One of the occupational hazards of being clergy is ... bookstores. We keep them in business - really. Most clergy I know have amassed rather formidable personal theological libraries. I was blessed to inherit the libraries of two priests and it takes up three large bookcases. If you take any five clergy and put their libraries together, they'd likely the size of some of them rivaling the ancient library in Alexandria. I confess I’m no exception. Even with the advent of Kindles and Nooks, there’s something about picking up a good old fashioned book (you know, it’s made from paper and has pages you can turn!). Sometimes, I’ll run across a quote from a book, perhaps in a magazine article or online in a blog, and I think, “Hey, that’s pretty amazing … I have to read that book!” And then I go out and get the book just so I can read the rest of it. Such was the case when I read a quote from Dr. Greg Kennedy’s doctoral thesis: The Ontology of Trash: The Disposable and Its Problematic Nature. Now hang with me on this … I know this sounds a bit ponderous, but it really was a rather remarkable book. In a philosophical inquiry based on the works of Martin Heidegger, Kennedy explored the nature of disposability and waste. What makes something disposable? Why is a thing considered something of worth one minute and trash the next? Kennedy discusses how our understanding of disposability in the physical realm also transcends our emotional and spiritual realities. When so much in our world is easily disposed of as waste or trash, it isn’t too far a leap for us to believe other things can be disposable too: groups of people, personal relationships, and for some even God. And Kennedy isn’t the only one thinking about this. In his New Year’s address in 2008, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams posted a video on YouTube pondering the same questions. He said, “Building to last is something we all understand. And if we live in a context where we construct everything from computers to buildings to relationships on the assumption that they’ll need to be replaced before long, what have we lost?”
As I prayed with today’s scripture texts, I was struck by the contrast between the reading from 2 Samuel and the Gospel text from John in light of this issue of disposability. We hear the story in 2 Samuel about King David and his indiscretion with Bathsheba resulting in her pregnancy. David cleverly devises several ways to cover this pregnancy up; however, when all else fails, Uriah the Hittite becomes the one who is expendable in order that David’s sin might be covered up. In the world of humanity, there seems to be an inherent disposability on the part of some so that privilege can be maintained by others.
In contrast, we hear in the Gospel that nothing is disposable. When the crowds had eaten their fill of bread and fish, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” I personally like the Greek root which is translated “lost” – it also means “perish” or “destroy.” It could be rendered, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may perish.” The only other time this word for “perish” or “lost” shows up in John, it is in the 17th Chapter where, on the night before Jesus is executed, he prays for his disciples saying: “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” It is clear from Jesus’ prayer that it is not God’s intention that any of us should lost because God does not do waste in the kingdom.
While humans often find ways to make things and people disposable, God is finding ways to redeem and make whole those very same things. In fact, God seems to find use for the very things we really want to dispose of! Each of us has fragments in our lives that, if we are totally honest, we’d really prefer to dispose of – the broken, weak, dis-eased parts of us we all have. A few weeks ago, Paul talked about this very thing when he referenced the “thorn” in his flesh that he prayed God would remove. God’s response was, “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness.” Today, Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” God longs to gather up our fragments: our wounds; our dis-eases of body, mind and spirit; the past we regret and wish we could erase; the present messes in our lives; the anxieties over the future. Christ wants to make sure all of that is gathered so that nothing may perish but instead be redeemed, resurrected, and restored.
It is into this promise and this hope that we baptize our brother Daegan Alexander this very day. Daegan, we are making a very audacious claim as we baptize you a few minutes from now. That claim is that all the fragments of your old life have been gathered up in the death of Christ and they are drowned in the waters of baptism. Christ has gathered up the fragments of who you are, all those things you like and don’t like, and they have been redeemed by his death on the cross. Your old understanding of yourself and the world will be drowned in these waters and you will be raised up into a new life of grace where the fragments of your life (all of it: the good, the bad and the ugly) will take on a new meaning shaped by the cross of Christ and his resurrection. As you are baptized and grow into this new life of grace, you will find that nothing, absolutely nothing, is disposable: not things, not people, not God, and not even the parts of you that you’d prefer be disposable. You see, nothing is wasted – God wants to redeem all of you and all of us for the sake of the kingdom. And this is the core of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
As a baptized child of God, you are being commissioned (as each of us has been commissioned) to spread this good news of redemption by both your words and your deeds. Now that may sound simple, but you’d be amazed at how difficult it is for people to believe it … to trust that it is true. We often feel we have to earn this salvation (which we can’t) or that we are not worthy of it (and no, we aren’t worthy of it because of anything in ourselves but because God has made us worthy through Christ to receive it). Trusting that God doesn’t “do waste” and that nothing in our lives is beyond redemption is a lifelong task for Christians. But this is what God in Christ has done for us and in it God has assured us that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. This is our hope and promise … and it becomes yours today too, Daegan.
