Baptisms seem to be in high demand this month! We have several of them–in fact, just picked up another yesterday from a new family in town. That baptism will be next Sunday. Today we’re baptizing little Lucy Ritchie, whose father Neil and sister Beatrice (I just learned last week) were baptized here six years ago by Father Tom. Lucy’s mother, Catherine, grew up in Scarsdale. She and her family attended the Episcopal Church in Ardsley with some of you. There was a small migration of St. James’ers over to St. Barnabas in Ardsley when Father Godley, who was an assistant priest here, accepted a call there back in the 80s. How could you not follow a priest with that name? Father Godley.
Cat and Neil and Beatrice and now Lucy have been such committed members of our parish and it’s a joy to welcome their youngest to St. James and the Episcopal Church. Welcome to their friends and family, too. I hope we’ll all greet them after the service.
Our Gospel reading for today is probably familiar to all of you, if only for the famous proverb that Jesus quotes, “Prophets are not without honor except in their home town, among their own kin, and in their own house.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve used that more than a few times. Dignity and respect can be hard to get from those who know you well. We’ve all been there.
This is probably not original to Jesus, but it’s certainly the best known use of this proverb. And certainly the most legitimate use of it. When Jesus traveled back to his hometown of Nazareth, he was at the high point of his ministry. He’d just healed the 12 year-old daughter of a Jewish religious leader, as well as a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage. We read those stories last Sunday. Before that he calmed the waves, healed a man of his demons, and drove the sickness out of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus basically goes from strength to strength, gathering disciples, attracting crowds, preaching, teaching, healing. He seems unstoppable. And so, he decides it’s time to go home, to Nazareth. To pay a visit there. His reputation is secure. He’s his own person by now.
The first thing he does when he gets there is enter the synagogue in which he’d grown up. By the way, if you go with us on the pilgrimage to Israel that Susie and I are putting together for 2 years from now (in 2020 – this is a plug!), we will see this synagogue. It’s a Christian Church today, built overtop the remains of what was thought to have been this very school where Jesus learned the Scripture and returns to in this passage. Mark’s account doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to his congregation that day that so offended them, but Luke’s version of this same event does. Jesus sits down. He opens up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He chooses and then reads aloud the part where Isaiah tells the people his (Isaiah’s) mission: to set free the oppressed, restore sight to the blind, and bring good news to the poor. Then Jesus closes the scroll, and says to those listening “ Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In other words, Jesus boldly takes his place alongside one of Israel’s most important religious figures. You can imagine why people in his hometown might have found this outrageous. One person says “What?! Isn’t this Mary’s son, and aren’t his brothers here with us, and his sisters?” There’s a subtle (or not so subtle) dig here. By calling him “Mary’s son,” this person meant to suggest that Jesus’ paternity was in doubt. Make no mistake, Jesus: you’re not going to be able to reinvent yourself in this town, where we know who you really are and what kind of family you’re really from.
So Jesus quotes this proverb, “Prophets are not without honor except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Because of their unbelief, we’re told that he couldn’t do any acts of power there … except lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. (Don’t you love that “exception?” I mean, he is still Jesus, after all.)
It’s easy to put ourselves in the place of Jesus in this scene, because we’ve all been here. Probably all of us grown-ups here, at some point in our young adulthood, found our way in the world, managed to convince people that we’re somebody with something important to contribute, only to return home and have the people there see us as nothing but the awkward, annoying kid we once were. (Our graduating seniors will soon get a taste of that, though I hope we’ll be a lot nicer than the people of Nazareth!)
After that rite of passage, we go out and create new families and homes for ourselves; but before long, we find we’re not always taken very seriously there, either. When we leave the house, we’re the priest, the builder, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor, the businessman or woman who has it all together. But when we come back home, we’re just that guy who forgot to take out the trash, or the woman who left the back door open letting the dog run off, again. (We just got a dog in my house.)
Sometimes relaying advice to a spouse or a child is so difficult that we resort to asking a friend or acquaintance to approach our spouse with a piece of our own advice, saying “You tell him because he’ll never hear it from me!” We’re just not heard the same way at home, among those who know our histories and weaknesses. So what Jesus experiences here resonates, and it’s not hard to put ourselves in his shoes.
What this story challenges us to do, though, is to put ourselves in the shoes of the people of Nazareth. The people who struggled to hear God speaking through someone close to them. It’s much easier to hear God speaking through people at a safe distance from us – the preacher, the lecturer, the writer, the poet who inspires us. They can tell us we’re too critical, or stubborn or impatient. But try hearing hard things from your son, your daughter or your spouse. It’s a lot more difficult.
The people in Nazareth refused to hear Jesus because he was too familiar, and so: Nothing happened to them. They weren’t challenged or changed in any way. It takes real courage, and humility, to hear and honor the prophets among us. Especially the prophets among our own kin, And in our own house. Amen.
Welcome, and Happy Fourth! You may not have realized, but the Fourth of July is a feast day in the Episcopal church. It wasn’t always thus. Just after the War of Independence when the country was celebrating our newfound freedom from England, the leaders of our church got together in Philadelphia and, in the spirit of the country’s victory, made July 4 a Feast of the Episcopal Church.
Only there was a slight problem with that, as one of our first bishops William White pointed out. The vast majority of our clergy had sided with the British during the war. How silly would we now look, with those same clergy celebrating the American victory? He may have been thinking about the rector of the very church he was probably standing in when he said this, Christ Church Philadelphia. Between Sundays, the Americans declared victory, leaving that church and its rector to make a decision, fast. Would they honor and pray for the king, or their new country in the Prayers of the People that coming Sunday? To the suspense of everyone in the congregation, when the moment came … they just left out the prayers. Though eventually, perhaps grudgingly, they began praying for the new leadership.
So again, just two years after making this day a feast in our church, we nixed it, and it took about 150 years —1929—before it was brought back.
It’s good that it came about this way. No church should completely embrace this day, but neither should we reject it. We’ve had almost 250 years to feel both ways. To consider the dangers of celebrating our nation in church, and the benefits. The dangers, I trust, are obvious to any self-reflective Episcopalian. It’s never a good idea to align God too closely with an institution of our making. We can make God look very bad, very fast, when we do that. And thinking God is on our side tends to make us abusive, exclusive, awful people.
I’ve seen churches–I grew up in one of them–that celebrate the Fourth of July like it was more important than Easter Sunday. I sat through too many bad patriotic medleys sung by men’s quartets right there in our sacred sanctuary. Though you knew they were only celebrating a small sliver of our country, the white evangelicals with a certain social and political platform… which of course also happened to be God’s.
John Danforth the Republican Senator from Missouri wrote a wonderful op ed piece back in 2005 about the role faith plays in politics for what he calls “Moderate Christians,” a term I think probably characterizes us in this room. I thought what he had to say here about the dangers (or at least shortcomings) of combining faith and politics worth sharing.
People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God’s kingdom, one that includes efforts to “put God back” into the public square and to pass a constitutional amendment intended to protect marriage from the perceived threat of homosexuality.
Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers.
But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators…For us, living the Love Commandment may be at odds with efforts to encapsulate Christianity in a political agenda.
So those are the dangers, and shortcomings. But then there are the benefits: celebrating a dream that, though it will never be fully realized, was far from being realized even as it began almost 250 years ago, is informed by the aspirations of ours and of all the great religions: equality and dignity of persons, protection of an individual’s relationship with his or her maker, respect for difference and even the belief that we’re at our greatest when we are diverse.
Reality is messy, but that shouldn’t stop us from dreaming. And we do that today as we celebrate this great day in our country. God bless America.
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