Jesus on the Fourth of July
Mark 6: 1-13
In our text this morning, Jesus has made his way back to his hometown. He is teaching in the synagogue. Imagine that, speaking to a crowd of people in the place where you spent your growing up years. That is pretty heady stuff. The people who were your teachers, your coaches, your parent’s friends gathered to listen to you.
According to Mark, some in the crowd remarked on the wisdom Jesus was sharing. Not in a positive way though. They are offended by Jesus. They are offended that he is saying it. Maybe they think he is putting on airs, trying to speak in a way that is beyond his station in life. After all, he is just a carpenter. His family all live right there. Who does he think he is?
Mark does not tell us what he said that was so upsetting to folks. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus preaches at the synagogue in Nazareth, he quotes the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Is this the sermon that upset the crowd in our text today? It could be. When he delivers it in Luke’s Gospel, they are ready to kill him by the time he is done preaching.
Everything about Jesus reading Holy Words and claiming them for his own life and ministry was troubling to those in the crowd, most especially to those who were invested in maintaining the status quo. By claiming Isaiah’s words for himself and his ministry, Jesus is essentially saying that for a significant number of people for whom things have not been good, I am here to make them good. The poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed, finally some good news, Freedom. Not freedom in philosophical or abstract terms, but with practical and concrete implications. Freedom from not knowing if there would be enough to eat today. Freedom from being held captive and unable to work for one’s family because of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs or inability to pay a debt. Freedom from the humiliation of being different from most everyone else. Freedom from a political and economic system that made certain the basket of rocks that it was your lot in life to carry only got heavier and never lighter. To sum it all up, the year of the Lord’s favor. You can read the details in Leviticus, chapter 25. God instructed the Israelites to hit the reset button every 50 years. Which meant forgiving debts, returning land that had been surrendered to pay a debt and setting free those who had gone into captivity to pay a debt.
Hearing these ideas might have been good news for some people in the synagogue that day, but they likely were unwilling to admit it. They had been conditioned to keep quiet and bear their burdens with resolve and determination never questioning whether an injustice was being done. Others in the crowd immediately recognized that Jesus words were a threat to them and to the lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed. They were offended that Mary’s son would presume to speak so to them, to call into question their devotion to God and their adherence to the faith. No, it had taken a lot of years of theologizing to finally arrive at a way of reading scripture that allowed them to believe that God did not really mean what God had said in Leviticus. Never mind what God said in chapter 25:23 “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” Mary’s boy had said enough, too much in fact. No one in the congregation that day had any interest in hearing more. There would not be a second sermon.
Jesus being rejected may be hard for us to imagine. For the most part, we think of Jesus as a good guy. But some of the stuff he said was troubling to folks, especially those folks who were in positions of religious and political leadership.
I was introduced to another speech this week from little a closer to home. It was a speech delivered by Fredrick Douglas on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York. It was entitled The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. Fredrick Douglas, free black man speaking to a room full of white people about one of their favorite national holidays. This has to be another story about an audience taking offense at a speaker. That is not the case. Supposedly, Douglas was given a standing ovation when he finish the speech. Which can only mean that 1852, Rochester, New York was a hot bed of liberalism.
In in it he made comments about life in America that sounded disturbingly relevant 166 year later.
About the church, he said: But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
It is not hard to imagine Douglas answering the question in 2018, not about American slaves, but about people of color, women, LGBTQ persons, migrant workers, refugees or children seeking asylum. Unfortunately, neither is it hard to see the ways that his words to the church then are sadly true in too many ways today.
One thing I think Douglas did that Jesus would have liked was that he chose to speak to a group of people that were receptive to what he had to say. That is part of the advice that Jesus gives to his disciples in the second part of our reading this morning. Jesus is sending out the disciples to do Missionary work. First, he tells them to go out empty handed. This meant that they were to be dependent on the hospitality of the folks to whom they were speaking. Stay there until you leave. Build a relationship. Nurture interdependence. Establish community and fellowship. If folks don’t like what you are saying, then leave.
That is not the way the church in America has done missions for last several hundred years. From the moment of Columbus’s arrival the call to follow Jesus has looked more like conquest than conversion. All too often, we have exported western values with our Americanized version of Christianity to the determent of those we would have helped.
The words of poet Langston Hughes, in his poem Let America Be America Again, come to mind when I think about the task before as followers of Christ. He says
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be
If God is still speaking, then certainly God is still sending. Sending us to the places we go and the people we see each day. Now, as much as any time in history, the whole of our human community is in dire need of a message of hope, grace, love, acceptance, justice and mercy.
Now is the time for you to be the missionary that never has been yet
And yet must be.
In a moment we will gather at the table to celebrate communion. You will hear words that describe the history of God’s saving activity among us humans. During the meal we express our thanks to God for all that God has done as we remember God’s sacrificial love for each of us and all of us. Yet, this meal can no longer be just memorial, a supper of remembrance. Along with that, it must become an occasion where we realize that God’s history of saving and loving is still being written. While we are grateful for all that God has done with and through the saints who have gone before us, we need this meal to nurture our hearts and souls for the chapter of that history that is being written right now. This our chapter, our time to be sent out to do what we can to heal the hurting and to hope with the despairing.
Jackson Browne said it this way:
I was walking with my brother
and he wondered what’s on my mind
I said, What I believe in my soul
ain’t what I see with my eyes
And we can’t turn our backs this time