Proper 9, Year B
July 4, 2021
So today is the 4th of July. Especially this year, I am approaching this day with mixed emotions. It’s not just that it’s on a Sunday so marking it in some way seems inevitable, necessary. By the way, did you know that in the Episcopal liturgical calendar, there’s an official observance of the 4th of July with its own lessons and a collect? Like other such observances however, Sunday takes precedence, so if we were to observe the 4th of July here at Grace, we would do it tomorrow.
With all that’s happened in the last era—the war on terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan; police violence and black lives matter; gun violence; the January 6 insurrection; the assault on democracy and voting rights; the attack on the teaching of American history and the teaching of systemic racism—it’s hard to figure out just how to observe this day, especially when Independence Day didn’t mean “independence” for many residents of our nation for many, many years.
For me, there’s an added complexity this year because my memory is still fresh, and I am still processing, emotionally and theologically the afternoon we spent with Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the HoChunk this week. Hearing his stories, learning more about the treatment of the HoChunk and other Wisconsin tribes by settlers and by the state and federal government, and in spite of that receiving gracious words and an expressed desire to develop relationships with Grace Church, other Madison organizations, and the Wisconsin Council of Churches, was both awe-inspiring and humbling.
With all of these issues in our wider culture, our efforts to find a way of celebrating this day openly and honestly seem especially fraught, and to do it in a Christian Church, an Episcopal Church, adds another layer of complexity as we think about the ways that American Christianity has been tied up with nationalism and the good and bad of American history. We might want simply to ignore it all; to let the observances of the 4th of July pass unnoticed in our Sunday morning worship, left to barbeques and fireworks, and the like.
When we turn to the lectionary, as distraction, or escape, or perhaps, today, even for inspiration, we are confronted again with some of the ways that Jesus in Mark unsettles and disturbs our conventional thinking and perspective.
Jesus is coming home again after his preaching and healing tours that took him beyond Galilee, across the Jordan and back. Mark tells us that he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. That’s where he began his public ministry, in Capernaum, but we saw him visiting the synagogue in his hometown earlier in the gospel. Then, you may recall, he found himself in conflict with Jewish religious authorities and with his own family members.
This episode plays out in similar fashion. But now, it’s the local populace that takes offense at Jesus’ words. They know him; they remember him as a boy; they know his family. Who gave him the right to say these things?
There is more going on here; it’s not just the hometown trying to put the uppity local boy back into his place. We might think about this whole episode tactically. If you’re about to go out and challenge the status quo, preach the good news of the coming of God’s reign, wouldn’t you want to go back where it all started, in hopes of getting support from the people who know and love you best?
But they reject him, and in turn he rejects them. He turns his back on them and sends his disciples out into the countryside to teach and heal. One more thing, before moving on to the next section. While we’ve seen Jesus teaching publicly in the synagogue repeatedly up to this point, in Mark’s gospel, this the last such appearance. From now, Jesus’ teaching will take place elsewhere, in the streets and in the fields, in people’s homes around meals.
Which brings us to another way of linking these two sections; Jesus’ rejection in his hometown and the sending out of the disciples. The instructions Jesus gives are suggestive. The disciples are well-equipped for the journey with staff and sandals, but not with the means of sustenance, food, money, or extra clothes. They will be utterly dependent on the hospitality of others. As Ched Myers points out in his brilliant Mark commentary, “Binding the Strong Man” the disciples, “like Jesus who has just been renounced in his own ‘home’, are to take on the status of a sojourner in the land.” For Mark, putting on sandals is a metaphor for discipleship.
We will have a great deal more to say about discipleship in the gospel of Mark. What it means to follow Jesus will only become clear as we work through the next sections of the gospel, and especially as we recall Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, his arrest and execution. For now, it’s worth thinking about the contrast between the hometown and family that rejected Jesus, and the community of followers (whoever does the will of my Father is my mother and brothers and sisters) that Jesus gathers around himself and then here sounds out as an extension of his own ministry.
Like the 4th of July, hometowns can evoke a great deal of nostalgia. We often remember with great fondness the places where we grew up; or the way those places were when we were growing up. We may even recall hometown 4th of July celebrations that were community events, with parades and fireworks. But the stories our hometowns tell about themselves, the stories we have internalized, are often quite one-sided. That was one of the lessons I learned from Bill Quackenbush this week. He told HoChunk stories about the area that I had never heard before and helped me to see this land with new eyes.
For some of us, of course, remembering our hometowns can bring back bad memories, even trauma. We may have left the moment we were able, and never looked back. But nonetheless, they tug at our emotions and heartstrings. Even if our experience of them was painful, the dream of perfect childhood, a perfect place can continue to hold us captive.
As hard as it may seem, and in our current climate, it may seem even more difficult, following Jesus means leaving behind those old certainties and old stories. Following Jesus means entering into a new story—the story of a community gathered together by Jesus, a community of people tied together by shared faith, not by common ethnicity, national origin, or socioeconomic class. The story in which we are invited to become characters is a story of personal transformation and social change. It is a story that challenges complacency, nostalgia, and the status quo. It is the story of God’s reign coming. May we have the ears to hear this story as Mark tells it, and the courage to share it with others.