“I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” … the Gospel of the Lord?! Really??!! Yechhh! It sure doesn’t sound like gospel to me, what about you?
One of the challenges of being a priest in the Episcopal Church (and being clergy in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions as well) is that we follow a very systematic way of reading the Scriptures in our worship. Between the three-year lectionary cycle we hear read on Sundays and the two-year daily office readings, one can encounter about 90% of the Bible within this three-year period. It surprises many of my more Protestant friends that the Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans actually encounter more Scripture on a Sunday morning than more evangelical Christian denominations.
This lectionary does bring a challenge to the preacher because it means we must confront and preach on difficult texts – like the execution of John the Baptist. Wise clergy, I suppose, choose their vacation times to be away this Sunday – and yes, there is a temptation to plan one’s absence from the pulpit around these sorts of readings (note to self for next summer …). And while Luther admonishes good preachers to squeeze every passage of Scripture until you can find the good news in it … well, it just doesn’t work today, does it? Today’s story is one of abusive power, corruption, intrigue, incest, death over dishonor, protecting the status quo – the sort of thing that would make the Desperate Housewives, Snooky and the Jersey Shore gang, and Tony Soprano blush! And, with the exception to Herod’s wondering whether Jesus is John the Baptizer resurrected, Jesus isn’t mentioned in this story at all. So why does Mark put this story right here in his narrative? And why, for a gospel known for being sparse on details, does Mark go into such gory detail in telling about John’s death?
This passage opens with King Herod (this would be Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great) hearing about healings and demons being cast out by Jesus’ disciples. There is a buzz about the identity of Jesus – “He’s John the Baptizer raised from the dead,” or “He’s Elijah,” or “one of the prophets of old” (the same buzz will appear later in our Gospel readings when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he really is). But Herod believes it is John the Baptizer, whom he beheaded, raised from the dead. Mark then tells the story of John’s execution in retrospective – the only time in his gospel when he uses the literary device of retrospection. When an author does something out of their literary character, we need to pay attention.
Mark begins the story of John being arrested on the count of Herodias, Herod’s wife who had been married to Herod’s brother Philip. Let's hold a moment there as you need to know a bit about the intrigue of the Herod family - a family who make the Borgias look like rank amateurs. The first Herod we encounter in scripture is Herod the Great – this is the King Herod of the birth narratives of Jesus. Herod the Great had nine sons total; however, he ordered three of them executed because of threats to his power. This left six sons to potentially inherit his kingdom upon his death. There had been a change of wills at the last minute naming Herod Antipas as successor and the sons all ended up going to Rome to plead the case of the inheritance of titles and land. During this trip, Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias who was the wife of his brother Philip. Philip was a mere Tetrarch who really was a third rank power, so Herodias divorced Philip in order to “marry up” to a better station by being the King’s wife rather than a Tetrarch’s wife. While wives divorcing husbands was perfectly legal in Roman law, it was not legal in Jewish law (of course, husbands could divorce wives under either system … yes, double-standard, but that’s the way things worked). Herodias, under Jewish law, was still married to Philip and her marriage to Herod was not lawful – and puts Herodias in a very precarious position. She could not return to Philip if Herod turned her out of the house. It also put in question the right of her children to inherit. I suppose you could say Herodias was one of the original Desperate Housewives! Now let’s add one more layer of intrigue, Herodias bore the feminized name of Herod for a reason: she was the granddaughter of Herod the Great and Marianme I thus she is Herod Antipas’ niece – a blood relation.
So now we get a glimpse into the grudge Herodias has against John who is repeatedly pointing out to her husband that her marriage is not lawful. It would be easy at this point to paint Herodias as the evil nemesis of John; however, I’d invite you to consider well how she saw John as a threat to her family – to her children’s rights of inheritance, to her security as a king’s wife. Rather than paint her in a one-dimensional villainous way, consider to what degree each of us would fight to protect our family’s security and reputation. We hear, however, that King Herod protected John out of fear because he knew John was a holy and righteous man even though his teachings perplexed Herod.
