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.

Angels Can Wait

advent-love

Sermon 12/18/16 – Fourth Sunday in Advent

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.  – Matthew 1:18-25

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There’s a video going around on Facebook now, a version of the Christmas story as told by a group of young children. Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I’ll include a link to it when I post this sermon online (click here to see the video). In the video, adults in costumes act out the story as the kids tell it, while lip-synching the characters’ words verbatim in the kids’ actual words as voice-over. It’s cute, and funny, and touching. One of the things that I like about it is that the kids captured all the special, supernatural parts of the story – the angels singing in the clouds, the star, the Wise Men, and so on – but at the same time, they captured the very real humanity, sometimes in interesting detail, of Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

That caught my attention because it’s easy to lose that human aspect of the story. We can focus on all the extraordinary parts, because they’re so, well, extraordinary. You just don’t see angels appearing in the sky belting out tunes every day. Those parts of the story stick in our minds because most of us have plenty of common and normal. It’s nice to think about the miraculous parts of the story.

And that’s a good thing, as long as we do like the kids in that video, capturing both the miraculous and the ordinary with the same wide-eyed wonder. That’s important, because focusing on all the extraordinary, otherworldly parts can make Jesus seem like someone otherworldly and distant, untouchable and unlike us. But I think the real power of the story for us doesn’t really hinge on the extraordinary stuff, but rather, on it ordinariness, its commonality with us.

The gospel text we heard today is the entire Christmas story as it appears in the gospel according to Matthew. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there’s really almost nothing to it. Yes, Mary becomes pregnant by way of the Holy Spirit, and there is one angel – but it isn’t the angels in the sky appearing to shepherds; it isn’t even the angel appearing to Mary announcing that she is most favored among women. It’s the one who comes to Joseph, and he seems to almost be phoning in his appearance, showing up in a dream, to coax him not to divorce Mary as he’s struggling with his very real-world, human emotions.

Just imagine Joseph’s emotions. The scriptures say he’s “betrothed” or “engaged” to Mary, but in that time, that meant that Joseph and Mary had already entered into a legal contract of marriage – they were already married in the eyes of the law and the eyes of their neighbors, but for some reason, they just weren’t living together and hadn’t consummated the marriage yet. And now, somehow, Mary turned up pregnant, which must have led to some interesting conversations between the two of them. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy still raises eyebrows today. To be frank, that’s how I came into the world, born to two teenagers who quit high school to get married and raise me. And I’d bet that I’m not the only person here today who has that same story, or a very similar one. Even within just my lifetime, single young women who got pregnant were sometimes shipped off for extended visits to some distant relative during their pregnancy, until the baby was born and given up for adoption, and then the young woman reappeared as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. That was bad enough, but in the days of Joseph and Mary, it was even worse, and it came with far more risk to Mary than just having to put up with small-town gossip and chit-chat. It could have cost her her life, since the punishment for adultery was being stoned to death.

So Joseph struggled with what he should do. And imagine the distress that Mary must have felt, knowing how much hung in the balance for her, based on what Joseph would decide.

Here’s where I’m headed with all of this: Jesus came into the world in the midst of a very human back story. Just as he said in last week’s Lectionary text talking about John the Baptist, Jesus didn’t come into the world in some privileged existence, born in a palace, with all the privileges and perks that the world could offer someone it considered important. Matthew’s way of telling about Jesus’ birth drills down on the reality that Jesus came into the world in a very human way, a way that almost no one noticed or paid any attention to. He was just another baby born to just another baby born to just another couple. Just like us.

And that’s precisely the point. That’s what God’s good news, God’s “glad tidings of great joy for all people” absolutely hangs on. Jesus coming into the world isn’t “God-Looking-Down-On-Us,” or “God-Studying-Us,” or even “God-Taking-Pity-On-Us.” It’s “God-With-Us;” it’s “God-Being-One-Of Us.” Truly knowing, firsthand, all the ups and downs of human existence, from our perspective. Knowing the joy and love, and grief and suffering. Knowing human hopes and dreams, and disappointments and temptations. Our good news is that God has chosen to experience all of that with us, and has promised to walk with us as we go through all of those things and many others too. God has chosen to extend grace and mercy to us from a position of being able to identify with us; having solidarity with us.

I read a story sometime this past week about a man who was dragging out the family’s Christmas decorations, and his small child – probably about the same age as the kids in the video I mentioned earlier – wanted to help set up the expensive, elaborate, family-heirloom nativity set. The man was nervous that his child’s little hands might drop and break one of the precious ceramic figurines, so he went to look for another nativity set that they had, one that was very kid-friendly – simple wood construction, and all the figures were made out of totally unbreakable, quilted fabric. As he was up in the attic trying to find it, he heard the child call up to him from down below, “Hey Dad, did you find a Jesus I can touch?”

