Sermon: “Always, We Begin Again” (Mark 6:1-6) [7/3/2022]

A lot has happened in our country the past two weeks…The Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade and struck down a common sense gun law in New York…Oh!  This just in–the EPA can’t regulate anything any more…but teachers in public schools can lead their students in prayer.  The startling revelations of the January 6th congressional hearings… the “Stop Woke,” “Don’t say gay,” and 15 week abortion laws that went into effect in Florida on Friday… Gay.  Anybody else want to preach a sermon on the eve of July 4th?  Where do you even start?  

Here’s a question James Baldwin asked in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time:  Have we achieved our country?  In his 1998 collection of lectures, Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty asks the question again at the turn of the 21st century.  Both Baldwin and Rorty answer the question with a resounding NO.  No, we have NOT achieved our country.

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, men– 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.

As a gay Black American, James Baldwin struggled with his citizenship.  He tried many times to give up the US.  When Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin were assassinated, he could no longer bear to live here.  He moved to Turkey and his beloved Paris for several years.  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!  Things are so much better than they used to be.  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.  But, with everything that’s happening in our country right now, it seems important–crucial–to ask the question:  Have we achieved our country?  Or maybe the more vital question is this one:  Do we even believe our country can be achieved?

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.

So, I ask again:  Do we–as people of faith–believe our country can be achieved?  Do we have hope that our country is capable of being a better version of itself?  

Hope for our country?  How can we hold hope for our country with the startling revelations coming out of the January 6 hearings?  How can we hold hope for our country when states continue to enact 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 when many states–including our own–create laws that limit how teachers can talk about racism and sexism?  How can we hold hope when a Supreme Court justice wrote that other rights need to be revoked, like the rights to contraception and same-sex marriage?  

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 still can’t pass an Equal Rights Amendment?  How can we hold hope for a country that, on a whim, restricts and revokes human rights?

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

But hear me well.  As hopeless as things might feel right now, we can’t allow ourselves the luxury of sinking into cynicism about our country.  As people of faith, 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 comes 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.

 In Thursday’s “Come Sunday” email, I related a conversation I’d had with a woman who called last Monday.  She’d been here for the LifeScreening event week before last.  She told me she was disturbed to see our rainbow flag in the sanctuary.  Then she asked how I could justify doing what I do because I wasn’t telling people the truth about same-gender sex and was leading them to hell.  “You’re going to have to answer to God one day.”  By that point in the conversation, I was so livid I said, “ABSOLUTELY!  I can’t wait!”  

It had been so long since I’d had a conversation like that that I had forgotten how infuriating–and dispiriting–they can be.  I closed my mind and heart to that woman.  Had to–to protect myself.  And let’s be clear.  When Jesus realized that his hometown folks’ closed- minded-ness was preventing God from working in that place, he left to go other places where his work would be more effective.  In Luke’s account of this scene, Jesus’ hometown folks try to kill him.  Sometimes, following Jesus means leaving abusive situations.  Sometimes we just have to give up, hang up, and move on.

Some of us might be wondering if it’s time to give up on our country.  As an American, I don’t know the answer to that question.  As a follower of Jesus, though, I am called to hope.  As followers of Jesus, we’re all called to hope.  I know!  Cynicism would be easier.  Holding on to hope these days is hard.  And yet, without hope, there is no, well, hope.

After worship today, we’ll gather to do some more processing about all that’s happened in the last two weeks.  If you’re struggling, I encourage you to stay for the conversation.  Toward the end of last week’s processing session we started talking about hope–and hopelessness.  We recalled the line from my friend Lightning Lucas’ song, “Hold the Hope”:  “If you run out of hope, you can always borrow some of mine.”  Perhaps in our conversation today, we can cobble together enough hope to get through this coming week.  

As we wrestle with our feelings about our country right now, I invite you to listen to these words of Woody Guthrie.  

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 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  (2022)

About reallifepastor

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