Rev. Peter Faass
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus said to the man, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
The rich young man addresses Jesus as "good teacher," which is a respectful way to address a rabbi, a teacher of the Law. But Jesus quickly discounts that greeting and shifts the focus. This is not about him being a teacher, good or bad, but rather about his teaching us how to live within the rules God has set. Jesus has just said in the previous passage in a similar question about divorce, that the Law on divorce was an accommodation to our imperfection. It was because of our hardheartedness that the Law of Moses allowed men to divorce their wives so easily. But this is not the way God intended marriage to be in the Creation, he explains. You have taken what God desires and watered it down to be palatable for yourselves, Jesus says.
In his book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, John Dominic Crossan calls this behavior of taking God’s rules and watering them down to make them palatable, the “rhythm of assertion and subversion.” This pattern of assertion and subversion in the Bible occurs when we humans don’t like how radical God’s call to us is on how to lead our lives according to God’s will. We humans find that way just too hard or inconvenient, so we domesticate God’s desires by adding Bible verses that temper God’s rules to our liking so that the normalcy of human civilization is maintained. In other words, so humans can take the easy way out. This is a frequent pattern in the Biblical canon.
Just as in that earlier exchange about divorce, Jesus now takes a different tack from where the questioner thought he would go, and maybe more to the point, where he wanted Jesus to go, with the rich young man and his question about obtaining eternal life. The man’s desire is for Jesus to temper God’s call so that he can obtain eternal life. But Jesus is not so easily domesticated.
The reality is, Jesus came to earth to lead us directly into the heart of God. Jesus is here not just to be a "good teacher" but to tell us the truth about God’s will for us, in order to bring out the image of God that is inside and upon each one of us. Jesus is the antidote to the assertion-subversion conundrum.
He wants to chip away everything else that has accrued to us in the subversion of God’s message – those things not of God - so that all that remains is us, as God sees us and dreams for us to be. It is in this soil that the good news of the radicality of God can thrive.
So "Jesus, looking at [the man], and loved him." There are lots of other verbs that could be in the place of "loved" here. Jesus could have rebuked him, pitied him, laughed at him, chided him, challenged him, told him to get lost. You can fill in the blank yourself. But we are told, "Jesus, looking at him, and loved him." He loved him as a prerequisite to telling him the most difficult truth he had to tell. He loved him before he shared something with him that was going to disabuse him from false beliefs, to potentially cause him sorrowfully to go away from Jesus . . . presumably forever. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says: "God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are." Jesus loved this man enough to tell him a truth he needed to hear, even though it might end their relationship.
Jesus' challenge is about possessions. But the root of any question about possessions is not so much about what we own or how much we own. This is not a story about the condemnation of owning things or being a person of means. Rather it is a story about what owns us.
This story could as easily be about pride, ego, or addiction, to name but a few. Like money, if these things own us than we really cannot love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and we cannot really love our neighbor as ourselves. If anything other than God owns us in our entirety, than that is a problem. Jesus sees that the man is a person of great wealth. Despite his efforts to meticulously follow all the Law of the Torah, he is still owned by his possessions. That is why Jesus instructs him to “…go, sell all your stuff, divest yourself of your love of things and their control over you, so that you can authentically follow me.”
Jesus is always inviting us into a new way of being ... a way of being where our identity is not wrapped up in anything else but being God's beloved child. Everything - and he means everything - else falls by the wayside.
At his baptism Jesus hears words from God coming from above. “You are my beloved. You are my beloved. You are my beloved.”
These are the words he says to us, as well. “You are my beloved. You are my beloved. You are my beloved.” He loves us so much, that he’s willing to risk the relationship with us to tell us God’s truth. Nothing else matters.
If we don't trust that we are known and beloved by God, it's pretty much impossible to give up everything . . . or even anything! It’s one of the most important aspects of the call to stewardship in the church. In fact it’s critical.
A lot of people don’t want to hear about their need to honestly assess their relationship with the stuff that owns them. So when we speak about stewardship of time, talent and treasure and call people to the Biblical standard of tithing, they frequently respond by saying, “that’s all you ever talk about in church is money.” To avoid “all” this talk they often stay away from worship for the duration of the campaign.
