6. Pentecost: Eyes to See

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

8 July 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO


Eyes to See

Based on St. Mark 6: 1-6

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell


            My late grandfather, James Douglas Darnell, went to school with Dick Van Dyke. They both grew up in Danville, Illinois, along with future actors Gene Hackman and Donald O’Connor. While my grandfather grew up poor with a large family on a farm, the Van Dykes were more middle class. Both would move away for a different kind of life than Danville offered – my grandfather to the larger city of Peoria, Van Dyke to New York and Hollywood. Years later, when Van Dyke gained success in film and television and on Broadway, my grandfather did not revel in the story of the local boy who made good for himself but remembered the kid he grew up with, derogatorily referring to him as a “pretty boy.”

            I think some of the folks in Nazareth may have thought about Jesus in a similar way. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Nazareth a few years ago. Today it is a bustling city, in fact the largest predominately-Arab city in Israel. But in Jesus’ time it was a backwater compared to Jerusalem, composed, some speculate, of maybe only 500 people. Like many small communities it likely had its own established order and social system, of which Jesus has already stepped out. He’s been off, even farther in the hinterlands of Galilee and even to the big city of Jerusalem preaching his radical message of God’s kingdom and engaging in powerful healings. The news has surely traveled back home to Nazareth – maybe Mary has told the other village women at the well when they gather their morning water, or perhaps his brothers James and Jude have shared it with their friends. What must the townspeople think? Perhaps they ask, “Really, Jesus? Mary’s boy? What does he think he’s doing running all over? Who does that gadabout think he is?”

            Jesus goes back home to Nazareth, and it does not go over nearly as well as one might hope. Rev. David Ewart, a United Church of Canada minister writes that, “Simply stepping forward to teach in his hometown synagogue would literally be stepping out of his – and his families – assigned place in the village pecking order. Doing so would immediately demand public, critical evaluation by those in charge of keeping people in their place. Anyone who has ever lived in a small town will appreciate that maintaining one’s social standing is fiercely protected – protecting one’s own honour from being devalued; and preventing anyone else’s honour from being increased.”[1]

            Notice how the townspeople talk about Jesus. They say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Both parts of this statement are intended by them to put Jesus in his place. A carpenter in Jesus’ time and culture had to travel wherever there was work, often being away from home and family. Carpenters were thought to be a questionable choice for a husband because of this, suspect of whatever they might be doing while not under a watchful eye. It is odd to refer to Jesus here as the son of Mary rather than Joseph as it was certainly a patriarchal society. What referring to Jesus by his mother’s name does is reinforce the rumors and gossip that probably plagued the family – that  Jesus was an illegitimate child conceived before Mary wed Joseph. Who would have believed her if and when she had told them who Jesus’ real father was. To suggest all of this the townspeople attempt to discredit Jesus. They probably think, “Who does he think he is? We know his real story! This illegitimate carpenter has gotten too big for his britches, thinking he can stand up in our synagogue and interpret the words of God for us!” The gospel tells us “they took offense at him.” They were offended that Jesus had stepped outside of his prescribed role in the community and dared to speak with power and authority. They thought they knew who Jesus was – and certainly knew who he was supposed to be, at least in their minds. They thought they had Jesus’ number. They thought they had him pegged.

            But they didn’t know him, not really. They were so blinded by who they thought Jesus was supposed to be – blinded by their own preconceived notions of where he belonged in the community, because they thought he was born out of wedlock, because they thought he was just simple carpenter, nothing more than a local boy who ran out of town and forgot his place. But you see, they were blinded by all of these things. They couldn’t see beyond the limits they had decided were on his life. They couldn’t see beyond the limits they had put on their lives. So much so that when Jesus speaks in the synagogue, whatever Good News he offered to them that day, they couldn’t hear it – so stuck were they in their old notions.

            Does that ever happen to us? Has anyone ever pre-judged who you are or are supposed to be? Of course it happens to all of us – expectations to take up the family trade, to be like our namesake, to remember our place in society and not try to move out of it. From Australia, Anglican priest Brian McGowan says “What goes on where you are when someone comes back  – into home & family, society, church, & so on? Or you yourself make that pilgrimage ‘back’ somewhere? Or maybe we have to live all the time with those who grew up with us, knew us when we were ‘young & silly’, wild, immature… Think they still know us only too well!”[2] I think most of us can identify with those boundaries or expectations put on us by others, blinded by their notions. We know  the pain and frustration of not being seen as we see and know ourselves.

            What is the cure for this ill – for blinding ourselves to others, because we are certainly guilty of it too? I have a hunch that it is seeing things through God’s eyes, through remembering that God’s love has no boundaries. When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t look for perfect people who had it all together – he called together a ragtag team of fishermen and tax collectors and rabble rousers who were crude and sometimes a bit dense. In the three years he spent with them they were slow to catch on and weren’t refined overnight. Yet Jesus called them, seeing in them, not the social status they were born into, or the limitations society put on them, but he saw their God-given potential. This is the way we ought to strive to see each other. It is only in that way of seeing that we can acknowledge the presence of Christ in and among us.

            The people in Nazareth sought to limit the way God could act among them. But the boundaries of society, the barriers put up to divide class, gender, sexual orientation, age, and race are not God-ordained – but the product of being blinded by our own preconceived notions. We need to challenge ourselves to see without boundaries as God does.

            In 1853, Congregationalist hymn writer George Rawson wrote the song “We Limit Not the Truth of God.” It says:

We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial, and confined.
No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth

To break forth from the Word.

He ends the hymn with this stanza:

O Father, Son, and Spirit, send
Us increase from above;
Enlarge, expand all Christian souls
To comprehend Thy love,
And make us to go on, to know
With nobler powers conferred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth

To break forth from the Word.[3]

            So we ought not to limit the truth of God by placing limitations on each other – but to pray that our souls may be expanded to “comprehend thy love” of God, to broaden our vision to see our God-given potential. But it is not only about our relationship to each other, but also to Christ. We ought not to limit our understanding of who Christ is by our own desires of who God should be – but to open our eyes to whatever expansive vision God has for us and for all of creation, that is far beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations.

            Too often we want to put Jesus in the same box we put each other in. I am reminded of something Dan Patrick used to say, “You can’t hold me, you can only hope to contain me.”  We often want a buddy Jesus who will make everything right and not shake up anything else. But the friend we have in Jesus is the same one who befriended prostitutes and lepers and chased the money lenders out of the temple with a whip. Having God loose in our world is dangerous, and if we’re willing to see him as he is and follow him, he will shake up our lives and our very world.

            Jesus isn’t just a carpenter and Mary’s son. He’s much more than that – he’s our savior, redeemer, beginning and end – but we have to have eyes to see. Eyes that will reveal the very Christ of God, the same who breaks down all barriers, erases all boundaries and frees us to be who God created us to be.


To God be the Glory. Amen.


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