I am better at it now than I used to be, but early on after I was ordained I found it unnerving to preach when someone I grew up with was in the congregation. A sister, my mother, other relatives, a childhood friend… if I made eye contact from the pulpit with one of these people I felt like the king when he realized his new clothes were non-existent. They see me as more than who I am, they see me as who I was. And what I was – like all of us – was a kid who thought like a child, acted like a child, reasoned like a child, and pretty much did little to hint at the adult I would become one day.
One of my childhood pals has grown up to be a very successful and accomplished OBGYN in the Akron area. Years ago he delivered the children of another one of longtime friends. Remembering how we used to play together, I once asked the father, “Wasn’t it strange having Cliff as the doctor who delivered your wife’s babies?” “Not really,” my friend answered. Lets just say he has more ability to live the present than I do.
My college floormates kept up a newsletter for several years after graduation. Writing about our new careers was very popular. An electrical engineer employed by the military noted he could not say much about his work other than it was his job to make sure if a person used a remote control to open a garage door the device did not launch a nuclear missile from a silo in a field a mile away. It never occurred to me such a thing might happen and even more unnerving… a guy I goofed around with in college was tasked with making sure it didn’t.
I wonder what Billy Gates’ 1st Grade teacher thought of his future held. As they played house did Nancy Pelosi’s four-year-old friends ever imagine one day she we preside over the House of Representatives? Did Michael Curry’s siblings see in him a person who would preach at the wedding of a prince with all the world watching?
A part of me sympathizes with the old guard of Nazareth we read about in today’s Gospel lesson. For nearly twenty-five years Jesus lived among them as he grew from a boy into a man. Through it all it appears he did little to distinguish himself. There is some biblical evidence he was intelligent and spiritually insightful at a young age, but to be sure he gave no indication he could be a future king in the ilk of David.
I learned two things about Jesus’ hometown when I visited the Holy Land last September. First, it was not large 2,000 years ago, a village of only about fifty houses. What Jesus did every day as a child was known by all. They might have accepted him as an adequate carpenter, but seeing him as the fulfillment of an important passage of Scripture would have been a stretch.
And second, I learned the village is situated at the crest of a very step and rocky hill several hundred feet above the Jordon plain. When the people he was raised among determine to throw Jesus off what the text calls “the brow of a hill”, this is not Jack and Jill falling down a gently sloping, grass-covered hill (as I had imagined). Had the synagogue members succeeded, Jesus would have come to a different kind of bloody end with every bone in his body crushed on rocks below.
Today’s reading is about more than the self-doubt I used to experience preaching to family and friends. It is more than an inability to shift from what I knew of a person when he was a child to what he is capable of as an adult. It is the deepest kind of rejection imaginable. It is people saying, “We knew you then, we see you now, and we do not believe in you!”
We do not believe in you. I suspect none of us has ever been told this so bluntly, but surely, at one time or another, each of you has been brought down a peg or two by a doubter. And the longer a person has known you the more rungs in the ladder you have to climb to rise above the limitations he or she has for you.
Thea Easterby describes herself as a blogger who is passionate about growing and helping others do the same. In one post she writes about why people may not believe in you, no matter what your dream might be. First, she writes, after learning about what you hope to do, they may react negatively simply because they do not get it. In most cases, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who aspired to be anything more than a homemaker met with strong resistance. Striving for anything beyond the status quo gets the same reaction today it did then.
Next, Easterby observes people will not believe in you if they think you don’t have the skills or personality to succeed. It seems to me, the people most likely to underestimate you are those who have just met you and those who have known you the longest. One group doesn’t know you and what you are capable of doing, while the other thinks it knows everything about you.
And finally, there are people who will discourage you because they don’t want you to succeed. Perhaps they are afraid of change or worry about how it will affect them if you ‘make it’ or maybe they are jealous or only live to say “I told you so”. Maybe they failed to achieve their dreams in life and knowingly or unknowingly do not want to see you achieve what they did not or could not.
Jesicca Wildfire is a writer who describes herself as being a “twisted professor and cheerleader of the apocalypse.” She notes how, when given an award or some form of recognition, most people thank their loved ones and those who have helped them along the way. But she holds we owe a debt of gratitude to those who lit a fire in us because they never thought we would amount to anything. She writes, “The first person to do that [for me] was my kindergarten teacher, Miss. Grimm. She told my parents I’d probably wind up as a stripper or worse.” Can you imagine!
While people like this motivated Wildfire to work hard to achieve her goals, she states she had to learn how to give up the fantasy of throwing her success back in their faces. “I’d like nothing better than to show up at my old elementary school and do a striptease for Miss. Grimm, then flash my doctoral diploma and say, ‘psyche!’ But she probably doesn’t remember me at all.”
The truth of my experience is I have never known a successful person whose main motivation was to get over on his detractors. Those who achieve do so because they believe in their vision and they believe in themselves. Their vision is never something as little as to be bigger than their critics. Jesus did not go around the region of Galilee doing miracles to show up the people of his hometown. He did what he did because he believed in a vision he called the Kingdom of God.
I believe God plants a dream in every soul. This dream is what we refer to as a calling. It is not just priests who are called by God. One of my childhood buddies was called to be an OB. The father of the children he deliverd is a talented graphic illustrator highly regarded in his field. Still another prevents a doomsday scenario every time I change the channel on my TV.
“We don’t believe in you.” Jesus would go on to many crushing experiences – Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, Thomas’ doubts – but I wonder if this first rejection may just have been the most difficult of them all precisely because it is first and it comes from those who go back with him all the way to the beginning. But Jesus learns how to shake off the dust on his sandals, as we all must do, because his dream, his vision, his purpose, his mission, his calling is too important to abandon to the doubters and skeptics.
What is your calling? Are you pursuing it or have you allowed your detractors to cause you to forsake it? And what about others in your life, especially your children, grandchildren, and young people you know? How do you encourage them to discern their calling? In what ways do you guide and support them as they pursue it? How do you discourage and hold them back? In what ways are you saying, “I believe in you”?