Sunday, July 9

Sermon: Proper 9 (14) Year B

Mark 6:1-13

I have been thinking a lot lately about the idea of the “separation of church and state.” Primarily, this is due to a speech that Barak Obama gave at the “Call to Renewal” conference in Washington D.C. I don't know how many of you took the time to read that speech, but it is an interesting one and may be worth your while. I don't say that to endorse a specific politician. No, I suggest it but because Senator Obama has issued a challenge to all of us. And I simply want you all to know that someone has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts.

Senator Obama has called everyone to dialog, to set aside pettiness and prejudice and try to come to the table together bearing our faith traditions on our sleeves as we work out the civil life of this nation. What an incredible thing for someone to suggest. Some have called it short sighted and naïve. Others have suggested that the Senator does not go far enough. He has met criticism from the left and from the right. He has met support from the left and from the right. Christians and non-Christians alike have critiqued his position and his continued attempts to articulate his understanding of how this nation is divided along faith lines as well as political lines...and how we might overcome such division to the benefit of all.

It is an incredible vision.

Sharon recently handed me a copy of Dawn Turner Trice's Chicago Tribune July 3rd column. In it she suggests that there is a connection between our attitudes about evangelism and Barak Obama's call to dialog. You see, Dawn Turner Trice is apprehensive about both. She has a list of negative experiences surrounding evangelism that influence how she hears Obama's words.

Now, I will be the first to share horror stories of evangelism gone awry. Some day remind me to tell you about hanging out at Virginia Beach, Virginia handing out “Chick Tracks” to vacationing Jewish families. I think we have all either participated in or fallen victim to uncomfortable evangelical moments.

These experiences have perhaps been the root of disillusionment for some. They have perhaps made us skeptical of evangelism as a practice...or even the word itself has nothing but negative connotations. We are not alone. Nor are we particularly unusual.

Dawn Turner Trice gives examples of friendships that become unwieldy after one person converts or begins to take their faith walk seriously. Speaking about our faith can “evolve into a mini-sermon and not a discussion” says Dawn Turner Trice. “One person has all the answers and [knows] the only path to truth and the light.”

And in response we come up with our own comfortable ways of being “evangelical.” Sharon and I spoke about this at length the other day. Dawn Turner Trice states that her preferred mode of evangelism is to wait until someone asks her about her faith life. Then she is willing to share. But only after being asked.

She has met with frustrating evangelists.
She has been met with frustration when sharing her own faith.

People's personalities, the general disposition toward a specific faith tradition, existing faith traditions and many other variables play into the overall experience and practice of evangelism. Dawn Turner Trice is absolutely right in suggesting that it is often tricky and difficult. But scripture suggests no less.

This is not news.

Jesus always encountered opposition. In the reading this morning we have an excellent example of this. Jesus goes to his home and is met with opposition. He even heals a couple of people and his neighbors and cousins are not particularly impressed. His message falls flat and he encounters the enduring stubbornness of his own kin. So what is his response?

He simply moves on to the next town.

And, if we are to believe that the writer of Mark connects these two stories in the same way that the people of the lectionary committee may, then Jesus' response is to also send his disciples out so that they may have the same experience.

Sometimes Jesus appears to have a wicked sense of humor. “Well, that was difficult. Let's make James and John do it. That'll be fun.”

In his instructions to the disciples, he reminds them that they will encounter opposition. Sure, they may be going to towns that they know, houses that they have been to before, but they will still encounter an unwillingness to hear the Word of God. That's just how it is. Make no mistake about that. There is opposition. But the question is then: How do we go out and meet that opposition?

Peacefully, suggests Christ. Simply.

“How sweet. How idyllic.” we might think. But don't be fooled by the Gospels. Please do not think that the writer of Mark is telling us some fairy tale.

Scholars currently remind us that first century Israel was perhaps similar to our culture today in several ways. One of the many is the fact that it was a religiously and culturally diverse population. Several languages would have been heard in a marketplace. Tradespeople and soldiers from all over the world gathered and passed through Israel selling their wares and serving at the pleasure of the Roman Empire. Greek philosophies would be proclaimed. Emperor worship would be clear and within the publics eye. Even within first century Judaism there was diversity of theological understanding - denominations of a kind with Essenes and Sadduces and Pharisees and others in the synagogues and Temple.

Jesus' context was complicated and daunting. His response was simplicity.

The logistical model that Christ gives the disciples is simple. Take little with you...a friend perhaps and enough clothes to get along. Stay in places that are not ostentatious, perhaps in the guest room of someone's home...or the first century equivalent to a roadside motel. And when you encounter opposition, for you surely will, simply brush the sand off your feet. Move on. Don't let it get you down. Don't let it color your experience. Don't rise up and shove the message down their throats. Just keep on moving.

It is a simple mode of communication. Just go out and tell people. Heal. Cast out a few demons. Go with a friend to keep you company. This is relational. This is peaceful.

Sometimes I wonder if we hinder our evangelical aspirations and vocations by attempting to employ sophisticated marketing models in lieu of what really is supposed to be a “word-of-mouth” campaign.

