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A Sermon for July 5, 2015

By Verlee A. Copeland

Senior Pastor, First Parish Church of York

Based on Mark 6:1-13

                              Beyond Patriotism

         Growing up, the fourth of July was always my favorite holiday. For a family that never missed church, you might think that it would have been Christmas or Easter, central celebrations for our family. Christmas was magical, Easter awe inspiring, but the fourth of July was just plain fun. Always the second one up in the morning right after my father, I brought the flag up from the basement storeroom. I hung it outside in its special holder while the air hung cool and the smell of fresh mown grass lingered from the previous afternoon.

         The fourth of July was filled with parades, watermelon, barbecued chicken, homemade ice cream (vanilla), and prayers of gratitude round the picnic table for the privilege of living in the land of the free and the home of the brave where we could openly practice our faith without persecution, something my parents taught us never to take for granted.

         Yesterday was much the same, except that I ran in the four-mile fun run for York Rotary, went with my husband Ellis to the Farmer’s market where master gardener Martha King taught me what to do with kohlrabi and Swiss chard, and there wasn’t a parade. The homemade ice cream tastes just as good now as when I was seven.

The biggest problem of the day boiled down to whether to put fudge sauce on the ice cream or eat it with strawberry rhubarb pie. And the answer was…both.

         There is no more patriotic holiday than the fourth of July, yet perhaps also none more dangerous for Christians. Here we go. We have a tendency as humans to enjoy the party without counting the cost. We enjoy our freedom and would rather not think too much about those for whom freedom remains a fleeting dream. These are fighting words, I know.

       Make no mistake, I am a Patriot. I love my country and support it. I vote in every election. I pay my taxes. As Christians throughout the world, we all love our homelands, as we should. We sing songs that honor them.

But hear this. Jesus didn’t ask us to be patriotic. Jesus asked us to be faithful. To be patriotic AND faithful, to support our nation AND worship our God, requires us to fight for justice on behalf of ALL God’s people. While we’re raising flags and eating ice cream, Jesus trumpets a call to action. Provoking one another beyond patriotism, beyond our comfort zone, the tried and true, has always been unpopular. No wonder Jesus’ neighbors got mad at him for whatever he said in synagogue. We don’t get to hear that part. We don’t know what Jesus actually said. We only get to hear the consequences of his teaching as recorded in today’s lesson from the gospel according to Mark. Clearly he tipped their apple cart.

         Listen to the passage again:

         “Jesus left that place (the place he had been teaching), and came to his hometown. His disciples followed him. On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were surprised. ‘Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were repulsed by him and fell into sin.

         “Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are honored everywhere expect in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households.’ He was unable to do any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them. He was appalled by their disbelief.’

“Then Jesus traveled throughout the surrounding towns, teaching.” Jesus comes closer to bitter frustration in today’s passage than perhaps anywhere else in the four gospels that recount his life, work, death and resurrection. We hear these words and wonder how Jesus’ family and friends could have missed his message, could have failed to see HIM for who he was. But think about it. The folks in Jesus’ church, as Jews, in the Synagogue, took one look at him and said, “Who does Jesus think he is?” He’s just a carpenter, running his Dad’s shop with his brothers now that his dad is gone. He’s the repairman, didn’t he fix Andrew’s porch rail just last week? And didn’t he put up Jonathon’s fence just yesterday? Now he expects us to believe that God is with us now, and that our sins are forgiven without following the rules of sacrificial ritual, and that women aren’t the only ones to blame for adultery, and that slaves are free through their faith, and that outsiders like the Samaritans are welcome to dinner. Who does he think he is? Jacob, you were friends with Joseph. You go talk to Jesus for us. Ask him to stop talking like that or he’s going to be in big trouble.

Trusting that God is doing a new thing, that God is still speaking, is a pretty unpatriotic thing to say. To believe that God is still speaking means that God is still creating and recreating the world and we with it. We don’t want that. We want things to stay just the way they were. We don’t like change. We’d rather wave flags to celebrate our unchanging history, than balance our lives on the hinge of history and risk falling off. Taking an unpopular stance, provoking others to change their minds, starting something new, taking Jesus seriously, acting on faith, all these things are dangerous. They can get you hurt. People will say cruel things about you. They can even get you killed.

         Provoking others to do the just thing, the right thing, the faithful thing, to imagine that the kingdom of God is at hand, could not have been a more unpopular message from Jesus in his hometown. This message is as unpopular now as it was then. We hear his teaching that the kingdom of God is at hand and we observe his miracles and at first we don’t get why the home crowd so often got mad at him when he told them the truth. But think about it.

      Jesus wanted them to think beyond being the Chosen people. That would be like our saying, “Think beyond being an American. Act beyond Patriotism. It’s great to love your country, but it’s much harder to actually love your neighbor and to act on their behalf.” The wisest voices of history, the most prophetic truth tellers across time have always been maligned. Someone has always yelled out of the crowd: “Be quiet, go home, stop talking like that.” We’ve had plenty of examples of this kind of resistance to justice recently.

