Familiarity and The Common Good
Jesus, as we recall from last Sunday, had just performed two astonishing healings: the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years, and the 12 year old daughter of Jairus, a synagogue leader. Astonishing in that the woman who was an outsider, unlike Jairus, literally with sheer grit, hope and faith in Jesus just touched the hem of his garment – and in the “great crowd,” Jesus noticed that power had gone out of him, and recognized the woman for her persistence and her faith despite all odds. Perhaps this nameless woman of faith was an inspiration to Bree Newsome who took matters in her own hands to take down the Confederate Battle flag outside the South Carolina State House. It is undeniable that these two women have a lot in common. It would not be going too far to suggest that Jesus would recognize Bree Newsome for her persistence and faith to do the right thing despite all odds.
So then Jesus goes to his hometown and the reception he receives is incredibly underwhelming! Who does this son of a carpenter think he is? He is just an ordinary man like us, grew up among us, lives among us – he is no different than any of us! As Kurt Vonnegut once preached on a Palm Sunday years ago, leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. It has been suggested that it is because of their familiarity with Jesus that they fail to recognize the holy, the presence of God, in the very ordinary young man who grew up in their midst.
I have known such familiarity to make it difficult to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, yet the great saints and mystics of all religious traditions are those always seeking to open our eyes to the holiness in our midst. I was mindlessly flipping tv channels when I hit upon Amy Goodman and Democracy Now. I was about to flip back to Seinfeld re-runs when the story of Bree Newsome was truly inspiring. The voices of women who were in Charleston to support her were compelling. The fact that she had a partner, a spotter – she did not run off and do this act of civil disobedience in the tradtion of Thoreau, Pete Seeger and so many others, on her own, but had partners and supporters on hand – just as Jesus does not send the disciples out on their own, but in pairs.
Note carefully that the disciples are to travel light – really really light. No two tunics, no money, but rather they are to live off the generosity of those they are sent to proclaim the message of God’s kingdom, those they are sent to heal, those they are sent to bring back to life. They are not to be independent by interdependent on one another and others – others they don’t even know and have never met!
Then Amy Goodman switched to a retrospective look at Pete Seeger and his career as a prophet and social critic with the power of song. I didn’t move until I heard Pete singing, at age 94, We Shall Overcome.
It got me to thinking about how the power of such songs often wanes with our familiarity with them. Just as these stories in the Bible become so familiar we lose sight of all that is in there – like the touch of humor Mark lends to the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Really? That’s all?
So on this Independence Day weekend, I got to thinking: I grew up in a small elementary school where our music teacher, Miss Gulbranson, taught us This Land Is Your Land. It was in the song book we had in school. It would be a number of years later, after my Uncle Lee gave me a copy of Bob Dylan’s first album that I had even heard of Woody Guthrie, an inspiration for Dylan, a singing partner of Pete Seeger’s. And probably a few years later I learned that Woody had written This Land Is Your Land. By now we are all familiar with it – perhaps too familiar to know he wrote it as a protest song – he was bothered, in 1940, by the popularity of God Bless America against the backdrop of the depression, the Dust Bowl, the impending war with Germany and Japan, the struggling labor movement, and the sight he could see outside the window of his hotel room in New York City: people, poor people, hungry people, unemployed people standing in line outside the Relief Office hoping, like the woman in last week’s story, to get some relief themselves. The original song as Woody wrote it went something like this:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the Staten New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
I recall reading an interview with Arlo Guthrie some years later in which he describes Woody, dying of Huntington’s Chorea, a devastating disease, taking him out into the back yard and teaching him one song he was sure people would forget. That song, ironically, was This Land Is Your Land, now a staple of American education, and somewhat domesticated from our familiarity with it. Arlo also recalls his mother coming home from a trip to China to tell Woody that a group of school children sang the song to her!
After listening to replays of Amy Goodman interviews with Pete Seeger, who passed away last year, I sat down with my guitar to sing the following songs.
If I Had A Hammer
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Our founding fathers and mothers declared independence, that is true. But it was a collective independence, not individual independence. The Declaration was inspired in part by the Roman hero, Cincinatus who embodied the essence of Civic Virtue, putting the good of the community before his own good, AND resigning the office to which he was called once the job was done – very much as George Washington did after serving as commander in the War for Independence, and after two terms as president. Both men went back home to be ordinary farmers.
The extraordinary in the ordinary: it is sometimes hard to recognize because of our familiarity. Yet, songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone and We Shall Overcome once had the power to end a war and finally to bring the civil rights wrought out of the civil war in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution into reality.
Woody and Pete were dismissed as outside agitators, along with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr, and this week Bree Newsome. But the recognition of their influence by ordinary people all over the country resulted in many people doing small ordinary things that eventually bear fruit for us all.
Jesus was about the common good. The framers of the Declaration of Independence were about the common good. We can and ought to celebrate these truths, self-evident as they are, side by side on this holiday weekend, and sixth Sunday after Pentecost. This land was made for you and me, not just me, not just you, but for us all. Some events of these past weeks have recognized this, and for this we say, Amen! Alleluia!