In the name of the Holy One of Blessing, the Word Incarnate, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.
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What does it feel like to have someone say: “You are one of us”?
Imagine for a moment all the feelings that might be stirred in you when you hear this. “You are one of us.” Maybe they are feelings of warmth, safety, feelings of being held close and nurtured. Maybe they’re feelings of confidence: of having a safety net so that you can venture forth boldly and do difficult things. Or maybe they’re feelings of constrictedness, of being locked into a role you can’t escape, of being patronized and not taken seriously. Maybe those words bring up more than one of these feelings at the same time. “You are one of us.” We might hear that message from the family we were born into; or from a chosen family. We might hear it from a group of friends, a team, a tribe, an ethnic group.
Today our scriptures tell us about both David and Jesus hearing that message. Two very different stories, and two very different experiences of belonging.
In our reading from Second Samuel, King Saul has died in battle and David has already been made king of the southern tribe of Judah, but not of the other tribes of Israel. For several years he’s been locked in a power struggle with one of Saul’s sons to become king of Israel. Finally, after a series of exciting and treacherous betrayals—which the narrator takes pains to assure us David has absolutely nothing to do with—Saul’s son is murdered by two of his own generals, and there’s nothing left but for David to become king.
So the people come to him and say: reign over us. We are your bone and flesh. “You are one of us.” We trust you; you were once our army leader; the prophet Samuel anointed you years ago to be Saul’s successor; now come and be our king. So he does. His first act is to attack and conquer the city of Jerusalem, driving out its inhabitants the Jebusites—the lectionary skips over those verses—and to set up his capital at Jerusalem. The story tells us he goes on to become greater and greater, because God is with him. “You are one of us,” say the people, and for David that’s a message of affirmation and love as he goes on with his mighty and warlike works to become a great king.
It’s different with Jesus in the gospel reading, isn’t it? After an amazing course of teaching, healing, and even raising the dead—as we read about last week—Jesus has returned to his own hometown of Nazareth where his teaching isn’t so well received. They can’t hear him as teacher or Messiah; all they see is the hometown tradesman. They know his mother and his siblings. They know who he is so well they can’t see the deeper truth.
Family therapists have a wonderful phrase for this: “role suction.”
Role suction is what happens when a group of people develop predictable roles and scripts that take on a life of their own, to such an extent that they’re hard to break out of. When we’re in the group, we find ourselves being sucked into our standard ways of being and acting, almost in spite of ourselves. The norms of the whole system tug on us to conform to the expectations the other members have developed of us. Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own family. Some people go home to visit parents or siblings and find themselves becoming the caretaker, or the jester, or the problem child, or whatever—even though they never play those roles anywhere else anymore.
It seems even Jesus is affected by this role suction to some extent. The people’s lack of faith in him means he can’t exercise his full gifts. (He can only do a paltry few miraculous healings, presumably because, well, he’s Jesus after all.)
“You’re one of us.” That claim to identity can be a huge source of affirmation. And it can also be a constricting straitjacket. Sometimes both at the same time. It happens at the family level, the group level, and right up to the nation level. That’s something that’s worth considering for us today on this Independence Day weekend as we reflect on the life of this nation.
We live in a country that is, at its best, a tapestry of many groups and heritages. We espouse that in a lot of our publicly valued statements. E pluribus unum—out of many, one. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” says Emma Lazarus’ poem which has the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to this country as a beacon of refuge. A lot of our national narrative says: “You are one of us—no matter who you are or where you come from, you can belong here in this land.”
And alongside those justly famous statements, our history also has some harsh realities that contradict those values. We have a history of land taken from its first inhabitants often through force, lies, and broken promises. We have an economy and a social structure still profoundly marked by what’s been called America’s “original sin” of slavery. Here in California we ourselves live in a region acquired by an audacious land grab from Mexico. And over and over, this country’s treatment of immigrants—Asian, Irish, Jewish, Latino—has been marked by exclusion and persecution that undercut those bold claims of welcome. If we’re honest, we have to admit that our national narrative has often been something more like “You are one of us—with an asterisk.” “You are one of us—if you look, talk, and act like a northern European Protestant.” Or quite simply, “You are not one of us—and we intend to reserve this country for people who are.”
Some of the paradoxes in our national story remind me of the paradoxes in the story of King David. The Bible tells us he is genuinely a great king, a man after God’s own heart, a lover of God and writer of Psalms. And at the same time, he’s the one who slaughtered the Jebusites so he could build his holy capital of Jerusalem. In fact, that very narrative of conquest, the Israelites driving the other nations out of the Promised Land, has so often been used as a justification for this country’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
And yet I still believe this flawed but beautiful country is a great gift. We have an imperfect democracy that has a long way to go but functions more justly than most systems of government. We have a multicultural vision that inspires us even as we lament the ways we continually fall short. Our own Episcopal Prayer Book treats yesterday, July 4th, as a feast. I think we can celebrate that feast with integrity, knowing that love for a country isn’t the same thing as approval or endorsement for all its actions; it’s just that: love, the kind of love we might have for our family, our friends, our tribe.
And of course for Christians all those groups are relativized by our relationship to each other in Christ. It’s ironic that Christianity in our society is often identified so closely with family and with country, both in a fairly conventionally moralizing way—because in both those arenas the earliest Christians were seen as deeply suspect. Christians claimed that Jesus was Lord, not Caesar, and that there was no longer any Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; that in Christ there is no East or West, but all the groupings that separate us from one another are dissolved.
So this weekend we can pray for this country and give thanks for it. And we can give thanks even more for the vision of God’s reign where there will be no one who is not “one of us”; and that “one of us” is never about constriction, but always about belonging and freedom and joy.