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Dishonored Prophets – A Sermon for the 4th of July

This sermon was first preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Joliet on July 4, 2021.

Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

Photo by Spenser Sembrat on Unsplash

In the secular calendar today we commemorate the 4th of July, a day many of us celebrate the founding of our “home” here in the United States. This is a day where we like to tell and retell stories, tales of how our nation came to be. We lift up its founders, its ideals. We surround ourselves with its symbols, drape our celebrations in red, white, and blue.

The story we share today about our founding is a particular one. There are scholars that argue that the narratives and myths about the founding of this country have become in themselves their own sacred scriptural texts. There are other stories though, about how this nation came to be. Stories that, in some states in this country like my home state of Iowa, are being actively repressed through legislation banning the teaching of them. Stories we try to suppress or ignore, especially on days like today when we would rather celebrate.

But that doesn’t make them go away. Because these are true stories. Stories that have been silenced. Stories written by people on the underbelly. Stories of stolen land and stolen bodies. Stories that, instead of lionizing the original 13 colonies, lament the violence of colonization. Stories of bondage, not stories of freedom. Stories of genocide and terror.

Frederick Douglass was an author and speaker in the mid 1800s. He was a Black man who was enslaved, who ran away and escaped, who worked to end slavery as an abolitionist. You might call him a prophet of his day. He was asked to give a keynote address at a July 4 celebration in 1852, about a decade before the Civil War in the United States. In it, he asked the question, “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” 

He demanded to know what freedom we were celebrating when we were still a country that enslaved other human beings. He said,

“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

This sentiment is still shared by many people today. Because the legacy of slavery and genocide still affects us…from mass incarceration and state violence to voter repression to children disappeared from residential boarding schools, there are so many among us who are still not free. And there are people who remind us.

There are prophets all around us, yesterday and today, who lift their voices to tell those stories. They fill our streets and our Twitter feeds. They lift up hashtags of names of the beloved children of God killed by armed agents of the state. They shout and lament and demand to be heard. And for those of us who celebrate today, their very presence reminds us of things we would rather forget. Things that conflict with our almost religious belief in a national narrative of a country founded on freedom and justice for all.

This makes us tense. Maybe you feel tense right now. I feel tense saying it. It is uncomfortable for us to reckon with the fullness of our history. We want to believe in the epic, romantic myth. We want to believe that the nation whose founding documents reminded tyrants that, “ALL men are created equal,” lived into those values from the start. We want to believe that we reflect those ideals now. When we are confronted with the ways that the reality doesn’t line up, we feel conflict within us as we wrestle with how to reconcile it all. These stories we cling to feel personal. They are about our national identity, about who we are as a people, about the place that we call home. This dissonance is not unlike Jesus’ own reckoning with his hometown. 

Our Gospel reading today tells us the story of Jesus visiting his hometown with his disciples. After being baptized into a movement of social-spiritual renewal and then watching his mentor John, treated like so many prophets before him – targeted, arrested, and locked up – Jesus began building his movement by gathering disciples. And together Jesus and his followers traveled around healing and feeding people, spreading the Good News of God’s Liberating Love for all. When they reached Nazareth he spoke in the house of faith where he had been raised as a child. And people began to whisper to one another.

Isn’t this the carpenter?

Mary’s son?

You’ll notice in the reading Joseph isn’t mentioned.

Like, the people were asking about all of Jesus’ siblings. They were asking about Mary. They said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

They don’t mention Joseph and they do that on purpose. As an insult. Because what they were really saying to Jesus was,

“Who do you think you are?”

Aren’t you the illegitimate son of that unwed teen mother? 

How dare you come up in our sacred spaces as if you have something to say?
You, the construction worker. 
You, the day laborer.
You, the blue collar toiler.

You, with a shady, questionable birth story.

Aren’t you that carpenter?

Who do you think you are?

Prophets, then and now, get the same treatment. When the message is too difficult, we try to dismiss the messenger, forgetting that God’s prophets are almost always the people we would not expect.

Some of us are looking at the prophets of our time and saying, “Them?” “Aren’t they just …carpenters?” “Them?! But their skin is so dark and their voices so angry and their gender so queer!”

We think that the prophets who pour into our streets really ought to look like someone else, speak like someone else.  Wishing that they wore suits or at least pulled their pants up. Wishing that they spoke “proper” English. Admonishing them because their resistance doesn’t fit neatly into our carefully planned agendas or our tidy stories about who we are.  We try to dismiss their stories because they challenge our own. And when it is clear that they are telling the truth, we critique find a way to disregard the message because in our eyes? The messenger doesn’t measure up.

Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are so often prophets without honor in their own hometown of the United States of America. Just like the people of Nazareth, we mistreat the people who tell us truths outside of the narrow story we expected to hear. When these stories are challenged by the prophets in our streets or by the telling of a wider, broader story that includes all kinds of disparate experiences, we feel under attack. We lash out, we fight to silence them. We get their stories struck from the narrative.

And just like the people of Nazareth, with our disbelief, we limit our blessings.

Scripture tells us that Jesus was unable to do his usual deeds of power there because of the people’s disbelief. And we, too, miss out on so much when we cling to a single story for the sake of our own comfort. We miss out on the truth. We miss out on relationships. We miss out on the opportunity for the kind of solidarity necessary to build the kingdom of God, a country beyond borders where promises don’t ring hollow, where everyone is truly, truly free. 

The most difficult truth of discipleship is also the most liberating: We need one another.

Despite the lie our culture tells us of rugged individualism, we cannot do this alone. We were created by God to be in community with one another, to be in solidarity with one another. This means listening to one another, even if the stories of the prophets among us are difficult to hear. It means struggling alongside one another for the sake of our collective liberation. It means we need each other and it means that none of us are ever alone.

This value of interdependence is modeled even by Jesus, who could not do widespread healing without the cooperation of the people of Nazareth and who sent out his disciples not alone, but in pairs. And he sent them out, not with a fully stocked bag of supplies, but with very, very little so that in order to do their work, in order to live out their ministry, they would have no choice but to rely on others to meet their needs.

As many of us reflect this weekend on the ideals of democracy that we take pride in, I hope we will make room for the inconvenient stories that challenge us too. I hope that we see them as an opportunity to show hospitality to the prophets in our midst. And I hope that through listening and relying on one another, we might find the courage to make God’s liberating love for the world a more tangible reality for all.

Amen.

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