Texts: Mark 6:1-5 (Jesus rejected in Nazareth) * “My Little Town” by Paul Simon
I remember the release of Simon and Garfunkel’s single “My Little Town” with fondness. It was October 1975, which was the first time in my life I was living away from my family. I had a residence room at Queen’s University in Kingston, where I was enrolled in the first year of a Bachelor of Arts program.
“My Little Town” made a splash because it was only the second single Simon and Garfunkel had released since the end of their careers as a duo in 1970; it was unusual in how they included this track on the separate single albums they each released that fall; and it struck a chord with me since I was relishing the freedom of being away from my family in Belleville Ontario. I resonated with the line “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”
No one in my family had liked Belleville. Almost as soon as my father had moved us from Cornwall Ontario, where he had served Knox United Church for 12 years, to Holloway Street United in Belleville in September 1972, he realized he had made a mistake. The church in Belleville was more culturally and theologically conservative than he had assumed, and he struggled there for four years before moving to suburban Montreal where he finished his career in ministry.
While in Belleville, my siblings and I pined for Cornwall. It was larger than Belleville, and it seemed more worldly than it. Cornwall owed this status due to its proximity to Montreal; its substantial Francophone and First Nations communities; and its role as the heart of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
In contrast, Belleville seemed like a sleepy city that existed mostly to serve the surrounding farms. Many of the students in the high school I attended were bused in from farms to the north of the city; and unlike Cornwall, Belleville was cut off from the Great Lakes Waterway by Prince Edward County, which stood between Belleville and Lake Ontario to the south.
I identified with the line from Paul Simon’s song “In my little town, I never meant nothing, I was just my father’s son, saving my money, dreaming of glory.” By moving first to Kingston, and then to Toronto the next year, I entered a gracious space in which I could try to establish an identity and fulfill some of my ambitions.
I always think of Paul Simon’s song “My Little Town” when I hear today’s Gospel passage. In it, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where his family members and neighbours are skeptical of his supposed wisdom and his healing powers.
Seen in the context of today’s baptism of Natalie, this story reminds me of the arc of our lives as parents, children, and seekers.
Grace has many facets, but at its heart is the gift of life we receive from our parents, the many blessings of our ancestors, and the matrix of family and neighbourhood in which we first come to consciousness.
Like all of us, Natalie is alive by the grace of her parents and by everything that supports them, including the Source of Love we call God; and like all of us, Natalie’s life will be marked both by gratitude for these gifts and by her struggles to define herself and to find her own way in the world.
Whether we are born in a small town, in a large city like Edmonton, or in a megalopolis like Toronto, we often come to resent our roots. As in the story in which a 12-year-old Jesus lingers in the capital city of Jerusalem instead of returning with his parents to Nazareth (Luke 2), we may chafe at the lack of opportunity in our hometown; and we may resent the prejudices that limit our family’s ability to see who we have become, as in today’s reading from Mark.
Many of us are like the Prodigal Son and move to a far country in search of fame and fortune (Luke 15); and whatever success or failure we find in this quest, returning home is often weighed down with anxiety and desire.
When Jesus returns to Nazareth, he is not greeted as warmly as he is in other towns. Jesus is the firstborn child of Mary and an older brother to James, Joseph, Judah, Simon, and several unnamed sisters. His family and neighbours think they know him; but Jesus has changed, and they seem unable to grasp this.
Whether Jesus had all these siblings (and the other gospel accounts do not agree) is not important to me. For me, the Grace revealed in the stories about Jesus does not hinge on historical details but on the entire arc of his ministry.
Baptism is a ritual that paints this arc. In welcoming Natalie into the world today, we have symbolically plunged her into the waters of a sacred river and cheered as she emerged into a new life of infinite hope and love. We have marked her with the sign of the cross and expressed our wish that she enjoys a life of joy.
But today’s baptism is only a symbol. In real life, we encounter many other baptisms, which test us, and many confrontations with the cross, which show us again and again a path towards a new lifer closer to Love.
Jesus returns home and runs into resistance. The narrator of “My Little Town” pours scorn on his hometown, as I did as a student 45 years ago. But life often involves a spiral journey around our roots. We may leave hearth and home many times, and then find our way back to the legacy of our hometowns just as many times.
With Grace, these spiral journeys help us to embrace ever-widening circles of neighbours and ever-more powerful acts of solidarity and compassion; and in the inevitable struggles with our roots, I pray we will give thanks for their many blessings and find the courage to confront their wounds with a spirit of humility, forgiveness, and love.
Like all of us, Natalie has come from Love. Like all of us, she is growing up in a family marked by many blessings. Like all of us, she will encounter many real-life baptisms, which are only hinted at in the ritual in which we participated today. And like all of us, in her final baptism at the end of life, she will discover that all the spiral journeys she has taken away from and towards her roots have returned her in joy to the Source of Love we call God.
May it be so. Amen.