“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that [God’s] justice cannot sleep forever.” Tough words at the beginning of a summer sermon, I know. “I tremble for my country.” Don’t blame me, blame Thomas Jefferson. The words belong to our third president, etched into the Northeast portico of the Jefferson memorial, his Greek Temple on the Washington Mall. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Jefferson’s theme, and his fear, I take today for my sermon entitled “on citizenship.”
A conflict about who counts was written into our American founding documents. Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” even as he held human beings in slavery, even as he denied Sally Hemings a legal capacity to consent to or flee his advances. Jefferson knew better. He aspired to more. Jefferson, like so many of the framers failed to live up to his best aspirations. He failed to make good on his convictions. He left a nation with a legacy of slavery. The conflict at the heart of our country at its founding continues to this day. Whose voice counts? Whose vote counts? In short, who has a say, who has agency? Who de we count as a “citizen?”
Jesus and Citizenship
In the time of Jesus, the question of citizenship also presented political energy. Certain people counted more. Certain people had more say. Certain people had more power.
Jairus was one of those people. Jesus and the disciples step off the boat and Jairus appears. Mark calls him a “leader of the synagogue” a way of saying this man exercised spiritual, but also economic and political power. Jairus counted more. Of course the disciples and Jesus hurry to follow him. They are hoping for a pay day. Jesus’s reputation as a healer is growing. If powerful folks like Jairus start seeking out the teacher, they might fund the ministry longterm. So they went with Jairus.
Then notice, notice what happens. As the crowd presses in, looking for miracles, headed toward the wealthy and powerful man’s house, the unexpected occurs. Jesus stops. He looks all around. “Who touched me?” Jesus asks. The disciples are in a hurry, and they’re flabbergasted. They want to get on with the potentially lucrative task at hand. “How can you say ‘who touched me?’ with this crowd?” Still, Jesus won’t be dissuaded.
A suffering woman, bankrupted by medical bills, courageously raises her hand. She comes and tells Jesus her “whole truth.” Jesus lifts up her face. He sees her, smiles. He takes the time to speak with this woman who had learned to be quiet, unobtrusive, who had learned from her neighbors she was unfit to be seen. She thought to herself, “if I can just touch the hem of his robe and disappear…” But Jesus had other thoughts. Jesus wanted her to be seen. For Jesus Jairus mattered. Jairus’ daughter mattered, but this woman also mattered. She had a voice. She had a story. She had a truth, a whole truth to tell. She had a vote. She was a citizen of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ followers, the powerful men, they all want to push ahead to the place of power, to the house of the leader of the synagogue. Ignore her, she’s beyond help. Rush to the little girl’s bedside. Her dad can afford to pay for her care. I can’t help but notice how many times in this passage, men are eager to make health care decisions for women. Some things never change. Some change is overdue.
Jesus subverts the power dynamics of his day. And he goes further. He looks at the woman who has been healed, and he refuses credit. He says, “Your faith has made you well.” I need to admit to you, the miracle stories around Jesus often make me wary.
Jesus and Healing more than the Body
We live in a day where we know a great deal more about biology. I’ve seen miraculous healings, but the miracles have often been facilitated by medicine. I have family and friends who have lived for years “cancer free” after surgery and chemo. I’ve also known too many stories of people who died young when modern medicine failed. Miracle stories make me nervous. This phrase Jesus often uses “your faith has made you well” makes me wonder if my faith wasn’t enough, if the faith of a loved one wasn’t enough, to merit a healing.
But today, in this story, I hear Jesus oft-used words a bit differently. “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus doesn’t want the credit. It’s not his magic touch. It’s not some divine fiber woven into the hem of his robe. Jesus didn’t heal this woman on his own. Her faith, her agency, her persistence, her audacity, the woman’s faith healed her. “You have power. You have a voice. You have a story.” Jesus wants her to tell her truth.
Reading the Gospels a pattern emerges around healing stories. In the previous story, just before this one, same chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Just before they reach this town, Jesus was among the Gerasenes. There he healed a man suffering seizures. His fellow townsfolk had tried to restrain him among the tombs. He was cast out, seen as possessed, unclean, unfit to participate in society. Jesus casts out his demons, and he says to the man: “Go home and tell your friends.” Jesus heals the man not just from his physical malady, but from his separation. Jesus tells him to find his friends, his neighbors. Go back into town. Tell them how you were healed. Jesus restores the man to his rightful place. He counts among the town’s citizens.
Again and again Jesus reincorporates the cast out, the left out, the abandoned. After Jesus hears the whole truth of this woman healed from bleeding, a group is dispatched from Jairus’ house. They tell Jesus he is too late. The little girl is dead. Still Jesus won’t be dissuaded. Little girl, get up.
Following Jesus means looking for those society leaves behind, those who are judged lesser, voiceless, meddlesome, problematic. Jesus takes the time. Jesus hears their story. Jesus brings healing, and brings them to the table. He counts them as citizens in God’s Kingdom. And that citizenship matters. That participation matters. Jesus reminds us, we belong to a whole bigger than ourselves, bigger than our limited images. We belong to one another, and that belonging matters.
