I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
The quote has been attributed to Robert McCloskey, Richard Nixon, and Alan Greenspan, but who said it first doesn’t really matter; it’s a very common experience. You are talking to a person who appears to be reasonably attentive, of good hearing and sound mind, but he or she still can’t hear you. You make eye contact, you speak slowly and clearly, without a trace of condescension, using common English, but you can tell you’re not getting through to them. It’s incredibly frustrating. We just don’t understand each other as well as we’d like to.
Our hearing develops while we’re still in the womb, and we learn to talk in the first years of our life, but we all know that speaking and listening is not just a matter of talking and hearing. Marriage and family counselors are known to spend much of their time coaching their clients how to speak and listen.
The Bible is full of sayings and writings of prophets who saw very clearly what was going on in their day, and they spoke, they declared, they urged and threatened, some even walked around naked to make their point – but who listened? Often their pronouncements were collected a generation later by men and women who wondered how their parents or they themselves could have missed the urgent truth; they sighed as they added the words of the prophets to their sacred texts.
Ezekiel heard a voice saying to him, “I’m sending you to the Israelites, a rebellious people. I’m sending you to their hardheaded and hardhearted descendants, and you will say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ You’ll speak my words to them whether they listen or whether they refuse. You aren’t being sent to a people whose language and speech are difficult and obscure but to the house of Israel – they will refuse to listen to you because they refuse to listen to me.”
The prophets knew that listening is not only determined by language and speech, but by these curious human traits that can only be described as hardheadedness or hardheartedness. “Whether they listen or whether they refuse,” the voice said, “they will know that a prophet has been among them.” Has been – that’s the sad past tense of regret. But it can also become the gentle healer of our hardheaded and hardhearted inclinations. It can open our stubborn hearts at least for the desire to listen more attentively and carefully to each other.
When Jesus began his ministry, he left home and went to Capernaum, and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. The people there were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority. He continued to teach and heal in the villages of Galilee, and word about him spread. His family wasn’t thrilled, though. They were embarassed; the neighbors heard them say, “He has gone out of his mind.” The people who had known him all his life didn’t know what to make of this sudden urge of his to leave home and walk from town to town, talking about repentance and the reign of God. They tried to convince him to come home, but once, when people told him that his mother and his brothers were outside, asking for him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Now that is a beautiful word for all those who recognize the wisdom, love, and power of God in Jesus, but imagine what a harsh word that was for his mother or his little sister.
So eventually Jesus came back to his hometown, and on the sabbath he went to the synagogue and began to teach, and people were astounded. Their astonishment, however, wasn’t the wide-eyed wonder that erupted in Capernaum and elsewhere, it was bewilderment riddled with bits of outrage. Where did he get all this? What is the source of his power? Don’t we know this guy? Who does he think he is? Nothing he said and did in his hometown was any different from what he had done elsewhere, but the outcome was the exact opposite: no miracles and wonders, no more signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign, only upset and angry people.
Jesus, Mark tells us, was amazed at their unbelief. I imagine the disciples were pretty puzzled as well, scratching their heads, wondering what was going on. They had been there when he silenced demons and drove them out. Even the unclean spirits obeyed him! They had been there when he stilled the storm, commanding the wind and the waves, and they obeyed! But in this little town, it was like his words hit the walls and fell to the ground. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. “Prophets are not without honor,” he said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
Mark tells us that the people who should have known Jesus best, didn’t grasp who he was. It would be easy for us to dismiss them as hardheaded or hardhearted – but only if we can’t see ourselves in their shoes.
“Isn’t this Mary’s boy who used to work in construction?” they said. “We know you, Jesus. We know your family. We’ve known you ever since you were a little boy in diapers – who are you to come here with your newfangled ideas and God talk?” It was inconceivable to them that God could be at work in the man who had grown up just a couple of houses down the street from where they lived. And so they didn’t bring their sick for healing. They didn’t bring their children for his blessing. They didn’t come to hear his teaching. They quickly jumped to, “Who does he think he is?” and stopped listening to what he was saying and went home and left him standing there with his hands tied behind his back. They didn’t expect anything, and Jesus could do no deed of power there. There wasn’t a sadder town in all of Galilee that day. It was a drab and dreary place, with no expectations, little wonder, and little hope.
A miracle, the story suggests, is like the tango: it takes two. We know it takes one who performs and another who perceives the miracle. But Mark invites us to consider the reverse: it takes one who is open with expectation for the power of blessing to become manifest. Without faith, the wonders cease.
Communities where everyone knows everyone else feel comfortable and safe; but for those who want to look at life from angles that aren’t defined solely by family and by what the neighbors might think, life in Mayberry can be suffocating. Small communities have lots of unwritten rules of how things are properly done, and that’s why they can be hardest on their most creative people. If anyone has an idea that breaks the mold, the first response is not, “Tell us more!” but more likely, “Who does she think she is? The King of China’s daughter?”
Churches, of course, are small communities, and I wonder how many times we stifle the wisdom and power of God in our midst, and we don’t even notice. How often do we want to make sure everybody knows their place? How often are we simply not receptive to God’s surprising intrusions? These questions get to the crucial difference between having known Jesus all your life and listening to Jesus now. And Mark’s story suggests that it might well be the difference between “no deed of power here” and “it was a time of miracles and wonders and he was amazed at their belief.”
Between the lines of his story, Mark says to us, “People who have never seen Jesus face to face know him better than his own family and kin because they dare to believe and expect that God speaks and acts through him.” Perhaps we all secretly wait for a god who pops onto the scene like the Incredible Hulk popping out of David Banner’s suit, and so we miss the God who now and then looks a lot like the kid who grew up a couple of houses down the street or our cousin from North Carolina: incredibly everyday human.
But when we begin to believe that Jesus indeed embodies God’s love, word, power, and wisdom, and when we begin to believe that God is not too big to meet us in each other, deeds of power begin to happen. Acts of mercy. Works of compassion. Miracles of understanding.
Jesus sends us out, two by two, like tango dancers. He tells us to take nothing for the journey, but to travel light. On the kingdom trail the gear doesn’t matter. It never was about the gear, and it never will be. It’s just baggage more likely to slow us down than to help us accomplish our mission. It never was about steeples, pews, robes, and bells, and it never will be. It’s all about the miracles and wonders of God’s reign. It’s all about the authority and the power we make manifest when we receive the word of God in Jesus with expectant hearts and respond to it obediently. It’s all incredibly everyday human.
 See Ezekiel 2:1-7
 Ezekiel 2:5
 Mark 1:21-22
 Mark 3:22
 Mark 3:32-35
 Mark 1:27; 4:41