Sunday, July 19, 2009
As you are no doubt aware by now, a group of our youth will travel this week to the city of New Orleans in order to attend the ELCA Youth Gathering, an event so large that it can only be held every three years. This year an estimated 37,000 Lutheran youth and adult volunteers will stream into this humid, flood-damaged, but beautiful city in order to worship together, learn together, and serve together. During the Gathering, every youth group from across the nation will be volunteering in New Orleans in some way through a community-building environmental program. Some will be helping to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.
No matter what we all will be doing, I’m sure that coordinating service projects for 37,000 youth volunteers within the span of three days must be an enormously complicated undertaking. In fact, although it would be difficult to verify this, it is highly probable that the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans will be the largest service community in the history of the United States, and maybe the world. Some are suggesting, that is, that never before have that many people come together at one time for the express purpose of doing volunteer service work. We will be a mob with a mission.
There is a mob with a mission in today’s gospel text: get to Jesus at all costs. He gathers with his disciples; the mob finds him, ignoring even their hunger. The disciples whisk him away to the other side of the lake; the mob sees where they’re going and beats him there. They are relentless in their pursuit. Later, once Jesus crosses the lake again and lands at Gennesaret, the crowd recognizes him at once and rush at him and press in on him wherever they get wind of his presence. In village, town, or marketplaces, Jesus is the target. It’s a little bit like celebrity-status for him, and I imagine that if the camera had already been invented back then, some paparazzi would have been involved, their mopeds buzzing around and flashbulbs flashing. Overwhelmingly, though, this mob wants to get to Jesus because he can heal, he can feed. He can give hope. He can make a difference. “If we just get close enough to touch the fringe of his cloak,” some even think, “we’ll get a piece of the action.”
And this is how it continues for awhile. Their presence has been growing steadily for quite some time, but now it’s out of control, and the adoring mob will continue to grow, essentially pushing him up to and through the gates of Jerusalem.
One of the issues with this crowd in Mark’s gospel is that there is really nothing organize them or coordinate them in their mission. They are one giant, disorganized multitude. Mark describes them as “sheep without a shepherd,” an image which would have resonated strongly with Mark’s early readers. Here are likely thousands of people wandering around in the hills and towns of northern Israel, a place not only home to hundreds of flocks of real sheep, but also the historic home to God’s own flock of people. Many of these folks are, in fact, God’s chosen, and yet they are vulnerable and strewn about all over the place, haphazardly brought together by nothing but their own feverish desires. They had suffered at the hands of too many abusive and unfaithful shepherd-kings throughout their history, and here they are again, coarsing over the hills and through the streets to get to someone who can lead and guide and love.
And yet, for all its impressive size and energy, there is still something pitiful in this scene, something all-too descriptive of our own circumstances. The image of mad crowds straining and falling all over themselves to get to Jesus is reminiscent of our own desperate searches for meaning and healing. We may not understand ourselves as a part of a definable crowd with a mission, but there is something hectic and frantic and disorganized about so much of the human existence. So often, like sheep without a shepherd, we wander about aimlessly, following the flock in a loose-like fashion, drinking from any number of water sources and grazing in any type of pasture until something threatening scatters us apart from each other. And even in our more passionate moments we throw ourselves wantonly at whatever new-fangled remedy promises us fulfillment, happiness. Oh, at times, to have a mission! To sense that we have a life purpose or a goal that would never fail and then to have the stamina to follow it! Yes, this crowd that Mark describes with such vividness is really us. And we are altogether pitiful, pathetic, in our need for togetherness, in our need for guidance and loving care. Altogether pitiful, and it’s almost gut-wrenching.
In fact, that is exactly what our predicament is: gut-wrenching. Our clear need for rescue from all our isolating circumstances turns out to be truly gut-wrenching for Jesus. He stands there, looking out over this sea of humanity and instinctively feels compassion for us. In both the Greek and Hebrew understanding of the human body, compassion was rooted in the gut, in the innermost part of the body. In fact, the Greek words for “compassion” and “intestines” are almost the same. So often we attempt to stifle or deny those unpredictable deep feelings of compassion and empathy, but Jesus doesn’t. Like our hymn says, “his heart has never known recoil” ("Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life," words by Frank North) His response when he continually meets this crowd that presses in on him at every twist and turn is to reach out in teaching and in healing, to stand up as their shepherd as selflessly as possible.
