Sermon: “Prophetic LIstening” (Mark 6:1-6) [7/4/2021]

“Prophetic Listening”

Mark 6:1-6

Have we achieved our country?  Author James Baldwin was the first to ask the question in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time.  In his 1998 collection of lectures, Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty picks up the question again and asks it of people entering the 21st century.  Both authors answered the question with a resounding NO.

The question assumes that our country did not start out as a pristine democracy, as if what was written in the Constitution described the reality of our country at the time.  The Constitution laid out an ideal democracy, at least as it was imagined by a small group of landed gentry–some of whom owned slaves–in the 18th century.  The work of our country’s citizens, according to Baldwin and Rorty, is to work to achieve an ideal democracy.

James Baldwin in Paris.
James Baldwin

As a gay Black American, James Baldwin struggled with his citizenship.  He tried many times to give up the US.  He lived in Turkey and his beloved Paris for several years after Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin were assassinated because he could no longer bear to live here.  But in the end, after severe bouts of depression, he came back to the States.  Always, he said, we begin again.  Always, our country begins again the important work toward achieving its best self.

So, have we achieved our country?  Some of us might say, Well, sure!  Others might shout NO!  Others might say, C’mon, Pastor!  Just preach a little love and let us get out of here and go to our picnics and watch our fireworks.

I wish I could do that.  But, July 4th falling on a Sunday this year, I’m afraid I can’t.  With all that has happened in the last year–in the last 5 years–with everything that has happened since 1619, as we look to a future with intensifying climate crises, we must ask whether we have achieved our country.  Or maybe the more vital question is this one:  Do we even believe our country can be achieved?

The simple answer is no.  What would an “achieved” United States look like?  If we crossed a finish line or passed some big test and finally became the AUSA–the Achieved United States of America–what would it look like?  What would we do then?  In the real world, countries can’t be achieved.  It’s something we’re always working toward.

Let me ask the question again.  Do we believe our country can be achieved?  What I’m asking is, Do we have hope that our country is capable of being a better version of itself?  Take a minute and sit with that question.  Do you have hope that our country is capable of being a better version of itself?

As people of faith, I believe that we must answer that question with a hearty yes.  Because if people of faith don’t hold hope for our country, we’re done for.

But how can we?  How can we hold hope for our country when the startling images of the January 6th insurrection are seared into our brains?  How can we hold hope for our country when 14 states have enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to voting?  How can we hold hope for our country when state and U.S. legislators won’t pass even the paltriest of climate laws?  How can we hold hope for our country when 26 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism?    How can we hold hope for our country when stark disparities still exist in income, housing, and healthcare?

And that’s just current-day issues.  What about the past?  How can we hold hope for a country built on the institution of slavery?  How can we hold hope for a country that plied native peoples with alcohol and small pox-laced blankets, then herded them onto reservations?  How can we hold hope for a country that interned Japanese Americans in the 1940s?  How can we hold hope for a country that sanctioned traumatizing young children at our Southern border?  How can we hold hope for a country that still can’t pass an Equal Rights Amendment?

As people of faith, we don’t have the luxury of glossing over the uglier parts of our nation’s history.  Our strong commitment to social justice requires that we look at that history as honestly as we can.  

But hear me well.  Neither can we allow ourselves the luxury of sinking into cynicism about our country.  As people of faith, as hard as it might be sometimes, we cannot relinquish our responsibility to hope for our country’s wholeness.  If we are to achieve our country, in addition to looking at our history honestly, we must also continue to hope for its wholeness.

In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty says this:  “Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies–emotional involvement with one’s country is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive.  Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame.”  (3)

Cynicism is easier, I know.  If we don’t believe our country can be achieved, then we aren’t disappointed when it fails to meet our ideals…again and again.  It’s hard to hope for a better version of our country when we’ve been disappointed so many times.  

But here’s the thing.  Yes, cynicism keeps us safe from being hurt yet again by our country, but it also prevents us from becoming the country of which we dream.  Cynicism is the opposite of hope.  It numbs us into inaction.  Cynicism kills imagination.

