Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 4, 2021
On March 25, 1892, my great-grandfather, Michele DiPietro entered the United States of America on a ship from Sicily through Ellis Island. He couldn’t speak a lick of English. Along with thousands of other Italians he came to American shores looking for something else, for something more. His listed profession was “cutter” because he worked with fabrics. Years later, when he signed up for the World War I draft, he gave himself a promotion and took the title of “designer.” Michele, now Anglicized as “Michael” gave birth to a son in 1914. Another Michael DiPietro, my grandfather.
But growing up in Brooklyn, my grandfather’s family never quite fit in. The assumption was that, being Sicilian, his family was part of the mafia. Like I said, my great-grandfather was a designer, he made women’s dresses, but some prejudices just won’t go away. So they were outsiders, they didn’t fit in with the Italians, they didn’t fit in with the other working-class families. That was life in Brooklyn. So here he was – the son of an immigrant, the son of a dressmaker, a Sicilian among Italians, a foreigner without a home.
On this Independence Day, my family’s story brings up that most awkward of American questions – what is home? From my family’s perspective, home wasn’t Italy, because the Italians wouldn’t have them. It wasn’t Sicily, they had left Sicily. It was Brooklyn, but Brooklyn didn’t want them. Then in World War II, my grandfather joined the Army and served for the country that had taken in his family as immigrants but wouldn’t accept them for who they were. Like most American stories, it’s a complicated story. So my grandfather serves honorably, leaves the Army as a major, and settles in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher and then becomes a priest. On this Independence Day, as we reflect on who we are as a country, we come to grips with these questions of identity. Who is my grandfather? Is he Sicilian, Italian, or American? What was home for him? Was he a priest, a soldier, a teacher, a father? And in turn, who am I? Who are my people? Where do I come from? Where is my home? These are the American questions.
And these are the questions Jesus must be asking himself. He returns to his hometown of Nazareth, back to his own people, his family, the other kids he grew up with. And they don’t know what to do with him. “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?” (Mark 6:4). He’s one of them, but not really. Nazareth is his home, but he doesn’t fit in anymore. And notice what it says – the people of Nazareth “took offense at him.” The technical translation is, they “were scandalized by him.” Again, the questions are complicated. Who is Jesus? Where is his home? Is he a carpenter? A prophet? The guy they knew from growing up? What does his family think of him? Who does he fit in with? These are complicated questions.
Little wonder, then, that the early church struggled so much with questions of identity, too. Do you have to be Jewish to follow Jesus? How do the Gentiles fit in? Is this a sect, a religion, a community of friends, a movement? Sometimes in our minds we create an idealized version of the early church where everybody sang “kum-bay-yah” and got along and never had any problems. That’s just not reality, though. All throughout the Acts of the Apostles and the history of the early church, they keep coming back to these complicated questions of identity. Who are we?
The question is turned to us. Who are you? Consider your own family histories, your American stories, your own histories with the Church. They bring up complicated questions. Just in our parish alone, six continents are represented. On a Sunday morning you hear accents from all around the country and all around the world. So who are we? What is our story? It’s complicated business being human.
Complicated questions call for complicated answers. And that’s where a little Latin will come in handy – “e pluribus unum.” One from many. See, what Jesus creates is a new family. As Christians, our new identity is found in the waters of baptism. We who have been through those waters are made into something new. We are made into the one family of Christ. Everything old – blood lines, heritage, country, place of birth – are drowned in those waters so that something new can rise up. As Christians, we don’t ever quite fit in to the world around us, and we never should. Attaching too strongly to any of our worldly identities would mean losing sight of our true identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We ought to have this uneasy relationship with the world around us, just as the Lord Jesus has an uneasy relationship with his hometown.
But my grandfather’s story and this story of Jesus returning to his hometown is all in the past. What about the future? Not only, who have we been and where have we come from? But, who will we be and where are we going? These are the complicated questions we are asking ourselves as Americans. And I think, in part, this question of identity is the fulcrum upon which all our conversations are centered. Who and what do we want to be?
These questions are not dissimilar from what we are asking in the Church. Who do we want to be? How should the world know us? Who is joining us and how do they define us? What things do we need to hang on to and what things can we let go? Why should we want to live together as Christians when it would be easier to split apart? And while these are complicated questions I have great hope. I have hope that the Church can realize the potential before us. When the crowd wonders at Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters they fail to realize the potential before them – they, too, can be counted as the family of Jesus. “Whoever does the will of God is a brother and sister and mother” of Jesus (Mark 3:35). We can be one family under one God, because there is One Lord, One faith, one baptism. We do not have the same history, or blood, or heritage. We speak different languages, we have different family stories, have different dreams of the future before us, but we do have the same trust in the Lord Jesus. One from many.
As the people of Nazareth were scandalized, our identity as Christians should scandalize the world. The world should be scandalized that such a people as the Church can exist. The world should take offense that a people like us – from every corner of the earth – can be one in Christ. We, as the Church, have no hometown, because we are in every town. We have no nation, we come from every nation. We have no earthly ruler, we have a heavenly ruler. We do not think about how to exclude, but how to include. Even stronger than ancestry, even stronger than citizenship, in prayer and in worship we are united with the Lord God and with each other. E pluribus unum. One from many.