Homily for Proper 9, Year B, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)
Scripture reference: Mark 6:1-13
Anyone who has ever parented or worked with small children is familiar with the stage of development when the urge towards independence kicks in. The baby we dressed and groomed becomes the toddler who stubbornly insists, “I do it!” whether or not that’s a particularly good idea. The child once lovingly accepting our assistance becomes the teen who is infringed upon by our interference. Growing up and developing into independent human beings is natural. And, even if the adults among us get a little put out when we feel shut out of helping, we recognize it’s human development, and we accept it. It’s part of maturity.
The urge to independence isn’t just a developmental response, though. Independence is also applauded and encouraged in this particular culture in which we live. In the United States, on this Independence Day, let’s admit that we have a cultural obsession with being independent. Breaking away and asserting independence is a strong part of our national identity. This plays out in our national heroes as well. How many times do we applaud the star athlete, the stand-out actor, the self-made millionnaire…or billionaire. We love the story of a stand-out.
Sometimes, when public accolades and awards are given, we get to hear human beings who have matured beyond the ego of all that individual recognition and are humble enough to recognize the people who supported their journey. Even so, it is virtually impossible to name everyone who got us where we are going. So many contributions are simply invisible.
Focusing on independence and individual merit risks leaving out some vital parts of the story. I realize this might be a risky theme for Independence Day, but hear me out. Even the founding of this great country is celebrated by lauding independence rather than the labors of many: ordinary people, enscripted soldiers, indentured servants, enslaved people, captives and fugitives who along with the military, political and social leaders made it possible to succeed in the Revolutionary War and the founding of a new country now 245 years strong after that day when the Declaration of Independence was signed. As someone who has benefited from all the privileges of citizenship in the United States: I’m grateful today for all of the contributors, not just to the heros that we publicly praise. As a follower of Christ living into my baptismal covenant, I feel compelled to go beyond patriotic praise and instead, with God’s help, to name and recognize the dignity of every human being in the story, even the stories glossed over and omitted from our public education. I’m doing that this summer with what is now my fourth Sacred Ground circle, this one composed of those preparing to be Deacons.
Engaging the Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground curriculum means that we consider that living in the “land of the free and home of the brave” also invites us to see, and recognize and respect the indigenous peoples who were already here when pilgrims, colonists and colonizers arrived. It means that we tell hard truths about history, re-examining the pathways through which Black, Asian, Latine and other immigrant groups arrived on these shores and what their experiences have been. Their stories are important, too. The stories most of us learned about the History of the United States are incomplete without all the people and groups included. Admittedly, the stories we are engaging about the origins of this nation are much less glorious than the displays of fireworks and parades with which we mark this yearly anniversary. People who have been made invisible by history are part of the story. I want to speak with honor and respect about all those whose lives contributed to the liberty we enjoy today. Honoring the interdependence of leaders on the people whose toil was necessary to their success is a show of respect. It’s like noticing the janitors, housekeepers, line cooks and nursing assistants in the medical center and not just the prominent heart specialist. We need each other, and we depend upon the labor of others, in order to survive and to thrive.
And that brings us to today’s Gospel lesson. In his early ministry, Jesus had brought together a group of people to support his mission. These disciples followed him to his hometown. Now, if this story was all just about Jesus the individual, this scene would read as miserable. Jesus was a known entity in this place of his birth: the carpenter, the son of Mary, the one whose siblings were still there and perhaps even telling some less-than-flattering stories of their youth, as siblings are known to do. In the midst of the hometown crowd, Jesus stood in the Temple and preached with wisdom and authority, as he had elsewhere. But there at home…that wasn’t working out so well. Mark’s Gospel recounts that Jesus could do no work of power (δύναμιν, like we use “dynamic”) there. The power, might, strength: they didn’t belong just to Jesus. Even Jesus was not a solo act. Just like in our Gospel lessons last week, Jesus isn’t a magician: it is the faith of people, the relational faith of people seeking out Jesus, that brings wholeness.
