WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
HOMILY FOR THE 5TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST 2009
Children’s story— The eagle and the chickens
Once upon a time, there was a large mountainside, where an eagle’s nest rested. The eagle’s nest contained four large eagle eggs. One day an earthquake rocked the mountain causing one of the eggs to roll down the mountain, to a chicken farm, located in the valley below. The chickens knew that they must protect and care for the eagle’s egg, so an old hen volunteered to nurture and raise the large egg.
One day, the egg hatched and a beautiful eagle was born. Understandably, though, the eagle was raised to be a chicken, and naturally, the eagle believed he was nothing more than a chicken. The eagle loved his home and family, he learned to scratch the ground and cluck, but his spirit cried out for more. While playing a game on the farm one day, the eagle looked to the skies above and noticed an eagle soaring in the skies. “`Wow,” the eagle said, “I wish I could soar like that bird!” The chickens roared with laughter, “You can`t soar with those birds! You are a chicken and chickens do not soar. We peck.”
The eagle continued staring upward, dreaming that he could be with that majestic bird. But each time the eagle would let his dreams be known, he was told it couldn’t be done. That is what the eagle learned to believe. The eagle, after a while, stopped dreaming and continued to live his life like a chicken. Finally, after a long life as a chicken, the eagle passed away.
The term “pecking order” comes from observing the behaviour of chickens, who peck at each other a lot. They will sometimes peck a sick or odd chicken to death. It’s a pattern of behaviour that works for chickens in establishing a sense of dominance and order based on physical size and strength. It speaks to us of the negative effects of conformity, and the pain associated with stepping out from the expected roles.
I began my own studies on the behaviour of chickens many years ago. I discovered that if you introduce a couple of eight year old boys into the chicken coop, their carefully established pecking order breaks down almost immediately into an “every chicken for herself” approach. And when you use their eggs for an egg throwing match (I’m sure we didn’t throw more than a dozen), the chickens may not return to order for some time.
With stories like the eagle and the chickens I often wonder what the sequel might look like if the eagle had flown the coop: returning years later, fully grown, with the wind in his wings and the horizon in his eyes and blood on his talons, to the little community of chickens where he was raised, and causing all the chickens to have seizures and panic attacks!
This may have been something like the effect that Jesus had on his home town when he returned. Recognized as a rabbi, he was invited to teach in his home synagogue. It doesn’t say what he was teaching about, but Mark focuses on the reaction of the community to the hometown son now become great. The story suggests a community unwilling to respond to the divine vision and life Jesus offers because they won’t let go of their earlier impressions of him.
From our viewpoint, which is very individualistic, we hear stories like the eagle and chickens, and Jesus re-visiting his hometown, and we would tend to identify with the individual who is constrained from realizing his autonomy and full personhood by being subjected to the tyranny of the group. In our society, we tend to value the right of the individual over the integrity of the community.
First, let’s have a little sympathy for the chickens …
The importance of the individual, pushed to ultimate and extreme status, creates some casualties at the level of relationships and community. This is the theology Paul was trying to deal with at Corinth – elitist, individualistic, oblivious to the needs of others or the integrity of the community. It was the same kind of “I’m saved, you’re not” or “It’s all about me” kind of stuff which passes for faith in our own time.
“Who do you think you are (Mr. Big Stuff)?” is pretty much what the community says to Jesus and it’s a fair question. From the neighbours who knew him as a youngster to the mother who changed his diapers to the farmer who chased him out of his garden, it’s hard to let go of former concepts and images we have of people. That’s just human nature. And it’s part of the role of the community to prove and test people, to provide the scrutiny that causes the person to rise to the challenge of becoming who they are. I have a daughter being married in a couple of weeks, and I know it’s always hard to let go of your old way of relating to your children, to let go of your old images of them as a child, and accept them as adults, as individuals moving into the world on their own. It’s natural for a community to be reluctant to let go of the connections they’ve shared with an individual.
