St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church – Delafield, Wisconsin
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 8, 2018
V. Rev. Steven A. Peay, Ph.D.
[texts: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10/Mark 6:1-13]
I appreciate Mark Twain’s humor a great deal and one of his best lines, as far as I am concerned, was: “Familiarity breeds contempt . . . and children.” Of course, this is a variant on the original by Aesop, which came from his fable called “The Fox and the Lion.”
When first the Fox saw the Lion he was terribly frightened, and ran away and hid himself in the wood. Next time, however, he came near the King of Beasts he stopped at a safe distance and watched him pass by. The third time they came near one another the Fox went straight up to the Lion and passed the time of day with him, asking him how the family were, and when he should have the pleasure of seeing him again; then turning his tail, he parted from the Lion without much ceremony. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Jesus says something quite similar today in Mark 6:4, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin and in their own house.” In those oft-heard words we’re given the formula for why familiarity breeds contempt: we get so close, so accustomed and so comfortable that we can’t see the whole of who a person is. We only see what we’ve known or remembered -- even something new really can’t be trusted. John Shea, the theologian and story-teller, talks about it as putting someone in a box.
In the case of the villagers in Nazareth it was such a tightly constructed box that, as Mark tells us, “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.” It would not have mattered what miracle Jesus did, the thought that the carpenter’s son was doing it dropped the box tightly about his work and limited it to what was previously known, experienced and expected.
Mark Eddington makes a trenchant and disturbing comment on this text:
The theological assertion beneath this vignette is uncomfortable, but plain” the human capacity for investing in social norms, for believing in one’s own preferences is greater than the human capacity for faith. In Mark’s Gospel the person who acts beyond social norms through faith in God is rare. No socially constructed categories serve predictively: they may be rich and powerful (Jairus), poor and marginalized (the hemorrhaging woman), or acting selflessly on behalf of others (the paralytic’s friends). Even the demons that afflict the Gerasene are quicker in their faith than Jesus’ own neighbors: immediately they acknowledge his kingly authority (“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” [5:7]). The evil spirits are not bound by the social conventions that bind Jesus’ own people – and us. [Feasting on the Word, Year B – vol. 3, p. 214]
It appears that, if we choose, we can limit God’s action among us all because we can’t open ourselves to the possibility that God just might act if we got out of the way. We, then, put the limits on faith – not God – and perhaps here is an area where we might realize that we’re just not as familiar with God as we think we are.
I am particularly mindful of this as we have just celebrated the two hundred and forty-second anniversary of our nation’s birth. If ever a people have become illustrative of the reality of familiarity breeding contempt, it certainly must be we Americans. Give me a moment to make my point – and fear not, don’t worry, I’m not going to get political!
The late Daniel Elazar was a political scientist who taught at both the Bar Ilon University in Israel and Temple University in the United States. His area of specialization was the development of federal democracies. He wanted to get at the root of federal democracy and in multiple studies he traced it back all the way to the tribal confederation that was Israel. Along the way he discovered that those Old Testament roots also led up and through the Reformation to the Puritans and then, through them, to what became the United States.
Elazar described federalism in his book Exploring Federalism:
The term “federal” is derived from the Latin foedus, which, like the Hebrew brit, means covenant. In essence, a federal arrangement is one of partnership, established and regulated by a covenant, whose internal relationships reflect the special kind of sharing that must prevail among the partners, based on a mutual recognition of the integrity of each partner and the attempt to foster a special unity among them. Significantly shalom, the Hebrew term for peace, is a cognate of brit, having to do with the creation of the covenantal wholeness that is true peace. [p. 5]
The goal of the covenant is to be in right relationship and to live accordingly. Here is the origin of our federal democracy, of our free land, of our “city set upon a hill” first envisioned by John Winthrop in his sermon to those about to embark on the ‘Arbella fleet’ in 1630.
While I could spend a great deal more time talking with you about this concept, I won’t. What I will do is remind us that over the years we – as a nation – have grown quite familiar, spawned a lot of children and, I believe, grown contemptuous of whence we came, who we are, and what we should be.
