E Pluribus Unum

Proper 9B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He went to his hometown, and they took offense at him (Mark 6:3b). Now, Nazareth was a small, isolated village with no more than 120 to 150 inhabitants. Most were probably relatives. These were the people who raised him, taught him to love and fear God, and kept him safe through childhood. No doubt, they heard the stories about the miraculous things he did. That sort of news travels fast. Jesus was a local hero, yet he could do no deed of power there in Nazareth (Mark 6:5).

Sometimes this is called the great “un-miracle” story. (Barbara Brown Taylor) The people of Nazareth shut themselves off from receiving the blessings of God. In a sermon titled, “Sapping God’s Strength,” the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the only reason to identify someone by his mother in Jesus’s day was to question his legitimacy. It was to underscore the fact that no one knows for sure who his father is. Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” was an attempt to weaponize his birth story to humiliate him into silence. No had taught them yet to sing and to love, as we do, the popular Christmas carol, “Silent night, holy night…round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild…” (Silent Night, ELW #281).

In fact, these same villagers were the people who convinced Jesus’s mother, brothers, and sisters that he was crazy. Remember, his own family attempted to take him into custody on his last visit to Nazareth (Mark 3:31). John’s gospel reports his brothers didn’t believe in him. Luke tells us Jesus’ boyhood friends once tried to toss him over a cliff (Luke 4:30).

We know how the religious elite will accuse Jesus of blasphemy and convince the Roman Imperial authorities, specifically, Pontius Pilate, to execute him. We know that Jesus will draw resistance from the powerful, corrupt, and connected. But it’s sort of a surprise, isn’t it, to uncover such strong opposition from the very people we expect knew him best. Jesus was rejected by the people of his own hometown.

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” Jesus said (Mark 6:4). Perhaps, we’ve all experienced something like this. It can be hard to shake off an old role or take on a new one whether in our families or in our workplaces. There can be outright rejection and cruelty toward insiders who attempt to break cherished norms and expectations. We, who sing Silent Night from memory, would surely have been more open to Jesus had we been there, more loving, and more aware that he is worthy of worship and praise –right?

I wonder. I wonder if this could be the biting point of this gospel story. After all, the people who claim to know Jesus best, who claim to be Christian, are not always the best source for understanding his gospel. Instead of the good news, Christians have often tragically somehow made his gospel into just more bad news of Empire, scapegoating, racism, war, sexism, and destruction of the planet.

The uncomfortable fact is the gospel must offend us or we would not be called to renewal. Transformation can never be an entirely happy experience. “Prophets tend to be misunderstood by the people of their own time and place precisely because a prophet is always calling people to see beyond that time and place. They expand our vision by calling us out of complacency with injustice, reorienting us to the liberating will of God” (Pearl Maria Barros, Santa Clara University, CA). Maybe, if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we’re worshipping.

We urgently need this bracing tonic of the gospel of Jesus today. This July 4th we are called to expand our understanding, to open our eyes, to widen the circle and not take offense at our siblings who wish to tell us, finally, of the suffering they have endured. Yes. The whole story of our great nation includes some uncomfortable truths. Can we listen without becoming unhelpfully defensive, or feeling personally attacked as the people of Nazareth did? (By the way, this is the very same work we must learn to do in our families in order to heal from our own ugly history of abuse and addiction.)

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). Do we have the courage? Can we develop the maturity? Do we have enough faith in Jesus to look the truth about ourselves in the face and not parcel out blame, or begin to hurl insults, or to personalize and polarize, or demonize, or to paint those with whom we disagree with evil intent—as if there is anyone who is good but God? I wonder, in the years ahead, how the telling and re-telling of the American story widen and shift through the rhythm of our seasons as Juneteenth becomes just as ingrained in the American consciousness as July 4th?

I can still picture myself standing beside my desk, hand over my heart, looking up at the flag mounted above the chalk board next to the clock in my kindergarten classroom in Ithaca, NY. Each day began by reciting the pledge of allegiance. ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I had no idea then about how the Pledge had come about after the Civil War, nor that it wasn’t officially adopted until 1942, nor that the words, “under God,” were not added until 1954. Nor did I know that in this land of the free, the Thirteen, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, which outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, and guarantee the right to vote to all, respectively, each barely passed, and are bitterly contested to this very day.

The flag stands for many things for each of us. Yet, from its beginning in 1777, the stars and stripes, by its very design, was intended as a statement of human solidarity and unity. The flag is E Pluribus Unum — from many, one, reflecting the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States. In these polarized times “If the pluribus overwhelms the unum, then what do we have left?” (John R. Vile, Middle Tennessee State University, “A Fourth of July Symbol of Unity That May No Longer Unite” NYT, 7/3/21) I can salute the flag because it is an echo of our gospel today that all people, all people, all people, are loved by God and created equal.

Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others renew their hearts and minds. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. They traveled light, because you don’t need a lot of extra equipment to be the church. You are the equipment.

There aren’t many examples where the pre-Easter disciples show us how to be faithful. But here, the disciples show us how to be the church—the church that is our home but is not a place; the church on the move; the church that widens the circle, the church that exists to be good news in Jesus’ name to hungry people searching for it.