Mark 6: 1-13
One night last week I met with a group of colleagues, two of whom were retired, while three of us were not. And so the discussion came around to Mark’s gospel, the sending of the disciples out into the world. One of my colleagues always speaks of the gospel as a pair of glasses, a kind of lens, meaning that when you put it on, you are invited to see life through that lens. Things can look differently. So what do we see when we look at life, including our lives, through the particular lens of this story?
Now up to this point in Mark’s gospel there have been some questions about Jesus’ identity. Back in chapter four people wanted to know who this guy is, and in chapter 3 even Jesus’ family thought him crazy. No one was prepared to give Jesus much credit for anything. He is dismissed as a hometown boy, a tekton, a word, which can be translated as carpenter or even stonemason. Though Jesus has performed some pretty impressive deeds, and even flabbergasted the crowds, now it is Jesus’ turn to be astonished as he learns that their utter lack of faith is impervious to his ministry. So what does he do? He sends his disciples out into the world and gives them at least some of the power he has---the power to cast out demons and heal. So off they go.
Now on some level it is pretty extraordinary that these disciples are sent out, because in so many ways they are a pretty pathetic lot. Of all the gospel writers Mark is the hardest on the disciples. He shows them utterly lacking in all knowledge and understanding. Jesus is always explaining things to them, and still they don’t get it. And yet they are his disciples, chosen by him to do the work that needs doing. And the fact that these disciples are so unimpressive, so extraordinarily ordinary is exactly the fact, which grabbled my colleagues’ attention, directing the course of our conversation and in the end giving us all some hope. And perhaps we too can find that hope, because let’s be honest, in so many ways we too lack understanding and knowledge. We too are not necessarily the greatest examples of faithful discipleship. But here we are, trying in our own ways to be faithful, and we too are sent out---though often we fail to notice that sending out, because we don’t often use the gospel as a lens through which to look at our lives.
But when one of my colleagues looked at his life through the lens of this particular story, he recalled an incident from his life when he was 10. I was suddenly called out of Mrs. Dodson’s class, he told us, to go down to the principal’s office. I could not imagine what I had done; I tried to think of things. Oh yes, I had witnessed a fight in the schoolyard, but I was not a part of it. I hadn’t been late to school; my homework was done. Why was I being called down to old Mr. Nelson’s office? Of course, he was not really old, but when you are 10, 40 years olds seems ancient. So when Mr. Nelson looked at me over the rim of his glasses and said my name out loud, James Wilson, I just stood there, terrified in the very pithy of my soul. Very brusquely he said, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you, because I will say it only once. Go out of the school and walk down Maple Street until you get to Oak Street; take a left and walk three more blocks until you come to 17 Raymond Road. That’s where Peter Hanson lives. Tell his mother that if Peter is not in school by noon, I will report her for truancy.
Well, first of all, my colleague continued, I did not know what truancy was, and secondly Peter Hanson was the toughest kid in our school. He was mean, and one time he punched me in the stomach for no reason at all. So why was I being sent to his house?
It didn’t take me long to get there. The blocks weren’t long, but the last four of them were run down, a neighborhood I had never been in before; had never really seen before. When I arrived, I saw this guy getting into a blue Chevrolet. Are you Mr. Hanson? I asked. He just laughed at me and said, “Like hell I am,” and got into his car and slammed the door shut and drove off in a hurry. Almost immediately I remembered what everyone used to say. The reason Peter was so mean was because he had no father. This was, after all, 1952, and in those days single parenthood was not so common. So, I got up my courage, knocked on the door, which was hanging off its hinges, and who should answer but Peter. He was as startled as I was, and his eyes became as big as saucers, but he did not speak a word. He just stared until his mother came to the door, wearing a dirty blue bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. What do you want, she asked.
Well, the principal sent me to get Peter. You see, it is kind of a special day in school, and we all feel that it is just not right without Peter. I mean we are doing some pretty interesting stuff today, and Peter could help us. It’s just not the same without him. And then came a pause, before I said, At least I think this is what the principal said.
Well, Peter, his mother asked, do you want to go to school? And Peter nodded his assent. So there it was: Peter and I walking to school together. We had never had a conversation before, and now was not the time to start, so we just walked along in silence, and when we arrived at school Peter let me lead him to the principal’s office, and as he turned to go in, he gave me this look---a kind of half sad, half relieved, mixed with some embarrassment look, and that was that.
When I arrived home from school that day, I told my mother what I had done. That is outrageous, my mother objected. What is wrong with Mr. Nelson, sending a child to that neighborhood to do his job? He ought to have his had examined. Why, I have a good mind to go to your school and give him a piece of my mind. But this was 1952, and parents back then did not tangle with school principals, so my mother never went.
But you know something, my colleague told us. Even back then, I knew my mother was wrong. I knew even then that something important happened that day, and now when I look back at that experience, I see it was one of the most important things that happened to me in my entire elementary school years. When I look at it through the lens of the gospel, I know I was sent. And my world got a little bigger that day. And in some respects so did Peter Hanson’s. I think he actually believed what I said: that we wanted him to be there, that he could help us with the things we were doing. We were making salt maps, and he did a brilliant job of painting one. His was the most striking of all the maps, and the teacher told him so, and he was proud, and you know something, so was I.
You see gospel moments do not always have to be huge drama with God playing the major role. Sometimes God is in the background, hanging out on the sidelines, whispering hints and suggestions that we might hear or choose to ignore. One of my other colleagues told us he had just finished reading a book, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. The message was basically that we are called to listen to our inner voice, listen to our life, calling us to be who we are born to be. It is not something from without, Palmer insisted; it comes from within. But you know something, all of us gathered around the table that evening thought Parker Palmer was wrong. It is not all about what is within; there is also something without, something pushing and pulling us out of ourselves. There are times in life we are summoned and called by something beyond ourselves.
My colleague said that if there had been a call for volunteers to go to Peter Hanson’s house to deliver a message from the principal, he NEVER would have gone, never would have volunteered. Why he was called; why the principal chose him that fateful day, he never will know. But it was a big moment in his life, and he sees that moment differently; he sometimes sees his life differently because every now and then he puts on the gospel, like a pair of glasses, and sees what he has not seen before. And so the same is true for all of us. We too are invited to put the gospel on and see even a moment through that lens. And we just might be surprised at what we see.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!