For those of us who preach according to a lectionary, which is what we call the cycle of readings assigned for worship, we begin to mark time by the texts. Our lectionary operates on a three year cycle, so when a set of readings comes back around it’s an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time and to ask how things have changed or haven’t since the last time we heard these words together.
The readings for this morning always jump out at me because they are the texts I preached for my trial sermon here at St. Luke’s nine years ago in 2006 when I flew up from Atlanta, Georgia to interview for this call. Back then, almost a decade ago, I was drawn to verse 11 of the 6th chapter of Mark, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Kind of a risky verse for a trial sermon, but I reflected here on how hard it sometimes is to shake off the dust and move on. How we often come to define ourselves by our conflicts, and want to stay put and keep fighting, when what’s truly needed is for everyone to get a fresh start and to trust that God will keep working on each of us in other ways at other times by other means.
At that point in history St. Luke’s was on the cusp of launching a redevelopment, but struggling with a story that was being told about us: that we were too small, too old, and too worn out to do anything new. The challenge for us was to knock the dust of those old struggles off of our sandals and stop trying to convince those whose minds were already made up about us that they were wrong. Instead, we needed to move on with our own journey, travel light, and see who was ready to join us for the miracle of rebirth that happened next.
When these texts came up three years ago it was also the Fourth of July weekend, and we were gathered with Church of the Advent, as we are this morning, but that year we met in their sanctuary and I was drawn to the story from Second Samuel of King David consolidating power and unifying the nation after a long series of violent sectarian struggles. “Look, we are your bone and flesh” say the tribes of Israel, after fighting hard against David and the nation of Judah, in an appeal to their shared memory of a time when Israel and Judah had been united.
At that point in time the question we were all asking had to do with how long our congregations could continue living out of the ethnic denominational identities that have defined us for centuries. How much longer will we subdivide ourselves as the body of Christ by labels rooted in our immigrant past: Scottish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, Church of England, Dutch Reformed; or how long will we endure being segregated within our own denominations, which is really a coded way of asking how long white racism and the legacy of colonialism will keep us from doing the work of creating places and patterns of worship that are hospitable to the wide diversity of people who are truly our neighbors in this community, Anglo and Latino, life-long working class homeowners and young renters just passing through. When will we have our “look, we are your bone and flesh” moment with one another?
How are we different in the nine years that have passed? How are our struggles the same three years later? What is the word for us today?
As I prepare to begin my fourth journey through the three-year cycle with St. Luke’s, what has struck me the most about these texts at this time is how Jesus himself struggles with the power of prejudice to limit his ministry. Although he has just calmed a storm, exorcised a demon, healed a hemorrhaging woman and raised a dying girl to life, when he arrives in his hometown he is so boxed in by people’s preconceived notions of who he is based on their memories of who he was that he is unable to do any deed of power there (other than to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them, which is just tossed out there as an aside, to remind us that he is still Jesus after all).
How many of you have had a taste of what Jesus experiences here? It’s a fairly common occurrence, for those who leave home as young adults and experience some measure of success in the world to find that, when they go home, they chafe against the expectations of people who remember them from when they were children and define them by their past instead of their present. It’s the reason my sister and I turn into teenaged versions of ourselves at the holidays.
Jesus’ own ministry is deeply shaped by people’s prejudices about him (“is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” [Mark 6:3]), and as we will see in the next chapter of Mark when he encounters the Syrophoenician woman, by his own prejudices about other people as well. Half the miracle of that story, in which a non-Jewish woman begs Jesus to heal her child, and Jesus initially resists saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27) is that Jesus overcomes his ethnocentrism and allows himself to be changed by the appeal of a woman who does not share his ethnicity, but definitely shares his humanity. When she challenges him, rather than condemn her, Jesus heals her child.
I think it must be divine providence that on this Independence Day weekend, as our two congregations are once again gathered for worship in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which many of our long-time neighbors are getting pushed out by rising rents and unbalanced development; in a month in which our nation has had to grieve the loss of nine more Black lives, lives that matter, to a White racist, who also happened to be Lutheran, who still in this day and age had easy access to guns; a month in which nearly a dozen Black churches across the South have burned to the ground with at least three confirmed as arson and other investigations still pending; that the scriptures once again ask us to examine how our prejudices have stood in the way of the deeds of power God is dying to accomplish in and for us.
When Jesus, the descendent of David, the child of Mary, the one who called himself the “Son of Man,” a title sometimes translated as “the Human One” who has no place to lay his head yet makes his home in every heart comes home to you, to us, to Logan Square, to the city of Chicago, to the not-quite-yet United States of America, what deeds of power can he accomplish here and how do our prejudices about who he is, and who we are, stand in the way of who God is and what God longs to see in our lives and in the whole world?
It’s perhaps easier, though no less painful or shameful, to name the ways our prejudices stand in opposition to God’s healing and justice-making love on a societal level. We can see how our culture’s love of money and power have manifested in the manufacture and sale of guns, in the over-development of military power and the under-development of human potential, especially in poor and working-class communities, disproportionately communities of color, across our nation. We can see how our ethic of retribution over reconciliation has led to a system of mass incarceration and built a pipeline that starts in our schools, passes through our penitentiaries, and follows ex-convicts the rest of their lives in records that can never be expunged.
But I can’t see inside your heart, and you can’t see inside mine. So I don’t know how your prejudices are standing in the way of God’s healing and justice-making love in your life. I don’t know how our many and varied histories intersect in you in ways that make it hard for you to see the full humanity of your co-workers or your neighbors, your parents or your children, your spouse or even yourself. Yes, even your relationship to your own self has been beaten and bruised by the forces of racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism and nationalism and colonialism and capitalism so that you can’t, none of us can, really see ourselves clearly anymore.
There’s not much humility in our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, but there is in the song we sang as we entered worship this morning. O Beautiful for Spacious Skies sounds like one of the psalms, as it sings its praises for the beauty of creation, for the achievements of the nation’s sons and daughters, but finally as it petitions God to “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” It is a confession that our prejudices can’t be draped with a flag and forgotten, but that our union is flawed and can only be mended by the amazing grace of God, which meets us exactly where we are and yet calls us to become more than we’ve ever been before.