Frankly, each time I hear someone say that the only thing we talk about in church is money, my first thought is that this belief says a whole lot more about that person than it does about the parish’s honest effort to talk about our relationship to money and the things that control us. There is more than a little pattern of assertion - subversion in it. Think about that.
So, as we journey through this annual stewardship campaign for the next few weeks, I am going to ask you to do the following: For a few minutes at the beginning of each day and a few minutes at the end of each day, take some time in silence. Pray this phrase:
"Jesus, looking at him (or her), loved him (or her)."
Let Jesus look at you and love you. Then let yourself look at Jesus and ask him to help you know him better. In that knowing, let him help you loosen the grip of those things that have control over you. As that happens, remember, "God loves you exactly the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay exactly the way you are."
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
I have to tell you that I have struggled this week. To be honest, I have felt at a loss for words, which you know is not typical of me. It’s not that God hasn’t spoken. She has spoken volumes through her tears, the tears of a mother. I started in one place and you will hear some of that riff on the theme “What’s love got to do with?” But more and more I heard not Tina Turner but Roberta Flack asking plaintive “Where is the love?”
In recent months, we have been bombarded by chants of “Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter.” But the events of the last few weeks make them seem like nothing more than rhetoric. They are shooting and killing babies on the streets of Cleveland while the body of a child seeking shelter from the storms of war and oppression washes up on a beach in Turkey.
I know that I feel helpless in the face of these mounting tragedies. How can such things happen in a supposedly civilized world, especially to the innocent and defenseless ones? Where is the love and where is Jesus in all of this? Last week the answer to Jesus’ question “who do you say I am?” was the messiah, the embodiment of God’s love, compassion and grace. Our concern this week is what that means for us in a world in which love and compassion seem in short supply. We could rightly ask not just “where is the love”, but “What’s love got to do with it anyway?” At the heart of today’s lessons as Jesus teaches about ministry and about what discipleship ought to look like, I think the answer is love is absolutely everything!
When I look around what I see is a world in which Jesus’ prime directive to love God and love others gets lost in the noise from voices that say doctrine or profit or position trumps love (and I didn’t do that on purpose). We see it in the hateful speech about immigrants and women and the poor that passes for legitimate political dialogue. We see it in Kentucky and the fight over marriage equality. Rather than talk of abundance we talk of building walls or erect real life barbed wire barriers believing that we can isolate ourselves, keeping the cares of the world out of sight and thus out of mind. We see it in a world in which we seem to cherish the life of the unborn more than we care for or cherish the lives of the children among us. And this is not about being pro-life or pro-choice; it’s about love and about caring for those among us. With nearly 20 million children around the world living in orphanages or on the street and 60% of children surveyed indicating that they were directly or indirectly exposed to violence it is clear that we are we living our lives to please ourselves rather than to please God.
Where is the love in that picture… A picture of a world in which the prevailing belief is that there is not enough space or time or money or you fill in the blank for anyone or anything but ourselves... A picture of a world in which young people, supposedly our future, seem more afraid of living than dying?
It is a picture of a world in which there is not enough concern or compassion for others and not enough thought about justice or peace. This image is in sharp contrast to that of Jesus placing a child among the disciples to instruct them on love the true way of discipleship. The message seems clear. A little child shall lead us. But this week, where will the sight of the bodies of little ones lead us? In the face of such tragedy and need, whom are we called to be and what are we called to do?
The way of the disciple, accepting that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all & servant of all,” is not an easy path. Love is not about standing up and lording it over others or being a part of the in-crowd or the clique of the ‘saved.’
Jesus was a fanatic about love, about caring for one another and welcoming the invisible ones into community. Love is about reflecting the priorities of the God that Jesus proclaimed. Love is about stooping down and reaching back and lifting up. It’s about welcoming the voiceless and those at the margins into community even when it makes us uncomfortable.
The lesson of this week is that the other are no longer invisible because Alyan and Ramon and Major and all those clamoring for refuge from the scourge of war and poverty, oppression and death are no longer faceless or nameless. From the traffic barricades in Shaker Heights to the barbed wire at Hungary’s borders we can’t build walls high enough or deep enough to isolate ourselves from their anguish. For that anguish gives voice and meaning to Jesus’ call of welcome. If we close our hearts and minds to that voice then we are closed off from love which is the presence of God among us. I don’t know about you but I am not interested in closing the door in God’s face.
