Sermon: At the Public Square by Rev. Ben Roberts

July 04, 2021

Sermon: At the Public Square | Mark 6: 1-13

Rev. Ben Roberts

Preached at Foundry United Methodist Church on July 4, 2021

It could be the type of situation where someone goes home, and they just know you too well to take you seriously. The kind of place where, any time you start talking about something serious, someone responds with a story like, “I remember when you were just a little feller running around bonking a giant yellow bowl on your head. You’d just run around saying ‘bonk, bonk, bonk’ — tapping the bowl on your head like a giant hat.”

It can be hard to lead those who know you or know you best.

In Jesus’ case today, the problem was less an issue with lovingly nostalgic family members and more an issue of proper place. Dr. Emerson Powery, in his commentary on this week’s text, reminds us of the functions of honor and shame in Mark’s society. He points out that the crowd in this sequence question and point to Jesus’ brothers, sisters, and mother. No mention of a father, which is the clue showing that the crowd challenges his authority by shaming him based on his perceived illegitimate conception, affirming his low standing in the community.

This “direct insult” is first and foremost an effort to end the conversation or teachings. Some, or at least enough of the crowd, center their feelings and objections to his teachings and use the insult to scandalize and discredit this otherwise powerful, wise teacher. The community as a function of structured life together has deemed this uncontrollable aspect of Jesus’ identity to be sufficient cause for him to have low standing or no authority.

Overly familiar neighbors or truly scandalous public assertiveness, the point is to stop hearing this prophetic teaching. So often in Mark, it is Jesus’ actions and teachings that are the real offense and scandal for anyone hearing or watching. This is especially true for those holding power and privileged positions of leadership, such as the Priests (who twisted systems of purity and debt to their own advantage), Roman colonizers and collaborators (who benefited from the taking of land, labor, and goods, if say tributes/tax weren’t/couldn’t be paid), or even the Zealots (whose efforts were more geared to a militaristic takeover of the system for their own advantage).

Jesus seems to have had a very annoying stance of nonalignment with any of those groups and strategies and very often criticized them if not outright undermined them. This is how Jesus brought his faith and message into the intersections of the public square, and I suppose it could have gone better.

Hearing a challenging message this age or any age, does not seem to produce such a different result. A queer voice in the United Methodist Church (if they’re out), a homeless voice for housing (if it means higher taxes), a Black voice for police reform (if it’s too loud), latinx voice for citizenship (if they weren’t straight-A students), a resident of public housing’s voice (really for anything anywhere), saying anything if it sounds (too political); while not comprehensive or perfect as a metaphor we still see voices like these muted or not prioritized in the public square.

The crowd of the public square is still adept at finding a reason not to act upon or even receive a message from or about the vulnerable, and I am often in the crowd. But the consequences of a lack of openness to prophetic messages for liberation, in any age, remain too deadly to hold our silence or maintain our refusal to receive a word of challenge.

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4).

Again, Powery points out that operating within an honor/shame society, prophets were generally ones who would receive honor, but prophets are usually operating where they are less known. However, for that to be true in someone’s hometown, it likely, and for Jesus in this case, means taking a space or share of honor from someone else and above his appointed or birth share — at least that’s the fear. It remains that the point here was to keep Jesus’ message from taking root and Jesus himself, and anyone else, from moving up or potentially down the ladder.

I’m struck at the notion of the message and ministry doing better outside one’s hometown. I’m left with the thought how different or perhaps impossible it would have been if James Baldwin wasn’t writing from Paris or how that the “Ripple of Hope” speech Robert Kennedy gave in South Africa wouldn’t have the same reception in South Boston. This was not a right time right place thing in Jesus’ case.

“He could do no deed of power” (Mark 6:5)

He could do no deed of power. Fine. But he was still making his way around and curing sick people, it seems, despite the crowd’s “unbelief.” These acts of healing are made to sound almost small in our narrative, but I assure they were community shifting in nature.

