“The Servant’s Prayer”
Margaret LaMotte Torrence
July 8, 2018
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him 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. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
The Servant’s Prayer
Almost 40 years later, I still remember what it felt like to leave for college. I was 17 in the fall of 1979. My parents were in the midst of a move, so the plan was for me to make the trip from Florida to North Carolina alone. The night before I was to leave, I packed my red Samsonite suitcase and a small box of what I considered my essential possessions. In the early morning, my parents took me to the airport, where my closest friends had gathered for a surprise sendoff. We snapped pictures—and then, just before I boarded the plane, my father slipped a long, thick envelope into my hand. He said it was for the trip.
It wasn’t until the flight was underway that I opened the envelope. As the world slipped by outside my window, I read my father’s long letter. He wrote about what it had been like to see me come into the world, to watch me grow. He told stories of his own college days. He shared a few regrets, as well as his fervent hopes for my future. He gave me explicit permission to make my own mistakes. Most emphatically, he reminded me how deeply I was loved: by my family, yes, but much more perfectly, by my Creator. Finally, he expressed the hope that I would be open to relationship with everyone I met. The letter held what he wanted me to remember when he wasn’t around to remind me in person.
It’s possible to read the Gospel of Mark as a very similar letter of love, written to a community also navigating an unfamiliar landscape. It’s believed that Mark wrote to a community living through the aftermath of war with Rome, a war that culminated in the destruction of the temple in the year 70. As Mark writes, it’s probably been about 40 years since Jesus died. The fledgling church has known devastating disappointment, and is even now experiencing persecution. Mark writes to remind them of all they will need to remember in order to get through the days to come.
The two stories woven together in today’s reading acknowledge that disappointment is to be expected in the life of faith. In the simplest terms, Mark declares that even Jesus knew what it meant to be judged and rejected, and by those who knew him best. His followers should not expect it to be otherwise.
Scholars estimate that in Jesus’ day the village of Nazareth would have contained fewer than 2000 persons. Imagine if you will, those neighbors and relatives who had watched Jesus grow, with whom he had worked and worshiped, whose stories and traditions he shared—the faces and voices that had been the steady backdrop and soundtrack to his life’s celebrations and grief, in a world where communal relationships defined one’s identity and purpose.
Now imagine Jesus returning to his hometown, fresh from powerful encounters around the Sea of Galilee—the healing of a hemorrhaging woman, the raising of a 12-year old girl. How Jesus must have longed to share the same life-giving experiences with his hometown crowd! But what he found, instead, was a community unwilling to entertain the possibility of healing at his hand. His neighbors could not see past their own assumptions, their own biases, the role they had assigned to him. And so Jesus was labeled and dismissed as a construction worker, the son and brother of folks they all knew—a known quantity. His neighbors could not fathom that he bore to them a word from God, or healing for their disease; the very thought offended them. Their blind certainty robbed them of the chance to see God’s power shining through the familiar patterns of his speech, his weathered hands.
The community’s reaction so surprised Jesus that he could not offer what he most longed to give to them, for God will not coerce us into relationship. We must open our hearts to the possibility of healing. And so, Mark tells us, Jesus turned his attention to surrounding villages, to those who would receive him, who would build community with him—which brings us to the second half of the passage.
It’s not by accident that Mark chooses this moment to tell us that Jesus shared his authority with his disciples, that he commissioned them to participate in his mission in the world: confronting evil, caring for those who suffer. Having just witnessed Jesus’ rejection, his friends now must prepare for their own. Like their teacher, they must be resilient enough to weather the judgment of others without being deterred from their call.
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are quite specific. They may wear sandals and take a staff, but they are to carry no other provisions. They must go into the world vulnerable, dependent upon the hospitality of others. The life to which they are called is a life of mutuality—one in which they will need to receive the care of others as well as to offer their own gifts. They cannot pay their own way, keep a safe distance, act in isolation. Like their leader, they must have skin in the game.