Don’t forget all the amazing, miraculous parts of the Christmas story. They’re an important part of it all. But don’t let all those parts take the focus away from the most important aspect of it all. Just for a bit, hold off on the star; keep the Wise Men at bay; the angels can wait. Just for a bit, consider Matthew’s simpler version of the story of Jesus’ birth. To me, that’s truly the “greatest story ever told” – the story of a Jesus we can touch.

Thanks be to God.

Love Story (Sermon 6/7/15)

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.     – Genesis 2:15-3:21

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A lot of sermons are developed to include some form of visual imagery within them; a painting of some kind of word picture or a jogging of your memory about something you’re familiar with. We preachers will do this for at least two possible reasons. First, they’re meant to help illustrate a particular point we’re trying to make. Second, they’re meant to stick in your mind a bit longer than just a bunch of words; they become a thing that you remember and which help to remember the rest of what was being said. If I can get you to remember Schrodinger’s Cat, or a Watership Down rabbit until, say, the following Wednesday, the odds are pretty good that you’ll also be able to say, “Yeah, I remember that – and the point behind it was….” That’s why so many sermons are structured that way.

But I don’t have an image like that today. Sorry. The reason I don’t is that the Lectionary text today, the second account of creation from Genesis, is its own strong visual image. We’ve all heard this story a hundred times, and we’ve all imagined it; it’s already a big imprint on our minds.

This is a love story, maybe the greatest of love stories; the story of the love of God for us. It’s a long passage, and there are probably a hundred different topics that could be preached from it; dozens of church doctrines and positions are drawn from it; but I want to point out just a couple of thoughts from the story today that I think are very important to us.

Imagine this scene in your mind: God has created the earth, and the human being. And upon reflection, God says that it isn’t good for the human being to be alone – that the human needs a helper, a partner, a mate; someone to be in relationship with. So, God sets out creating various options to offer to the human being as a potential partner in life, by creating all the animals. Picture this; God creates an animal and presents it to the human being for approval: “How about this one? No? OK, How about this? How about this? How about this?” Until finally, after all the rejections, God creates a woman and presents it to the man – “How about this?” And finally, the man says yes, this is an acceptable partner and helper for me; someone who is like me, flesh of my flesh; bone of my bone.

Did you get that? The eternal, transcendent God who created the universe, the cosmos, by sheer will, by just saying “Let there be…” doesn’t act with that same kind of power and authority to just create a partner for the man and say, “This is it!” God grants the freedom to the human being to choose for himself who will be an acceptable partner and helper in life. That’s an incredible degree of autonomy, of agency, of authority over his own life. And it doesn’t end there. Notice in the story that when God presented all the animals to the human being, God allowed the human to name them. Now that may not sound like a big deal to us, but it was to the culture that this story was written for. In ancient Hebrew culture to know the name of a person or thing carried with it some authority and control that you had over them, and to have the power of actually bestowing the name meant you had all the more power and authority over them. This was a major statement in this story about the nature of God. At a time when the cultures surrounding them had creation accounts that talked about the gods deciding to create human beings to basically be slave labor for them, and who didn’t particularly care for them, the God of Israel, and of us, is described as one who provides so much agency and autonomy in the world that we become co-creators with God. We see that creativity in music, and architecture, and painting, and the theater, and on and on. We have the power and authority to do all these things in the world and more – and maybe that “more” is precisely the point. Along with this much control and agency comes great responsibility. We can’t just sit back on our haunches in this world waiting for God to take care of us, or of some problem in the world. God has given us all of this agency and co-creativity, in order to do good in this world in God’s name. We can’t just throw up our hands when we see something wrong and say “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” because God has – God has equipped and empowered us to do step in and do something about it.

That’s a lot of responsibility that we get with that great degree of agency. And that’s the problem: the greater responsibility we have, the greater possibility we have to mess up. Of course, as we know, it doesn’t take long for the human beings to mess up in this creation story. And they really mess up big; no one could have messed up bigger than this. And you hear the emotion in the words of the passage; Go sounds like the parent of every teenager who’s done something stupid, and the parent cries out “What in the world were you thinking?!!”

But then, after the initial outburst, did you notice what God did? It was the very last line of the passage. Did he send lightning bolts to obliterate them? No. You can almost hear God taking a deep breath, and saying “OK, you made a mistake. And the mistake has consequences. This isn’t going to be the life, the future, I’d originally planned and hoped for you. But it can still be a good one. Let’s get to work and make that happen together.” Instead of the lightning bolts, God sits down in the garden with them and stitches some clothing for them. God equips them for the life, for the journey, ahead of them. That’s the kind of God that Adam, and Eve, and we have. That’s very, very good news. And knowing that, what more can we say but

Thanks be to God.