We all have one. An old, timeworn suitcase. Some of us may not even be aware that we have this suitcase, we may not have been told about it. But it was given to each of us, and it’s heavy. You see, we needed the sack to carry our load of stones around with us. Rocks, boulders, pebbles, all sizes and shapes…most of them unwanted.
Some are the rocks of rejection, given to us many years ago, some of them more recently. These rocks were given to us when we tried out for the team and weren’t chosen, or when we didn’t get the job we had hoped for, or when a lover or spouse made choices in life that didn’t include us…the rocks of rejection are heavy.
Then there are the rocks of failure, which we started picking up once we figured out that not all of our plans were going to work out as we had envisioned them. When relationships became toxic and simply could not be worked out, when we had to let go of dreams and start looking for new ones, when the song in our heart seemed unappreciated by those around us. The rocks of failure often include the unwanted bonus rocks of guilt, because someone must be to blame, and why not ourselves?? So our suitcase gets heavier and heavier with the weight of it all. We don’t always know it, but we carry it with us everywhere we go.
We can forget about it for awhile. We can bring it to work with us, drop it at the door and immerse ourselves in the day’s tasks, but it’s there waiting when the day is over. We can place it in a corner somewhere while we party and entertain, but it will demand to be picked up again and carried. Over time, the suitcase wears us down, and we become weakened by the sheer weight of it.
We’re looking for rest and freedom, and as St. Paul tells us, where our human weakness cannot take us, the love of God will enter in and lift us up. Paul tells us that our weaknesses and limitations are what God uses to make room for God’s power. So, too, in today’s Gospel, where we see this Jesus, the one we so often describe in the most glowing terms,
experiencing failure and rejection as he tries to minister to the people of his hometown. All of us here have experienced failures and have been rejected in one way or another, so it’s a comfort to know that Jesus really does understand what this feels like. But more than that, Jesus tells us that even in those times when we are most aware of our limitations, God is still working in and through us. Jesus doesn’t demand that we “get over it”, but he does call us to “get on with it”, to keep on responding to God’s best hopes for our lives, and he sends us out—regardless of our issues, regardless of our woundedness–to keep loving and serving in his name. As Jesus sends out the disciples to share his vision of God’s will for the world, so he sends us out, with orders to leave behind everything that hinders us in our spiritual journey.
Hmmmm…… could he mean our heavy, 1948 vintage hard suitcase?
Several years ago, Fortune magazine did an analysis of a couple hundred successful people. The magazine’s researchers found that most had failed several times before achieving their success. Henry Ford went broke five times before he finally made it in the car industry. Babe Ruth may have been famous for setting a home run record, be he also held the record for strikeouts. Winston Churchill did not become Prime Minister of England until he was 66, after a lifetime of defeats and setbacks. Thomas Edison reportedly once said to an assistant, who urged him to quit after hundreds of failures on a particular project, “Why quit now? We know at least a hundred things that won’t work?”.
There are, of course, many more examples of failure than these, including those in our own lives. Each gives us good reason to ask – what is success and failure anyway? What this gospel tells us is that success and failure are only human barometers of our worthiness. They are not of God. Jesus was genuinely hurt by his rejection. We’re given a sense of this in his powerlessness, where the gospel writer tells us that he was not able to perform the kinds of miracles that we heard of in last week’s story of the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter. His own people, those who should have known him better than anyone, had no use for his vision of what humanity is called to become.
Yes, his mission to carry to the word of God’s love had attracted followers throughout the countryside, but his neighbors and family turned him away and laughed. Jesus was hurt and confused by their attitude, so he found himself limited insofar as the number of healings he could do for them. I know a little of what he was feeling, because my own parents have been very silent about my having become a priest, and they never bring it up in conversation—which means I have to bring it up constantly when I talk with them! They did not even respond to my invitation to attend my ordination, that’s how reluctant they are to show approval of something they have been taught not to approve of. And yet, just a few weeks ago, when I was in their house, looking through photo albums of family pictures, I discovered an entire photo album devoted to me and the ministry of Holy Redeemer: pictures of the church, pictures of our first anniversary dinner, pictures from the ordination itself—all of which they had gotten through my sister. It was all there, and I felt some satisfaction in knowing that even though I was never going to get the affirmation every son wants from his parents, I was nonetheless being supported in an invisible, albeit weird, way. So….I unloaded a few rocks from my suitcase right then and there.
Jesus decides to leave his hometown and continue his ministry elsewhere, but he is NOT telling us to give up when we don’t get the affirmations we need, when things go wrong. In this passage, he is telling us that when things don’t go the way we planned, when our feelings are hurt, when we just don’t seem to be getting anything positive, God still has a plan. God does not will anyone to hurt, but God can transform anyone’s hurt into something lifegiving and wonderful for others. That is the miracle of Christ’s healing touch in our lives!
So, we need to open ourselves to God’s plan, whether it’s Plan A or Plan Q, God can still create good from a negative situation. What Paul tells us, is that God will work through us and with us, just as we are. God isn’t waiting for our perfection, for our meticulous completion of some ritual or prayer: God needs only the integrity of our faith. That is really the good news for us today: that even when we experience what the world would call failure………even when we feel the sting of rejection, God’s arms are open and ready to accept our very best efforts at faithfulness. Songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen says, “Forget your perfect offering, There’s a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in”.
So what does that tell us about the suitcase that we’re all carrying around with us? You remember, the one that’s filled with our rocks of past rejections, past failures, guilt, and regret…….. it’s still there, bearing down and pulling our shoulder muscles and straining our back. And holding us back.
I think what Jesus and St. Paul are telling us is that we can take that suitcase into the heart of Christ… and just leave it there. We can open it and look at what lies inside, recognize that each rock has caused us hurt, but each has also been an opportunity to grow and learn and become the next best version of ourselves. Then we can—if we choose–shake the dust off our feet, leave the rocks there in the shelter of God’s love, and get on with the business of loving and serving God through others. And, in so doing, we realize that we are not “independent” of each other at all: we are interdependent.