And they must be prepared for rejection. Jesus says, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as testimony against them.” Until a couple of years ago, I assumed that was a ritual of judgment. Now I am not so sure. What I have discovered in the meantime is an interesting little practice suggested by a friend who is a therapist. When my friend leaves an especially troubling or stressful situation she has developed the habit of physically brushing the experience from her body as a way of symbolizing that she does not need to carry it with her. And so, I have come to wonder whether Jesus is likewise saying “leave it behind; move on; you are needed down the road; focus on that.”
Jesus does not allow his followers—then or now—the luxury of feeling fully prepared before he entrusts them with sacred responsibility. He does not wait for any of us to have a clear understanding of who he is or what the future holds before he enlists us in God’s project. Curiosity, and the desire to participate in his life is enough—God can work with that. Like most other important relationships in life—friendship, marriage, parenting—the work to which we are called consists mostly of on-the-job training—it cannot be engaged faithfully if we let go of God or each other. And so Jesus sends his followers out in pairs, for the life to which we are called cannot be sustained in isolation.
To my knowledge, no one has explored the idea of shared ministry more thoughtfully than Henri Nouwen. Many of you, I suspect, know his story. After twenty years in academia, teaching at places like Yale and Harvard, Nouwen began to experience what he describes as a “deep inner threat.” Though he was surrounded by affirmation, something inside him said that his success as a priest and professor “was putting [his] own soul in danger.” Nouwen prayed that God would be unambiguous about the direction he should take.
God answered that prayer with an invitation to move to France and join a community of persons with intellectual disabilities. In Nouwen’s words,
“God said, ‘Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you.’
….So I moved from Harvard to L’Arche, from the best and the brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words
and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society.”
In the L’Arche community, Nouwen discovered the meaning of shared ministry. He writes, “I was educated in a seminary that made me believe ministry was essentially an individual affair. I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road….Over the years, I realized that things were not as simple as that, but my basic individualistic approach to ministry did not change….When I became a teacher I was even more encouraged to do my own thing….When I went to L’Arche, however, this individualism was radically challenged….Suddenly everyone wanted to know my whereabouts from hour to hour, and every movement I made was subject to accountability.
One member of the community was appointed to accompany me; a small group was formed to help me decide which invitations to accept and which to decline; and the question most asked by the…people with whom I lived was, “Are you home tonight?”
In a community that had little use for the trappings of his life, Nouwen came to understand his life in a new light, as a chance to choose love over power at every turn.
We live in a world that encourages us to respond to fear by amassing power and control, but if we make invulnerability our goal, we will lose all connection with others, we will lose our own souls. The alternative, acknowledging our vulnerability, means to keep choosing love, no matter the cost.
To choose love is to envision all of our relationships through the lens of God’s mercy. This disorienting practice leads to a kind of double-vision, in which each person we encounter is, simultaneously, a person worthy of our care and concern, and a person who may be carrying God’s precious grace to us. Like Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth, we must be wary of any impulse to dismiss another because we think we know who they are. For in so doing, we may be turning our backs on the healing God would work through familiar voices or calloused hands.
We see this righteous perspective given voice in the brief psalm we heard a few minutes ago, in which the psalmist measures the experience of the marginalized against the promised mercy of God. As one commentator puts it, “the psalmist has seen the eyes of those…whose lives will be determined by someone else’s thumbs up or thumbs down.”
The psalm begins in the singular voice, but quickly moves to the plural—which is, my friends, the journey of faith, as we discover how inseparably bound our lives are to each other’s—and come to know how precious to God is each neighbor we meet.
I hear this psalm as the prayer of those who wait at our borders, or yearn for their children, the prayer of persons judged by the color of their skin or the expression of their sexuality, the prayer of those for whom poverty is endemic. I hear this psalm as the plea of every person who feels overlooked—not seen for who they are in God’s eyes.
Hear Psalm 123 again:
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.
Beloved of God, may these passages be our daily bread, the envelope slipped into our hands as we begin the next leg of the journey—may they help us to thrive and serve in the days ahead, equipping us to receive and to share God’s mercy wherever we go and with whomever we encounter.
May they shape each servant’s prayer.
 Henri J M Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, New York, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 19.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 51-53.
 Ibid., 82.
 Chandler Brown Stokes, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 204.