From that night on, he knew they’d kill him. He had come home a day after having been arrested, intimidated, and thrown in jail for a trumped-up traffic violation. His wife and baby daughter were in bed. It was midnight, and he sat alone at the kitchen table. The phone rang, and when he answered it a voice on the other end of the line vomited every epithet imaginable, putting particular emphasis on the “N” word. Then the voice said, “We’ve taken everything from you we want. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
And Martin Luther King, Jr. knew. He didn’t know if it would be the next day, the next week, or in several years, but he knew just as certainly as if an Old Testament prophet had predicted it eons ago that they would kill him if he would not be silent.
That night, Martin Luther King was doubting and afraid. He thought of his wife and daughter and the danger to which he’d exposed them. He felt himself begin to falter under the weight of his conviction.
In Mark today, Jesus comes home. When last Jesus left Nazareth, he was a construction worker, a day laborer (which is what “carpenter” most likely means in the biblical context) who’d wandered east to check out his crazy cousin John baptizing in the River Jordan. The good folk of Nazareth haven’t seen him since, but they’ve received increasingly strange reports by those who travel through town. If the reports weren’t so frequent, they’d be dismissed as so many jokes. First, citizens hear this Jesus—a poor, lower-class, boy born in questionable circumstances—is preaching in the countryside as if he knows God. That’s bad enough. But then reports waft in that with Jesus the mentally ill have been soothed. The sick have been healed. Those whose lives are paralyzed have found the strength to walk, to move forward with new hope and promise. Worst of all, as Jesus’ power has grown, his message has become threatening to some. He has spoken of the Way that leads to the kingdom of God, and however you try to interpret it, it is a way that brings discomfort to those who are comfortable as it raises up those whom the world has cast low.
Today, unannounced, Jesus walks back into Nazareth, his hometown. The Greek word for “hometown” used in Mark is “patris,” which is the same root from which we get the terms “patriot” and “patriotism.” That’s interesting, isn’t it? That the lectionary would posit this text on this of all weekends, as our eyes still glimmer in the afterglow of last night’s fireworks, with our stomachs still comfortably full of Independence Day fare, suggests to me what might be called in today’s parlance a “God moment.”
On this Independence Day weekend, it is surely fair to ask, “What is patriotism?” At its root, as in Mark today, to be a patriot is simply to be from the patris, nothing more or less than to be a member of some organized political entity: a city, a state, or a nation. But we know from the emotions that welled in us as last night’s sky was lit by starbursts that, for us, patriotism is also more than this. Indeed the second verse of “America the Beautiful,” which we just sang, says:
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife. Patriotism, then, is tied to liberty. But what is liberty? The easiest answer might be that liberty is freedom from any and all fetters placed upon us. We enjoy the most liberty in this sense when we are free to do whatever, whenever, and however we choose. But that is, at root, a selfish definition, and it doesn’t fit with the verse just quoted, about those “who more than self their country loved.” The heroes of Katherine Lee Bate’s blessed hymn were focused not on their own individualistic selves, but on something larger than themselves. What was it? The hymn reminds us: They sacrificed their very lives to free their brothers and sisters from strife. This was the liberty they cherished, for which they lived and died: to raise up the one next to them, to ensure his liberty, or hers.
The ideal of this great patris in which we are blessed to live was penned by Thomas Jefferson two and a half centuries ago: “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.” And patriots are those who give themselves to this ideal of the patris, who are willing to sacrifice even life, if necessary, to ensure that this equality and these rights are freely enjoyed by all.
As sidebar, it’s important to note that patriotism differs from nationalism. Nationalism extols the existence of the state for its own sake. The state is seen as the collective embodiment of power, strength, and security. The core of one’s being becomes the state—not its virtues or ideals but the mere fact of it. The state becomes a fetish and an idol on which the nationalist hangs his hopes, and the nationalist obstinately refuses to acknowledge when the state has become an impediment to liberty rather than its defender. Beware nationalism. Beware when we hear it from our politicians, and doubly beware when we hear it from our preachers.
Not so, patriotism. Rather than giving his heart to the mere fact of the patris, the patriot gives his heart to the best that the patris stands for, and the patriot does this even in the face of fear, challenge, ridicule and assault by those who claim patriotism but have lost an understanding of what liberty really means.
We see, then, in today’s passage from Mark that Jesus is the patriot. He enters the patris of his hometown as the one who embodies, come what may, God’s hope for Israel, the liberty that is the kingdom of God. But we must pay attention to the character of this liberty. It is a liberty in which all the lonely and the lost are found; those with blinded eyes—and those with blinded hearts—are given sight; those who have been pushed to the bottom of society and walked upon are raised up in love.
The citizens of Nazareth want nothing to do with this patriot Jesus. His liberty doesn’t strike them as good news. It sounds threatening to their well-being. It sounds as if it might require something of them, some sort of cataclysmic change in the way they see the world, like fireworks lighting up a darkened night sky. And so they ridicule Jesus. The spread rumors that he has no father. They threaten him. In Luke’s account they actually manhandle Jesus and try to throw him off a cliff in order to shut him up. They’ll fail in that attempt, and he won’t be silenced, but Jesus also knows the cost of his patriotism will eventually be his death. Self-sacrifice is the price he’ll pay for his commitment to the liberty of God.
I have been out of town for the past two Sundays, and my goodness, this nation has changed in my absence! Things tragic, joyous, and challenging all occurred while I and twenty-eight Cathedral pilgrims were away: the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, the historic changes wrought at our own General Convention. My clergy colleagues here have preached passionately on these specific topics, so I will instead offer this: Often on Independence Day weekend, the question arises whether the United States is a Christian nation. People with varying stakes in the answer to this question address it in different ways. I would respond by asking about the character of our patriotism. What does it look like? It seems to me that the degree to which we are both faithful Christians and good patriots is perhaps best discerned by the degree to which our American patriotism also looks like the patriotism of Jesus, the degree to which we pursue his liberty in our private and public lives, in our hearts and in society, and the degree to which we are committed to that liberty, even in the midst of ridicule and danger.
In other words, for those of use who claim to be both Christian and American, our patriotism is measured by whether or not we are working toward a day in which the kingdom of God envisioned by Jesus is witnessed in the nation around us. According to that yard stick, in our responses to the issues facing us these days, how patriotic are we?
Real patriotism was surely evident in the tortured prayer of that twenty-seven year-old preacher in Montgomery, with whom I began this sermon, who understood better than most what it looks like to champion the kingdom of God in the patris. That night Martin Luther King prayed, “Lord…I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage.”
And Jesus Christ responded, “Martin, stand up. Take courage. And I will be with you to the end of the world.” And King stood as a patriot, even at the cost of his own life.
We remember again this weekend the birth of a nation unlike any other, one founded not through a desire for power but through a passion for liberty. May liberty be our passion, through which we commit ourselves to God’s vision for this and every land. It is a vision in which aching hearts stand not alone, hungry children are fed, and lost souls are found; where those of us born of plenty freely give of our lives in order that all God’s children may know love and joy. May that vision dazzle us like fireworks in the sky, so that we commit ourselves to it against every challenge—including self-sacrifice if necessary—that we stand up and take courage wherever God leads us.