Harrowing Of Hell
July 4, 2021

This Sunday, the Fourth of July

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, Seekers, and Friends!

Happy Fourth of July everyone. I am offering up a special prayer of thanksgiving for everyone joining us today both here in the church building and at home because I am so glad that you are taking the time to celebrate our Lord Jesus Christ and our Epiphany community on a day that we associate more with flags and firecrackers and picnics and barbeques than we do with church – but when July 4th falls on Sunday, we get to do both!

I don’t know about you but this  Independence Day, I find myself thinking about past celebrations with friends and family and community. For those of you who know me, you probably know that this kind of thinking always takes me back to my memories growing up in my hometown of Lewistown, Montana. Most of you probably already know more about my hometown than a body needs know. But bear with me, because you can take the girl out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of the girl, right?

Anyway, not only do I think about my hometown on the 4th of July, I  also find that  a couple of foods  which I actually only  buy about once a year, really make it feel like the 4th of July – do you have some? What kind of foods do you associate with Independence Day?  For me it is corn on the cob and a slice or two of ice-cold watermelon and that is because those two things were always part of our 4th of July festivities …. When I was a child, our Independence Days delightfully consistent—which is to say,  pretty much the same every year. And for us kids that was great! If we weren’t in it, we always walked down to the parade on Main Street (the parade floats, tractors, fire trucks, folks on horses and in cars would line up right across the street from my childhood home ) . After that, we would come home and drive out to the fairgrounds where we would walk around and look at exhibits for an hour or so and visit the concessions sold by our friends in various different local service groups to help them with their service work, of course. So, we usually would get a corn on the cob from one group, and maybe a soda or lemonade from another and often a cotton candy from the Shriners who served as the clowns in the parade every year and threw out the candy to Lewistown children. We would then go home and get ready for our big cook-out or picnic with  grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, a ton of different kinds salads, more corn on the cob, pies and, of course, watermelon! Just remembering the process of prepping our watermelon for the meal always brings a smile to my face. I remember we would get a big watermelon and put it in this 10-gallon bucket filled with cold water continually being slowly refreshed by the garden hose on which we put a brick to hold it in place both in the bucket and top of the watermelon below the surface. And because the cold water from Lewistown’s natural Spring, Spring Creek, came straight out of the tap as cold as ice water, the watermelon would be so cool and delicious that its hard to explain just how delicious it tasted on what was usually a hot day.

I owe these good memories to my family. As my grandparents moved to Lewistown when my father was in high school, the Garcias had been in town long enough to be considered local and so we knew almost everyone who was “someone” in town. Add to that the fact that my mom was an amazing cook who was always feeding our friends and neighbors and the fact that my dad was super funny, could talk to ANYONE about anything for hours– seriously, he had the gift of gab and he was great on the grill where he and the guys would man the hot dogs and hamburgers. So, our holidays were filled with friends and family and most of our neighbors. These were the kind of things we did – nothing fancy or too exciting– but fun, just the same, and one of the simple blessings of living in a small town.

I guess I have been thinking about this because of the juxtaposition of Independence Day with our gospel reading for today because our story is about Jesus returning for the first time to his hometown since he began his ministry of spreading the Good News . As the first gospel written after the death of Jesus, Mark’s narrative of our Lord’s life and ministry really centers on Jesus’ humanity—his lived experience. Mark is missing some of the flash and theology that the later gospels include. And so  we are given this simple but profound story of Jesus, returning to his hometown of Nazareth and teaching in its synagogue. This is the place where Jesus would have grown up, where he would remember passing the holidays and holy days with family and friends. We have walked with Jesus and his disciples through the previous chapters of Mark, witnessing Jesus doing amazing things throughout Galilee and on both sides of the Sea of Galilee, but this is the first time he has come “home” in his messianic role. Knowing all the miracles and the wonderful works Jesus has done since beginning his ministry, we might expect Jesus to do even greater things in his hometown where he knew folks and where folks knew him. However, this is not the case in our story today. 