However, no amount of fear on Herod’s part could protect John once personal honor was on the line and an opportunity presented itself. Mark tells us that Herod had a birthday party – this would be where we queue Snooky and the Jersey Shore gang as well as the Kardashian sisters to show up (after all, the love a good party don’t they??). Royal birthday parties are a chance to see and be seen by the who’s who of Jerusalem. A king like Herod would invite all the A-listers to show up for this soiree. As the food and wine flowed freely, the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod and his guests. King Herod was so pleased, and I’m sure he was a bit in his cups, that he made a public oath in front of his guests: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it … even half of my kingdom!” The daughter runs outside the banquet hall and asks her mother what she should ask for. Herodias seizes upon the opportunity to eliminate her nemesis: “Ask for the head of John the baptizer.” The daughter then rushes back in, this time with Tony Soprano in tow, and in front of the very guests who heard Herod’s original oath, she makes her request: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Doesn’t that silver platter thing sound like a Tony Soprano move?). Herod was “deeply grieved” – this word for “deeply grieved” in the Greek text only appears here and when Mark describes Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet deep grief and fear are not as important as protecting one’s personal honor and Herod will not go back on his word and shame himself and his family in front of all these important guests. John is beheaded, his head given to the girl on a silver platter, and she then presents this gruesome gift to her mother. John’s immediate threat to the Herod family is neutralized.
While cutting off people’s heads in a literal way may not be how our modern Herod types operate, the sacrificing of reputations and livelihoods of people happens all the time. We’ve all heard the metaphor of being “thrown under the bus,” haven’t we? This is when someone or some group destroys another person or group in order to protect their situation. Look at how that plays out in our world today. Remember how Richard Armitage, Scooter Libby and Robert Novak revealed CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity because her husband Joe Wilson had criticized the Bush administration? Or how about Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover was doing everything he could to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King and destroy his personal reputation and discredit the civil rights movement prior to his assassination? Or how about all the people whose livelihoods were destroyed when they were blacklisted and labeled as Communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy? Yes, indeed, Herod is alive and well.
But where is the gospel in this? Well … it is not here … at least not in this short piece of our lectionary reading. This detailed story of John being thrown under the bus is our story – it is the story of what is and what the powers of this world are capable of doing to us. Mark intentionally sets this story after Jesus being rejected in the synagogue for a reason: we cannot lull ourselves into a false belief that following Christ will somehow make our lives easy. Following Christ means following the Way, the Truth, and the Life – and that means we will at some point find ourselves being thrown under the bus for speaking truth that powerful people just don’t want to hear. The placement of this story right after Jesus’ rejection in his hometown marks the end of innocence for Jesus and the disciples … and for us too.
The good news, and there is good news, is this is not the end of the story. We have a whole lot more ahead of us in Mark, including another gruesome death and burial in a tomb, but one which will be followed by an empty tomb and the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ. This is our hope in a world full of Herods and Herodiases, in a world where people who speak truth to power get thrown under the bus. The cross and the empty tomb proclaim that death, in whatever form we encounter it, will not have the last word. God will have the last word – and that word is one which gives life and gives it abundantly. This is our hope and promise. Thanks be to God.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Power being made perfect in weakness is just not something that makes a lot of sense, does it? Power is a loaded word and is often is thought of in terms of strength or might. When we consider how power is used in the world, we likely think of images of what is often called “power over” – power as strength to exert one’s will over others. This is the sort of power we see on the world stage as dictatorial leadership (a strong-man like Bashar Assad in Syria or Gaddafi when he ruled Libya) but we also see it in our communities in the guise of those who exert power to get their way – sometimes we call them bullies. So our image of power tends to be that of brute strength and the ability to assert one’s will, even at the expense of others.
But power in the Christian sense is very different. Instead of being a “power over” kind, it expresses itself as “power with.” In order to understand this, I’d like to perhaps expand your definition of power beyond the image of strength or might. Power, in the Greek sense of the word dunamis, is the ability to accomplish something – the ability to get something done. And if we think of power this way, then we can begin to understand that the image of brute strength or force isn’t the whole picture.
