Two Cousins

(sermon 7/11/21)

Mark 6:7-30  

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

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I had a cousin named John. Actually, he was my mother’s cousin, which I guess technically made him my first cousin once removed, even though we always just called each other cousins. But whatever ancestry.com might consider us, it didn’t really matter because John was only about a year and a half older than me, and we grew up together, went to school together, played on the same Little League team together, and lived in the same small town never more than a mile or so apart, and actually just two doors away on the same street for a while when we were really small; so for all practical purposes we grew up together as if we were brothers.

As adults, we both settled down in central Ohio, built careers, raised families. We stayed pretty close, even though we lived almost an hour apart, but still, family and work obligations and all the other realities of adulthood kept us from seeing as much of each other as I’d have wanted.

At way too young an age, John died from the affects of cancer, diabetes, and ultimately, kidney failure, while I ached to have been able to be an organ donor and wishing I could have spent more time with him in his last days. Still, while had been different than when we were kids, there was, and always will be, a special bond between the two of us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus and John the Baptizer were relatives; traditionally, they’ve been called cousins of some kind. I’ve always been intrigued by the details of their relationship that the gospels don’t give us. Were they close? Or were they cousins like the ones you like, or maybe not, but you only see once or twice a year at weddings and funerals?  We’ll really just never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The lives of these two cousins intersect in this section of Mark’s gospel. Mark starts to tell a story about Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, out into the towns and villages to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and of God’s goodwill and favor for humankind. Then, right in the middle of the story, while the disciples are out in those towns that we never hear any details of, and before they return to tell Jesus about their experiences, Mark pauses the main action to drop in a secondary story. In this case, as you heard, it’s a story detailing hos John met his end. It’s an open question why Mark did this here. Was it to make a connection in the minds of his readers between John’s proclamation about the coming kingdom, and that of the disciples? That in John’s absence, the disciples now have the primary charge from God to take the message of the gospel outward, even further than John could have himself, and in an enhanced manner? Maybe it was some of that, and maybe even all of that, but maybe it was something else, too.

The whole sordid story of how John was killed is told as a kind of a flashback-within-a-flashback, starting with King Herod and his buddies talking about Jesus, wondering where his authority and power came from, and Herod remembering back to John the Baptizer. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Now that Jesus is an adult, that Herod is long gone. But before he died, he realized that none of his sons were competent enough to handle the entire kingdom after him, so he divided it into three smaller kingdoms, each of them still under the authority of Rome. In this story, Herod Antipas was trying to be a big shot, impressing his friends with a big, lavish party, and he tries to impress them even further after Salome, his wife’s daughter, dances for him and his drunken buddies, which is actually pretty creepy if you give even a moment’s thought to it, by promising her whatever she asks for, even up to half of the kingdom, which actually wasn’t even his to give away. In the story, Herod gets manipulated by Herodias, his wife, and he doesn’t have the strength to avoid going along with John’s execution. He doesn’t want to lose face with his guests. It’s a story of a very weak ruler, in both power and character. What makes it even worse is Herod’s own apparent love-hate relationship with John – his conscience being pricked by John’s preaching, but still being intrigued and drawn to it. All in all, the flashback paints a picture of a sometimes evil, but always weak and pathetic person.

As I mentioned, Mark starts this inserted story with Herod thinking back to this memory. Now, he and his cronies were talking about Jesus, when Herod offers his opinion that Jesus is the return of John, whom he’d killed. Herod is being haunted, if not literally, at least figuratively – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, by what he’d done in his past.

Maybe that’s why Mark drops this story right here. The disciples are out proclaiming the good news of God’s favor to all people. Proclaiming liberation, redemption, a release from captivity and suffering and sorrow and guilt, a soothing of regrets, because of God’s proactive, unilateral choice to pursue humanity and bring us into covenant and relationship. By putting the Herod story here, is Mark making the case that the gospel could be good news even for someone as tormented and selfish and sniveling and conflicted as Herod Antipas?

