Today’s gospel lesson is a bit grim. So I want to start out with a reminder of why we are here. It’s from Easter. I will say “Christ is risen.” And you say, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia.”
This story of John the Baptist is perfect for the tabloids, don’t you think. The little newspapers that you see in the checkout line at the grocery store, like the National Enquirer or the Globe. It’s got such wonderful elements: Royalty. Royalty behaving badly. Vague sexual overtones with this dance that Herodias’s daughter does at Herod’s birthday party. And, of course, untimely and messy death. I mean, the only things missing here are a space alien and a sighting of Elvis.
This is the sort of thing that so many of us, maybe most of us, love to hear about, even though we would never in a million years admit it. Let me follow just one strand here, that of Herodias’s daughter. She does this dance. I’m not sure what kind of dance it was, but she “Pleases” Herod and his guests so much that he offers her anything she wants, up to half his kingdom. That was the legal limit, by the way, to what he could offer her. A man in Jesus’ day was only allowed by law to give a woman half of everything he owned. Offered her as much as he could.
Herodias’s daughter goes to her mother and says “What should I ask for, what should I ask for?” Herodias says “The head of John the Baptist.” So the daughter goes right back to Herod, says “I want the head of John the Baptist, right now.” And then she adds a touch. “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
That’s what throws it for me. What, has she been reading Martha Stewart or something? “When giving a gift to your mother, it’s always nice to add that extra special gesture in the form of presentation. Perhaps a silk bow on the present, or hand-made wrapping paper, or, if you’re giving somebody the head of John the Baptist, give it to them on a platter. Yes, presentation can add that extra special touch.”
Kind of icky, isn’t it. Turns your stomach.
This is what happens when people try to keep preserve their status and dignity and safety by means of coercive force, like Herod does, or manipulative attraction, like Herodias and her daughter.
It’s not that force is an evil thing in and of itself. Sometimes we can use force to uphold the good, such as in the effort to keep the peace. Attractiveness is not a bad thing either. It can be a way of celebrating life, and showing the beauty of God. It’s just that, when we depend upon them for our safety, and our dignity, then we have make them into gods. And then people die.
. . . I need to tell you about where this story appears in the Gospel of Mark. It is one of those stories that appears inside of another story. Here’s the story. Jesus has sent his disciples out two by two, to proclaim repentance, the reorientation of mind and spirit toward the fact that God’s kingdom, God’s realm, God’s hope, God’s beauty, God’s life is close. Disciples show that realm by casting out demons and curing folks, just like we show that kingdom when we help people to heal, when we stand up for justice. We are working hard to show that kingdom at our vacation Bible School coming up, and in Sunday School this fall, and in youth group, and in worship, and in God’s Work, Our Hands day, bringing toiletry kits to the VA. That’s our story too. Disciples show the realm of God.
Then we have this story of the beheading of John the Baptist.
And, after this story, the other story resumes. Jesus’s disciples return to him, telling him all of their adventures being a part of the realm of God moving in the world. Jesus says, “Okay, now let’s go off and take a rest.”
Story within a story. Why is it placed here? Why doesn’t Mark just tell us this story back when it happened, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, when John is arrested? Here’s why:
When we base our security ultimately on God, and not finally on our ability to exert coercive force on others, when we base our dignity and worth on god, not on our ability to attract and manipulate, and when it we live that way, when the source of our dignity and safety become apparent to others, then people who do depend on force and attraction for their security and status and self-worth, they are going to feel uncomfortable with us.
When we stand up to the powerful people in our lives, like Herod, and call them to use their power in the way that God intends, that is to serve people and creation and not just themselves, they are going to feel uncomfortable. And we are going to suffer.
In some places and times, Christians have been put in jail like John the Baptist. Some places and times, beheaded. Sometimes we might lose popularity, lose friends, lose lovers, lose jobs. There will be trouble. Mark wants us to know that.
Jesus shows the realm of God to the world. Jesus goes to the cross. We show the realm of God to the world. We go to the cross too. It’s called the way of the cross. It’s part of our lives.
Now, here is a glimpse of good news. Look at John’s disciples at the end of this lesson. They come and get John the Baptist’s body. That’s a dangerous thing to do. Herod was brutal. And he killed John. If he finds out that you were part of John’s group, Herod might send someone to kill you too. It took some courage.
Why did John’s disciples take the risk to come get his body? Not sure, but I suspect it’s because they loved him. For John’s disciples, love was more powerful than death. And look, it says they laid his body in a tomb.
What do we know about tombs in the realm of God, in the Christian world. What happens to tombs? They break open.
Jesus’s tomb broke open. Our tombs will break open too. Yes, there is a cross. But there is resurrection beyond the cross. Yes, Herod’s power is great, but God’s power is still greater, Herod’s fear runs high, but God’s courage runs still higher, Herod’s death reaches deep. God’s resurrection reaches deeper still.
Remember this when the trouble comes, remember this. Christ is risen. Yes, Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, JULY 5, 2015
When someone says the word “home,” a lot of us will recall the scent of chocolate chip cookies baking in the kitchen, or the sound of grownup laughter overheard behind us, touching the backs of our minds with blessing as we play with dolls or toy trains in the other room.
Home is intended to be a safe place, from which we draw strength to go out into the world and participate in God’s realm, God’s healing and justice and courage and life.
But you and I know that home can sometimes be a complicated place. Some families are more complicated than others and some times are more complicated than others, but at some point, all homes end up being difficult and complicated.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus goes home. This time, it is difficult and complicated.
You would think the people in Nazareth would be delighted to have Jesus around. Look at the small town boy made good, returned here to his home place. See how many followers he has. Notice how, when he talks, people listen.
