Sunday, July 05, 2009

Today's Sermon: Mark 6:1-13

It’s good to be back with you all, and it’s especially good to be back on this 4th of July weekend. There are many in this place who have served this country, either in civilian service, in the military, or as contractors. Those of us who have done so know the importance of this holiday, when we remember the first brave souls – a small band – who gathered together to create a new country, a new way of living together, based on principles of equality, freedom, hard work. We honor the effort it took to earn our democracy and to keep it, and those who expended that effort...and who continue to do so.

One of my favorite quotes from the time of the creation of the United States comes from Ben Franklin, who said as the delegates struggled to craft a declaration of independence: “Let us all hang together, for if we do not, we will surely hang separately.” Brave men, taking risks for a greater good, arguing, writing, engaging in the hard work of those days…they needed to work together to make this new thing happen.

It’s interesting that the gospel today talks of a similar effort…the early days of Jesus’ work, which met with mixed success and some suspicion, and his initial commissioning of the disciples, with some ground rules for surviving on the road.

The operant principles – both in the founding of our nation and in the founding of what would become Christianity - are rather similar:

Support and respect each other.
Keep the message simple and keep your eye on the goal.
Travel light and live simply.
Don’t get stressed out about what doesn’t work.

When you’ve embarked on difficult work, whether it is trying to make a new nation or make a new covenant, you’ve got to adhere to certain principles to make it happen.

Jesus certainly knew this. His ministry, as Mark describes it, started out in a way that seemed promising. He had healed some sick people. His preaching was getting positive notices. But now he was back in his home area, and after an initially warm reception, he is disrespected by those who know him best: “Isn’t this Mary’s son, the carpenter?” By identifying him as Mary’s son, rather than Joseph’s, they are once again raising the question that many in his home town had whispered about for thirty years: was he really Joseph’s, or what? And that has implications for whether or not they would respect him, not only because of the question of whether he was illegitimate, but because the Davidic line, which would be necessary to establish him as one who might be the Messiah, came through Joseph, not Mary. So it’s a double insult. And he’s just a carpenter, a tektōn, not a scholar, not a rabbi. Just a craftsman, working wood. Maybe they saw his words as delusions of grandeur, maybe they were jealous that it wasn’t their son who was doing this teaching….whatever the reason, they reject him, and Jesus feels it bitterly, quoting a very familiar aphorism from the Greco-Roman world of that time: "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he was so distracted by his anger and their disbelief that no more teaching, no more healings were done by him there.

What to do? We might turn around and go back into the woodshop, and not come out again. But he knew there was work to do, and he knew that the disciples would have to learn how to do it, so he sent them out.

Now when we talk about the disciples in the Gospel of Mark, you’ve got to remember that this gospel is not kind to the disciples. Time and time again, they ask stupid questions, they get their assignments wrong, they become cowardly…and Jesus often uses harsh words with them. But in this reading, Jesus simply gives them their charge: they are to go out two by two and anoint and heal. He knows that he has the ability to do this himself: he’s done it before and he knows he has authority from his heavenly Father. But he delegates the authority to this small band of wayward, uneducated men, and gives them some guidance. Basic principles.

Go out in pairs, both for protection and for mutual building up.
Travel light.
Live simply: Stay in the first place you come to – don’t look for the finest house to stay in.
Stay until you’ve done what you’ve come to do.
If they don’t listen, don’t worry – just move on.

These disciples were a small group, and they knew that what they were doing was a high-risk proposition. The prevailing powers didn’t much like people who questioned their authority, who disagreed with their interpretation of the law, who argued that that interpretation hurt the common people, the ones who were farmers, small craftsmen, fishermen. So a small group like this was taking a risk in making themselves and their cause visible. They needed to adhere to those core principles if they were going to succeed.

What was the result?

They preached repentance, and cast out many demons, and anointed and cured many. You follow simple principles, you get results.

Seventeen hundred fifty years later, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence also followed those core principles, and got results. They got a new nation. The work of securing that nation was not easy. Fierce battles continued for several years…but the end result was the nation we call our own today.

In the same way, the disciples were successful in their first attempts to go out and do the work Jesus commanded them to do, but this was not complete success. The work continued. They struggled. They erred. They forgot those core principles, arguing among themselves, losing courage, losing focus. We still fight to keep to Jesus’ core principles, to live out the new covenant, and we still often fail. But the value of the principles remains.

It is instructive to talk of another story of core principles that binds these two events together in a remarkable way, to understand how sticking to those principles can make us one with Christ…
Reform movements, be they political or theological, don’t always go smoothly. Just ask Martin Luther, who regularly was threatened with death because of his work. The Church went after him. The Holy Roman Emperor went after him. Various other religious reformers thought he didn’t go far enough, so they went after him. All because he thought the Church had gone astray. Just ask William Tyndale, who was condemned to death in 1536 for the heresy of translating the Bible into English. Just ask John Calvin, who was chased out of France to Switzerland for his work of reformation of the church.

When the political and theological mesh, it’s going to be a hard road.

So it was when the Episcopal Church was founded here in the United States.

