About two weeks ago, I was picking up a few things we needed for Vacation Bible School, and on this particular day, my errands brought me to the party supplies store near my house. Since I was there, I decided to take a quick stroll through the aisles, just in case there were other items in the store that we might use for our program. The last aisle of the store was full of costumes – the kind that come in plastic bags around Halloween. A particular costume caught my eye – it was a Jesus costume! As you might imagine, the costume was fairly plain: a white tunic, with a dark red sash that made a kind of “toga” look. But here is what surprised me: according to the picture, the costume came with a crown made of twisted branches – a crown of thorns. Now, putting aside my feelings about the costume in general, I started wondering about that crown. Why did they include it? You and I know that Jesus didn’t just walk around all the time wearing it. But, of course, the costume needed something to identify it as “Jesus.” Without that identifying mark, it would just look like an ordinary guy wearing some white and red robes – and we have such a hard time with the notion that Jesus probably looked fairly ordinary.
Of course, not everyone seems to have a hard time seeing Jesus that way. In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus goes back to his hometown – and the hometown folk seem to be pretty clear on just how ordinary Jesus was. Maybe you know what that is like, to be around people who knew you growing up.
They have this way of telling stories about you – and sometimes, they aren’t the stories you necessarily want to have repeated You might be able to imagine the kinds of stories people were telling when they heard Jesus teaching, and heard about the deeds of power he had done in Judea.
“Jesus? Isn’t he Mary’s son… you remember, the one that caused that big commotion when he wandered off in Jerusalem after the Passover? She was so frantic…”
“I remember around when he was born… there were a lot of rumors, that Joseph wasn’t really the father. Well, I’m not one to spread rumors, but with a family like that, well, I don’t know who he thinks he is teaching in the synagogue…”
The people in Jesus’ hometown knew exactly how ordinary Jesus really was – they knew his family, they knew where he grew up. And, they knew him well enough to remember his failings, to know his faults and weaknesses – and they just could not believe that the power of God was at work in someone like that.
Isn’t that an easy trap to fall into? Bible stories tell us that Almighty God works through fantastic occurrences like the burning bush and the pillar of fire and the blinding light on the road to Damascus. It is so easy to believe that God cannot work through the familiar everyday parts of our lives, in our everyday communities.
Being part of a community means knowing one another – which means knowing each other’s gifts and talents, as well as encountering weaknesses and witnessing some failures. The more clearly we see those cracks and those flaws, the easier it is to think of why God would not choose to work through that person. We stop thinking of them as people with the capacity to channel God’s love.
And then, we start thinking of ourselves that way. We can convince ourselves that God – Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth – that God certainly does not need or want us and the imperfections we are all too familiar with. The more certain we are that other people’s failings will prevent them from witnessing to hope, to the Spirit's work in the world, the more we believe that our own weaknesses prevent us from being images of God and bearers of the Gospel.
It is one of the deep challenges of the life of faith – facing our weaknesses, our failings and limitations, and still believing in the God who knows all those things, and still loves us, chooses us, and calls us into the ministry of reconciliation and love.
Saint Paul struggled with this very thing. Whatever the “thorn in his flesh” referred to, it clearly caused him great distress – so much so that he asked the Lord three times to remove it. Finally, Paul came to understand that God’s power is stronger than our weaknesses, and that God can not only work around out weakness, but works through our weakness to reach out to those around us.
No one is perfect, and the life of faith doesn’t change that fact. What does change is how we view our imperfections. Rather than spending our energy trying to hide our weaknesses from those around us, we are free to follow God’s call to mission. As sixteenth-century nun, Teresa of Avila writes, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”
God is familiar with our various flaws, and still calls us to be Christ’s hands in world. God is familiar with the people and actions of our everyday lives – and despite all their flaws and imperfections, these are places and hearts where God is at work. It is not only our greatest achievements that reveal God’s glory.
God’s grace is seen when a wounded heart recognizes another heart in pain and reaches out, when we offer the best we have in help and comfort even when we can’t fix what is wrong. God’s grace is seen when weakness is made strong by God’s power, and imperfect people live in witness to God’s perfect love.