john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    The two Michaels and Jesus: amazed at our unbelief

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 5/7/2009

    2 Corinthians 12.2-10 , Mark 6.1-13


    They loved Michael Jackson on the way up; the eight-year-old lead singer of The Jackson 5, a boy described by Rolling Stone magazine as "a prodigy" with "overwhelming musical gifts", the pride of Motown.

    They loved Michael Jackson in the community he had come from, in Gary, Indiana, an industrial suburb of Chicago. What he did was a good reflection on them. His success broke down racial barriers in the entertainment business. His skills were a reflection on the strict regime of rehearsals which his father put Michael and his brothers through in his determination that they should be something.

    They loved Michael Jackson on March 25, 1983, when he first performed his signature dance move - the moonwalk - live on the Motown 25 television special, a show seen by 47 million viewers. They loved his music, his style; they applauded his charitable work, his message of peace to the world.

    But then they started to resent Michael Jackson. Started to ask questions about his lifestyle, his sexuality, his finances, his health. Started to criticise him for his excesses, laughed at the way his skin colour went paler - ignoring the truth that this was due not his own vanity, but to a due to a skin disorder he suffered. Though there has been so much coverage about him since his death last week, so much of it has been prurient, intrusive, sometimes quite nasty, and it is clear that the people don't love Michael Jackson like they used to any more. [1]

    Doubtless there was a man who had some very real problems, in mental and physical health, but he also had the mark of genius. He must have been amazed at the way that people turned on him.

    They loved Michael Owen on the way up, the Liverpool fans who saw him score on his his debut against Wimbledon in May 1997, ending his first full season as a joint top scorer in the Premier League, and being voted the PFA Young Player of the Year by fellow professionals, later helping the team to the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup, in one season and becoming the first English player in twenty years and the only Liverpool player ever to win the European Footballer of the Year award.

    But, ambitious to compete in the Champions League on a regular basis, Owen moved to Real Madrid, but ironically Liverpool won the Champions League the very season he left Anfield for the Bernabeu, and those who had loved him on the way up didn't love him the same way any more. Despite being relatively successful in Spain people started to talk about Owen as injury-prone, lacking confidence, past his best.

    Joining Newcastle seemed to confirm this for many people. People also criticised his character - they called him dull, and there were suggestions that he had a gambling problem. His most recent move - to Manchester United - should be seen as a step up for this local lad, once our pride and joy. But of course, football supporters being what we are, it's being seen here as just the opposite. For no good reason, really, those who loved Michael Owen on the way up don't love him the same way any more.

    There is a man who has quietly achieved so very much in his career. He must be amazed sometimes at the way that some people criticise him so viciously. [2]

    This doesn't just happen to celebrities, of course. You will probably be able to think of people you know, family, neighbours who have stepped outside of the place they were born, achieved something in their lives, and who the people who first admired and even helped them on their way - now criticise or distrust or resent them.

    'Where did he get all this from?' - when we ask that question about someone who is starting to make something of their life, on the way up, then the answer is: they get all this from us - their skill, their growing success, their recognition by the wider world. All this reflects well on us and our influence, the influence of our community on them. We're proud of them, because they're one of us.

    'Where did he get all this from?' - when we ask that question about someone who has established themselves in life, away from here, away from home, then the tone of the question changes. We don't know where they get all this from: their skill, their growing success, their recognition by the wider world - it hasn't come from us, what they have now. Though we still recognise their achievements, we start to resent them, because it looks like what they've now got has nothing to do with us.

    They loved Jesus on the way up, of course, the boy who loved learning about the scriptures, the carpenter who was well known and well loved in the community of the local synagogue when he was growing up. But when he left home to start his own travelling ministry, building up a reputation and a following by Galilee, in Capernaum, down by the lakes and up in the mountains, the people who loved him as their own started asking questions about him.
    He left the lake side and came to his home town, 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 offence at him.
    'Where did he get all this from?' - when they ask that question about him a few years before, at the time when he was starting to make something of his life, then they would have answered: he gets all this from us - his skill, his growing success, his recognition by the wider world. All this reflects well on us and our influence, our community. We're proud of him, he's one of us.

    'Where did he get all this from?' - when they now ask that question about him who has established himself in his ministry, on journeys he's taken many miles away from home, then the answer changes. They don't know where he gets all this from: his skill, his growing success, his recognition by the wider world - it hasn't come from them, what Jesus has now. Though they still recognise his achievements, they start to resent them, because it looks like what Jesus has got has nothing to do with them.
    Then Jesus said to them, 'Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, 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.
    Perhaps the cause of their unbelief is envy. Robert Hamerton-Kelly says that 'Envy is the power to attract and repel at the same time. The crowd wants to be like the other and to destroy him, because he is so pleasing.' [3]

    We can't take our eyes off these people whose lives please us, but envy turns our hearts. The people who were so attracted to Michael Jackson as a child prodigy repel him now. The people who supported Michael Owen as a young achiever distance themselves from him now. Those who encouraged the young Jesus in his preaching ministry in their synagogue harden their hearts and close their ears to him now.

    This is how Mark records Jesus' response to all this: 'And he was amazed at their unbelief.'

    Jesus can't understand how we can do that.... how we can love someone and hate them at the same time, how we can be fascinated and repelled by the same person, how we can let our envy take over our admiration, why we can't admit that positive power and good influence can come from others as well as ourselves.

    This is because, while Jesus is like us in so many ways, he's lived in our world and continues among us, Jesus isn't possessed by the damaging obsessions we have: envy is not on his register. Jesus has no envy in him. Just pure, unconditional love.

    When we reject someone we once admired - and secretly still do admire - then Jesus is amazed at our rejection because all he knows is how to admire.

    When we damage someone we once loved - and secretly still do love - then Jesus is amazed at our damaging behaviour because all he knows is how to love.

    When we turn our backs on someone we once believed in - and secretly still do believe in - then Jesus is amazed at our unbelief because his belief in us is total and complete.

    This is where we might find hope, and a way out of the damaging spiral of envy which traps us. Jesus is amazed at our rejection of others because all he knows is how to admire. Jesus is amazed at our damaging behaviour towards others because all he knows is how to love. Jesus is amazed at our unbelief because his belief in us is total.

    Jesus went back to his home town because he believed in the people there. In the same way Jesus comes back to us, all the time, because he believes in us. If we welcome him then Jesus will transform our lives. No more envy; the freedom to enjoy others, to enjoy ourselves, and most of all to enjoy him, who believes in us totally, regardless of what we think and say about him.


    Notes
    [1] Michael Jackson biography culled from Wikipedia
    [2] Michael Owen biography culled from Wikipedia
    [3] Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 95-97, quoted in Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, PROPER 9 (July 3-9) -- YEAR A.