It’s been a banner month for Peace and Justice work for Christians around the world. First we heard from Pope Francis on June 11 who delivered a sweeping environmental manifesto aimed at spurring concrete action. Pope Francis called for a bold cultural revolution to correct what he described as a ‘structurally perverse’ economic system where the rich exploit the poor, turning earth into an ‘immense pile of filth.”

         “Francis framed climate change as an urgent moral issue to address in his eagerly anticipated encyclical, blaming global warming on an unfair, fossil fuel-based industrial model that harms the poor most.

         “Citing Scripture, his predecessors and bishops from around the world, the pope urged people of every faith and even no faith to undergo an awakening to save God’s creation for future generations.”

         In language that addresses Mary Ross’s ongoing prayers for healing for our precious and fragile earth, Pope Francis will spur courageous changes at U.N. climate negotiations later this year, in domestic politics and in everyday life. It was enough to make United Church of Christ devotional writer Donna Schaper wonder aloud if the Pope is Protestant, that is, a Protester of the way things are, urging us in faith to the way things can be.

         At first we’re exhilarated by his courage. But change always costs somebody something. Every faithful call to action stirs resistance. The oil industry is no doubt unhappy with the pope. One of the major candidates for President said, that religion “ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”

According to Pope Francis, this candidate is wrong: The church must get involved in politics. In fact, a “good Catholic, a (good Christian),” Pope Francis has said, “meddles in politics.” We don’t do this to elect a candidate or advance a party, but because politics affects human flourishing, and we’re called by God to defend the dignity of every woman, man, and child.

         As if those words don’t provoke us enough, the Supreme Court’s ruling a week ago to uphold same-sex marriage in every state has created consequences that will ripple across the continent for a long time. Some court clerks in rural areas of the south have refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone, citing religious convictions.

An attorney and law professor was quoted this week in the New York Times, affirming that everyone has a right to his or her religious conviction and freedom of speech. However, when that prevents their fulfillment of their job description as town clerk, they either need to comply with the court order, quit their job, or face contempt of court charges and jail time.

Whatever we may think or believe about this or any issue in particular, a call to faithfulness sometimes requires a radical shift in thinking and behavior. This call to transformation can be costly. It was in Jesus’ time. It is now. It always will be. The one who speaks truth to power will be unpopular. Even when people agree on the most faithful direction to go and collectively face any resistance, progress towards a goal can feel grindingly slow.

One writer, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, commented this week that while parades and rallies celebrated the right of gays and lesbians to marry, others lamented that legislation banning discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity – continues to elude us. Some of you are old enough to remember the ERA, (the Equal Rights Amendment).  First introduced in the 1920’s, it came close to passing in the late 1970’s, but failed to pass for similar reasons. Anti-discrimination laws create substantial costs for the government, which must enforce it, but also for corporations (and small business owners), which must comply with it.” That doesn’t mean that equality in pay and employment and housing and education isn’t the faithful and right and patriotic thing to do for all people. It just means that liberty and justice for all has a price tag that some remain unwilling to pay.

         In the midst of these sea-change conversations taking place across our nation in recent weeks, we laid to rest the last of the men and women killed in an African American church in South Carolina. We shared a common lament for the ongoing racism that festers in this, our beloved nation. On this Fourth of July weekend we affirm with conviction our commitment to: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice, for all.”

         John Hancock, the signer of our Declaration of Independence in 1776 would have agreed. In fact, it was faith that drove many of our forebears to dangerous action. Now we call them Patriots. Then they were called traitors. Hancock called upon both the laws of nature and of nature’s God to act: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Some people met these words, as you might imagine, with great resistance. We recall the high cost in human life of their conviction. Yet we now experience life, as we know it through their radical trust in God. Talk about resistance! Their faith and conviction led to a controversial revolution not only initially unpopular, but also treasonous to their King.

         Today we began our worship by singing America the Beautiful, written by Katherine L. Bates more than 100 years ago. “America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. We feel warm and grateful to sing these words. What happens when God stirs us to sing new verses for the sake of all? “America, America, God shed Her grace on thee, and crown thy good with sisterhood, from sea to shining sea.”      

    We will conclude worship this morning with a hymn that is lesser known to many of us. Often called the national anthem of the African-American church, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written within the same time period as “America the Beautiful.” It stirs the hearts of freed African slaves to praise God AND country. We remember today the faithful fervor of our forebears who championed the right to assemble for worship and sing new songs without threat. Will we be remembered and found faithful by the generations that will one day follow us?

Jesus calls us to be more than Patriotic. Jesus calls us to be faithful. Expect resistance. Beyond patriotism, we faithfully proclaim our trust in God and our common commitment to act on God’s behalf, for liberty and justice for all people, from this place, for our time, whatever the future may hold.     May it be so.       Amen