Celebrating “Independence” and “Citizenship”
This week we will celebrate “Independence.” The best story of independence in America was in the background of Jefferson’s memorial quotes. Our founders, for perhaps the first time in human history, recognized the independent rights of human beings in government documents. We believe in individual rights, human rights. This is the best sense of our talk of citizenship. When we have used the title “citizen” expansively, we have written the best stories of America. When women fought for and won the vote. When schools were desegregated. When we passed the Civil Rights act. When Justice Kennedy wrote a majority opinion guaranteeing a right to marriage for same-sex couples, we have stood in the best of America’s stories. We celebrate the spirit of independence that inspired these struggles. We understood that citizenship meant standing up for freedom, recognizing agency.
But I would venture that one of America’s biggest sins also can be found in the background in that same word “independence.” Among our gravest sins, where we miss the boat as a nation, is when we function from a sort of radical individualism. When we stand alone. When we close ourselves off. When we define our citizenship not by our capacity to expand protections, to expand who counts. When we define our citizenship negatively saying, “citizenship is something I can have, and you cannot.” When we say, “We have no need of your voice, your story, your talent, because we can do this ourselves” then we work from the flip side of our best virtues, the sense that if I have my land, my fence, and my gun I don’t need anyone else. I’m a lonesome cowboy. When we act from this impulse we often do great harm as a nation.
American Sin and Separated Families
We saw these past weeks, one manifestation of our capacity great harm. Little children have been caged by our government, separated from their parents, by our attorney general, by our president. This is sinful. This is a crime. Immediately after the election, I preached about the importance of possessive pronouns, “our government,” “our attorney general,” “our president.” Possessive pronouns are important because they remind us to whom political leaders are accountable, and in whose name they act
I don’t have concrete policy proposals for you today regarding immigration. I would point you to our partners at Cristosal who work every day for human rights of Central Americans fleeing violence. They have some phenomenal policy proposals. I’m not pointing to specific policy, but I can name the sin I see happening in our name.
These past weeks we have witnessed blatant public violations of the human rights of asylum-seeking families. Those violations are happening in our name. Violations of human rights have been occurring in our name on our Southern border for decades, and violations of human rights are woven into the very fabric of our county. We know racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. They are real, persistent, and in many places still enforced as the law of our land. Real harm continues to be done in our name. Lives continue to be lost in our name.
We Harm more than the others. We harm ourselves.
When we engage in the kind of behavior we have seen the past few weeks, when we work as a people from this radically individualist story, when we claim our citizenship by discounting others’, we damage the very fabric of our identity, even for those of us who are surely counted as citizens. Harm does not only happen to the “others” when we act out our lesser story as a nation. When we move from a small individualism, we can harm ourselves.
Back in 2006, I moved back to California from Honduras. I went from volunteering in a neighborhood called San Juan de la Vega, at the time one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere to working in La Jolla California, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world. I heard a statistic in my first months back in California that stopped me short. What was striking is that the suicide rates in both neighborhoods, in Honduras and California were the same and remarkably high.
I mention wealth because a certain degree of wealth is endemic in the “American Dream” of citizenship and independence. The American dream can become a nightmare if we only interpret the dream to mean: I” will have enough money to be able to lock my picket fence and retreat inside my McMansion.” Fierce independence has the capacity to leave us fiercely alone.
We were not made to be lonely. As the news continues to grow grim, it can be tempting to retreat, to withdraw. Don’t. Our world needs dreamers. Our world needs folks with the capacity to see what is lovable, what is loving. Our world needs good citizens, caring citizens, and more of them. We are made for independence, yes, but we are also made for interdependence.
Words from a Muslim Scholar
The Muslim Scholar Omid Safi wrote this week words that have been bread for my journey:
“This is a generational struggle. There are no quick fixes. Injustice and bigotry did not begin with Trump. And it will not end with him. Part of the challenge of our age is that we will have to keep reaching out to one another, holding each other up, and replenishing ourselves in the very midst of struggle.
“Our souls are tired, our bodies weary. And we have to learn what is good for our souls, what replenishes our hearts, and do it and do it over and over again. To practice this kind of self-care is a revolutionary act of resistance and survival. Take care of your own heart, and the hearts of those who stand with you in building a better world.”
Your faith, your community, your willingness to show up, to persist, to be audacious with your hope. Your willing to count the lost, the least, the left out among the citizens, to hear their voices, to make their rights real. Your willingness to offer a vote and a place to all God’s children. It will make you well. It will make America well again. Your faith can heal. We can still write some of our best American stories.
Back Among the Monuments: Expanding our Sense of Citizenship
When I lived in Washington, I often took a tour of the monuments at night. I think the monuments are at their most spectacular when the image of the marble appears in the ripples of the tidal basin or in Lincoln’s long reflecting pool. Standing on the steps of Lincoln’s monument, you can see Jefferson’s. If Jefferson trembles about God’s justice, Lincoln seems to answer in the words of his second inaugural are also etched in stone:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Malice toward none and charity for all…Who will you count in this American project? Who will count as your neighbor? As your friend? As your fellow citizen? For whom will you pray? With whom will you stand? Jesus will meet you in the work to bind, to build, to tell the whole truth. We can achieve and cherish a just and lasting piece. This is a time not for shrinking, but for growth as a nation, as a collective of citizens. When we have seen citizenship not as a resource to be defended, but as a project to be shared, we have been closer to the dream Jesus has for our world. Our faith can make us well.