And just as we may understand compassion as being rooted in the gut, in the dark center of the human body, we realize that Jesus, himself, is placed in the the dark center of the whole human experience. He is there, pressed in among the sick and downtrodden, offering healing and wholeness. He is there, pressed alongside the sorrowful and guilt-laden, offering hope and forgiveness. And he is there, pressed up against the cross, offering love and salvation with all those who trod the ways of death and abandonment. As Jesus responds to the crowd that has gathered, we see that his compassion may be his most defining characteristic, the emotion that guides him away from solitude and further into the people he loves.
This is how he will respond to us: knowing what we need even before we do, his gut-reaction is to love us and teach us and guide us in the midst of the dark valley of the shadow of death. That is true compassion, my friends, and we learn it only by pressing in among him as often as we can.
The crowd we had at church this week wasn’t quite of the same character as the crowd in today’s gospel lesson, but Vacation Bible School can come close to it at points. Amidst all the merriment, there are hurt feelings, skinned knees, snotty noses, and several cases of homesickness. Even as early as Wednesday, there are adult volunteers who are starting to show signs of exhaustion, who begin to understand why, as fun as it is, Vacation Bible School is only attempted once a year. It is always amazing to me how much gets undertaken in a week of VBS: the elaborate set designs, the music, the incessant hand-motions that go with the songs, the games, the Bible storytelling, the snacks, the coordinated outfits, the skits.
Yet I would venture to say, from experience, that the main thing the children take away from this experience is not a particular song or a specific craft or even a favorite Bible story. It is, rather, the compassion and attention of the volunteers they receive. They will remember the youth group members, pressed in among the kids, who selflessly allowed themselves to become human bean bags and jungle gyms for the week. They will be formed by the adult who, pressing themselves down to floor level, gave them extra attention as they struggled with the science lesson. They will, on some subconscious level if nowhere else, never forget the loving way they were brought into line after breaking the rules. These, more than anything else, are the things that they will take with them from this week. A congregation who knows that Christ has pressed himself into the center encourages these types of compassionate interactions, not only with children, but with all of God’s people. His compassion for us leads us to display the same urgent compassion for others, right up close.
I used to hear a song on the radio years ago called, “God is Watching us from a Distance.” The intention of that song, I believe, was to preach peace, to speak out against conflict and war and have us recognize our common humanity. Those are noble objectives, I suppose, but, as a friend of mine once pointed out, I’m not sure that telling us God is at a distance will ever achieve those aims, for a shepherding God could never lead from a distance. The God I have come to know—the God you have taught me more about—is the one who looks upon the scary, swarming mass of humanity and yet presses himself in among them, nonetheless. It is the God who continues to press in among his needy, hungry people in the form of bread and wine. God is watching us from a distance? Someone tell that to the children this week who learned about Jesus. Someone tell that to the people sitting in the hospital room, waiting for treatment. Someone tell that to the mob of 37,000 who will be led into the streets of New Orleans later this week. A God who dies on a cross is not a distant God.
Each time I used to hear that song come on the radio, I wanted someone to replace it with a recording of the 23rd Psalm, because I have come to understand that our God is in the crowd, close-up and with compassion. Tired, worn, and weary, but still reaching out and leading us to salvation. He’s holding high a rod and staff, pouring your cup so that it is running over. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of our life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Every now and then in society’s general ongoing conversation about religion and matters of faith you may have heard the criticism, as I have, that the Bible is out-dated, irrelevant, and boring. It seems that some feel, for whatever reason, that it is trapped in an era so removed from ours, that it speaks of philosophies and histories that have too little in common with our own to make any modern sense. Others get fooled by the long, poetic passages and tiresome prophecies from a world so distant or ancient that they write its message off entirely.
To tell you the truth, I’m ashamed to say there are times I’ve been prone to think it, too. Even the gospels of the New Testament, where my head, by necessity, spends so much of its time buried, start to take on a museum-exhibit-like quality, and I’m like an archaeologist trying to uncover hidden facts and truths about a magical land long ago. It can seem, under even this well-meaning microscope, that it’s just not real.
And then—surprise!—against all the criticism that our Scriptures are tedious or unrelated or old-fashioned comes today’s gospel text, situated right in the middle of Mark’s gospel. It has all you need for an “R” rating: exotic dancing, lust, love triangles, violence and gore. Power politics are present, as is a dirty dungeon cell where torture no doubt takes place, and, at the end of the story, a real human head served up on a platter. Isn’t this reality, folks? Shocking, explicit …and all too normal. Turn on the television—either to a movie or the daily news or even CSPAN these days—and you’re not likely to find anything more graphic or less relevant to our time than this. Mark’s report of the scenes surrounding John the Baptist’s murder is as lurid as the stories that fascinate us in the tabloids. In fact, we had a difficult time finding an appropriate image for the front of this morning’s bulletin because most of the ones that were suggested depicted a young woman with a severed head on a plate—and that just doesn’t seem churchy. Within the context of our delicate “churchiness,” or our stereotypes of the Biblical world, and even within the context of Mark’s own gospel, this story of John’s sad fate offends us, or at least catches us off-guard with its very real-ness.
