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More than Enough Contempt

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jul 08

Text: Psalm 123 and Mark 6:1-13
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Did you all happen to catch the recent hyper-partisan flap about Operation Fast and Furious? Congress has been trying to hold someone accountable for a federal program administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco And Firearms that was tactically running US guns to a Mexican drug cartel as part of a sting operation. Though the program began 2006, its become yet another election year ping-pong ball meant to polarize the issues of gun control, not to mention immigration. Though some Democrats staged a walk out of the chamber, Republicans and Democrats voted last month to hold US Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to produce documents relevant to the case. The Comedian Stephen Colbert had to think for a moment about just how he felt about this whole Fast and Furious debacle. He decided it made him feel “quickly angry!” Colbert wrapped up his segment by saying the following: “Shocking, that they actually found someone who didn’t already hold Congress in contempt!”

Like it or not, this theme of contempt comes up in both of our appointed scriptures this morning, not in the legal sense but in the more general sense that Colbert uses. Clearly, to be held in contempt of Congress is something much different than holding congress in contempt! Contempt, more broadly defined, is the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. Contempt is also a disregard for something that should be taken into account.

Whatever the set up, I know Colbert’s punch line strikes a nerve for many of us. Our elected leaders seem to be constantly gorging themselves on contempt for one another. And I confess that I myself am starting to feel an unhealthy contempt for them. Apparently, its not just familiarity that breeds contempt, a point I want to come back to, but also contempt which breeds contempt! I find some helpful perspective and consolation in the words of Psalm 123. Have mercy, God, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt! Amen?

Next time you see an attack ad from either side and want to scream at your TV, go to Psalm 123 and see if you can find there at least a little solace. Our national soul has “had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” And it’s only July! Have mercy indeed! I wonder if Jesus conjured this psalm in his mind and heart in our passage for today when he too finds himself facing “more than enough contempt,” and from his own people no less! He’s just returned home after a successful road trip. He’s been fulfilling his God-given calling to teaching and preaching and healing.  He's starting to build a name for himself. And so he comes to share the Good News to his own, to preach in his hometown synagogue.  At first, these Galileans seemed impressed.  The text says they were “astounded” even.  But soon something turns inside of them.  They watch and listen from their safely distanced pews. Wait a minute.  We know this guy.  We know his family.  We’ve heard this stuff he is quoting from the prophets before.  Who does he think he is?  So they turn on him and begin to take offense.  Is this not the carpenter? Isn’t that just the son of that Mary down the street? You can practically hear the doors of their minds closing! You can almost feel the contempt welling up inside of them!  Does he really think he’s better than us?

As UCC Pastor Kenneth Samuels has noted of this passage: “This is more than contempt for the familiar.  This is a sign of self-loathing.  It is the understated but undeniable conviction that the best of life cannot possibly be found among one's own people and community.” I wonder how many of us can relate to this – this self-doubt and self-loathing that may be rooted in some internalized messaging from those around us. We can see it in our family systems, and also in cultural and even religious affiliations! Thinking about it this week, I was reminded of a few lines from the opening chapter of The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Dubois is describing how African-Americans often saw themselves through a generalized contempt of white America. Though these lines may have rung and may still ring true for many people of color, the sense of seeing oneself through the contemptuous eyes of others has a wider resonance. I wonder… do you ever experience and perhaps even take on some the contempt of your secular peers? Do you ever find yourself buying the bad press we get from those who think that organized religion does far more harm than good, those who think that most people who go to church are merely hypocrites or traditionalists?

Let’s face it. In this part of the country and world especially, there exists a certain contempt for religious people, and especially for Christians. And most of us who come to church like to think the challenge is well deserved, to a point. We love to hold institutional religion and the church in contempt do we not? Of course we know that Jesus did too.

But just look at what happens to Jesus in our passage when this kind of contempt enters the picture. At first, he holds his own, saying prophets are never honored in their hometown, among their kin or in their own house.  He starts out seemingly un-phased by the derision, he "gets it" so we might think it wouldn't get him.  But notice what immediately follows.  Mark continues: “And he could do no deed of power there.” As one commentator suggests – “these are blunt words!  He could not!  Too blunt for Matthew who softens them into and ‘he did not do many deeds of power there.’” 