But the people in Jesus’ home town are not delighted. They say “Where did he get all this? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is this not the handyman, the carpenter, one who works with his hands? “Is this not the son of Mary?” Notice, they do not say Son of Joseph, as they normally wold in a small village, patriarchal culture. Son of Mary, as if maybe they weren’t so sure Joseph was his real father. IN that place and time, this would be a serious insult.
They take offense at him.
Very sad sentence at the end of this section of the reading. It says Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”
Here was a guy who could control the weather. He had calmed a deadly storm on the Sea of Galilee. He had faced down an army of demons, not just one demon, not just two or three. Thousands of demons, threw them out. This woman who had been sick for twelve years, doctor after doctor had done their best and she still got worse, she had touched the bottom of Jesus’ cloak, just an edge of his clothing, and she had been healed in body and spirit. Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead.
And now, he could do no deed of power there.
He was amazed, it says. In all the other stories, everybody else is amazed at what Jesus does, but here, it is Jesus who is amazed, he was amazed at their un-belief.
People wonder what happened. Some scholars suggest that they take offense because, in a village of that sort, in that kind of time and place, everything was limited in quantity. Food came in limited supply. Water was limited, there was only a certain amount of land, and only a very small amount of money. So unless there was a really good harvest, if you obtained more food than you had last year, that meant that someone else got less food. If you used more water, that meant someone else had less. If you got more land than your family had when you were born, that meant someone else got less land. Same with money.
It was a mindset, a way of thinking that seeped down into the way people looked at everything. So if you became significantly more important than you were before, then I would become less important. If you gained status, that meant I lost status. A peasant farmer who went on to become a government official. That was a bad thing. A handyman, a carpenter who went on to become a rabbi. A bad thing. Jesus was getting above his raising, as some might say today. He was putting on airs, acting above his station. So they take offense.
It’s not that their way of thinking was wrong or bad. Of course it was wrong. All human ways of thinking have some wrong and some right, some good and some bad. Their way of thinking fit them in most circumstances. The problem was that their way of thinking had become God for them. They were so wrapped up in it that they couldn’t see the wonder. Couldn’t see the hope.
So, home was difficult and complicated that day for Jesus.
Now, mind you, Jesus’ family, at least, seems to have moved on to better days. Mary the mother of Jesus is a part of the disciples’ community in the book of Acts. His brother, James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church, is eventually martyred, killed for his faith. So if your family is difficult and complicated right now, don’t despair. Things can get better.
I think that there is something else here to find here, though in addition to the difficulty of Jesus home. It’s about belief. Jesus can’t do anything because of their unbelief. Now, back in the middle of the storm, when the disciples wake Jesus up and say, Lord, don’t you care that we’re about to die? Jesus gets up, calms the storm, and says “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” When the woman touches his robe and is healed, Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Not, “Daughter, you’ve come to the right place, I’ve healed you.” No, “Your faith has made you well.” When Jairus’s people come to him and tell him that his daughter has died, Jesus says to him “Do not be afraid, just believe.” That’s the Gospel of Mark in one sentence. “Don’t be afraid. Trust me.”
Then, not long after the Gospel lesson for today, in this same chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples find themselves surrounded by several thousand hungry people. His disciples tell him, “Send the people away so that they can buy food for themselves.” Jesus says “You give them something to eat.” “You give them.”
Could it be that the power of God, the kingdom of God, the realm of God is not just some superpower Jesus has, that he can “pow” do a miracle here and “pow,” do a miracle there, but rather that the power and realm of God works in the midst of faith, relationship, connectedness, trust? Is there not an implication here that the disciples could still the storm, that we can feed these people?
Look at what Jesus does immediately after this difficult visit home. He sends out the disciples two by two, in community, not alone. He gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits. And the disciples do.
This is the disciples we are talking about. The disciples in the Gospel of Mark are like the Keystone Cops of the New Testament. They run back and forth for no reason. They bonk each other on the head by mistake with their billy clubs. They run into each other and fall down, kicking their legs in the air. They fight and squabble. They are proud and afraid. Just like us.
Guess what. They also heal. They also cast out demons. Even the disciples, even we are a part of God’s power moving in the world. Why? Because we trust that God is bigger than the world.
One further thing I need to say about this Gospel lesson. Jesus sends out the disciples without any money, no extra shoes, no extra change of clothes. Leave your credit card at home, don’t even bring a spare tire along with you. You must depend upon the people you go to serve.
We are not the powerful, well dressed missionaries come to bring civilization and the Gospel to these poor benighted souls. The people outside these walls, whom God sends to us, the people God calls us to connect with, our first step is to listen to them. They will provide us with the insight and the resources we need to proclaim the Gospel.
We ask them to trust us, well, guess what, we need to trust them first.
Paul, that great missionary to the Gentiles, to us, in the second lesson for today, shares God’s words to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect, made complete, brought to its fullest purpose, in weakness.”
We are a people of the cross.
There will be healing, demons will be cast out, not because we are strong and powerful, but because our strength and power in all its forms are subject to the one strength, the greatest power, the power of the cross. Of the fact that we are willing to be mortal with them, broken, limited, tiny, humble, human with others. That is how we show Jesus in the world.
Last point. This is fourth of July Weekend. We celebrate our home, the United States of America. How our home has blessed us, even blessed the world. Give thanks for that.
This is appropriate. It’s a good thing to do.
We also grapple with the ways in which our home has been difficult and complicated, in which it continues to be difficult and complicated.
This is not disrespectful. It is hopeful. It is a way of saying, with God’s help, we can grow as a people. An appropriate thing to do.
Maybe one contribution we can make as a people of the cross, to our home, is this power brought to fulfillment in weakness, in limitedness, the willingness to be dependent on each other, to be human with each other.
Who knows. God might use us to bring about some healing for our nation, for our world.