Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel describes how the spirit has sent him to preach to those in exile in Babylon with the message to return to God. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus attempted to preach on the sabbath. But his listeners were astonished that he was preaching. They recognized him as a carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph and they did not listen to him. Jesus by saying that a prophet is despised in his own country and among his own relations. He could work only a few miracles by healing the sick. He commented on their lack of faith.
When a man (and hopefully someday soon a woman) is discerning a call to the priesthood he recognizes that someday he may be asked to serve a community that knew him as a child. I grew up in Northern Virginia but wanted to travel and I joined a community that would allow me assignments all over the country and I knew I wouldn’t be assigned to my home parish. On the other hand I had a friend who grew up in Oakland and felt tied to his community and became a priest of the Diocese of Oakland. I have to confess that whenever I read today’s Gospel I wonder why anyone would choose to stay in his hometown.
And in fairness to the townspeople in today’s Gospel, I can see their point. Who is this guy who dares to teach when we all remember him as a child? Everyone does dumb things as a child (and no, I won’t tell you any of mine) and it’s hard to erase those memories, even years later. A reputation, once given, is hard to retire.
But Jesus doesn’t fault them on their good memories, but instead on their lack of faith. Last week we read about good things that come to those whose faith is strong. Do bad things happen to those of weak faith? Well, I think it’s more complex than that. The strength of our faith is not constant and there’s really no way to measure a faith that constantly increases and decreases. Watch any baseball fan over the course of the World Series if you have any doubts.
If I may, let me suggest that if we substitute the word imagination for faith we can come to a better understanding of this. Jesus’ townspeople certainly lacked imagination: they had an image of Jesus from his younger, less experienced, and less mature days. And they lacked the imagination to see how this child could grow into a man on whose shoulders will rest the salvation of the world.
When I was a priest I belonged to a community called the Paulist Fathers and we had a motto that we should never “close the book” on another Paulist. In other words, that guy next to you in seminary who never seemed to get anything right may well become an excellent pastor in a few years. Sometimes reputations need to retire.
Or, put another way, let’s look at Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. For those who don’t follow baseball history, Branch Rickey owned the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and Jackie Robinson was an excellent player. Problem was Jackie was black. From 1887 to 1947 it was agreed among Major League Baseball that no person of color would be able to play. Many thought they didn’t have what it takes to play on a major league level and others thought white players would feel insulted at having black teammates. But Branch Rickey, a devout Methodist, didn’t agree. In his imagination he was able too look at Jackie Robinson and see a major league ballplayer.
It wasn’t easy, and Jackie’s premature death at age 53 may have been partly due to the burden of being the first to integrate baseball. It wasn’t that the other owners didn’t have access to Jackie’s statistics. They knew that anyone with those numbers could excel in the major leagues. But they lacked the imagination of seeing Jackie in a major league uniform.
It was the same way with the townspeople. It’s not that they couldn’t hear the words Jesus spoke, they just couldn’t imagine him as a teacher.
Unfortunately too often we see those around us (and let’s be fair, ourselves sometimes) with that same lack of imagination. I once worked on a parish staff where our weekly staff meeting often dragged on to 3 hours or more. And if that wasn’t bad enough we would often discuss different activities with the promise of “all options are on the table.” They weren’t. These discussions would end with us simply repeating what we had done the year before, sometimes because “it seemed to work” but more often because the thought of doing something new was just too scary. We simply didn’t have the faith to try something new.
In fairness there are some things that don’t change and many of us find comfort in that consistency. Jesus’ resurrection will always be the cornerstone of our faith, the Eucharist will always hold a treasured role in how we worship, and God’s forgiveness will always be infinite.
But we once saw baptism as the removal of original sin (and babies who died before baptism were sent to a place called “limbo”). We also used to give tacit, if not explicit, approval of slavery. In 1838 the Jesuit community at Georgetown University sold 272 of their slaves to pay down debts.
Obviously these are issues that settled now but we have issues now that we are struggling with, issues that could use imagination. Not everyone will agree with me, and I’m OK with that, but we need to at least begin discussions on marriage equality. If we can’t look at a same sex couple and see them as a family simply because “we’ve never done this,” we need to imagine it. By the way we also can’t claim that Bible teaches only marriage between one man and one woman, or if so we owe an explanation to King Solomon’s 700 wives (please note God’s displeasure was not from the number of wives but because they were foreign women who turned Solomon’s heart against God).
In the final word our faith gets stronger when we can imagine things differently. Last week the woman with the hemorrhage grabbed Jesus’ cloak only because she could imagine the end of her illness. Not all we can imagine must become true, but without imagination our faith will never grow and we will become the townspeople in today’s Gospel.