A Loser Like Me
A sermon on Mark 6:1-13, Ezekiel 2:1-5, and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Are any of you willing to admit to a guilty pleasure when it comes to your Netflix viewing habits? I have one. It's the 2009-2015 cult classic… Glee.
I’m not especially proud of it. The show has some great themes around inclusion and self-worth, but also a whole lot of shallow glorification of popularity-culture and teenage sex. Nevertheless, I’ve been on a Glee-watching kick lately, because sometimes it’s therapeutic to watch angst-ridden teenagers obsess over the things that High Schoolers obsess about, and then break into perfectly choreographed musical numbers that resolve their feelings and make the world right again. It’s a lovely fantasy, and sometimes I sing along.
For any of you who have never experienced the emotional catharsis that is Glee, the show chronicles the adventures and missteps of a group of show choir misfits at the fictional William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio.
One of the main plot drivers is the glee club’s efforts to prove their worth to all the bullies in the school by winning the national show choir competition. The first time they make it to Regionals they decide to wow the judges by performing an anthem that they compose themselves. They struggle for a bit to find a message they can sing about with authenticity, but eventually they find inspiration in their collective experiences of being at the bottom of the social heap.
Their winning anthem has the defiant title: Loser Like Me, and the chorus repeats the nose-thumbing claim: “You wanna be, a loser like me.”
That chorus flashed across my mind as I read this week’s gospel. Can you guess why? It has to do with the way that the two halves of our gospel reading fit together.
The second part of our gospel text tells about Jesus commissioning the disciples for their first mission. His instructions are pretty unusual: don’t take anything with you – not extra clothes, not food, not money… just a walking stick (because you’ll be doing a lot of walking). You will have to depend on the hospitality of strangers. But don’t take anything that’s not freely given – not even the dust on your feet. Some people are going to reject you. They will refuse to take you in or to listen to what you have to say. When that happens, just move on.
These instructions are not especially encouraging for first-time evangelists! But they sound even worse when you consider that they have just witnessed Jesus’s first “failure.”
The first half of our reading tells about how Jesus, after all of his crowd-drawing success in his travels around Galilee, is rejected in his hometown. The people there admit his amazing deeds of power and the authoritative wisdom of his words… but none of this matters. They know Jesus’s humble beginnings and they get offended by his claims to power and authority. And because their hearts are hard, he can’t do much there. A few healings, but mostly just rejection.
And it is after THIS reception that Jesus decides to send his disciples on a mission to experience some rejection for themselves. It’s almost like Jesus was assuming: “you wanna be, a Loser like me.”
Not exactly an inspirational pitch.
But, then again, the Hebrew scriptures offer witness to a long history of prophets being rejected, as Jesus points out to his hometown crowd. One example is alluded to in today’s reading from Ezekiel. In this piece of Ezekiel’s call story, God literally picks Ezekiel up off the ground (where he has fallen prostrate because he knows his own unworthiness before God) and then prepares him to speak God’s message to the people of Israel.
That preparation includes warning him about rejection: “I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them” (Ezekiel 2:5)
Sound familiar? It's very similar to what Jesus says to his disciples: (I'm paraphrasing) Your job is to go and to do the work without regard to how people are going to receive you. Just do what I tell you to do, and if you are rejected, shake off the dust!
One commentator summarizes the Ezekiel reading this way: “Perhaps the people will listen, but perhaps they will not. Ezekiel has the task of speaking the truth without regard to the response…. Authentic ministry speaks the truth regardless of response. God calls us to faithfulness and obedience, not success.”
Faithfulness and obedience, not success. It’s a simple guidepost, but… it is so counter-cultural for us, isn’t it?
We live in an achievement-oriented culture. Success is our society’s proof of value, and failure is only forgiven after the fact, if we can turn it into a life lesson that empowers our eventual success. Our language, and our stories, and our system of morality elevate winners, and judge everyone else: people caught in poverty, the uneducated, those struggling with disabilities or addictions, the unpretty, the unloved.
Our success-addicted culture tells us that If we can’t rise above, find a way from rags to riches… we aren't worth much. That’s pretty much the fundamental premise of the whole Glee series.
But it’s not just secular culture. The church has bought into the idolatry of success and power too. Ever since the 4th Century, when Emperor Constantine decided to use Christianity as a unifying tool in his empire-building, the golden calf of Christendom has seduced the religion of Christ-followers with the offer of power. Over 1600 years have taught us to see power, success, influence as the marks of blessing on our ministries, and – conversely – to see any diminishment of Christianity’s central place of privilege as persecution.
But Christ-followers were never promised power! We were never promised preferential treatment. We were never promised success.
We were told that God chooses to be known in weakness. That what we need is NOT success, but rather grace. Because “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) The weakness of the thorns in our flesh that remind us of our own failings. The weakness of having our witness rejected. The weakness of the King of Kings hanging on a cross.
That’s where we find the GRACE of God. God isn’t interested in our success because hunting after success is the opposite of grace. Success is depending on ourselves to prove our own worth. Grace is about knowing that our worth comes always and only from God.
When Jesus sent the disciples on their mission they proclaimed a message of repentance. The word repent in this passage is metanoeo in the Greek, which literally means “to change one’s mind.” This was the message Jesus proclaimed as well (Mark 1:15) when he called the people to repent and believe – to change their minds and trust in the gospel – the good news of God’s forgiveness.
And with that message in mind it makes PERFECT sense that Jesus would tell the disciples to go without provision, and to expect some rejection. Because they could not preach repentance if they didn’t change their minds first – change their minds about what success looks like.
They needed to know the grace that isn’t about power, or acclaim, or “winning” in any of the ways that we are used to thinking about success. Grace is about knowing the One to whom we belong, and receiving the faith that makes God the only touchstone we need.
So, in the end, this gospel is NOT an invitation to be a “loser like me.” It’s not about thumbing our nose at the popular crowd, or taking pride in a misfit identity, because the Glee anthem never challenged the assumption that winning is still the goal in the end. It just substituted a different measure of success.
But the disciple’s mission isn’t about success. It’s about grace. It’s about understanding our true identity.
We are not competing in this world’s system for assigning value and measuring success. That’s not our frame of reference. Our identity and our value is grounded in God’s grace.
We are loved, and we are called. That’s what is means to be a Christian – a disciple of Christ:
We are loved by a God who does not require us to be successful, because our worth has never been about what WE do – it has always been about God’s choice to show us grace. To love us while we still were sinners, and to call us to be part of God’s work in this world in full knowledge that we will sometimes fail.
Because what we are called to share with the world is GRACE- and we can best do that when we witness to the grace we have experienced. We “proclaim that all should repent” – should change our minds about what is important, and where our security comes from because relying on God’s power – “a power made perfect in weakness” – is infinitely more secure than relying on our ability to pack our bags with everything we need, or to succeed according to the world’s standards.
We might get rejected sometimes. It happened to Jesus, so chances are it will happen to us. But that doesn’t make us losers – that makes us disciples.
Thanks be to God.
 D. Mark Davis offers this interpretive reading of Jesus’s command to the disciples to shake the dust off their feet in Mark 6:11. See: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/07/mission-grounded-in-rejection.html
 Charles L. Aaron, Jr., “Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3697; accessed July 2, 2018.