Homecoming, and Coming Home

June 17, 2021 by Greg Allen-Pickett

This lectionary preview is available for use by pastors for July 4.

In Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, the majority of the gospel passages come from Mark, particularly during this season after Pentecost. It is helpful to remember the context of the gospel of Mark as we read these stories. Most scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel that was written, and it dates to 30-40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was likely written by an author living in an early Christian community in Rome, and that community would have been experiencing some persecution, and would also have been hearing about the exploits of the Roman army subduing the Jewish rebellions in the Holy Land. Mark was likely writing within and to a gentile Christian community, so we don’t find things like a birth narrative, genealogies, or as many explicit connections to the Old Testament as we find in Matthew.

Instead, Mark dazzles us with a rapid-fire, no nonsense accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. By the end of chapter 1, Jesus has been: baptized, tempted in the wilderness, demanded repentance and announced the kingdom of God, called his first disciples, driven out impure spirits, taught, healed a fever, vanquished demons, prayed, preached, and healed a leper.

And he is also frequently misunderstood by those around him, both his followers and his dissenters. As a result, he embraces an identity as a wanderer and an outsider throughout the Gospel of Mark. By the end of chapter 1 we read: “Jesus rose and went to a deserted place” (1:35); Jesus declares, “Let’s head in the other direction” (1:38); and we learn “Jesus wasn’t able to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places.”  (1:45). In chapter 2, Jesus will be: accused of blasphemy for forgiving sin (2:7), derided for eating with tax collectors and sinners (2:16), scandalized for not keeping fast (2:18), and criticized for not keeping Sabbath (2:24).

With that background, we turn to the gospel passage assigned to the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, which also happens to fall on the July 4 this year (more on that later.)

Jesus visits Nazareth

The passage begins with Jesus once again setting out in his wandering ways, “Jesus left that place and came to his hometown. His disciples followed him.” (6:1). While Jesus has grown accustomed to being rejected by the Pharisees and Sadducees as we read about in chapter 2, in this chapter, his rejection and outsider status hits a little bit closer to home.

This is not Jesus’ first trip back to Nazareth. We read in chapter 3 that Jesus’ family “Came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!’” (3:21) Three chapters later, Jesus’ fame, and reports of his ministry, continued to spread. Over and over again, we read that “everyone was amazed” (5:20) by Jesus. So now he is coming back home in chapter 6, hoping his family and hometown may have had a change of heart.

As Jesus returns to Nazareth a second time, at first Jesus’ hometown crowd is astounded and say, “Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him?” (6:2) Then they almost immediately begin to seek to put him in his place, first by pointing out that he is a carpenter, a simple tradesman. Then they name his extended family to highlight how ordinary and local he is. And we read, “They were repulsed by him and fell into sin.” (6:3) Other translations say they took offense at him (NRSV) or they rejected him (TEV). The transition from being astounded to taking offense is rapid. Jesus is coming under fire not just from his foes, but from his kinfolk. Jesus rebukes their offense with these famous words, “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households.” (6:4) A similar version of this saying is found in Matthew 13, Luke 4, and John 4. It is also found in Greco-Roman literature, so the writer of Mark could have been riffing on local culture as well.

It feels like Jesus is reacting in irritation to the rejection of his own family and friends. While Jesus has been honored by some, we also know that he is not honored “everywhere” as he responds. The writer of Mark follows up Jesus’ words with the statement, “He was appalled by their disbelief.” I read in Jesus’ response to his family and hometown crowd a very human reaction to rejection. If we proclaim that Jesus was fully human, we can see his sadness, anger, and frustration in his reaction to his own family being “repulsed and falling into sin.” He lashes back at them, “Just because you don’t respect me, I am respected elsewhere.” How many of us have felt an emotion like this when we have gone back to a familiar place or familiar people who have not appreciated our growth or our accomplishments?

The preacher could build on these two ideas for the sermon: Jesus’ humanity and human-like reactions to rejection, and our own experiences of going home and not being seen or understood for who we have become. The theme of “homecoming” could be an interesting one to explore with this gospel passage for this week in the lectionary. Because this passage also happens to fall on July 4 this year, the theme of “homecoming” could be particularly poignant. Many people will be traveling this weekend, some to their childhood homes. The preacher could give them some ideas for how to respond to their family’s reactions.

Our true homes

Another approach on the homecoming theme could be a reflection on both Jesus’ true home and our true home as followers of this wandering outsider. While Jesus returns to Nazareth and the writer of Mark refers to that as his “hometown,” we know through the witness of the bulk of scripture that Jesus is never truly at home, nor are we. Hebrews 13:14-16 reminds us “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.” (NLT) This could be a good theme to build on, particularly on the 4th of July. Our allegiance is ultimately to the kingdom of God, and our call is to engage in kingdom building work, not on behalf of one particular nation, but on behalf of all of God’s precious children all around the world. We all know that the 4th of July is not part of any liturgical calendar or season, and is most certainly not a liturgical holiday. However, some of us may feel some pressure from our congregations to include patriotic hymns or red, white, and blue decorations. But our love and appreciation for our country, for those who feel this way, is separate and apart from our love of God.

As a Presbyterian, I believe in the sovereignty of God. But the sovereignty of God extends well beyond the United States of America; we have to apply that same belief in God’s presence and sovereignty to every nation. Ultimately our allegiance as Christians is not to one country or one flag, our allegiance is to Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. And like Jesus discovers in this interaction with his family in Mark, our true home is “yet to come.” So while we can be grateful for the founding of the United States 245 years ago, as we reflect on this passage from the gospel of Mark on the 4th of July, an exploration of homecoming, and where both Jesus’ home and our home as disciples of Jesus Christ, is a worthwhile endeavor.

If the preacher decides to go with this theme, I would recommend the hymn “This Is My Song” which is #340 in the Glory to God hymnal to the tune Finlandia. It does a beautiful and lyrical job of reflecting on this theme and encouraging us to recognize that God is the God of all nations, not just ours. This is a good reminder any Sunday, but particularly when Sunday falls on the 4th of July. As a side note, this song has been covered by the Indigo Girls and Peter, Paul, and Mary, among other talented musicians.

Whether the preacher decides to build on the theme of Jesus’ humanity and rejection by his family in his hometown, or build on the theme of homecoming as it relates to the Kingdom of God, this text provides many entry points for an interesting sermon on the 4th of July.

Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. He is a native of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was an active member of Federated Community Church. Greg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and he also holds a Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Greg has worked in small, medium, and large churches and also worked at the PC(USA) denominational offices in Louisville as the general manager of Presbyterian World Mission.