Come home to Calvary
I know that in the American narrative, the idea of “Manifest Destiny” and “Go West, young man” are part of an elaborate myth of freedom, independence, and the self-made man. It’s what the phrase “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” is made of.
But too often, in all of that, what is missing are the indigenous peoples who already lived on this land, and the language is gender-exclusive for a reason.
I remember taking a properties class during my short stint in law school and learning how land was made into property through the law. And I could not reconcile both indigenous claims on the land as well as Psalm 24 with what I was learning.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,”
How can anyone claim land as our own, if it actually all just belongs to God? And not only that, how could anyone claim land as their own, when other people are already living there?
Now, I know it’s a little idealistic. And I am very grateful that Calvary has helped me and my family build equity through the Pastor Housing Policy. Let me be clear, I love the home we co-own.
But I’m kind of with Woody Guthrie who wrote and recorded the song, “This Land Is Your Land” which Alison sung for us during the Children’s Meditation.
Now the first verse of the song is mostly innocuous.
But as Guthrie traveled across this country, by foot, by hitchhiking, and by rail,
he was confronted with how much of this “free” land actually had “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs across it.
Some of the less familiar verses of this song say this:
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.”
And another verse:
“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.”
What Woody Guthrie saw and experienced as he crisscrossed the country contributed to his emergence as a social commentator.
When he asserts that this land was made for you and me, he is claiming that the fruits of this land, the bounty of this land we call America, is for all of us, not just for the wealthy or the property-owners or the corporations, but for the people, all people.
As Christians we know that ultimately it all belongs, not to us, but to God. And we are merely stewards of this land, charged with caring for and sharing its bounty.
But it gets complicated in our society where capitalism, individualism, and property rights can skew our perspectives on human dignity, the sacredness of all people and land, and how we are called to share and steward and care for one another.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth. It’s not where he was born; he was born in Bethlehem, but it is where he grew up.
And the people of Nazareth know him. They know his father Joseph the carpenter; his mother Mary scandalized with a premarital pregnancy. They know his sisters and brothers. And they probably remember the mischief caused by toddler Jesus and the trouble caused by teenager Jesus.
So they can’t quite put two and two together. How is this person, who is the child of a carpenter, now a prophet and a religious leader? How could he make these claims and perform these healings? They just can’t take him seriously.
It’s like if I were to go to Houston where I grew up and tried to be a pastor there. I’m sure there are some churches that would welcome me, but I’m also certain that there are people who would wonder how on earth I became a pastor.
They’d remember how terrified I was of public speaking; they’d know that my parents owned several failed dry-cleaning businesses. They’d know about that one time I got caught stealing at the mall. And I’m sure some could never see me as a pastor.
But there is something about going back home after being gone for a while, that helps us to see it for what it is, in a new way, a new light, perhaps more objectively and honestly than we were able to when we lived there.
And I think that’s true not just of the cities we were raised in but of the country we are raised in.
If you’ve ever traveled abroad, think of how your hometown or this country
seemed different when you returned.
What did you experience and understand differently? Were there cultural norms or societal expectations that all of a sudden seemed strange or inefficient or unhelpful?
As the child of immigrants, I am grateful for all this country has to offer. My family is not your model minority. My parents didn’t make it by just working hard, and trust me, they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps many times, but it still wasn’t enough. It sometimes never is when you’re starting so deep in the hole.
But I do recognize that the freedom I had to choose who I want to be, to decide to marry someone who I love and is an equal partner, to raise three kids while being a pastor at a church, that these opportunities and options were afforded me
in a unique and special way because I live in these United States.
I am grateful for that. I can see the wonderful things about this country and its ideals and even appreciate them.
But I think Jesus teaches us today, that it is not only necessary to be honest about the places we call home; but it’s okay to even be critical of the places we call home. And perhaps as we see more clearly, with the ability to be more objective, we can then have the power to truly bring healing and wholeness.
As we face our home for what it truly is, we can take the time necessary to work some miracles.
The disciples and Jesus didn’t have a whole lot of time. They were covering as much ground as they could in a very condensed period. I’ve been at Calvary longer than Jesus was in active ministry.
Now, some of us will only stay in the Bay Area for a short amount of time.
Some of us are only traveling through this city or country. And you all have the unique ability to bring fresh eyes and new perspectives that call for justice in ways that others might not even notice.