As the story goes, Herod Antipas—who is here named “King”—hears the reports of Jesus and his disciples acts of mercy and power on behalf of God’s kingdom, and how the townfolk all around are starting to get stirred up, and begins to fear that John the Baptist, whom he himself has had murdered, has come back to haunt him. Herod is afraid, you see, that justice is about track him down and find him, Night-of-the-Living-Dead style. John was murdered by Herod, somewhat begrudgingly, as the result of a rash vow Herod had made—now follow this!—to his wife’s daughter. He had seen this young woman dance at his birthday party and it pleased him so much that, like so many other crazy, intemperate monarchs, he offered her anything in the world, even half his kingdom.
As you could guess, this tiny dancer whom Herod wants to hold close is not likely his actual biological daughter. It is probably his step-daughter and niece, (yes, still eww), the child to his new wife, Herodias. She, as it turns out, was also married to Herod’s brother, Philip. Herodias has it in for John the Baptist because John has functioned like some type of Billy Graham-cum-Ken Starr, publically calling their relationship into account and letting them know it wasn’t lawful. Herod, ever keen to garnish his religious credentials with the local Jewish population, is a little afraid and mesmerized by John, and so instead of actually knocking him off and thereby angering John’s devoted throng of followers, Herod merely imprisons John in his dungeon. With John at a safe distance, Herod can continue to keep tabs on John and also listen to his intriguing preaching.
Herodias, on the other hand, has no subjects to please, and she develops quite the need for revenge. So, when she gets wind of this lust-induced vow that her husband makes to her daughter, the tiny dancer, she immediately sees it as the perfect opportunity to disconnect John the Baptist’s body from his ever-preachy, ever-pontificating head. The daughter, who certainly seems to be under the thumb of her mother, passes up the sweet offer of half of Herod’s kingdom gallops off to Herod with the request, and, pretty soon…voila! Head on a plate!
Nope, this isn’t what we’re used to every Sunday, is it? In fact, next Sunday we’ll hear nothing of Herod and Herodias, and, to be sure, Mark never mentions them again at all in his gospel. So why, all of the sudden, do we switch gears like this? Why do we go from Jesus and his merry band of disciples, now fully incorporated and commissioned in his ministry of God’s kingdom, making their way through the Galilean countryside, casting out demons and healing the sick, to this, something that comes straight out of a bad soap opera?
Some have always noticed that it is a bit of foreshadowing. That is, John, the forerunner of Jesus—the one who came before him to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry—meets the same fate that Jesus will. His disciples don’t know it. Jesus hasn’t breathed a word about his death yet, either, but John’s imprisonment and quick demise become a glimpse into what might happen with Jesus when he comes before the authorities. Notice, too, how Mark explains how John’s disciples come and remove his body from the prison and place it in a tomb. This will all sound strangely familiar in a few more months.
But I think there is something more at work here with this dose of treachery at the hands of the rulers. The story of John’s beheading stands in the middle of Mark’s gospel, and in the middle of our conscience, as if to say, “This is what Jesus is up against.” This kind of scary, dangerous, murky sense of justice and what’s right and wrong is always what God’s grace is up against.
Interestingly, the scene in Herod’s palace follows the part in Mark’s gospel where everything is finally going so well. It is where our episode left off last week, when our heroes—Jesus and his disciples—are making their rounds through Galilee with roaring success in the ministry department. They are healing and preaching, and people are repenting and joining the cause of God’s kingdom by the hoards. In fact, when the camera fades away on our scene today as the decapitated body of John being moved to its tomb, it resumes on the happy, verdant banks of Lake Galilee where, we are told, the disciples gather around Jesus and regale the stories of their success. Yes, with that type of framing, the picture at Herod’s macabre birthday feast becomes a harsh reminder of what God’s grace is up against.
Centuries before, a young orchard worker named Amos had discovered what God’s word was up against when God appointed him a prophet and told him to go stand in the courts of Israel’s corrupt and depraved King Jeroboam and preach repentance. The word that Amos bears of justice and concern for the poor find itself up against a whole system of fraud and dishonesty like a plumb line finds itself up against a crooked, tottering wall. How distressing to find that John the Baptist’s words, and Jesus’ disciples’ works of mercy—in that time and in ours—find the same thing: that creation is magnificently out-of-whack. Like ancient Israel’s leaders had long begun to build their society on warped concepts of justice and mercy, treating the poor and oppressed as commodities or property rather than as humans loved by their Creator, we find that our own notions of fairness and equality often fall far short of God’s intentions.
