two siblings, to hear God’s beckoning to him through this brother of his. Can’t you imagine what might have gone through his head early on?
“Really? Jesus is God’s chosen? You’re sure it’s not Benjamin from the next village or Isaac, our father’s cousin? Now there’s a guy you could really get behind in this whole Messiah business. He is what you would call a natural born leader. He could take an army and overthrow the authorities if he had some good men and money behind him. Really, Jesus is God’s beloved?”
James somehow managed to line up behind and live into that reality, to learn to trust the unexpected and paradoxical nature of this truth as he found it in Jesus. In doing so he became first among the leaders of the early Christian Church in Jerusalem, challenging and changing so many lives by his own example of a holy life lived in the strangely gentle, non-militant, but universal love of God and by following the example of his brother.
Both Jesus and James were decisive. The teaching of Jesus, as he related his own perceptions of God, and the direction of James, as he rendered his opinion in the assembly, were both clear examples of authority based upon personal experience.
Like the townspeople of Nazareth, we are suspicious of such authority. The personal witness of other Christians, or those of differing faiths, is easily discredited as lacking authority. Our own witness and faith is prone to a leaning dependency upon tradition — be it the scriptures or the historical church — or upon the opinions of others. Unless we can cite chapter and verse, or ecclesiastical canon, or the latest poll, or the currently accepted experts in the field, we tend not to venture forth at all. We want always to be right, to be safe and sound. And when carried to the extreme, we find ourselves perilously near death. For then we bear someone else’s faith, someone else’s story, someone else’s experience…beneath such a burden, how can our own life be sustained?
The liberating word of the gospel is that we are responsible creatures. We are free to hold our own faith, to make our own judgements, and to value our own experience. Those who rejected the authority of Jesus did so on the basis of his humanness. Because he was one of them, they discredited his witness. What they revealed was not simply their mistrust of him, but their own lack of respect for themselves. They were saying, in truth, that because Jesus was no different from them his word could have no value, his witness no authority.
Yet it is in that very humanness that we see the sanctity of our responsibility — that as creatures of God we are endowed with the ability to respond in faith, hope, and love to the life that is ours and the world in which we live it. In Jesus, whom we believe to be all that God desires of humankind, we see the high regard of God for the human race, a regard that is obviously far higher than what is revealed in the townspeople of Nazareth.
And so, we too have heard this call that James heard and are trying to follow that example, albeit in perhaps imperceivable ways, by means that may not be perfectly visible to those around us, but trying nonetheless.
We think we have heard a truth. We are not quite willing perhaps, to see that the truth that is in us, the truth of God’s love for us, that God is the only source and resource that is absolutely necessary for our existence, whatever version that might currently be. But, as a wise priest said to me earlier this week, God is quite capable of using any and all means around us of getting our attention and of conveying to us all manner of love and forgiveness. And that may include our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and even, sometimes, ourselves.