I spent a few days this week at my grandmother’s house in northern Wisconsin. My grandma is 98 years old, and for the last 40-some years she has lived in a little house in the woods along the Wisconsin River. Five miles from the nearby tiny town, 20 miles from a town with the grocery store. Her nearest neighbor is about a quarter mile away. She and my grandfather built this little home when my grandpa retired after 35 years as a career officer in the Army and they had 7 years together in this little spot before he died of cancer.
My grandmother has now spent 30-some years there on her own – shoveling herself out of her long driveway to get to church on Sunday mornings, hauling water from river when her pipes weren’t working, hours watching the deer, foxes, coyote, eagles, and even bear ramble by. When she wakes up in the morning the first thing she does is say good morning to the river, and the last thing she does at the end of the day is to wish the river a good night.
I have spent countless hours and days and weeks there with her, doing the same. That place is in my blood and my bones. The water of that river is holy water to me. The 40 years my grandma has spent in this house has spanned almost my entire life. In that time, I myself have lived in 19 different places. I’ve loved being a bit of a nomad, but it’s been important to me to have my grandmother’s little house in the woods by the river as my anchor. It’s been my heart’s home.
The two days I spent there last week were the last time I’ll ever be there. At age 98, my grandma has decided an assisted living apartment sounds pretty nice. The little house in the woods has been sold and she will be moving into town in August.
My last days there were bittersweet. There were tears, but also a lot of love and gratitude. My grandma kept telling me to look around and take what I wanted from the house. And I did want something, but I couldn’t figure out what. A picture from the wall? Some of my grandpa’s tools or some of my grandma’s dishes? Nothing felt right. Because what I really wanted was everything. I wanted the woods, and the river, and the patches of daisies along the road. I wanted the smell of the air and the sparkle of the sun on the water. What I really wanted to not say goodbye to a place that is so much of who I am.
Our Gospel story today is also about identity.
Jesus goes back to his hometown this week. He’d been out preaching and teaching; he’d been healing and raising the dead. The crowds were growing by the day, and his message of change and redemption and hope was reaching farther and faster than anyone could have imagined.
And then he pulls into his hometown, where he is greeted as anything but the hometown hero. “Wait, you?”, the people said. “This great teacher and healer we’ve been hearing about is you? Aren’t you that kid from just up the dirt road? Mary’s son? Nice try with this prophet stuff, kid, but we know who you are.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Gospel writers knew what they were doing. The way they wrote is just incredible; so many layers to dig through.
The way this story is set up, on one hand we’re meant to side with Jesus and think the hometown people are unable to see what is right in front of them. On this level, the hometown folks are antagonists who cause us to solidify our solidarity with Jesus. We would never have behaved like they did, right? On the other hand, through these hometown folks, the Gospel writer is sending us a critical message about Jesus and his identity. We need these people and their skepticism to understand who Jesus is.
This is not the Messiah people had been expecting – this not a wealthy and powerful king riding in on a gold-trimmed horse with armies behind him. And it’s not the Messiah we want sometimes – the one to answer prayers for healing, to make everything ok. Instead we find God has come to in poverty. Through a woman; actually, through an unwed teen mother, raising the stakes that much more. We find in this story, just as we find in our lives, that God has shown up with humility, with vulnerability, with need for community.
Leaving out any mention of Jesus’ father was intentional on the part of the hometown folks. Having no father would have been cause for shame in that culture and context, and shame was something that was used to control society. The point was made clear that Jesus was not of the appropriate lineage, and was therefore not someone people should look up to. So the changes he was attempting to make could be ignored. Even ridiculed. They might as well have said “The system that this man is trying to dismantle, the one that benefits us, will not crumble due to Jesus, of all people, thank you very much”. And all of this was very intentional on the part of the Gospel writers. They were trying to show us just how much things were about to change.
Jesus doesn’t argue. He doesn’t try to prove his point. He simply stays focused, eyes on the prize. Because he knows who he is. He knows he is a carpenter. A poor man. Mary’s son. He knows he is the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.
And he knows he is of God.
He knows he is of God and that is more than enough. He has nothing else to prove. He shakes off the criticisms of those who can’t wrap their minds around it, those with much to lose if things change too much, those who can’t get past their own worlds to see the bigger picture. There are conversations to be had, and people to be embraced, and healing to do. Jesus knows who he is and doesn’t lose sight of the work he is called to. In doing so, he reminds his friends of exactly who they are, too, and empowers them to work by his side.
In doing so, Jesus reminds us of who we are, reminds us of our truest identity, and reminds us of the work we’re called to do.
How lucky are we that Jesus demonstrates exactly how to do this, in embracing all of who he is. The aspects of himself people are drawn to, and the aspects society belittles and condemns. He remembers, always, the words he heard from God at his baptism: You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.
How about you?, this story urges us to examine. Where are you from? A big city? A small town? A single mother? A single father? A loving and supportive home, or a home that fell short of that? What brings you joy? What hurts your heart?
Do you hear God’s voice speaking to you, saying “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” If you don’t, yet, I beg of you: spend some time listening. This unconditional, all-embracing affirmation of glorious YOU, just as you are, is there. I promise you, it is there. It’s who you are, it’s what you are, it’s nothing short of your very essence.
During the final hours at my grandmother’s house I took a walk outside, on her dirt road, picking up rocks that caught my eye. Maybe this is what I need to take, I thought. Maybe if I gathered enough of them in will feel like I’m bringing the little house in the woods home with me... When I got in from my walk, my husband, William, was waiting for me. He smiled and said, “I found the thing.” And he handed me a small brown book. My grandfather’s prayer book, with an inscription indicating it was given to him while he was in still in the Army. Well-worn, and treasured enough that he brought into his retirement with him.
I hugged my husband, I hugged the book, I cried. And that is what I brought home with me.
Who am I? I am the granddaughter of Fred and Hazel May Bogart. Two of my children, Tessa May, and Nolan Bogart, carry their names. But my grandparents are more than their names and circumstances. They are more than a house in the woods with a river running through it. They are children of God. And so am I. And so are you.
Above everything else, you are a child of God. And with that DNA, there is no dust we cannot shake, no healing that cannot happen, and no death we cannot overcome. Jesus knew it. The Gospel writers knew it. And now we know it, too. Amen.