Though I am a great believer in religious tolerance, I can say with confidence that the Pilgrim-Puritan founders did not feel, nor did they act in the same way toward those who believed or practiced faith differently. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people, as the “new Israel of God” set upon “an errand into the wilderness,” and thus they were the “Lord’s free people.” They would not have been open to others practicing alternative faiths, I am. However, that said, I still believe that we need to understand whence we came, what were the formative concepts of our nation and honor the roots of our founding.
Many revisionist American historians try very hard to minimize the role of religion – and the Christian faith in particular – in the formation of the American nation. Speaking as a trained historian, I think they play fast and loose; and that we suffer as a people as a result. I certainly don’t want to canonize or apotheosize the Founders, but I think we need to remind ourselves of those covenant principles – those foundational, Biblical principles – out of which they worked and on which our nation was grounded.
Part of the covenant principle engages the notion of “the common good.” Our free society is free because we have been mutually responsible toward one another. We have grown and survived as a nation because we were accountable, we were responsible, we were hard-working, we were innovative and inventive, and we took the time to care for other people. Somewhere along the 242 years of our existence we’ve grown enamored of the new holy trinity of “me, myself, and I” and have forgotten the value of community, the wonder of relationship, and the common good. It is one thing to mouth the principles of democracy, to wave the banner emblazoned “Liberty!,” but it is a very different thing to actually live one’s life in accordance with them.
Jesus speaks the word, but he also did the word. His whole life – which, of course, is quite appropriate to the Incarnate Word – embodied integrity, unselfishness and other-centeredness. Something I read speaks to the difference that living in this manner – oriented toward the common good and not just our own – can make.
A powerful illustration of the integrity and balance between “doing” the word and “speaking” the word was offered by one Hugh Thompson at the commencement exercises at Emory University several years ago. Honorary degrees were being awarded: the recipients made the requisite speeches. As is often the case, the students chatted through the whole ceremony. In fact, there was only one moment when they actually listened. “It was when a man named Hugh Thompson was speaking. Thompson was probably the least educated man on the platform. He . . . did not finish college, choosing instead to enlist in the Army, where he became a helicopter pilot.
“On March 16, 1968, he was flying a routine patrol in Vietnam when he happened to fly over the village of My Lai just as American troops, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, were slaughtering dozens of unarmed . . . villagers – old men, women, and children. Thompson set his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining . . . civilians. He ordered his tail-gunner to train the helicopter guns on the American soldiers and he ordered the gunmen to stop killing the villagers. . . .Hugh Thompson’s actions saved the lives of dozens of people . . . he was almost court-martialed. . . .It was thirty years before the Army . . . awarded him the Soldier’s Medal.
“As he stood at the microphone, the . . . rowdy student body grew still.” And then Thompson talked about his faith. Simple words. Speaking of what his parents taught him as a child Thompson said, “They taught me, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” The students were amazed at these “words of Jesus, word from Sunday school, words from worship, words of Christian testimony . . . they leapt to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.”
Thompson’s words about his faith had weight because the man had obviously “walked the talk.” In the same way, the church will not be heard if what we do as Christians is incongruous with what we say about our faith. [Michael Lindvall, Feasting, p. 214-5]
Perhaps if we get reacquainted with those basic things which have made us a great nation we would be more attentive to the common good and live integrally? Maybe the best way we can celebrate our independence, our nation’s birthday, isn’t with a day off, or with fire works (although those are wonderful things), but by celebrating our interdependence and living what we believe.
Familiarity may, indeed, breed contempt, but looking at familiar people, scenery or activities from a different perspective can help change that. I have heard the story of My Lai many times – I’m of the age that I can remember Walter Cronkite reporting it -- I have a new perspective now. Hugh Thompson’s story is going to stay with me for a long time, because here was a man who could have looked, even flown, the other way, but acted instead on the principles of his Christian faith and of his understanding of the common good.
In the days ahead our task is to get ourselves out of seeing life as the boxes we put around people, society, employment, church, faith, community, and even God. Rather than seeing the familiar, the ‘ho-hum,’ see God at work in and through those people and settings. Taking a new perspective -- trying to see and believe and live as Jesus did -- will make a difference in how we approach life day-to-day and then, so will we. Familiarity can breed many things; my prayer is that it will breed a new sense of, and commitment to, the common good, beginning right here at St. John Chrysostom parish.