Last week Pastor Kelly’s sermon included the story of the woman with a 12-year hemorrhage. But for anyone who was ill or unclean they became subject to purity laws and rituals. They were held out of communal participation. And as a matter of becoming hopefully clean again or to attempt to atone for transgressing the purity laws, would have to render payment or sacrifice.

For the woman with the hemorrhage, and for someone like a farm worker coming in contact almost daily with blood or manure, they could be in a repetitious state of uncleanliness and relentlessly subject to requirements of payment and sacrifice or be excluded…but you gotta work.

I’ll oversimplify here. These medical bills could drive and keep already vulnerable people in a cycle of poverty and further sickness because their work or personhood simply exposed them more often and they couldn’t afford to get out.

There was a system meant to help in a hardship situation; a required debt system where some goods from everyone were put into a centralized place (synagogue/temple) which could be re-distributed to should the need arise. The goods could be sent out in times of famine, war, or community need.

However, it was controlled by the same religious leaders as the purity systems, and either from apathy, corruption, or a perverse incentive to maintain their own financial flow; the debt system meant to help started to contribute further to people’s suffering.

James Newton Poling in “Render unto God” notes that “Restoring purity was expensive. When Jesus healed such people, he was bypassing the purity system and objecting to the debt system that contributed to the poverty of the poor.” So let’s try this again.

Jesus goes into his home synagogue, a public square for all manner of activity; religious, political, economic. He begins teaching to anyone listening including those in charge. Those whose responsibility it is to see to the wellbeing of the community. Whose responsibility it is to care for the sick per the purity laws. To care for the poor per the law and through the reciprocity and debt systems. Those who often found themselves called upon to maintain order under threat or on behalf of the Romans. And everyone else, including some likely harmed directly by the ways those systems had been twisted. He spoke with authority. He taught with wisdom. He talked about systems of oppression. He was insulted, and likely run out.

So, he started messing with people’s money. Healed a few sick people. He was astounded at their unbelief. But he couldn’t open them up — that’s my phrasing — he could do no deed of power.

Jesus’ faith is rooted in that baseline understanding, love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. In so doing we ensure that the good creation indeed has enough to meet every economic, physical, or spiritual need anyone might have. Jesus’ faith is one of liberation for those who suffer. That liberation doesn’t come from prayers to the Donkey, or Elephant, or to the bronze eagle of the Roman Empire, but in a powerful and vulnerable act of opening oneself to the possibility of God’s work in the world.

Opening to the prophetic messages already and always out there. Opening ourselves up to the possibility that I might be part of the crowd and beneficiary of twisted systems, recognizing there’s grace even for me. Opening ourselves up to the fact that God calls and can use us, no matter what anyone else may deem insufficient about your personhood or what names they want to call you.

God is interested in the discourses and systems at play at the public square. Jesus’ ministry is at once and always spiritual and political, in that it cares for how we have life and how we have life together. This encounter at the synagogue becomes the playbook for the sending out of the disciples.

Hometown ministry or anywhere else, in the final verses Jesus instructs the disciples to pare themselves down in dress and resources, “no bag, no money.” Essentially, take no pretense, no high or low expectation, keep yourself open to what you will encounter.

Be organized with partners go to places and build relationships. Listen and help name what is broken, what is unjust, and what needs healing…even to the powerful of the public square. And if the crowd refuses to be open, move on. To the next leader, the next house, even just the next day or opportunity to speak words of life in spaces where they’re desperately needed.

God is interested in the discourses and systems at play at the public square. God asks us to live our faith at this intersection. God knows twisted power’s effect intimately, living and experiencing it through Jesus’ life. God knows intimately how the crowd reacts, rejects, and finds excuses. But none of that can stop God’s power for healing and liberation.

Be of good courage, because the God who knows and loves this whole creation, knows, and loves you, and goes ever before you.