But then what is this connection between evangelism and the separation of church and state? D. Dawn Turner Trice connects it to religious pluralism. She reminds us that those who signed the Declaration of Independence and those who would go on to craft the Constitution were of various religious persuasions. They were Deists, Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians and even Atheists. The language they chose was to grant for some kind of freedom for a variety of religious vocations and perspectives to exist peacefully, to co-habitate in a productive way.

If nothing else, perhaps religious persecution and warfare may come to an end in the Americas. Remember that Europe was in the midst of religious warfare for centuries. The founders may have desired for a freedom of religion and an implied separation of church and state simply to keep violent disruption to a minimum.

Religious zeal and political power could too quickly find one another and literal Hell would break loose. It was a question of power.

And this is the connection that the columnist wrestles with most clearly. If we are to be a society where we are free to evangelize and to be free from caving to evangelical efforts for fear of political and civil reprisals, then it is better to say nothing. Obama's vision of dialog seen through this lens is then not only naïve it is even dangerous. No wonder she is nervous. If evangelism is about power and politics is about power, then when the two wed, then there is too much power in one place and those not in the fold will suffer.

Sarah Dylan Breuer is an Episcopal priest and preacher. She writes on her blog “gracenotes” and is the editor of The Witness, an on-line magazine about Christian faith. She had a very helpful reminder about the first part of our readings in her recent commentary on the Gospel passage. What is it that makes everyone in Jesus' hometown so stubborn? Is it really because they remember Jesus in diapers, so now they cannot imagine him all grown up and God's own messiah? Maybe that has something to do with it. Certainly. But it also has to do with power.

She reminds us that the culture of the time, perhaps again like our own, ascribed to a limited good model of life. Meaning, there is only just enough to get along...and when one person has too much power, then there is less for the rest of us. To have more means someone else has less. This is related to tangible goods and , as Sarah suggests, “abstract ones – like honor.”

If Jesus is going to receive such honor, then there is less to go around for the rest of his family and community. He must have taken it from someone else to be able to do what he is doing. By healing and casting out demons, Jesus is actually upsetting a precarious but understood balance of power.

But the ministry of Christ has something to say about the source of what is Good. There is limitless Good to be had. In fact, God's grace is for all. Forgiveness and healing is available for all. God's intention and efforts has always been for the redemption of the world, not a select few or for some to have more grace than others. There is enough to go around. We discussed this last week. There is more than enough to go around. In fact, Christ will send out his disciples and they too will forgive and heal and cast out demons.

Evangelism is not about the hording of power. It is the reminder that we are all, in truth, powerless without God. But God, through grace, desires us all to enter into life together with Him. There is more than enough Good. There is no need to broker for power, to jockey for position, to claim rank or prestige.

The last shall be first.
There is no slave or free.
There is no east or west.
God is fully real, fully present, fully desirous of all of us...and is not interested in power.

This is a radical notion. It turns what we know on its ear. And it shows in stark relief the scandal of how many of us have experienced and participated in evangelism. Evangelism is not about garnering power. It is about waking the sleepers so that they too will know that they are loved by God, that they already have all that they need. There is healing. There is forgiveness. And what ever the demon may be that ails you so, it can be cast out in the name of the One God.

Disillusionment is healthy. Dawn Turner Trice expresses hers well. It is, I believe, a healthy step in the development of Christian faith. Things do not go as planned. Talking about God is hard. It can be a fearful business. In response we can sometimes abuse our vocations and our institutions. Yes. True enough. But the Gospel itself calls us out of spinning our wheels in the midst of disillusionment. We are to walk on.

We are to brush the sand off our feet in peace. The Gospel of Matthew contains the same tale of Jesus sending out his disciples two by two. In that telling, Jesus tells his disciples to greet each home with peace. “Peace unto this house.” If that peace is not returned, then move on.

God's mission for us is to spread the Word of God in peace. It is not our job to cajole or enforce, but to proclaim, heal and cast out demons. It is our job to give up our fear and our grasping for power. It is a sign of friendship to lay down our lives for one another. As Christians this is a core truth, a facet of our identity. Can we understand that this also relates to our work in civic life?

The separation of church and state is not a new struggle. Rome struggled with it. Should Christianity be legalized? If so, should it then become the official religion of the Empire? Should people have to be Christian to own property? From empire to feudal and monarchical models of government, and progressing to democratic models of government, we have always struggled with the place of religion in our civic life together...the place of faith within a world where political power appears to be the highest reality. It is a complicated morass of necessity, idealistic aspiration and desire.

It seems that we are once again attempting to understand how our life together as a nation shall function. Politicians are wrangling about how this will work, attempting to set a tone for dialog and problem solving. As we participate in these conversations whether through our voting, our public debate, and our gifts of time and money, let us live without fear, offering up God's limitless Good to all. And when we encounter opposition, for we surely will, let us let it be...offering peace to all as we continue in our call to always and forever proclaim a Gospel of Peace.