As I said in the beginning, I feel helpless, but in the face of today’s lessons no way hopeless, because love is about abundance, it’s about opened hearts and opened doors. You cannot tell me that there is not enough because God’s grace says otherwise.
So folks, I am here to tell you that we’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to do something about violence. We’ve got to do something about protecting and nurturing the innocence of children. We’ve got to do something about barriers to justice and peace. We’ve got to recognize that though God works through us, standing in judgment is not part of the job description; love is. At the end of the day when asked, “Where is the love?” I hope we can respond here in this place as we reach out to love as Christ loved and heal as Christ healed.
Rev. Peter Faass
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples.
He springs this question on them like a teacher administering a pop quiz. We might imagine their shocked expressions and their thinking. “Darn! I didn’t do my homework last night! Just WHO is this guy?”
Today’s gospel story places us at mid-point in the pithy Gospel of Mark. For the past eight chapters, Jesus has preached, taught and healed in a whirlwind tour of both Jewish and Gentile territory. He has cast out unclean spirits, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a leper and a paralyzed man. He has eaten with tax collectors and other sinners, defying Sabbath law.
He has stilled stormy seas, healed a demoniac, raised a little girl from the dead, stopped the flow of blood in a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, and — oh, yes — fed a crowd of 20,000 people a lovely fish and crusty sourdough bread supper. Now that’s catering!
Last week, just before today’s snap question, Jesus heals the daughter of a very savvy gentile woman and then a man who was deaf and mute. His activities are so frenzied and his pronouncements about who’s embraced in God’s economy are so counter-cultural to the norms of the day that it leaves both his disciples and his adversaries’ heads swimming.
After his disciples have witnessed all he has done, he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter hits the nail on the head. "You are the Messiah,” he says.
But suddenly there is a paradigm shift. As Jesus begins to explain that being the Messiah entails suffering, rejection and death, Peter becomes horrified. “That’s not the Messiah I want!’ he thinks. “Not the Messiah I signed up for when you said ‘follow me.’”
Peter vociferously voices his objections. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus is having none of it. He is undeterred from what he knows his mission and message to be. He rebukes Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
When Jesus rebukes Peter, he is harsh but also brutally honest. In that honesty Jesus is saying, “Peter, you were right when you answered my question, saying I am the Messiah. Now you’re wrong. I cannot be that Messiah you envision and want — that warrior king who will raise up an army to overthrow Roman oppression. That is not who I am. That expectation of messiah is only to add to the violence, misery, suffering and death that already plague the world. Frankly, that image of messiah is to be no Messiah at all. I can only be the Messiah that God the Father intends me to be — the one who proclaims good news to the poor, heals the broken-hearted, gives the blind new sight, breaks the bonds of those who are persecuted and proclaims God's favor to all God’s children. It is only this Messiah that will save and redeem the world and all its brokenness.”
Theology professor Micah D. Kiel says this about the exchange between Jesus and Peter. “[It is] about identity and expectations . . . it is important that we realize that these issues are not locked in the past. This was not only a problem for the disciples or those early Christians to whom Mark is writing. Mark profiles a deeper dynamic that spans the ages: how are human knowledge and expectations in tension with the aims of God? We know the way things are, how they are supposed to go. If we believe God is active and that Jesus is alive in the world, then the question posed to us is not whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That is the easy part. We know what the title is. The question becomes how do we misunderstand what the title means? How do our expectations not align with God’s?”
The image of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand of a Turkish beach is seared in my mind. Aylan has become the brutal, heart-rending image of the masses of refuges fleeing war-torn and economically devastated nations in the Middle East and Africa, seeking a safer and better life in the very prosperous nations of Northern and Western Europe. The desperate conditions these refugees have endured in their own troubled nations, and then at the hands of nefarious smugglers, are appalling and heart-rending.
This past week, we saw a significant change in how Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and England are dealing with the crisis pressing in on the EU’s southern borders and streaming north. These EU nations, and others, have in compassion, raised the number of people they will admit into their societies, especially those fleeing Syria. Even the United States has agreed to take 10,000 refugees into our embrace.