But others of us don’t have to shake the dust off our feet and go. We have the gift of calling this place home. So with that, what is our responsibility?
The Message version of today’s scripture translates verse twelve in this way:
“They [the disciples] preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different…”
Friends, how are we, as disciples of Jesus preaching with joyful urgency that life can be radically different?
How do we live so that Jesus isn’t amazed at our unbelief?
… so that we can welcome Jesus in a way that Nazareth could not and did not?
… so that others might rejoice along with us with the hope that life can indeed be different.
Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus is the prisoner, the one who is homeless, the one who is hungry and thirsty and naked. And so the question really is: how do we welcome Jesus? How do we as a city, as a country, as a society, as a church
welcome those who are Jesus among us, those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, and in prison?
It is said that St. Francis of Assisi, who is the patron saint of this city, once proclaimed, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
We preach God’s love and hope with our very lives, with our actions and our deeds, with how we advocate and use our voice, we preach the gospel, and only when necessary do we need to use words.
Now, this country was founded on some beautiful words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,”
(Declaration of Independence).
The Declaration of Independence goes on to say:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,
it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
It sounds to me a whole lot like our country is rooted in the Presbyterian principle of “reformed and always reforming.”
According to The Declaration of Independence, not only are all people endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the people can protest and demand change when the government stifles the ability of its people to do so.
When our government is less than just, when the church is less than loving,
we are expected to create change, so that all God’s people might thrive.
When the Declaration of Independence was written, we know that the authors could not have even imagined that the words “all men” could include black men, gay men, Asian men, those who are women, and those who are transgender or intersex. But it does.
And when we fall short of that standard, when the law or social customs discriminate or make it nearly impossible for all people to truly live free,
it is up to good people of faith, citizens of the household of God, to preach and live that life can and should be radically different:
… that an entire race of people should not be enslaved;
… that women should have the right to be educated, to vote,
to be ordained as deacons, elders, and pastors;
… that indigenous peoples should not be massacred or forcibly removed
from their land;
… that migrant workers should have rights;
… that Japanese Americans shouldn’t be removed from their homes and sent to
… that people should be able to marry whomever they love.
This country, with all its beautiful words about who we are and intend to be, has not always lived up to them. And our history tells that story over and over again.
Langston Hughes captures this well in his poem “Let America Be America Again.”
I’ll let you look up the whole poem another time, but here is an excerpt.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Langston Hughes, a black man living in the United States during the early 20th century, understood, deep in his bones, what it meant to both hold the ideals of what this country hoped to be and its dire failings to actually be those things. And he wrote about it, he spoke up about it, and he hoped to bring about change through his art and activism.
So, like Jesus, returning to Nazareth and seeing it for what it truly is, like Langston Hughes, able to live in the waters of racism and proclaim its injustice,
might we, on this Independence Day, see our country for what it truly is, the good, the bad, and the ugly; the possibilities, the heartbreaks, and the betrayals;
the hope, the freedom, and its lofty goal of equality.
Perhaps this day, this morning, we can be honest and amazed, both at how far we’ve come, and at how much further we have to go for justice to truly prevail.
When we can finally see ourselves and this country honestly for who we are,
then and only then can we repent fully for the harm we have participated in,
for the hurt we have caused, and for the neglect that has allowed injustice to persist.
I believe this church’s Racial Equity Initiative is one way we have committed to be honest, to be truthful, and to imagine a society that is radically different.
Our Matthew 25 Partners for Change, whom we are working alongside to break cycles of poverty, is another way we have committed to a radically different world.
Together, as Christ’s disciples, we can cast out the demons of greed, selfishness, and apathy, and we can bring a balm and healing for the harms of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and xenophobia.
Jesus’s disciples became apostles. Disciple means follower or student. But apostle means one who is sent out. We are both disciples and apostles of Jesus.
We have much to learn still, and so we must be disciples. But we cannot wait to know everything before going out into the world, and so we must also be apostles.
Let us go out into the world, throughout this land, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ with our words, our actions, and our lives.
This land is your land. This land is also my land. And it is the land of those who occupied this space long before us. And it is the land of the one who is living on the street, and of the one who sleeps in the park.
And ultimately it is God’s land.
This land, our land, is in need of God’s healing touch. So may we be the hands and feet of the one who brings healing.
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 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?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 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.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.