In today’s gospel reading, we hear that Jesus returned to his hometown and once again causes a stir. Last time his family thought he was out of his mind, this time the hometown folk think he’s grown a bit too big for his britches! In our translation today, we have the folks in his hometown asking, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” This translation has an exclamation point in that last sentence and makes it sound like they are acknowledging the deeds of power he is doing. However, don’t be fooled by that exclamation point. In first century Koine Greek, there was no punctuation and many translations (including King James) have a question mark there which I believe is more consistent with the other statements. What deeds of power are being done by his hands? I think this picks up the mood of unbelief which is evident from the other questions. “Who does this guy think he is?” is the real underlying question being asked. And they took offense at him and he could do no deed of power there – in other words, he could not accomplish much (although he did heal a few sick people).
Some have suggested this is a case of familiarity breeding contempt as Jesus is the hometown boy and his neighbors just can’t see him as a prophet because they know him too well. I think it may be a bit more than this. In first century Palestine, one’s status in life was determined by where you were born and to whom you were born. The hometown crowd’s questions about Jesus’ identity are actually more of a put-down than we realize. As a carpenter, Jesus would have been part of the artisan class – a class of people below the elites and just above those considered degraded or expendable. And their inquiry about him being Mary’s son is also a slight as any man would have been identified not as a mother’s son but as their father’s son – therein lies a hint that Jesus is illegitimate. The offense people tooks was that by teaching in the synagogue, Jesus was rising above his appointed station in life. How dare he! One of the greatest obstacles about Christianity for those in the Greco-Roman world was not that a man could be born of a virgin or that a human could be divine – but it was that this could be true of someone in a lower class. After all, Jesus was just a carpenter.
Mark tells us that Jesus could do no works of power in his hometown – except to heal a few sick people (which for those few sick people constituted works of power for them!). After this, Jesus goes around to other villages teaching, calls the twelve disciples and sends them out two by two with authority over unclean spirits. Mark tells us that these ordinary disciples cast out many demons and healed many who were sick by anointing them with oil. This is the kind of “power with” – power which comes from walking along side as friends and companions which accomplishes great things.
While Jesus was just a carpenter, our reading from 2nd Corinthians today deals with the same class consciousness. Paul was just a tentmaker too – also one of the artisan class. Now we know Paul was literate as he closes his letter to the Galatians with a self-deprecating remark about his poor handwriting; however, one of the things the people of Corinth took offense at with Paul was his insistence of earning his wages as a common tentmaker rather than doing what all good Greco-Roman teachers did and charge his disciples for his teaching. In the larger context of his letters to the Corinthians, he speaks of himself as one who does not boast in direct contrast with a group he calls the “super-apostles” who make grand claims about their superior spiritual gifts and knowledge of God and who may have fallen into the Greco-Roman practice of charging for their teaching about Christ. It is in this context that Paul shares with us what God has revealed to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Often we think that our weaknesses are barriers to serving our Lord. But Scripture tells us that God has a preference for those who are weak and not for those who are powerful in the earthly sense. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking God can’t work through us … after all, “I’m just a kid” or “I’m just a housewife” or “I’m just a teacher” or “I’m just a layperson.” If anything our readings today tell us is that “just a” does not limit how God’s power can work in and through your life to manifest the gospel. In my ministry, I am always amazed at how transformational moments seem to happen when I have shared the messes of my own life with others. Somehow, some way, God finds a way to bless my mess and use it to bring healing.
Scripture tells us plainly that God recruits the nobodies in this world to serve the Lord and to do great deeds of power – from the shepherd boy David, to Paul, to the disciples, and each of us. God gives each of us the ability to accomplish something for the kingdom just by being ourselves – being authentic and sharing the real stuff of our lives with others. As you take this good news to the world this week, trust that God’s words to Paul are just as equally spoken to you: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I had a professor in seminary who was Irish Catholic. Dr. Bill Buckley (as he would tell you, “Not William F. Buckley … I’m just Bill Buckley.”) was my Ethics professor and had been part of the team which negotiated the Good Friday Accords which brought about a cease fire in the conflict in Northern Ireland. The conflict in Northern Ireland was between Protestant and Catholic factions; however, it was not about religion so much as it was about who had the money and who had the power. There was a long bloody history of bombings and street battles in Northern Ireland spanning many generations. Dr. Buckley shared his stories with us and I recall during this time seeing a book on the Troubles and the impact of the fighting in Belfast. There were photos in this book depicting the physical destruction caused by the bombings in this war. One picture showed what had once been a building, yet only one wall was left standing, and on that wall was painted in large letters this question: “IS THERE LIFE BEFORE DEATH?” – “Is there life before death?” As a priest, I often have people ask me if I believe in life after death. Instead, this question haunts me from a place of intransigent pain and suffering: “Is there life before death?” Today’s gospel reading is intimately linked to this question.