Did you catch that? This is Jesus, among his kin, in his hometown, and if you ask me and if you ask at least some New Testament scholars, a case can be made that Jesus has lost some of his mojo here! Perhaps he’s experiencing a rare moment of that double-consciousness about which DuBois wrote.  He can heal a few, but otherwise Mark is basically proclaiming him impotent, incapable of bringing his best because those who know him the best aren’t seeing him for who or what he really is! On the one hand, this makes a case for the importance of having loving and supportive community around us in order to keep the faith and sustain the strength to follow where it leads.  On the other hand, this is a moment where Mark is maybe intentionally showing us a more human and relatable side of Jesus. Whatever the case, it’s clear that this is not one of Jesus’ best days!  And don’t we all breathe a sigh of relief whenever these passages show up – these rare moments ins scripture when we find that even Jesus needs to learn a hard lesson or two.  I don’t know about you but I for one love to see this side of Jesus. It might just be that his learning this lesson here is what sets the stage for what he teaches his disciples in the next verses, namely, that in this place where they are neither wanted nor welcome it’s best to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony and move on!

What the townsfolk and Jesus are both facing here just might be the human capacity to sin, at least insofar as John Bunyan defines sin. Bunyan once famously described sin as the “jeer of God’s patience, the slight of God’s power, and the contempt (http://thinkexist.com/quotation/sin_is_the_dare_of_god-s_justice-the_rap...) of God’s love.” Think about it. Whenever we limit the humanity of another, whenever we think we know them already, whenever we buy into someone else’s small ideas and contempt of who we are, we are holding God’s love for us in contempt! We are disregarding the fact that God made us as human beings, made us as people who need to be taught and need to learn lessons, not only from our successes but from our failures as well! Do you see the rub and the risk here? If we should find ourselves feeling contempt, whether for ourselves, for our leaders, for the church, we are at risk of disregarding not only our own and each other’s humanity but also God’s love for humanity! What’s more, we are at risk of “slighting” God’s power, or at least God’s call to us to claim our power. When we so limit ourselves by narrow definitions of who “we” are and who “they” are, we risk slighting the Spirit’s potential to fill us and use us for God’s transforming and all loving purpose!
Like the psalmist says, we have “more than enough contempt” in our hearts and in our world! Whether its incoming, outgoing or self-directed, we need God’s love and mercy to see us through.

Annie Dillard brings this point home for us in a reflection about how the gospel story seems to end and does so with a fair share of tongue-in-cheek derision that she eventually spins on its head.

“What a pity”, she writes, “that so hard on the heels of Christ comes the Christians! There is no breather. The disciples turn into the early Christians between one rushed verse and another. What a dismaying pity, that here come the Christians, already, flawed to the core, full of ideas and hurried self-importance. …

For who can believe in the Christians? They are, we know in hindsight, not at all peripheral (and not to be disregarded I would add). They set out immediately to take over the world, and they pretty much did it. They converted emperors, raised armies, lined their pockets with real money, and did evil things large and small, in century after century, and who could believe in them? They are not innocent, they are not shepherd’s ad fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like, in polyester! Who could believe that salvation is for these rogues? That God is for these rogues? For they are just like us, and salvations’ time is past.

Unless, of course…

Unless Christ’s washing the disciples feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are the God’s people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture.

Talk about blunt words!

Perhaps it should suffice for us to remember that the opposite of familiarity is mystery and the opposite of contempt is respect!   Imagine holding one another in the mystery of what it means to be human, in the mystery of what it means for each of us to be loved by God, and imagine the respect and admiration and power that such mystery could breed!  Lest we think we know each other, lest we think we know our families, lest we think we know the “us” and the “them: .… indeed, lest we think we know Jesus, the Bible and the church, its on us to remember that age old wisdom that familiarity, that turning away from the mystery of it all, breeds contempt, and so we should strive for the opposites, strive to keep our hearts open to inherent mystery in one another’s basic, God given humanity, strive to maintain respect and so a more civil discourse than we have seen of late. What a profound, incomprehensible, unfolding miracle it is that humanity is both broken and loved, so full of potential if we only turn to God’s love, and to the promise it holds for all of us. Even when Jesus himself misses a note on his home stage, or when the people just can’t hear it, God knows we are all human and we are God’s people anyway, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

As summer is now upon us and hopefully brings with it more time with family and friends, as this election season is now earnestly upon us and continues to unfold, may God help us all to see less familiarity and to know less contempt, whether for ourselves or for others!  When we do catch it, may we too shake the dust off our feet and move on. May we walk away full of the spirit, knowing God will lead us to new places where our message and mission will find more fertile ground. May God always move us forward into that mystery, respect and power which God’s love promises to us all, even the rogues, even the politicians, even you and me and all of us Christians. Lord, have mercy indeed! Amen.

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