This kind of crookedness and wickedness is always what God’s grace is up against, whether it is in our own national institutions, or entrenched economic systems, or our church structures and policies. It’s the kinds of things that some of these quilts and shawls will no doubt find themselves up against, wherever they go: Victims of homelessness or terrorism and war, the training children for suicide bombings, the day trafficking of humans for the sex trade. Governments with apartheid systems in place, as well as ones whose racist policies are more subtle. Agricultural policies that keep some nations perpetually poverty-stricken. And we must not forget ignorance and indifference in our own hearts.
This—and more—is all what God’s grace is up against, but it is also what God came to save. This—and so much more—is what God’s goodness is up against, but it is also what God came to love back into line. Ephesians, chapter one: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”
Herod, he lavished money, sex, power on his subjects. God, he has lavished his grace on us, his children. And perhaps the big challenge of our journey together is not to let the crooked nature of what we see in the world, the corrupting connivance of sin, become the standard. The big challenge is not to get so accustomed to the ways we all fall short that we start thinking that’s just the way it has to be, to see the fallen specter of God’s creation and call it normal.
No. Rather, it is God’s plumb line of and love and forgiveness and Jesus that is now normal—that is dynamic and timely and not boring and very, very real. It has been lavished on us, and we are to lavish it on the rest of the world. The standard for what is real this world is not our sin, but God’s grace in Christ.
And what about the rest, then, that world of hurt we call “reality” from time to time? Well, that’s just the old, irrelevant, part crumbling away because it cannot stand. It cannot stand against the plumb line of grace. It, too, is being torn down and then gathered up in him for the new, grace-filled kingdom God’s people are building in Christ. It is being torn down--even by things like quilts and shawls--and rebuilt in an eternal palace of justice fit for our King.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
(image: "The Beheading of John the Baptist," Carel Fabritius, ca. 1640)
Sunday, July 5, 2009
“O beautiful, for patriot dream…”
Jesus is a patriot in this morning’s gospel text, although not necessarily a patriot in the sense that comes to mind in national songs on Independence Day as we wave our flags and eat our flame-grilled hot dogs. Here Jesus is a patriot in the strictest sense of the word; that is, Jesus travels to his hometown and there he comes face to face with the people of his ancestors. In Greek, “hometown” is patris, the very root word that gives us patriot and patriotism. Logically, it is related to the root word for “fathers,” and we often still think of our homeland—our hometowns—as the place of our forefathers and foremothers. These things stir feelings of patriotism in us, for example, because we feel connected on some deep level to the people who came before us in this particular place.
Nazareth is just that for Jesus, and then some. In the social milieu of first-century Israel, a person’s hometown was little more than one, large, extended family, a wide network of strong bonds based on bloodlines and marriage contracts. Inextricably linked to this network, and with a less-developed sense of individuality than we have today, a person’s clan was his or her identity. And so, in his hometown, Jesus encounters this clan, this community who made him who he was. The synagogue he preaches in would have been the synagogue he attended as a kid. The worshippers he reads to would have been the rabbis and elders who would have taught him the Law. The people he reaches out to would have been the members of his own extended family: siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts once and twice and three times removed. In fact, we are told Jesus is instantly recognized by his compatriots, properly identified by his traditional role in the community and immediate relations: “Is this not the carpenter, Mary’s boy?”
But whereas we might expect to be lauded and applauded—even as prophets—by our hometowns in this day and age, Jesus meets fierce resistance. This is anything but a patriot’s dream. Almost no one in his own tribe is convinced by his message of God’s coming kingdom, and, in sharp contrast to what had happened in the other Galilean villages, few people are healed and Jesus performs no deeds of power in Nazareth. His townspeople are first astounded and then scandalized by his words and teaching. “Who does he think he is, anyway?” they mutter under their breath. In fact, that’s probably what the Nazareth Town Council would have printed on their city limits sign as you came into town: “Nazareth, Population 550. Home of Jesus. Who does he think he is, anyway?”
The truth is, in finding himself rejected by his own compatriots, Jesus falls into a distinguished group of prophets who had also been tormented or doubted by the very people from which they had arisen. Almost all of the house of Israel’s own prophets met insurmountable odds when bringing God’s word to bear upon them. Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel...one after another, they dealt with the stiff-necked, close-minded nature of a clannish people. For those who have come to view Jesus as a biblical Superman guy who can always work a wonder in the most hostile of situations, who can make a believer out of even the most reluctant sinner, Jesus’ dismissal in Nazareth comes as a shocker. As it turns out, his own kith and kin couldn’t care less about his kingdom. Even Jesus, we are told, is surprised at their thick-headedness.
