Minjing and I enjoy detective stories. Tonight, for example, we eagerly look forward to the return of Inspector Lewis and his able assistant, Sergeant James Hathaway, on PBS. One of our favorite detectives is Sherlock Holmes and his good friend Dr. Watson. First in books, then on TV, and now in movie theaters, Sherlock Holmes is able to crack cases that others find impossible. But he doesn’t place much confidence in luck and he doesn’t have much patience with guesswork. Sherlock Holmes has a method, and the key to his method is this: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth.
When Jesus returned to his hometown after some time away and began teaching in the synagogue his friends and family, according to Mark’s gospel, were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
It’s not the kind of homecoming that he’d hoped for but he wasn’t surprised, either. Jesus knew from the scriptures that when God shows up in new ways the hometown crowd is sometimes the last to see.
We can’t blame the people of Nazareth. In fact, in Jesus’ friends and family we might even see a bit of ourselves. We don’t easily give up what’s familiar. The people of Nazareth knew Jesus from the time he was young; and thought they knew him well. But sometimes, as they say, “familiarity breeds contempt.” Our habits and beliefs of a lifetime can convince us that we already know the truth, that any additional information is unnecessary.
But what we think we know isn’t always the whole truth, as we see in the world of police detectives. In the past few years, for example, detectives have gained tools that Sherlock Holmes could only dream of. We have DNA testing. Now, even if all the evidence in a crime seems to point to a certain person DNA can prove otherwise. On top of that we have fingerprinting, eye scans, voice recognition—all these are ways of recognizing the truth of who a person is.
How do we recognize God in the world? The stories of our faith give us clues. Through the Bible we learn that the power and majesty of God is beyond human understanding, full of surprises! Even so, we choose to set limits to what we believe God can do. Today’s gospel reading hints that maybe we could borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes and put on our spiritual detective hats: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth.
If all things are possible for God then our job as spiritual detectives is to look for clues that point to God’s presence and power, even in the most unlikely circumstances. The clues were everywhere in Nazareth. Here Jesus was healing. There he was teaching. Now he was preaching. All these were signs of God’s goodness, grace and love, and for the benefit of others. And yet, Mark writes, the people he knew took offense at him. Rather than giving thanks and praise for signs of God’s grace among them they chose to ignore those good things because what they thought they knew about Jesus and what they thought they knew about God didn’t match.
For his part, Jesus was amazed and disappointed by their response but that’s not where the story ends. Instead, he tells his disciples that such a response is to be expected, as we see in today’s first and second readings. No, he says, don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Don’t fret about what isn’t happening. God is at work everywhere. Your job is not to make things happen or even to convince people of the truth but to go out and see where God is already at work, and get on board with that. Jesus sends his followers out, two by two, and they become messengers of hope and healing.
We also are called into the world, to recognize God at work. On the one hand it’s not easy. We come with our assumptions of who God is, of what’s possible or impossible. If to our thinking it’s not the right religion or the right nation or the right political party—if what we find in the world doesn’t match our values or our worldview we may miss the power and presence of God in Christ just as surely as the people of Nazareth did.
That’s the risk. But the good news is that we have everything we need to recognize and get on board with the work of God in the world. Notice that Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of energy worrying about preparations. In fact, he seems to say that the more we have the more difficult it will be to simply go out and see and respond to God’s work in the world. Take nothing for your journey except a staff, he says. No bread, no bag, no money, not too many clothes. In other words, just show up. He doesn’t send his followers to far-off lands but to nearby villages, as if to say: Go into the factories and fields, schools and offices, homes and hospitals, churches and malls—wherever your life takes you. Look for signs of God’s grace. See how God is already at work. And tell those stories.
And maybe, notice where you’re tempted to ignore signs of God’s work because it isn’t being done by the right people or in the right place or in the right way or at the right time. Another way of putting it might be to ask this question: Where are the hometowns in your life? Where your beliefs and convictions strongest? Might it be that God is shaking up our hometown beliefs just as surely as Nazareth was being shaken up?
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth. Nothing is impossible for God, and so we are left with the truth that God is at work everywhere—even, maybe especially, in the most unlikely places. Spiritual detectives don’t need fancy technology or special powers to recognize God’s work in the world. Whatever, or whoever, in the world brings hope and healing to desperate or grieving people; whatever, or whoever, brings empowerment to the poor; whatever, or whoever, brings dignity to the outcast and the persecuted, or welcome to the stranger must be from God.
May the Holy Spirit lead us into the week with eyes wide open, expectant, with hearts and minds ready to recognize and receive the new and unexpected ways that God’s love in Christ is revealed… right under our noses! AMEN