The summer before I started Divinity School, I was spending a lot of time doing not much of anything.
On paper, I was quite busy.
I taught two sessions of Writer’s Camp.
I was serving as the summer pastor of my local church in Kent while the pastor was on sabbatical.
I was taking a stab at teaching myself Biblical Hebrew.
My t.v. was always on, too, with the sound on mute, because I was lonely and even with all that other stuff, I still had too much time on my hands, and so I was doing a lot of plain wandering around my apartment, thinking, pondering the start of divinity school, and what would turn out to be the end of a marriage, and whatever else.
It was hard to be leaving Kent, too.
That seems sort of funny now, because my plan at that particular moment was anything but leaving.
I was still going to be living on campus while I was studying at divinity school. Eating all my meals in the dining hall. Parking my car in the same spot. Preaching in the school chapel on the same schedule, every five weeks or so.
And I was going to be back full time in two years.
None of that happened, but that was the plan.
Still, even though that was the plan, it was hard to go.
Helping the kids was more or less my everything.
I wasn’t sure who I was if I wasn’t that person, even for just a little while.
So it was weird to be knocking around my apartment for an entire summer with nobody to go save.
That’s pretty common among a certain kind of teacher at a boarding school, especially the young ones.
It’s a very strange way to live. But I loved every second of it, and who it allowed me to be, and I was already feeling lost without it, and summer vacation was only three weeks old.
Anyway, so one afternoon, just after Fourth of July, there was a knock on my apartment door.
That was already unusual enough that summer, with campus mostly empty.
But I went to the door, and there, kind of dressed in summer gear, in shorts and shades, was a former student — a student who’d just graduated a few weeks before.
She was a really nice kid that I liked a lot. I’d even given her a nickname.
And I’d been there for her through the years.
She hadn’t had it easy at the school. Putting together the money to be there was hard for her parents, and her dad, especially, had a lot of bad things to say about preppies, and how he felt now that his daughter was turning into one.
We’d talked a lot about that over the years, this student and I.
Anyway, there she was at the door, and I was like “Heyyyyyyy….” And she was like, “Heyyyy!”
“How’s it going?” I asked.
And she said, “Great!” very brightly.
She had a large, kind of old school hard-shell briefcase in one hand.
“You’re just passing through and you wanted to come see your old teacher!” I said.
I said it in a friendly way, but inside I was churning.
The briefcase was an odd touch, somehow. Out of place.
I was suddenly wondering how this would look.
I was suddenly wondering how it would look if right at that moment the headmaster happened to stroll down the hallway and see me speaking alone to a not-so-former student in the doorway of my apartment with my soon-to-be-former-wife not in it.
“Stopping by! That’s right!” said my not-so-former student. “Can I come in?”
Somehow I didn’t want that. But you know, you also don’t want to be rude, right?
You mean so much to these kids. They don’t know. They don’t see the optics of something like that the way that grown-ups do, right?
“Wow!” said my student, walking through the door with her briefcase. “It’s so weird to be in here without Mrs. Grant around!”
“Have a seat,” I said, wondering if there was a way I could call my friend Jessica the dean to have her just sort of happen by at that exact moment.
My student plotzed down in a chair and put the briefcase on my coffee table.
“Are you here to give me a new briefcase?” I said, sort of hopefully.
“No,” she said, somewhat coquettishly, which I have to say, I found utterly terrifying.
“Let me show you,” she said, spinning the buckles around to face her and undoing them expertly, with a decisive, coordinated SNAP.
She opened the briefcase and smiled broadly.
Then she slowly spun it back toward me. It was full of knives.
“Mr. Grant,” she said, “I am the newest representative of the Cutco Knife Corporation. And I’d like to show you the difference these knives can make in any kitchen.”
What do you feel in that moment?
The first thing I felt was relief…a whole lot of relief.
But I also felt like I was being played. And I don’t like feeling played.
It makes me go really quiet, really fast, which is what happened.
