Scripture: Mark 6: 1-13
It’s Fourth of July weekend and we’ve been talking about flags a lot in the past couple of weeks, haven’t we? The US flags waving everywhere around town--the Boston pops playing the William Tell orchestra as the red white and blue waves majestically over the esplanade.
We’ve been seeing the bright colors of the rainbow flag, too--as it goes up everywhere from Niagara Falls to the White House-- celebrating the Supreme Court’s landmark Marriage Equality decision last week.
And the confederate flag waving outside the statehouse in South Carolina and on Dylann Roof’s license plate before he was arrested for the murders of 9 black parishioners as they faithfully studied the bible at Mother Emanuel.
A flag that symbolizes unity amid diversity, a flag that symbolizes equality for all of God’s children, and a flag that for some symbolizes hate, and racism. All waving the same week over these United States.
It’s amazing how a piece of brightly colored cloth waving in the wind or burning on a lawn can symbolize so much—pride, equality, and even violence, hatred.
I have a colleague in Georgia whose congregants had their rainbow pride flag ripped down off of their house this week and burned on their car while their four children slept in their beds. It was the same night of a “rebel flag rally” in their town.
This week I was in Maine, and I even saw a large confederate flag on a building there, which couldn’t possibly have much to do with proud Southern heritage in the Northernmost state in the union. And I have been thinking about the confederate flags I would see waving around New Hampshire when I was growing up, particularly when we fought to celebrate Martin Luther King Day as the last state in the union to adopt that national holiday.
And I’m thinking about the importance of symbols as I think about flags. I’m thinking about the importance of the church taking a faithful stand on racism and homophobia and what that means symbolically. I’m thinking about the symbolic ways in which the Christian church has historically worked to stop racism and yes, even homophobia. And I’m thinking about the symbolic ways in which the Christian church has perpetuated and spread racism and homophobia.
And worse, I have been thinking about the times the Christian church failed to say anything at all about racism and homophobia, for fear these were “divisive” topics.
Jesus didn’t worry about being divisive. He worried about the coming kingdom of God, in which the last would be first; the hungry fed, the prisoner released, the naked clothed. The kingdom in which the meek would inherit the earth. He said all of that. What Jesus didn’t say is that only the “nice” people would get to heaven in the end. And thank God, because the older I get, the less time I have for “nice.”
In the white Protestant New England churches, we are really good at “nice.” We are really good at being polite, and making sure no one feels hurt, and no toes are stepped on. We get pretty uncomfortable with the idea of conflict, or saying something that people might not agree with, or saying something strong or moralistic, or taking a stand on anything at all for fear we might offend. We fear people will leave us, which triggers our abandonment issues. Or we worry it will mean that we have to confront our own prejudices if we start talking too much about the ways in which we are separated from each other. So we are nice for the sake of getting along.
My daughter Cecilia is going to sing a song from Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods” a little later in the service—a song in which Little Red Riding Hood sings about her encounter with the wolf. And in this song, Little Red reflects on what she learns about her interactions with the wolf. She sings, at one point, “take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, and though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.”
Jesus didn’t teach us to be nice, he taught us to be good. Kind, yes. But not nice.
A nice person is careful not to offend, and takes great pains to avoid negative feelings, stuffing them down. A nice person forgoes one’s own comfort and truth for the sake of another’s comfort. A nice person can be easily taken advantage of, easily stepped on. A nice person may be a wolf in a kindly grandmother’s clothing. And a nice person avoids saying things that might be unpopular, even if they are the right things to say.
A kind person acts with compassion, speaks truth with bravery, loves justice, gives of oneself generously without losing oneself in the process. That’s what Jesus modeled for us.
We need to strive, as followers of Jesus, to be brave. And yes, kind. But not nice.
Because bravery requires transcending “nice” and saying something true and real.
This morning, we hear a story about Jesus who goes back to the village he was born in—to his hometown. And he began to preach and teach. It isn’t easy to go back to your hometown where everyone knew you from when you are in diapers and try to be a credible leader. It’s better to just keep your mouth shut and smile as you shake your parents’ friends’ hands. I know some of you know what I’m talking about. I know that there are some elders in this congregation who had you as a wriggly student in their Sunday school classes…isn’t that right? I bet it took awhile for you to have credibility as an adult leader in your hometown—even here at this church.