Something dramatic and sudden has happened to this man Jesus, who responded to the call about the age of 30 and was crucified by the age of 33 – his was a very brief and intense journey from obscurity in a little Galilean town, to universal notoriety. “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is?” The people want to know. Mark’s is the most human or down-to-earth gospel. In response to the same question, Matthew’s Gospel would respond (loud voice from “heaven”): “HE IS THE MESSIAH, THE ONE FORETOLD BY THE PROPHETS!” John’s Gospel version of Jesus would respond by saying “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
According to Mark, the folks who knew Jesus had obviously not been so impressed with him as a child and as a young man that they would be prepared to accept everything being said about him. Something had happened quite suddenly and dramatically for Jesus to go from being “the carpenter’s kid” to being a rabbi with amazing presence and vision and stature. Dealing with individuals who become something more than the community, who take on a greatness, a character that is different, threatens the old order, makes the community feel small and weak and obsolete, whether that community is a family or a neighbourhood or a whole town.
Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus pretty much stumped – he can’t do any great things there. Perhaps it’s a way of saying that even for the great, even for the Messiah, things don’t always go your way, and you have to deal with failure, futility and frustration. This is part of the message we hear from St. Paul this morning in his second letter to the difficult community at Corinth.
But when you think about it, of course the community would react that way. The other Gospels, written later than Mark, have added an almost Cecil B. De Mille grandeur to the man and his story, while Mark retains that human dimension, that hint of fallibility, and so today’s Gospel shows Jesus walking in the fullness (and the emptiness) of his humanity, and thus the encounter in his hometown carries an authentic ring to it. These are the people Jesus grew up with – of course they’re going to be the ones who question most his sudden rise to greatness. Not even a Messiah should forget that he is human.
Communities of all kinds tend to be conservative, and to resist changing things from the way they are. I think Mark is trying to speak of something that was going on in the human community in general at that time, as the people of Palestine tried to come to terms with the idea that the long-awaited Messiah might well have come in the flesh – that this man Jesus whom they knew as “the carpenter’s kid,” or “James’ brother” might actually be “the One.”
Change can threaten the stability and even the well-being of a community, so it is good practice to question and test things. Yes, it’s difficult to be the great prophet to the woman who as a girl could beat you at arm-wrestling; yes, it’s difficult to be the great rabbi to the man old enough to be your grandfather. Jesus acknowledges this reality, and also that it’s time to move on – you can’t go back. The point is that it wasn’t that obvious that Jesus was the Messiah – for all intents and purposes he was just an ordinary guy to the people who knew him. Things didn’t always go well – he couldn’t do any great things there. Perhaps Mark, in choosing to use this story, is trying to show his readers that it’s not always about success, that even Jesus encountered setbacks and roadblocks. The fact that Jesus suffered rejection and eventual crucifixion seems to make more sense in Mark’s Gospel than in the others.
The tragedy is that the people who knew Jesus best failed to see the Christ in him – failed to see the divine aspect of him, which was central to his true identity. They wanted to keep him looking at the ground, focused on his past, and were not going to let him forget that after all, he was “just the carpenter’s kid.” Their failure to recognize his greatness may be a forgivable sin; nevertheless, it is a tragedy.
The Gospel speaks to us of the tragedy that repeats itself constantly in life – that people fail to see the true potential and value of a person, and thus they fail to allow the person to move toward their proper destiny. They try to hold people to what is familiar and to deny the summons from beyond that would draw them to what they are capable of being, and so for many, their lives remain much smaller than they might be, and many dreams remain unlived.
When people believe in you it makes all the difference. When they won’t let go of smaller images or impressions of you, it can be like a prison, a kind of slavery in which we are held captive. Too often we hear of people being emotionally crippled, guilt-stricken, and held back, when they have attempted to realize their dreams. Pecking order – things like peer pressure and community norms function to maintain order and cohesiveness and mutual accountability and respect. But they can also become as stifling as prisons to new ideas and ways of being. They can be unimaginative and completely lacking in vision and perspective. We are not, after all, chickens, but men and women made in the image of God.
The great Kahlil Gibran said this:
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself;
They come through you but not from you
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
… You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
Each person is a unique gift, no matter what they may seem to you – each person is a gift from God, part of God’s larger work of love. It is impossible for us to see the whole picture and understand why each person is important in some way, so it is important to receive each person for who they are, not just for how they fit into our expectations and assumptions.
The Gospel today suggests that you can’t really go back – you have to keep moving forward in life, and that the proper role of a family or community, though it may involve keeping us grounded, and mindful of our roots, and our human failings, is to free a person’s potential, and in a way to let go and trust that the person, like the eagle, may be meant to fly. May we, in this community, be granted the wisdom to recognize greatness
The Rev. Grant Rodgers