A case in point–the residents of Jesus’ hometown.  To this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus accumulates larger and larger crowds wherever he goes.  Belief seems to come easily for those people.  They hang on his every word.  One woman believed that if she just touched the hem of Jesus’ tunic, she’d be healed.  Such was the faith of crowds surrounding Jesus.

But when he goes home, the hometown folks don’t see Jesus as a prophet.  This is Joseph’s son!  What can he possibly say to us?  The people in Nazareth could only see Jesus in the way they always had seen him.  They could not imagine more for him, or from him…  Cynicism had atrophied the Nazareans’ imaginations.  They could not–or would not–allow themselves to see things in any way other than the way they’d always seen them.  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.

What if they had listened to Jesus?  What if they had heard him with open minds and open hearts?  What if Jesus’ hometown folks had allowed the more just vision of the world Jesus was proclaiming to enter their imaginations?  How many more people might have been healed?  What small part of God’s kindom might actually have been achieved?  What if the folks in Nazareth had listened?

We spend a lot of time talking about prophetic speech.  To be sure, the courage of prophets to speak truth to power, prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. William Barber, II, Clarence Jordan, Tracy Blackmon, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglas…the courage of these prophets to name the injustices of the world and present their vision of how things could and should change…Prophetic speech is crucial to creating the world of which God dreams.  

But perhaps even more important than prophetic speech is prophetic listening.  Why were all those people being healed by Jesus?  Because they listened prophetically…they listened with their hearts and minds open…They listened to Jesus, ready to be changed by what he said.

And maybe that’s the key to prophetic listening–an openness to change… openness to a change of heart…openness to a change of mind… openness to a change of sight… openness to get up right now and begin acting the world into wellbeing.

How’s your prophetic listening these days?  How open is your mind?  How open is your heart?  How open are you to being changed by someone else’s words?  Do you remember the last time you changed your mind about something because of what someone else said?

The good news about prophetic listening is that it is a practice that can be cultivated.  If we aren’t that good at it now, all we have to do is practice to become more skilled.  

So, on this 4th of July, our invitation is to practice listening prophetically.  How might we open our hearts and minds to the messages of the prophets among us?  How might we prepare ourselves to be open to changing our minds?  How might we together, at last, achieve our country?

I invite you now to listen to a piece included on John McCutcheon’s Woody Guthrie album:  This Is Our Country Here.

This is our country here as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk or no matter what spot you stand on.  Now, you will hear whole gangs of travelers and settlers arguing about her–what she is, how she come to be, what you’re supposed to do here.  And you will hear some argue at you that she is so beautiful you are supposed to spend your life just feeling her pretty parts, sucking in her sweetest breezes, ….. and looking at all her brightest colored scenes.  And I would say that gang has the wrong notion.  

And there are some bunches that tell you she is all ugly and all dirty and that there is nothing good about her, nothing free, nothing clean.  That she is all slums, shacks, rot, filth, stink and bad odors, loud words of bitter flavors.  Well, this herd is big, and I heard them often and I heard them loud, but I come to think that they, too, was just as wrong as the first outfit.  

This is our country here, as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk, no matter which spot of it you stand on.  And when you have crossed her as many times as I have, you will see as many ugly things about her as pretty things.  I looked into a million of her faces and eyes and I told myself there was a look on that face that was good if I could just see it there in back of all the shades and shadows of fear and doubt and ignorance and tangles of debts and worries.  And I guess it is these things that make our country look lopsided to some of us, locked over onto the good and easy side, or over onto the bad and hard side.  

Because I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly.  And because I knew the pretty part, I wanted to change the ugly part.  And because I hated the dirty part, I knew how to feel love for the cleaner part.  See, this is our country here, as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk, no matter what spot of it you stand on.  This is our country here.

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land… 

I roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts

While all around me a voice was sounding

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land…  

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land…

As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

This land is your land…

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I’d seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?

This land is your land…  

Nobody living can ever stop me,

As I go walking that freedom highway;

Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land…  

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan   © 2021

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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