I have been asked to preach in my hometown church in Concord, NH, which is a great honor, but truthfully the idea sounds a little counter-productive. This is the group of people who saw me “behave more like a devil than an angel” in the Christmas pageant I was in in second grade. The people who saw me through my awkward phase from 11 to 17—braces, acne and bad perms. The people who busted me sneaking out of Sunday school to go to the store for soda and candy with my best church friend, Wendy. I certainly can’t claim the same kind of spiritual leadership with them that I could with other communities. It’s kind of like preaching to my mom, (which is what I’m doing this morning.) Perhaps they’d be proud of me, but it would be difficult to take me too seriously as an adult.
Well, despite this same challenge, Jesus tried to preach and teach in his hometown anyway. His concern was not what people thought of him, but being brave enough to say what was the right and good thing. So he comes back to his hometown--with the people who babysat for him, and taught him to read, and watched him fight with his mom when he was a teenager--and he tries to tell them all of the prophecies that he has about the coming of the kingdom, and they are all like, wait-- isn’t this the carpenters son? Don’t we know his sisters and his dad? Remember when he had the braces with the rubber bands and that unfortunate haircut in high school? And they are like, “whatever, Jesus.”
Jesus says what he needs to say to them anyway, even though he can “do no deed of power” there, in his hometown. And then he moves on to preach and teach elsewhere, where he can do some good…where he’ll be listened to. And he tells his disciples to go out and do likewise. If folks can’t or won’t hear your message, he says, you should just leave, shake the dust off your feet, and move on. He says that’s your job as disciples--to keep trying to spread an unpopular message, to humbly accept the hospitality of others, to leave if they are hostile to you. It is your job, he says, to be self-differentiated enough to know and be who you are, say what you need to say, and if it is not accepted, to shake the dust off of your shoes and move on. “The haters gonna hate.” As Taylor Swift sings, “Shake it off.”
But we New England Protestants who don’t like conflict and messy proclamations are too apt to be nice. We try so hard never to give the haters something to hate.
We need to remind ourselves over and over again that it is none of our business what people think of us. It is our business to make this earth a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven Jesus dreamed for the world, where the last go first and the least of these are lifted up.
And this is not a time for nice—this is a time for good.
This month we have seen people shot down during Bible Study at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, a church that has long been a target for racial terrorism. Since then, seven black churches have burned down all over the south. We will take an offering to re-build those churches today. We will look for more opportunities to show up and help re-build and protect our brothers and sisters at black churches, even as we ask who is burning them.
We watched the watershed decision of the Supreme Court backing marriage equality this week, as well, and we have seen religion being trotted out in the public sphere again and again, people of faith weighing in, taking stands on one “side” or the other, as if there are any “sides” in the kingdom of God---and we have also seen churches remaining deafeningly silent.
It is time for Christians to speak, because our silence is dangerous. It is time for us to claim moral authority. To say what is true, and then to face the consequences. If people don’t like it, shake it off. The haters gonna hate.
This is not a time to be nice. This is a time to be good.
This is our nation’s birthday—our beloved America founded on moral clarity and righteousness—a country’s whose dream is both freedom, and unity. America was founded by prophets who were, like Jesus, unpopular in their hometown. Prophets who were religiously persecuted, and sought to flee tyranny. Prophets who shook the sand off of their feet when their message wasn’t heard, and moved on. The dream for this great land they prophesied was that all men and women will be created equal, and have the right to happiness, liberty and the pursuit of justice. When I looked up at our American flag yesterday, I asked myself, “O say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
And I thought, God, let that be true. As Langston Hughes implores us, “Let America be America again.”
Have you been watching the debates about the Confederate flag on the state house in South Carolina following the Charleston killings at Mother Emanuel?
Activist Bree Newsome was not willing to wait for the state's legislature to weigh in on the issue, and took matters into her own hands. In a now widely viewed video, Newsome is seen scaling a pole on the state's capitol grounds Saturday morning and removing the flag in a powerful act of resistance.
"You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence," she called from the top of the flagpole. "I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!"
Newsome, whose father formerly served as the dean of the School of Divinity at Howard University, went on to recite a passage from the Bible.
"'The Lord is my light and my salvation -- whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life -- of whom shall I be afraid?'" she quoted from Psalm 27.
I want to live in a world of Bree Newsomes.
This month, on our nation’s birthday we have seen progress in becoming an even more perfect union. Confederate flags coming down, the rainbow flag of marriage equality being raised, and the stars and stripes whipping in the wind right beside. Flags raised over the home of the steadily MORE free, and the certainly MORE brave. As Theodore Parker said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It is time for the Christian Church to help bend this moral arc of the universe toward justice for all God’s people. If we are each and all a part of God’s family, caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, no one is free until everyone is free. The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? It’s time for us to stop being nice, and start being good.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.