Teaching and learning (“Hózhóogo naasháa doo: In beauty I walk.)
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark:
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28
The Gospel of Jesus.
“I know who you are! The Holy One of God!” These prophetic words in Mark’s gospel come from the most unlikely of places – a voice from the margins, a man cast aside as “demon possessed.” Our Gospel story this morning has me wondering: in this time of Epiphany – a season when we are attuned to the light of God breaking into the world in the person of Jesus – which prophetic voices are we not hearing because they come from people we can’t imagine as prophets?
Please pray with me: God before us…
I come to you this morning from the Hozhó Center of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland. I have been here for two weeks today, assisting with food and firewood deliveries and building raised beds for a garden here, where the community can gather to work out their traumas in the dirt and watch the miracle of re-birth unfold before their eyes.
In our Gospel story this morning, it is this “demon-possessed” man who first recognizes Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” It isn’t John the Baptist, or Zechariah, or even one of the disciples who proclaimed Jesus’ true identity; it is a man who has been pushed away from the altar, is marginalized by the religious leaders, and whose voice has been silenced, that proclaims that God is breaking into the world in the person of Jesus. Make no mistake, his was a prophetic voice from the most unlikely of places.
This gospel story has a unique sound in Navajoland, a place where Navajo elders were told by Christian missionaries that their traditional ways of worship were “demonic.” Listening to this story here, I find myself wondering if the missionaries missed the voice of God because it didn’t sound like their own. Indeed, their characterization of Navajo traditional religion as “demonic” is hardly consistent with the actual words of the Navajo Beauty Way prayer, a prayer at the heart of Navajo spirituality:
“Hózhóogo naasháa doo: In beauty I walk.
Shi-tsi-jí’ hózhóogo naasháa doo: With beauty before me I walk.
Shi-kéé-déé hózhóogo naasháa doo: With beauty behind me I walk.
Shi-dei-gi hózhóogo naasháa doo: With beauty above me I walk.
T’áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo: With beauty all around me I walk.
Hózhó náhásdlíí’: It has become beauty again.
Nothing about that prayer sounds demonic to me. In fact, if you listen to the rest of the Beauty Way prayer, it sounds a lot like the Hebrew concept of Shalom, or God’s peace. It sounds a lot like what Jesus was proclaiming across Galilee about God’s coming reign, immediately before our Gospel story this morning: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kin-dom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mk 1:15 CEB).
I sometimes wonder how differently the church might look today if Christian missionaries – those teachers of the Way – had listened more than they talked. Might the generational trauma inflicted upon Indigenous bodies in the name of Jesus been avoided? If those missionaries had taken the time to hear the stories of how God was at work in and amongst God’s people long before the church arrived, maybe it would have been the missionaries who were converted.
As we consider today what teaching and learning looks like in this season of Advent, I’d like to share with you the story of one missionary here in Navajoland who challenged that paradigm. In 1943, Fr. Baxter Liebler left his home and his family in Greenwich, CT, for the canyonlands of southern UT, to, in his words, “find an aborigine untouched by the Christian tradition” so he “would not have to unteach them” (58). Indeed, in a fundraising pamphlet, Liebler wrote that he was “undertaking pioneering work among the pagan Navajo Indians,” whose “religion,” he described as, “consisting largely in the observances of elaborate taboos, rites, and ceremonies based on a desire to avoid bad luck and sickness” (May 103-04).
When Baxter Liebler founded St. Cristopher’s Mission, he, like most other Christian missionaries came to teach the Way to those he thought had never known it. And, yet, in the end, it was the Navajo who taught Baxter Liebler the Way. And, to his credit, Fr. Liebler became open to the work of the Spirit that preceded him in this place. More than once, he accepted invitations to join Navajo medicine men in praying for sick children, and on one occasion, a medicine man asked Fr. Liebler to pray for his own infant son. The medicine man’s traditional prayers were good, he told Fr. Liebler, but “You make good “Jesus-talk,” and holding up two fingers together, he added in his own prophetic voice, “Two good make strong good” (55).
In a time when communities on the margins of this country’s power and privilege still bear the marks of White Supremacy, scars born from wounds inflicted with the help of this church under the influence of men who looked and sounded a lot like me, it needs to be said: the people of Navajoland, those Fr. Liebler thought he was coming to convert, actually converted him. They showed him the Gospel in action in their self-giving love for one another, in their love for creation, and in their love for Creator. They converted him to the Jesus Way by living out the Beauty Way. That is why, I think, when Fr. Liebler grew old, he refused his family’s wishes to return East with them. He chose, instead, to live and die, here, among the people of Navajoland.
And, today, when many congregations in the Episcopal church are worrying over how to celebrate the Eucharist during carefully choreographed virtual worship services, our sisters and brothers in Navajoland are becoming Eucharist to their neighbors. As they deliver fresh produce, eggs, and milk to sheltering families, they are literally handing over the Bread of Heaven. As they haul barrels of water to children with no access to running water, they are literally offering up the cup of salvation. As they chop and deliver loads of firewood to sheltering elders, they are literally sharing the light of Christ that keeps the frigid night winds at bay and preserves life. Yes, there is a lot the Episcopal Church can learn about how to “be church” in these difficult times from its only “area mission,” Navajoland. And, perhaps, if we can be open to the prophetic voices amongst those we seek to teach, maybe we can be converted too.
But what about us here at St. Mark’s? As we consider what is ours to do as teachers of the Jesus Way, as advocates for those who have been pushed to the margins, how does our Gospel story invite us to reimagine our role as teachers and advocates? Perhaps we are being called to recognize that, as we hear in Deuteronomy this morning, God is raising up prophets in our midst and all around us. Perhaps we are being called to recognize that those prophets do not necessarily look like me (with this collar and stole), and they may not even look like you.
Perhaps we are being called to recognize that advocacy is less about amplifying our own voices to speak for the silenced and more about amplifying those prophetic voices that for too long have been silenced? Indeed, our partnership with the Washington Interfaith Network seeks to do just that – through one-on-one conversations between members of a diverse group of churches, mosques, synagogues, labor unions, and community organizations, we are listening for God amongst the prophetic voices that all too often go unheard. And we are amplifying those voices as they call for a response to systemic racism, immigration injustice, and all other manners of oppression. We are lending our voice by listening and learning.
So, my friends, may we walk this good road together. May we listen for those prophetic voices around us that have silenced. May we learn from them and amplify them. And may we invite the world to hear them proclaiming the presence of Jesus in our midst.
Hózhó náhásdlíí’ – It has become beauty again.