Principle Lesson: Mark 6:1-13; Independence Day
Like many of you, I’m exhausted by political contentiousness and the shenanigans of the elected. I am glad, therefore, that we get to come to church on July 4th so we can submit to the texts of our sacred story. As far as I can tell, those narratives have no explicit partisan interest whatsoever, even if they might be political in the strict sense of demanding a response to the polis (community or city).
It is July 4th, the day we have chosen to remember and celebrate the founding of this nation. Today, we do well in recollecting the time when a group of very talented and stalwart people gathered and took the risk of telling their king that they did not want a king like the other nations. And so, they began the founding of a new way – a republic for the people and governed by the people.
Amid the fireworks, the vacationing, the backyard barbecues (responsibly held during this time of pandemic), July 4th should also be a time to step back and take stock. As we take stock, we give thanks for the blessings of democracy and for the fruit of the land. And in our thanksgiving, we ought and must reflect critically and assess our nation’s trajectory. Indeed, as as we celebrate, we would do well to remember that over the last two centuries and more, our country has had both Goliath moments and Uriah moments – moments of faithful triumph and moments of lamentable sin. In our Goliath moments, we have toppled giants so that, however momentarily, God’s reign has been tangible. In our Uriah moments, we have acted out of arrogance and blindness of power and we have betrayed trust and squandered opportunity, offending the God who has sent his prophets to speak truth against lies. Sometimes our weakness has been revealed as strength, and sometimes our strength has been revealed as weakness.
And we must remember that if we ask God to bless our nation that blessing comes both as mercy and judgment.
The living God is nobody’s national mascot! Our plea for blessing is, in the words of the prophet MIcah, a plea that we do justice, and love mercy, and walk before him in humility. Our country is no monolith,; but, rather we are a tapestry of persons and cultures and ideas. Therefore, oftentimes our Goliath moments and the Uriah moments have been at the same time. We the people have shown simultaneously both the worst that is in us and the best. How can we be better? What might our nation do to be a true democracy with blessings for all?
Today, though, as we submit to the sacred text before us, I would propose that we reflect not upon the foundation of our nation but on the founding of the church. That, after all, is what is remembered and what I hear celebrated in this Sunday’s gospel lesson from Mark 6.
Let me put this in context: Jesus has been teaching and healing in Galilee and Gennesaret and in the surrounding region, drawing what seem to be very large crowds. Indeed, very soon he will be seen feeding a crowd of five thousand, not including women and children, who had come to hear his teaching. As he returns to his hometown, it seems that Jesus is rejected by his own family. Leaving his hometown, Jesus preaches and teaches in the surrounding villages, and meanwhile turns to that small group of ordinary people who have been following him. The twelve he therefore commissions and sends them forth to do the work that he has been doing.
“He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits…So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mark 6:7, 12-13)
Early in this same gospel according to Mark Jesus had burst forth on the scene preaching that God’s realm is coming near. Recall how Jesus had burst onto the scene after the arrest of John the Baptist,
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14-15)
Jesus had been teaching about that coming kingdom and performing signs and wonders to indicate that the time for a kingdom change had come. He has gone and will continue to challenge the powers that be – religious, governmental, and demonic.
Now Jesus turns to these twelve ordinary people. Jesus calls them and sends them out into the world to do the very same things he has been doing. He is sending them out to proclaim and to call people to transformed living, to challenge the demonic and to perform acts of healing. This is a rather remarkable moment in the gospel of Mark. The Markan narrative begins with an introduction of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God, and now this same Messiah, Son of God, delegates his messianic, saving, world–transforming work!
Make no mistake, the disciples that Jesus sends out are, on the surface, very ordinary. From the start, they misunderstand Jesus and continue to be befuddled by Jesus’ teaching. And lest you think that Jesus has waited until this moment (in the sixth chapter of the story) when the disciples were “ready,” they continue to stumble after Jesus until the very end. The author of the gospel seems to go out of his literary way to demonstrate that the disciples were called not for their gifts and talents (whatever the actual reason may be).
I say all this not to disparage the twelve. Indeed! They were called and they responded! Instead, I bring this up because we ought to look closely at what is happening. For if we look, we will notice that when Jesus calls the twelve to himself and sends them out, we are witnessing the foundation of the church. We are witnessing our founding as God’s people, as a missionary people sent out to proclaim the good news. This is our founding moment. Those first disciples are the precursors for all of us.
Maybe you thought that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and can do anything God wants all by God’s self. Well, there’s something about this God who comes to us incarnate. There’s something about Jesus who chooses ordinary people to work with him. There’s something about the savior who chooses to work through us to save the world.
Jesus sends these ordinary people out to do the very same things that he does. Did Mark or Luke or John have any prior training or gifts for proclaiming the gospel? Jesus doesn’t seem to worry about that as he commissions them to proclaim good news. Had any of the twelve any previous medical training? And yet, they are sent out to do miraculous healing work. What a way to inaugurate and carry through the new Kingdom of God! And yet, it is uniquely Jesus’ way of doing things.
I’m not going to go into great detail to illustrate how, for me, you (wonderfully ordinary you) are the best illustration for the truth of this biblical passage. You may have reservations about Christianity or some parts of the creed. There may be things you don’t understand, affirmations that you are unsure of, problems with the way the church is organized or led. Perhaps you have reservations about your own gifts and abilities to do the work of proclamation, healing, and demon exorcism that Jesus assigns to you. Don’t worry too much about it because your authority and authorization rests not in your own abilities and talents. You are doing this work because Jesus has sent you. Some way or another, he found a way to call you. Just like you call those first disciples. You are a disciple, not first of all because of your faith in him, but because of his faith in what his love can do working through you. That’s how each of us got here. Happy Founding of the Church Day. Now, let’s go out and celebrate!