And so it is that Jesus doesn’t storm off in a rage and insist on exerting his divine power to show them all what for. Jesus heals those who come seeking healing, and Jesus calls together his community…his disciples…and instructs them to go into the villages, to make this bigger than just about him. He empowers them and instructs them to go in pairs. This isn’t just a “safety buddy” recommendation from Jesus. It is a reminder that all true ministry is a ministry of relationship and community. It is never about one person, no matter how dynamic that person is. Jesus’ message is also his mode of action: Go together, share in the authority, take nothing with you, enter one house and stay there. In the margins of that exhortation is the deeper implication: make relationship. Be the face of Christ for the household you enter and make that love known in and through each other.
I mean, imagine if it were you. If you were entering an unfamiliar place with someone, you would certainly want to look out and care for each other. If you’re fighting or bantering over who is greater, no one is going to want to be in relationship with that. But if you’re demonstrating the power of relational love, others will take notice. Jesus also reminds them of what to do if they aren’t welcomed: shake it off. As he had just experienced: the power of divine love and grace doesn’t manifest itself through coercion or independent charisma. It happens through relationship, with respect for every human being as our siblings, our family members in the realm of God who is Love. That includes those who aren’t ready, able, willing or desiring to hear the message…or hear the message yet. Don’t get angry; don’t be coercive. Shake it off. If we trust God, we don’t have to be the saviors of every situation. We have shown up as the face the God in that moment. That is enough.
What lessons does today’s passage leave for us, the Church? The independent nature of the culture in which we live can result in some problematic understandings of our Christian lives, especially when we begin to envision our role as independent saviors of others. I’ve heard a phrase coined, “Disney Princess Theology” describing what happens when we only see ourselves as the central characters and heroes of every story: we are always Moses or Mary or Jesus and everyone else are the unbelievers, the corrupt, the sinful. We can run the risk of elevating ourselves or believing that we must singlehandedly save the world or right the injustice in it to the point where we don’t feel that we have need for each other, or even for Jesus. Then, there is a comforting but limiting, “Me and Jesus” theology, where we spend so much time focusing on how much Jesus loves me, me, me that we are blinded to seeing that Jesus loves us…us…us. The love of Christ doesn’t stop where my person ends. As Christians, and as the Church, we are compelled to see beyond ourselves. The Love which is Christ entends in circles far beyond our own imaginations and experiences. That relational love of Christ is for all. And all means all.
So, I would invite us all, on this Independence Day, to shake off the strident independence that can keep us from seeing the many diverse, beautiful and sometimes easily overlooked people who have been the face of Christ for us over the years. I would invite us into the spiritual maturity of intentionally thinking and caring about all of those who are part of community; all of those for whom Jesus has shown up as the face of someone who cared in the midst of an uncaring world; all of those for whom their choices were removed or limited and yet they still had a part in the story, and have a role to teach us in history. I would invite us into thinking about and yes, even imagining, those whose stories we are just coming to know, and to recognize that there are stories we don’t even know about yet. But God knows. And God loves. The hard truth telling…including the stories of those who have been silenced…is holy and sacred ground. Take time to listen to the stories. You can even start today by listening to historic abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ words spoken as a once enslaved person about the meaning of the Fourth of July.
Being sent out to do this deep listening brings us closer to God by bringing us into right relationship with ourselves and each other, through seeing and acknowledging the people who were and are loved by God, even if history, power and time erases their memories from the history books. The indiginous peoples of this continent are not forgotten. The enslaved people who were conscripted into warfare are not forgotten. Those who died and whose names are unknown were known, and loved. The people who fought on the side we cheer for, and those on the side we did not: they were and are beloved children of God. God’s action is relationship. God’s realm is community. It isn’t about our fierce individualism or our stubborn need for independence: not then, and not now. It’s about our deep belonging and mutual caring for one another.
That is worthy of celebration.