We know that members of the Church of England came to America, and the first parish was established at the Jamestown Settlement, more than 400 years ago. We also know that there were people who came to America because they were being persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, such as Puritans and Quakers. In some of the early colonies, the Church of England became the established church – the official church as sanctioned by the state. Virginia, lower New York, Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas all made the Church of England the state church…people had to pay taxes that funded the church. With the advent of the movement for independence from Great Britain, however, came a problem: all Church of England clergy were expected to pledge their allegiance in their ordination vows to the monarch, who was the head of the Church of England. Further, they were required to use the liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer, which included prayers for the monarch and for parliament. Thus, supporting their parishioners who wanted their freedom would mean they were guilty of treason. And some 3/4s of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were at least nominally Anglicans. How could they provide pastoral support without compromising their oaths?

The problem was also financial. In the north, where the Anglican Church was supported by missionary societies in England, the clergy struggled. When war broke out, these clergy looked to England for both their paycheck and their direction. In the south, where the Church of England was the state church and was supported by local taxes, there was less loyalty to England.

Of the approximately three hundred clergy in the Church of England in America between 1776 and 1783, over eighty per cent in New England, New York, and New Jersey were loyal to the crown. This is in contrast to the less than twenty-three percent loyalist clergy in the four southern colonies. Revolutionaries saw their clergy as Tories or redcoats. Hard to pastor under those circumstances!

So what happened? We’re no longer called the Church of England – that’s a big clue. The second clue is to look at the core principles we talked about earlier:

Support and respect each other.
Keep the message simple and keep your eye on the goal.
Travel light and live simply.
Don’t get stressed out about what doesn’t work.

In a newborn nation where principles of equality and liberty prevailed, an official state church was anathema. So in the interest of supporting these principles, the Church of England was disestablished in America. No more official state church. But the people still wanted to worship as they had always worshipped. So shortly after the war, in 1789, the Episcopal Church was established in America. We were the first province of the Church of England outside of the British Isles. A revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was written. The church was no longer aligned with the power of the secular leadership. It was simply good people, working together, trying to live faithfully. They were in this together, in this new world that they had fought for, and the work was ahead of them, just as the disciples were in it together, doing their best to do what Jesus had instructed them to do, spreading the word.

These stories have great resonance for the people of Saint Middle School at this point in our lives. The phrase “in it together” is particularly apt: we rely on each other, in prayer and worship and in the everyday tasks that make prayer and worship possible. That’s why there is an altar set up and ready on Sunday morning. That’s why meals are provided for those going through a rough patch. That’s why there are volunteers and teachers for Children’s Chapel, and for the Adult Forum. That’s why there is a search committee, and why there is coffee waiting for us after church.

At this time in our life as a community of faith, the core principles still apply:

Support and respect each other.
Keep the message simple and keep your eye on the goal.
Travel light and live simply.
Don’t get stressed out about what doesn’t work.

So say a prayer for your neighbor sitting in the row alongside you. Remember that what we do isn’t about a building, it’s about Christ. Don’t worry about what we don’t have; focus on using what we do have – our gifts from God – in a way that honors God. If something doesn’t work, don’t be worried, just be creative, and come up with another better way.

As Jesus was with the disciples in the story this morning, as a Godly sense of purpose informed the work of our founding Fathers, as Jesus’ core principles shaped the creation of the Episcopal Church in America, so too we know that we are not alone in our work in this place. Many have done this kind of work before. All have struggled, but they were never alone. Let us be comforted by that, and embrace the work ahead of us.



Rev Dr Mom said...

Just out of curiosity, how long do you usually preach? Just for fun I did a word count on your sermon and it's longer by not quite a third than what I usually aim for, and I preach 10-12 minutes.

Nice sermon, btw. Glad you have a regular place to preach! What are you doing about Eucharist? Are y'all doing MP or do you do a "deacon's mass"? I had to do that when my rector went on vacation my first summer here, and it was strange!

mibi52 said...

This one was longer than usual. Normally I aim for 11-12 minutes, and this one ran just shy of 17 minutes, so your wordcount calculation was on the money. TBTG, only one person fell asleep and there wasn't much wiggling.

Getting back into the rhythm of preaching regularly is interesting. I'm reminded of the old joke about the supply preacher who was asked what his normal honorarium was. "All depends on how long you want me to preach for. It's $20 if you want an hour sermon, $50 for a 30 minute sermon, $100 for a 10 minute sermon." It's the editing down that's the real work, and I am out of practice! This was not one of my better ones, but it will come back (I hope).

mibi52 said...

Oh, forgot to tell you what we're doing about the Eucharist. For the time being, we've got priests from our mother church rotating through doing the back half of the service. We're hoping the Bp will approve deacon's mass within the next couple of weeks. I'm in the midst of doing a white paper on it for him to read while out at GC. It would certainly make most folks' lives easier around here, although it will take some getting used to for me. Learning curves!

Rev Dr Mom said...

The better solution would be for the Bish to waive the six months and go ahead and priest you!

But then, I come from a diocese whose bishop would do away with the transitional diaconate if he could.

mibi52 said...

I wish, but not likely around here! New Diocesan Bishop who is sorta by-the-book. so be it!