One of sin’s most effective tools is to get us to divide ourselves into different groupings—whether they be nations, towns, races, families, political parties—and then convince us that we can’t learn anything new, that those who don’t think exactly as our group does are a threat that must be ignored or done away with. All human communities—even countries as noble as ours—run the danger of adopting a tribal mentality, an outlook that teaches we are essentially broken down into these different “hometowns” where identity is entirely wrapped up in who your forefather or foremother is. In such communities, we end up thinking the liberating word of Jesus has nothing new to say to us, or, if it does, it only serves to reinforce our sense of specialness, that our family, or our town, our party, our race, our nation has it all figured out.
But, in truth, he is a stumbling block, for he comes to remind us of our need of grace. His word is a scandal, because through it we discover his kingdom will include all—most especially the sinners like me. And a community that cannot come to terms with its own sinfulness—and therefore its morbid unity with all of humankind—runs the risk of never knowing the full embrace of his kingdom.
In the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, it would be somewhat fitting to have the story end there, as the stories of so many other prophets do. We could see Jesus standing at the edge of the town that refuses to claim him for who he is, cursing the stiff-necked people in the vein of Moses or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. But Jesus, the new prophet, takes a different approach. He, on the other hand, gathers together his disciples and entrusts them with the message. Sending them out in pairs into even more villages where they would doubtless be rejected from time to time, he empowers his own followers with the news of the kingdom. Equipped with nothing but the authority of his word, they would go in his stead, and their success in the surrounding towns would be a contrast to Jesus’ failure in his own. And so, word by word, healing by healing, anointing by anointing, we see an entirely new community taking shape over the hills of Galilee, one that is built on Jesus’ grace and mercy, one that is founded on repentance and forgiveness, rather than a Constitution or military might or family pedigree.
As part of that cadre of disciples who are called to go out and carry his message, we’re talking about a much larger communion here, a family tree with more branches than we can ever imagine, extending far past any national or racial boundaries we could ever set up. It involves those who live in Nazareth and those who live in its neighboring towns. It involves those who may live in America, and Canada…and Iran and Afghanistan…in each and every country on this planet, as well as those who have no country on this planet to call home. It is the community of those in each and every hometown who have been claimed by the word of Jesus, the prophet who doesn’t just talk but who dies to set us free from the grip of sin. The sheer size and scope of this community can catch us off guard at times.
A few weeks ago I made a quick run to the Wal-Mart over on Parham Road. I was making a quick trip to buy a pizza for the babysitter to cook for the kids. As I was walking in from the parking lot, I was observing and making note of how many different ethnicities and races and languages seemed to be right there in the parking lot with me. Were they my new compatriots in this great land? When did they arrive here? Were they fitting in? Were we as a nation being hospitable enough?
And then, as I was placing Laura into the shopping cart, I felt the pressure of a large hand on my shoulder. I turned around to a tall, dark-skinned man looking down at me. “Excuse me,” he said, “are you Pastor Phillip, from St. Andrew’s Church in Cairo?” There, looking at me in the eyes, was one of my former parishioners from my internship congregation in Egypt. He was a Sudanese refugee who had attended our church and sought shelter through our ministries in downtown Cairo after fleeing war and persecution in southern Sudan. As it turned out, he had been resettled by the United Nations and U.S. Immigration Service a couple of years after I left here to Richmond, Virginia. A Presbyterian congregation had helped set him and some other Sudanese refugees in an apartment less than a mile from my house on Patterson Avenue.
Now, I could chalk this experience up to random chance, an outcome of a statistical probability that throughout my life I am bound to run into a certain number of people I’ve run into before. But I can’t do that. In light of how I know our Lord works in spite of the rejection and dismissals from the stubborn Nazareths of this world, and in light of how I know he is methodically and persistently using ordinary disciples like you and me to spread Christ’s embrace to all villages and nations, I know, rather, that meeting my refugee friend in Walmart was just another powerful reminder that the Spirit is knitting us all together into one big baptismal hometown where Jesus is the true patriot dream that sees beyond the years. I was not so much looking at a new member of my American tribe, but a brother from another village who had nevertheless received the same wonderful message about Jesus that I have.
It was a powerful reminder of the size of God’s community. I pray that my eyes would be opened to even more of these wonderful reminders of our one Forefather in heaven who is embracing us all.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.