The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Proper 9B 2021
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Today Americans celebrate Independence Day and our “declaration of independence” from the British Crown. But as Christians on this Sunday, we also celebrate “dependence day” and our “declaration of dependence” upon God. Our scriptures this morning pose a stark contrast between the national exceptionalism of the day and the claim of the gospel of Christ, that God’s power is perfected in our weakness and interrelatedness.
In our opening collect, we prayed that we may be utterly devoted to the Holy One and united to one another in pure affection through the grace of the Holy Spirit. In our Epistle, Paul writes to the church at Corinth who has fallen prey to alluring but false teachings. His counter to them is to insist upon his weakness, and as he proclaimed earlier in the letter, that the gospel of Christ is a treasure in a clay jar— in our beautiful, breakable, and temporal bodies— so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Corinthians 4:7). Then, in our gospel, Jesus’s ability to do “deeds of power” was not wholly autonomous but subject to others belief in him.
Previously in the gospel of Mark, Jesus had in fact enacted deeds of great power, working wonders and generously effecting miracles on land and sea, that is, until he returned home to Nazareth. Though initially impressed by his track record, and by the wisdom of his teaching in the synagogue, the townsfolk are as quickly offended by him, this carpenter and son of Mary that they know so well, or assume they do. Jesus was amazed at their unbelief, and could do no deed of power, except for curing a few people. As we read throughout the gospels, Jesus’s power to heal is often interrelated with the faith of those he ministers to; he declares, your faith has made you well [or whole]. But in this instance, Jesus might have said to the Nazarenes: your lack of faith has left me limited and less than whole, which is to say that our belief and unbelief is not ours alone but has real world consequences.
The plot thickens, when on the heels of his less than successful homecoming, Jesus sends his disciples out to teach and to heal. But the authority they are given expresses itself in their dependency upon the source of their power— God— and their relationships in the world. There’s no flying solo here as Jesus sends them out two by two, and orders them to take nothing for their mission: no bread, no bag, no money but only a staff, sandals, and one piece of clothing—in other words, the barest of essentials.
I think it would be helpful here to define “essentials” because when most of us head out on a journey, I would bargain that we pack a whole lot more. My essentials list include a purse and backpack, several changes of clothing and shoes, toiletries, my journal and reading materials, a small icon, money—plastic and cash— my I-phone and computer and all of the requisite chargers and cords, and let’s not forget my tea and snacks for the road!
So, what does it mean for us modern-day followers of Christ to travel lightly, and take nothing for the journey? In stripping his disciples of all of the external extras, Jesus disillusions them and us of our wholly independent and individual efforts, strivings, and struggles, demonstrating that faith is the essential essential.
But as St. Paul cautions the Corinthians, neither are we to “supercharge” our faith or become a “super-Christian” or “super-apostle,” those who gloat and boast of lofty spiritual experiences. To quote Br. Keith Nelson from SSJE: Rather than a super-apostle . . . Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel . . and that is his greatest boast (end quote).
How do we understand grace when is does not look or sound like what we expect? How do we understand grace as dependency? as rejection? as shaking off the dust of our failures?
As we are called to participate in God’s love and engage in the world and life of Christ, there are seasons in which our efforts will play a great part. Ultimately, however, Jesus desires our surrender to him, that we trust and rest in our dependence upon God’s power, wisdom, and love; our strength and security, discernment and action springing from this true center of gravity.
But neither do we want to drift into the arena of religious triumphalism, as the Church in its history as institution has by aligning itself with the power, privilege, and politics of the world’s kingdom. As Americans, and Christians, we must be cognizant and respectful of the differences between our “religious confessions and national identities.” We must take into account that for oppressed and vulnerable communities, such as slaves and native or indigenous peoples, Independence Day has been and still is a painful reminder of the wrong kind of “dependence” that renders subservience, subordination, and inequality. Not everyone in our country has been/is free to enjoy the same basic liberties and human rights.
The cost of forming a nation, and who pays the price, brings us back around to our Old Testament. Our passage this morning is the highly truncated story of David becoming king. Yet he became king through horrific and violent means of assassinations, beheadings, mutilation and public displays of it, as was the newly consolidated nation of Israel and its covenant formed. Though the lectionary omits most of these gruesome parts from our readings, perhaps understandably, this story is part of our scriptures and faith. David was indeed the chosen of God, but he was a man of profound contradictions who often wielded his power completely independently and apart from the commandments of God, and tragically so. Yet King David also points ahead to the new David, Jesus of Nazareth, who hung on the cross in utter weakness and helplessness and redeemed humanity, who reigns over the whole of creation with the greatest of mercy and love as the Prince of Peace.
We, who are the church, need welcome into our faith “the thorn in our sides,” our defenselessness and dependencies, recalling what the Lord said to Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. Though we encounter crisis and threat from outside of ourselves, the ever-imminent danger is of the oppression of our souls by our willful independence and pride, which is a grievous sin against God’s liberating Spirit.
Though I’m not especially prideful, I’ve always been naturally independent with a rather high capacity for efficiency and productivity. But as many gifts often are, these capabilities have been both a help and a hindrance, a blessing and curse. My prayer of late, and the yearning of my heart is to become less able—disabled unto God—that freed of going it alone under my own steam, I become more dependent upon the Holy One and the Spirit’s grace, that God’s power is perfected in my weakness, my weakness a gift to God. I so desire, because with this dependency comes a gentleness strong enough to hold [me] and to hold heaven and earth in [their] being, to hold and absorb the struggle and strain of life until it settles and comes to rest . . .[as so poignantly portrayed in the Pieta, Mary holding, cradling the crucified Jesus in her lap] (paraphrased from Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE).
Though dependency is not a virtue the world esteems, there is in our helplessness and vulnerability great beauty and dignity to behold; in that of a dying person and the infirmity of old age; in mental simpleness and disabilities of all kinds; in the release of false dependencies (constructs, props, and addictions) that leave us with the un-calculating faith of a small child.
The Father sends the Son, Jesus sends the disciples, and we are sent out into the world at the end of every service— with the expectation that we’ll falter and fail— and that we journey lightly with the essentials of faith, hope, and love, God with us, and we with each other. Dare we risk our “independence” as did Jesus?
As Americans, let us give thanksgiving for all of the freedoms and privileges of our country, and for all those who suffered the cost of our independence. But as Christians, let us praise God for our identity and life in Christ—life is that radically counter-worldly and cultural—and declare with joy our tender and radiant dependence upon God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.