We actually have two stories from Mark – one which addresses the question of life after physical death in the case of Jairus’ daughter, and one of a woman desperate to find life before death. Our Tuesday Bible study group has been delving into Mark’s gospel and his narrative style. One of the features of Mark is a style called intercalation – which in plain terms means a story sandwiched within another story. We begin with Jairus, a high official in the synagogue, who comes to Jesus to beg him to come and lay hands upon his daughter who is near death “so that she may be made well and live.” In Greek, the word which we translate as “made well” is sozo – which also means salvation, liberation and rescue. So Jairus is begging for his daughter to be rescued from death.
As Jesus begins to make his way to Jairus’ house, he encounters the woman suffering for 12 years with bouts of bleeding. While physically this woman is technically alive, socially she is dead because a woman with a bleeding disorder was considered polluted or unclean and thus barred from most social interaction including temple worship. Was there life before death for her? Yes, she was breathing and taking nourishment, but is that enough? She has no meaningful life within the community – she is utterly outcast. She is surviving but definitely not thriving.
But Mark tells us something about her: she was brave and tenacious! We hear she spent all of her money seeking a cure and had done everything she knew how to do to get better, even if it didn’t work. This woman knew how to advocate for herself! If there’s anything I’ve learned from my pastoral work with people who are ill it’s this: tenacity and bravery are necessary prerequisites for healing! We cannot sit idly by and be passive, hoping that God will just take care of everything for us. No! We must cooperate in the healing process and sometimes not just cooperate but even actively pursue it.
So picture this outcast woman mustering up the courage to take one last shot at healing knowing that for her to approach Jesus was a serious violation of social boundaries. Women were not to touch men who were not either their husbands or their blood relations. Now consider that to touch Jesus while being ritually unclean also, according to the Law, would render Jesus unclean too! For her, it must have been terrifying – and yet she did not let her fear stop her. You see she had tremendous courage. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the determination to act in spite of it. And why did she do this? Because she ached to have life before death and she would not let anything get in her way. In essence, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain. She was bound and determined to be the active agent in saving her life trusting the power of Jesus Christ.
I think we often fall into the habit of hearing these stories of healing in ways where we imagine Jesus as the agent of action and those being healed are somewhat passive. In Mark’s gospel, with the exception of one person, all of the people who are healed are anonymous which lends to this image of passivity: the blind man, the paralytic, the deaf man, Jairus’ daughter, and this hemorrhaging woman. Make no mistake – while she may not be named, this woman is no passive agent. She is desperate and ready to do anything to gain her life. She is the active agent, she reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she is “made well” … she is saved, she is liberated, she is set free. Jesus even says so … “Daughter, your faith has saved you.”
St. Iranaeus said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel he said that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. To be fully alive is not a solitary action – it is to be in relationship with others in the wider community. We do not exist as isolated entities. One of the greatest spiritual lies of the evil one is to make us think we are alone and isolated – that nobody understands us or can possibly care about us. And when social systems collude to exclude and isolate people, it is definitely not of God.
Jesus promised abundant life but he didn’t promise it would happen without change, he never said the journey would be easy, and it doesn’t happen without our active participation. Abundant life, life before death, is what our Lord came to bring us. We are not called merely to breathe and take nourishment – we are called to more than survival. God calls us to thrive and grow more and more into the likeness of Christ that we may have life before death.
All of us need healing – each and every one of us. Our wounds may be different, but they are there and very real. We share one common condition – we all have a terminal diagnosis … it is called life. And since we live with this terminal condition, what have we got to lose by having the courage and tenacity to seek the healing of our own wounds? As we continue this summer to look for hope and seek signs of it springing up around us, I challenge you also look for tenacity and bravery as well that you too, by the power of the risen Christ, may be liberated, freed, and made well.