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.

He Came Down (sermon 3/15/15)

tebow eye black

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. – Numbers 21:4-9

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And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21

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There are things in our lives that we get so used to that they just become part of us. They’re so common, so familiar, we have to think about them about as much as we have to think about breathing, or blinking our eyes. They’re part of our routine. Like the order we do things when we get out of bed – shower, deodorant, shave, brush your teeth, always in that order, day after day. And when you shower, always wash your hair first, then your body, always starting with your right arm. Well that’s my pattern anyway; yours might be different but the odds are that you still have one. Our lives are full of these patterns, these familiarities, these shorthand ways of making sense of the day.

We do it with the Bible, too, or at least parts of it. There are some passages of scripture that we’ve heard so many times that they’re just part of us. We know exactly what they say and exactly what they mean without having to think about it, even before we’ve completely read it or heard it. At least, we think we do.

That’s probably the case with some of today’s gospel text. It starts off with an odd reference to lifting up a serpent, which refers to the even more odd passage from Numbers that we heard this morning, but then it moves into a part that we’ve all heard countless times. John 3:16. We’ve seen the rainbow-haired guy and hundreds of people copying him holding up signs citing it at sporting events. Tim Tebow used to have it printed on his eye black stickers. It might be the most familiar, most well-known Bible verse out there; even the most biblically illiterate people in the country could probably quote it, and almost always in the King James Version. And we know exactly what it means, don’t we?

Well, maybe. One of the things that we’ve done in the Wednesday Noon Study Group and in the Confirmation class is to look at a specific familiar passage from the Bible, and to read it like we’ve never heard it before. It isn’t easy; you have to force yourself to do it sometimes, but to really stop and let every word, every phrase, every detail of a story sink in. And sometimes, when you do that, certain things catch your attention. Certain things stand out. You notice things that you’d allowed yourself to gloss over before. You pick up new things, or you notice that in your mind, you’ve added details that really aren’t there. And maybe there’s some phrase or word that just sticks out in your mind and makes you contemplate what it means in this context. From what I understand, the adult forum is going to discuss that same idea, In a slightly different context.

In this passage from John, Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to speak with him, and they’ve been having a conversation when we get to this passage. In all honesty, we don’t know if this is supposed to be Jesus’ words that he speaks to Nicodemus, or if it’s the gospel writer’s commentary on the scene. The ancient Greek language didn’t have quotation marks, so we can’t really be sure which is the case. But either way, let’s listen to that one verse, John 3:16, just by itself, as if we’ve never heard it before:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”  

Early this past week, I read through this passage, and especially this verse, and I just kept re-reading it and thinking about it. And what my brain kept coming back to was that phrase “believe in.” What does it mean to say that a person “believes in” this Son that God sent into the world? And just what does it mean to say that that’s the reason that God sent him? Is it saying the same thing to say that someone “believes in” the Son as to say that they’re a “Christian,” or are those not necessarily the same things? And if God’s whole purpose for sending the Son into the world is strictly that people would “believe in” him, and *that’s* how people gain this everlasting life, then what does that say about all the theological doctrines that say that God sent the Son into the world in order to die and pay some cosmic price or ransom or sacrifice, in order to earn our everlasting life through the shedding of Jesus’ blood?

What I’m talking about here is what theologians would call “atonement theory” – trying to understand just how it works, the nuts and bolts of it, that we’re saved, reconciled, redeemed, justified – choose your favorite term – through Jesus Christ. Or why “He Came Down,” as the hymn we’ll sing in a little while puts it. We were just talking about this subject in the Confirmation class a couple weeks ago, and we’re going to be looking at it in greater depth in the Wednesday group right after Easter. Did you know that there are at least six different ways that the writers of the New Testament explain how this works? And theologians from ancient to modern times have teased out those scriptural passages into complex theological theories about it. A number of these theories would seem to require Jesus’ death and bloodshed to work. In others, that isn’t a necessary component. In the tradition of Western Christianity, coming out of Rome and then the European Reformation and then on into America, the idea that Jesus had to die in order to save us has been a longstanding one. “We’re washed in the blood of the Lamb.” “There’s power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lord.” “Oh! precious is the flow/ That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” And on and on. But the idea of God demanding the shedding of innocent blood in order to save us implies something really, really monstrous about a God we believe is the definition of love. Some have said that the two ideas are absolutely incompatible. Personally, I agree with them.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God sent the Son into the world to die, to be the victim of violence, bloodshed, and murder, in order to save us. In fact, that idea doesn’t show up in a single verse of this entire gospel. The closest this particular gospel writer gets to that is to say that in Jesus being lifted up, that others will come to believe in him and they will be drawn to him, but that doesn’t mean that that “lifting up” is a necessary part of all this. John 3:16 says that God sent the Son into the world for people to see him, and hear him, and to believe in his words, to believe in his message. In this version of atonement theory, the bloodshed and suffering of Jesus on and leading up to the cross isn’t necessary for this everlasting life to be given from God. We know and enjoy that life, this verse says, just by “believing in” him. Believing his message, his teaching. And what is that message? According to Jesus, it’s what we’ve come to call “the Greatest Commandment”: Love God with all of your being, and love others in the same way that you love yourself; in the same way that Jesus loved his disciples. Do this, and you will know eternal, everlasting life, Jesus says. Hearing and acting on that message is apparently what Jesus thinks it means to “believe in” him. It isn’t believing something “about” him. It isn’t believing something particular about “how” he unites us with God, or how it’s only through him that people come into God’s presence. It seems that according to the writer of John’s gospel, this particular atonement theory, Jesus says that receiving everlasting life is hearing and believing his words, to love God and love one another. And that this could be the case even if Jesus had never been crucified, even if he settled down, had a family, and lived a normal life. Maybe Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t some unfortunate but still glorious thing that we say we’re grateful for, because it was needed to reconcile us with God; but rather, it’s a huge, totally unnecessary tragedy, the biggest miscarriage of justice in human history. Something we should mourn.

And if all this is the case, can someone who’s part of another religion, or even no religion at all, “believe in” Jesus in the sense that it’s meant in this verse? Can someone who rejects Christ’s divinity and rejects, maybe even hates, the Christian Church, still “believe in” Jesus in the way that it means here? Those are some pretty big questions. As we continue through Lent, I invite us all to think about those questions as we ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and the cross. And just think: all these deep, ponderous questions, all come out of looking at just one simple phrase, in one familiar verse, of the Bible.

Thanks be to God.