In our own way, I believe that each one of us is being haunted by something in our past. It might be something relatively small that’s stuck with us, or it might be something really serious. You uttered a poorly chosen word or offered a careless, hurtful comment. You weren’t attentive enough to your children, your parents, grandparents, siblings, your dying cousin. You exploited someone who trusted you, causing them harm for your own personal benefit, maybe they never even knew it, and then again, maybe they did. You cheated on your taxes; you cheated on your business partner; you cheated on your spouse. You were too afraid to do the courageous thing that you could have done to help someone, but you were more concerned for your own skin or your own image, your standing in other people’s eye, not wanting to upset the status quo your other relationships. Whatever the actual details, all of us – all of us – carry something that haunts us.

And it isn’t just you and me as individuals, either. Our society is haunted by all of its past wrongs, too. Our abuses of power, our concern for our image over integrity. Our cowardly turning our backs on people in order to save face or retain power or preserve economic interests. Our wrongful treatment of so many different minority groups of people here and abroad, and all of these having a very real and negative affect on our present. Many voices haunt us, and sometimes, it can be exhausting.

But eventually, Mark does tell us in his gospel, just after this flashback scene, that the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus returned, and they reported back about what had happened as they proclaimed that good news.

Hear that same good news today. The news that despite whatever you’ve done in your past, or left undone, small, medium, or large, there is nothing you could have done to place yourself out of reach of God’s love and embrace. There’s nothing in our life that’s too much for God to forgive, to remove from your shoulders and your mind. Nothing.

It’s true that God’s love and acceptance doesn’t take away the harm that we’ve caused. It doesn’t remove the hurt, the scars. You can’t fix everything; you can’t bring John back from the dead. And this love and acceptance definitely comes with the expectation that we’ll do everything in our abilities to right the wrongs we’ve caused, to mend the tears, to restore and make reparation for our wrongs. But even with that, remember, dear precious child of God, you are considered forgiven, and precious, and beloved, and worthy by God. Today and always, you are held in the loving, protective, eternal hand of God, and there’s nothing that can snatch you out of that hand, and there’s nothing that will cause God to let go of your hand.

I did let go of John’s hand the last time I saw him, after a long, silent final hug. Yes, the silence spoke the regret for allowing petty busyness to keep us apart, and for lost opportunities to be together as much as we’ wanted. But it also silently spoke of a lifetime of joy, and gratitude, and love. As much sadness as there was in our goodbye, there was peace in it, too, knowing that some day, we’d be reunited again as cousins, or brothers, or whatever we really were, without any nonsense getting in between. And that peace comes out of the assurance, the good news, that those disciples proclaimed in those towns and villages, and by extension to Herodias, and to Salome, and Herod, and to you, and to me.

Thanks be to God.

*Terms and Conditions (Do Not) Apply

(sermon 3/17/19)

 

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

…And All Jerusalem with Him

Sermon 1/3/16
Epiphany Sunday

magi

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:1-12

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When we talk about having an epiphany, we mean having some sudden and unexpected revelation, a realization or manifestation of something. When the Church talks about *the* Epiphany, as we do on this particular Sunday, we’re referring specifically to the sudden realization and manifestation of Christ, the Messiah, to the non-Jewish world, represented by the Magi who come from somewhere east of ancient Judea to pay homage to him.

Yes, the story of the Magi is a familiar one. And yes, we mash it up together with the Nativity in most of our home Nativity sets, even though we know that the Magi weren’t there until some time period after Jesus’ birth; we don’t know just when they saw the star or how long it took them to get there. I know some people showcase their home Nativities with the Magi somewhere else in the house, and they move them closer and closer to the rest of the crew assembled around the manger throughout the whole Christmas season, until they finally arrive on the scene on Epiphany; I always thought that was a neat idea.

In any case, we know that in the story, the Magi see a star that, at least in accordance with their own astrological and astronomical interpretations, meant that the Messiah that their neighbors, the Jewish people, had been waiting for had apparently been born, and they set off in the direction of the star – which, based on the story, must have directed them to Jerusalem first, where they meet King Herod and tell him what they’re doing. Of course, since the Jews themselves don’t have any tradition that a star is going to foretell the birth of the Messiah, and more importantly, since Herod isn’t really a particularly devout Jew himself, he doesn’t know what to tell the Magi when they ask where the Messiah is supposed to be born. Once his advisors tell him the messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi set off again, and the star that had gotten them to Jerusalem seems to have reappeared, or at least adjusted its course, and led them on to Bethlehem.