We read:

Jesus 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.

For those of us who grew up in small towns, we probably are less surprised. We know that this story speaks about the other, less-than-wonderful, side of being from a small town. Small towns are great.  You have many connections and friendships with folks in your community and folks know and recognize you wherever you go, BUT and there is a but– in a small town everyone knows your business – and not just your business but about everything your entire family has done for generations.  And, it isn’t right for hometown folks, even hometown folks who made good, to get above their station—what did they used to call it – put on airs or get too big for their boots.  So, in today’s gospel, while the folks in Nazareth’s synagogue did not necessarily dispute the content of Jesus’ teaching, they took exception to the manner in which he taught. How dare he the carpenter, Mary’s son, teach them as one with authority in the synagogue. Sure folks in other places may believe in him, may have bought his act, if you will, but they knew him a heck of a lot better than they did. They knew who he really “was’ and they had a lot to say about him and his family.  Theologian Emerson Powery notes that their description of him as “the carpenter,” “the son of Mary,” purposely ignored any mention of his father. In so doing they were directly insulting Jesus and his honor hinting that he was conceived illegitimately. That one from with his family history, with a fatherless lineage, would dare teach them about God, was “scandalous” to them. Mark uses the term skandalidzo which we’ve translated as “took offense. ” Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke who sanitize, if you will, this aspect of Jesus’ life, Mark recounts how Jesus’ humanity was viewed by others and how they sought to shame him and his family.

In today’s gospel, however, Jesus responds to his hometown’s harsh assessment of him by re-framing his role. They can say what they will, but they cannot take away his dignity or his important heritage as God’s son. He responds, “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” and while he probably would have liked to have done great things for his former neighbors and community, their contempt and disbelief made it more difficult for him. How disheartening it must have been. Jesus who had grown up with and in the midst of these folks was not subjected to their scorn.

As this fourth of July falls on Sunday this year, I can’t help but think of the ways that our secular societies differs from God’s kingdom.  Right now, even as we emerge from the pandemic, we are being forced to come face-to-face with the inequality that many in our country have long suffered since before this nation was born. And for some reason this year, it feels like the stars on our flag have dimmed a little. The New York Times had an article yesterday that talked about assumptions folks are making about our flag and those who choose to fly the American flag. And how it seems like the flag doesn’t speak to both sides of our divided nation. As the truth that the independence the colonies celebrated after their revolution from England didn’t usher in freedom to all human beings living in what would become the United States is being told , there are those who refuse to hear it. While many things have changed since Jesus’ time, it seems like our inability to believe that there is enough goodness, enough honor, enough grace for all God’s children hasn’t. The folks that question Jesus’ authority in today’s story might have actually liked Jesus the carpenter. But in a world which puts a value on honor and privilege and which seeks ‘stability’ and order at all costs, Jesus’ teaching and ministry which honors every human being is a very dangerous notion.  Because in God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ cross ushers in a new world of freedom and divine citizenship to all. As I look out on all your faces today, I see the beloved heirs of hope – the very children of God—a gift that Jesus came down to earth to give to each one of us.

Sometimes, we let the views of our neighbors and friends keep us small. But we must not forget that we are God’s children and members of God’s family. We were made for bigger things. This Independence Day let’s begin to boldly and audaciously be the people God has made us to be. Let us speak with the authority God has given us even when we feel like others are not listening. We must remember as God tells the prophet Ezekiel, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

There are always going to be those who cannot bear to see us in our full light and glory —but we still need to go forth and preach the Good News. Who do we think we are to teach others? We are Christians. We are Christ’s body the church and  the secular world needs to know that prophets are, indeed, among them. God is with us each and every day and loves us knowing our family history and our business. So, don’t let’s dim our divine and audacious spark regardless of where the day finds us. May all  your day be filled with all the good things — gratitude, corn on the cob and maybe even a slice  ice cold watermelon. And feel free to use fireworks, or at least sparklers too!