I remember telling myself to nod, to show that I was listening. They tell you that in counseling — to show that you’re listening.
So I nodded to show that.
I don’t know how long my former student had been selling Cutco knives.
But you don’t have to sell Cutco knives for all that long before you know when you haven’t closed a sale, and so for all intents and purposes, the demonstration was over about four minutes before she had actually finished.
But she gamely went on as I sat there, nodding awkwardly.
Finally, she finished.
“Well,” I said, “Good for you! You’ve learned a whole lot about those knives in just a few weeks! How’s business been?”
“Oh, up and down,” she said. “I’m still getting the hang. But what you do think? How about a paring knife or something? Help me out, Mr. G.”
But I didn’t help her out. The only helping out I wanted to do was to help her get the heck out of my apartment before I got in big trouble.
I felt stupid that I had risked anything for some steak knives.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We really just don’t need them.”
I stood up. “But I’m always glad to see you.”
She shrugged and gave something between a smile and wince.
“O.k.,” she said, closing her briefcase. “No problem.”
She got up. “Have a great rest of your summer,” she said. “Tell everyone I say hey.”
“I will,” I said, walking her to the door.
I never heard from her again.
Yeah…that was a lonely summer. A weird time.
It wasn’t until several weeks later that I realized how weird that must have been for her, and how much lonelier she must have felt as she carried that briefcase back to her car and left campus once and for all.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4).
He says it when he preaches a sermon that goes over like a lead balloon in Nazareth, his hometown.
Because it turns out that the people who have known him longest and best are the people who know him least of all.
Many of us have had moments like that.
Maybe there really is a part of us that’s like Jesus.
But today I’m wondering about the part of us that isn’t.
I’m wondering about the part of us that is more like the people in that hometown crowd.
Because in every life there are people who show us that we aren’t the women and men we thought we were. The people we liked believing we were…or wanted to be known to be.
God relentlessly challenges us to see beyond the roles we like playing, and the plot lines we prefer, and the various characters who come in and out of our stories in precisely the ways we predict and only on cue.
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” is what they say when they hear Jesus.
In our own way, we say it, too.
But what if God created us with a very different story in mind?
What if Jesus came to liberate us from the stories that weren’t so much defining us but rather confining us?
What if the Holy Spirit was working to sustain us, not in these old shoes that we’ve long since outgrown, but in whatever it is that pulls us to walk in new paths, to seek out abundant life in new ways?
I think you can stay in Nazareth your whole life, but come to see it in new ways, and to play a different part in its unfolding story.
Because wherever we are, we’re called to be people who see what God is trying to do, and become part of that, and to let go of the other stuff, which is not the real story, after all.
It can be painful to learn that we are not who we thought we were.
But sometimes, that’s the only way to become the people that we should be.
Was Jesus telling me that in the name of compassion, in the name of welcoming the prodigal home, I was supposed to buy those steak knives from my former student?
Or was Jesus counting on me to show her that true friendship wasn’t something to buy and sell — that there was more to her, something she needed to seek until she found it?
I can’t say.
At the time, I didn’t ask either Jesus or myself the question.
Sometimes we never know. Sometimes, the answers never become entirely clear.
But what did I bring to that encounter? And having had it, what did I learn from it that I brought into other encounters? And how much of either had anything whatsoever to do with Jesus, and how he tells me how to live?
Because the Christ who comes to liberate us and the Spirit who sustains us are knocking on our door constantly, with a thousand different faces, inviting us to grow in a thousand different ways.
That much I do know.
And that means, in part, that the good we might do, and the difference we might make are right on our doorstep. Ringing the doorbell at any moment.
In Nazareth, they didn’t want to hear that. Couldn’t hear that. Rejected the proof right before their very eyes of that.
The question is: will we?
Because the hope of the world is that we will hear, and that we will see, and that we will respond with faith and love, wherever they may lead.
May we find the power to make that choice, whenever and however it may come.