Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 3, 2022
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
The red, white, and blue blunting is hanging from the front of our home. We’ve planned to grill hamburgers and hot dogs. We’ll enjoy the show over the Seawall tomorrow night. It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, what else would we do as Americans?
Now, I have my own personal traditions for the the Fourth of July. My first tradition is to read the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. It’s not long, you can do it. And I mean, isn’t that thing the whole point? That’s the reason for the bunting and the hot dogs and the festivities. Those words must have been as stirring then as they are now. “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.” “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” I read the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July because I am an American, and because I love this country.
But there’s something else that I will read tomorrow. I will read a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852 to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York. It’s not your standard red, white, and blue speech. All throughout it, Douglass calls it “your day of national independence” because, well, what’s independence to a slave (emphasis mine)? After describing the horrors of slavery, he asks, “Is this the land your Fathers loved, the freedom which they toiled to win?” It is a haunting speech, and his critiques are troubling. And yet, I read Frederick Douglass every Fourth of July because I am an American, and because I love this country.
See, a critic may actually love the thing they are criticizing. A critic is not necessarily an opponent. In fact, we may learn as much from our opponents as we do from our allies. In today’s fractious society, we want to paint everyone as enemies or friends. But I think that humanity is much more complex than that. Nowhere is this more true than in the gospels.
The Lord Jesus appoints seventy missionaries to go on ahead of him to preach, teach, proclaim. And talk about some memorable lines. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” “Like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Jesus could turn a phrase with the best of them.
But then, just when the story is getting good, the people who put together our schedule of readings cut out the best parts. As Jesus is sending out the seventy he says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.” Jesus goes on, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.” Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Caperanaum were Jewish cities. And Jesus is criticizing them. Tyre and Sidon were pagan, gentile cities. And Jesus says they would have done the right thing. I know that we get very nervous when people start criticizing us, and perhaps that’s why this part was cut out of the lectionary. Because we have trouble with criticism.
But think about this; the King of Jews, the long hoped for Messiah, the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, the same God who chose the people of Israel is now criticizing those very people. This is the same God who called Abraham aside to be the patriarch for this new people; this is the same God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; this is the same God who fed those people with bread from heaven in the wilderness. And now, this is the same God who is criticizing them.
First things first, I know we like to think of God in the Old Testament as mean and God in the New Testament as nice. Well, that doesn’t hold up here. That word Jesus uses here, “woe,” that’s a funeral word. Jesus is saying that those Jewish cities are as good as dead. It’s not exactly a nice thing to say. You get it, right? Jesus is criticizing his own people. Because a critic may actually love the thing he’s criticizing. It’s the same tension that we feel on the Fourth of July when we read both Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass.
That’s the same work that Jesus is sending out the seventy to do. Yes, he’s sending them out to heal the sick and preach good news to poor. But it’s not just to pat heads and tell their fellow Jews that everything will be alright or to prattle out some niceties. No, they are on a mission. Think of what Jesus tells them – if a town welcomes them, great. Stay there. If a town doesn’t welcome you, wipe the dust of that town off your feet in protest. Protest – a word now used in derision to characterize our opponents, or used in solidarity to describe our allies, depending on which side you happen to stand. Jesus is critical of his own people not because he hates them, but because he loves them. Because he wants them to be better, to do better. Because a critic may actually love the thing they are criticizing. Yes, Jesus loves us certainly; and though we may not want to admit it, Jesus also criticizes us. Because he loves us.
And so our minds return to the present moment. Tomorrow, as we celebrate our United States, we also come face to face with our divisions. This is not news for anybody. It’s an almost daily barrage in American life right now; to choose a side, to pick a team, to protest this or protest that. As we have been divided before, say in the 1960s, or in the 1860s. It seems that we are more often against each other than we are for each other. But we don’t like to admit it. I can’t help but notice that even here, even in the very architecture of our church, we cling to harmony and shy away from disunity. Have you noticed, for instance, that we have memorials for our parishioners who served in World War One and World War Two, but not in the Civil War or Vietnam? It says something about us. We can take the love, but not the critique.
I do not mean to “both sides” any of the dividing issues of the day; in fact, I do not mean to address any of the dividing issues of the day in this sermon. Rather, I want to hold together the tension that is American life. And to say that it is possible to criticize one another out of love. I’m not saying that we do a very good job of that, but it is possible. I want to say that we can, and should want ourselves and our country to be better, to do better; and that in order to get there, we will have to say hard things to each other. Not out of spite, not out of malice, but out of love. This also means that will have to listen to each other. It’s why I think you should read both the Declaration of Independence and Frederick Douglass tomorrow. Listen to both the praise and the criticism. Read this gospel passage again and listen to Jesus scorn his own people and praise foreigners. Hear this great command, to go out and labor and work and proclaim the gospel, even if it means a loving criticism.
Why? Because at the end, everyone is made equal. Jesus dies for everyone. There are no “both sides” at the cross. It’s not the people of Chorazin or Bethsaida or Tyre or Sidon or Capernaum that are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus – it’s all of them, it’s all of us. This, I think, is the great response to the two-sidedness out there. That we all, each of us, must humbly look to the cross and see our own sin crucified there. This is not about winners and losers, this is not about allies and opponents; horrifically, scandalously, we are all made equal in the eyes of God at the foot of the cross. And the cross, the cross that stands right there, the crosses we wear around our necks, the crosses we hang on our walls – they hold together this tension. Yes, we glory in the cross because it is the means by which we receive eternal life. But also, it stands out as a criticism, a loving rebuke, to all our evil ways. Tomorrow we eat hot dogs, and wave our flags, and go to our parades, rejoicing in our country but also wanting it to be better. But today, we take our communion, we say our prayers, we ask for forgiveness, because we are both criticized and loved by God.