By Debie Thomas
In her new book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” Rachel Held Evans describes the ubiquitous power of origin stories: “Origin stories tell us who we are, where we come from, and what the world is like. They dictate the things we believe, the brands we buy, the holidays we celebrate, and the people we revere or despise. Sometimes we construct our present realities around our stories of origin; other times we construct our stories of origin around our present realities; most of the time, it’s a little of both.”
Having grown up in a first-generation immigrant home, I resonate with what Evans describes. My childhood was steeped in origin stories — stories of a homeland on the other side of the world, stories of a distant culture I was supposed to embrace as my own, even though I was growing up in America. “Remember who you are and where you come from,” was the defining refrain of my childhood, and to be honest, I didn’t always mind it. I liked embracing my Indian origins if it meant enjoying deep, multigenerational family ties; or the lush, tropical landscapes of South India; or the bright oranges, reds, and purples of my mother’s silk saris; or the fiery curries and fragrant rice dishes we relished each night at dinner. But when that same origin story dictated who my friends could be, or which racial and ethnic groups I needed to distrust, or what I could and couldn’t think, question, or become as a brown-skinned female, then it ceased to be life-giving. Suddenly, I felt my origin story’s power to oppress and suffocate me.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth after a wildly successful ministry debut. In the weeks preceding his return, he has developed a widespread reputation for his wisdom and authority. He has proclaimed God’s kingdom with provocative parables. He has earned the trust of twelve loyal disciples. He has exorcised demons, healed the sick, calmed a storm, and raised a little daughter from the dead. He has become, in other words, the dream returnee. The hometown boy made good.
Or so we would think, if St. Mark didn’t so quickly disabuse us. In the lection, Jesus enters the synagogue of his boyhood, and begins to teach. At first, things go very well; Jesus is received with astonishment and curiosity: “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!”
But then something happens. Someone in the crowd, perhaps a jealous old neighbor of Mary’s, or a childhood rival of Jesus’s, pulls out an old origin story and starts it circulating around the synagogue: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here among us?”
And they took offense at him.
As Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her sermon, “Sapping God’s Strength,” the only reason to identity someone by his mother in Jesus’s day was to question his legitimacy. To highlight the fact that no one knew for certain who his father was. In other words, to refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary” (and not, “the son of Joseph”) was a calculated act, a weaponized use of Jesus’s origin story to shame him into silence. In a social system where one’s status was fixed at birth, it was not considered possible for someone like Jesus — a mere carpenter of questionable parentage — to amount to anything. In other words, he had no business rising above his dicey beginnings, no cultural permission to outgrow his origin story: We know exactly where you come from, boy! Don’t get too big for your britches! Remember your place!”
The truly sad and astonishing thing about this story is that the townspeople’s suspicion and resentment diminished Jesus’s ability to work good on their behalf. “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark writes with grim finality. In some mysterious and disturbing way, the people’s small-mindedness, their lack of trust, and their inability to embrace a new facet of Jesus’s life and mission, kept them in spiritual poverty. They were unable to welcome the unfamiliar within the familiar. They were uninterested in glimpsing the extraordinary within the ordinary. They couldn’t imagine a newer and roomier story when the old one was so juicy. So they missed the presence of God in their midst.
As I think about this lection, I can’t help but wonder how, when, and where I misuse origin stories — my own or other people’s — to limit God’s “deeds of power.” How do I refuse to let others in my life grow and change? When do I box them into stories that are unfairly narrow and constricting? Where in my life do I take offense at the new and the unfamiliar, instead of leading with curiosity and delight? Do I allow the people I am close to to become? Do I allow myself to become? Or do I cut myself and others off with burdensome narratives none of us can bear: You will always be… small, weak, broken, insufficient, disappointing. You will never outgrow… your background, race, family, upbringing, wounds, addictions.
Continuing her exploration of origin stories, Rachel Held Evans writes: “Spiritual maturation requires untangling these stories, sorting fact from fiction (or, more precisely, truth from untruth), and embracing those stories that move us toward wholeness while rejecting or reinterpreting those that do harm.”
This is no easy task. It takes patience and humility, and sometimes it hurts a great deal. I am still “untangling” the Indian origin story I grew up with, letting go of the parts that weaken and diminish me, and finding fresh ways to embrace the parts that resonate with my bicultural identity.
Speaking of identity, many of us living in the United States will celebrate the origin story of our country this week. What might it look like, beneath the rhetoric and hype, to honor the story in ways that acknowledge both our blessedness and our brokenness as a nation in the 21st century? Both the deep good and the profound evil that lies in our collective past? Can we untangle truth from untruth in ways that will help us move forward with grace? Can we receive the prophets who are speaking words of love, freedom, compassion, and hospitality in our midst, instead of retreating into our own fears and doubts?
The disconcerting truth about this week’s lection is that we — we the Church — are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. We’re the ones who think we know Jesus best. The ones jaded by religious over-familiarity. The ones who take offense when he shows up anew in faces we recognize and resent. What will it take to follow him into new and uncomfortable territory? To see him where we least desire to look?
The scandal of the Incarnation is precisely that God is the hometown boy made good. He is the lowly carpenter. He is the guy with the tainted birth story. He is the brother of, the son of, the friend of, the neighbor of. We might be scandalized by his humble origins, but he’s not. We might put limits on his deeds of power, but those limits won’t confine him for long. We might amaze him with our unbelief, but he will call out to us, nevertheless, daring us always to see and experience him anew. Maybe “Remember who you are and where you come from,” is God’s best reminder to us. We are God’s children and we come from his own heart. That’s an origin story we can never outgrow.
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