But by that time, the damage had already been done. Herod had heard that the messiah had been born. And as the scriptures say, when he heard this, he was frightened, and not just him but “all of Jerusalem” along with him. Everyone in Herod’s court and anywhere else in the halls of power in the capital city were suddenly shaking in their boots, because they understood their place in things, and they knew that a Messiah coming would mean the end of their own lives of power, privilege, and comfort. To get some sense of this, imagine if one day, it became known in Washington DC that God had just sent someone into the world, a child who had just been born somewhere, maybe somewhere down around Alexandria, who was going to upset all the established political, military, and social order and set up a new rule – a new kingdom based on God’s understanding of justice and peace. The jig was up; their days were numbered. There would be panic in the streets, just as the story tells us there was in Herod’s court.

Herod and his people were right. The world was about to change forever, even if it wasn’t quite in the way they feared. And it’s certainly true that Christ’s coming into the world continues to offer challenge and opposition to the powers that be in our world today, if the meaning of his coming into the world is truly understood. But setting the big-picture, mactro-level implications aside for a moment, what does the Epiphany – the realization that Christ has come into the world, and the realization of what that means – cause us to think and feel in our own personal lives? I mean, every year, we go through Advent, and then Christmas, and then we turn right around and celebrate New Year’s, with all of its retrospective thoughts about the ups and downs of the past year, and our thoughts and hopes for a better new year to come. We’re standing at the beginning of a new year again, and while we’re here, and we’re thinking about all the promise that the year could bring, how does Christ, and God’s message that Christ brings into the world, factor into that?

Most of us – actually, I suspect, all of us – have something in our lives that we’re uncertain or unclear about. Something that we don’t understand where God is in the situation. Something that we’re trying to sort out; we’re trying to understand where God is leading us, what God is trying to get us to see. We pray for some kind of definitive guidance or revelation about things in our lives, for some kind of epiphany of our own. At least the Magi got a star, even if its meaning was something they could only try to interpret, and it seems to have bounced them from city to city as part of the process, but we don’t even typically seem to get that. I’ve never seen a star with my name on it, and I doubt you have, either. We’re just left stuck, not knowing which way God wants us to go.

But then there are other times, too. Times when God lays out what we’re supposed to do as sure and direct as the second leg of the star’s leading the Magi, moving straight through the sky and stopping directly over the house where Joseph and Mary were staying. Times and situations when what we need isn’t so much an epiphany at all, because we can already see, we already know, what God wants us to do, which way God wants us to go. Times when the right answer is right in front of our faces – but we’re just afraid of its consequences, just as Herod and his bunch were afraid. They didn’t want their established order, their sense of balance, the equilibrium they were familiar with, to be changed. They were afraid of the uncertainty of the situation, and we can be, too, sometimes. The truth is, an epiphany can be a double-edged sword.

Whether God’s speaking into those uncertain parts of our lives in ways that are hard to see, and where the path isn’t clear; or whether it’s perfectly clear to us where God is leading but we’re just afraid of the consequences; the message of the original Epiphany can bring us hope. Because that child was indeed born all those years ago, and grew up to teach us all the immense, unfathomable truth that the God of the universe – the very essence of love, the creative force behind all that exists, and that works through all that exists – is with us, always, in all that we do. God is with us when we get it right, and even when we get it wrong. God is with us when we struggle with seeing the way, and when we struggle with acting on what we already see. The good news for all of us who are truly seeking God’s path in our lives for this coming year, and for all of us who already see the path and just need the faith and courage to walk it, is that we’re never alone in the process, and that God will help us in our efforts. Ultimately, there’s no reason to fear the consequences of aligning our ways more with God’s ways this year. Because truly, what was born in the stable, what was revealed to the Magi, the first Gentiles to be let in on the great secret, was perfect love, and that perfect love came into the world specifically to cast out all fear.

God was with the Magi. And God is with us. Thanks be to God.