But the reality is, this is only a stopgap measure. And in some ways, it actually will exacerbate the refugee problem, as those people in nations torn by war, strife and hunger will be encouraged to undertake the treacherous journey for more prosperous shores, so that they and their children may also have a safer, better way of life. Who can blame them?
Which one of us would not do the same if we were in a similar predicament?
But not every person from countries rent by war, violence, famine, or despotic rulers can flee to a place that is that safer or wealthier. That is not possible, and even if it were would only add to the current chaos, fear and despair, both for the refuges and the host nations working to absorb them. While we must be compassionate and aid those who have fled, there is a greater task at hand. Compassion is not enough.
That greater task is to strive to alleviate the horrific situations in those places where people are desperate to flee from. We need to work to make those places habitable and economically secure for their native populations. Therein lies the crux of the problem. It is because they have NOT done that work, that the prosperous nations of the world find themselves facing this refuge crisis. And we face this problem because our expectations of how the world should work clearly do not align with how God expects the world to work.
Europe is overwhelmed with Middle Eastern and African refugees, and the United States is overwhelmed by Central American refugees, precisely because we have ignored the message of Jesus, the Messiah God has sent into the world for its’ salvation and redemption.
God created a world that overflows with abundance. In the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, the object lesson is that when people are hungry or in need, God has provided enough for all, with plenty left over. The world we live in is not one of scarcity where we have to hoard everything for ourselves; it is one of overflowing abundance.
We in the wealthy nations have ignored this message and in so doing we have rebuked God. Instead, we have turned to a false god who preaches a prosperity message for the few, and who allows the strong to exercise dominion over the earth’s resources to the detriment of all others. Following this god, we in the prosperous nations have frequently designed our foreign and diplomatic policies to feed that lust for wealth and power by supporting despotic regimes that allowed us to plunder those nations for their natural resources. And we did this despite the suffering wrought upon native populations as a result of our doing so.
Our belief in a false messiah has led us to this juncture of the refugee crisis. We may try to pass this off as good economic and diplomatic policy, and we may try to pass it off as God’s will, but it is neither. It is a false expectation. Our false expectations lead to what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “the extraction system.” This is a system run by the economic and political elites who do all in their power to extract every last bit of resource they can out of the rest of the world’s population to satisfy their own greed and lust. And while the extraction system is a lot of things, it is definitely not of God.
When we rebuke God to be the way we want - which is as a warmonger, or an enabler of our sinful behaviors, or worse yet, as a benign entity who lets us do as we please - and we do not live in the manner that God calls us to in Jesus, we suffer the consequences. God’s will won’t be thwarted and we pay the price.
This is an object lesson Jesus is teaching us when he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
This question will be increasingly asked of us as the globe grows flatter. This question will compel us to examine our behaviors of wanton consumption, greed and dismal stewardship of the earth. It will be asked of us as we determine who we will vote for to lead us in the halls of government. It will be asked of us as we confront the growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our own country.
How we respond to Jesus’ question is of critical importance. In God’s reign, we are called to work for justice and peace for all God’s people, recognizing the Christ in every human being. The messiah we follow will determine our ability to do that and the lives we lead. And not just our lives but all lives.
When Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am,” what will your answer be?
By setting our mind on divine things, not on human things, we will be led to the right answer. Then, and only then, justice and peace for all God’s children will prevail.
 https://www.workingpreacher.org, “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38,” September 13, 2015
Song of Songs 2:8-17; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Rev. Peter Faass
Today our Hebrew Testament reading is a selection from the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. This short Biblical book of a mere eight chapters is a collection of love poems. It has been attributed to King Solomon because his name is mentioned several times, although the dating of the writing is uncertain and therefore its authorship is as well.
In these poems a woman and a man make mutual declarations of love to one another. Each delights in describing the physical charms that enamor them. In chapter 1, verse 15, the man exclaims, “Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.” And in chapter 2, verse 9 the woman proclaims, “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows.”
Throughout the book a delicate mood of love, devotion, sensuality, and even at times eroticism is maintained. Certainly the use of metaphor to describe human sensuality is rich in its imagery. In chapter 4, verse 5 the man writes, “Your two breasts are like fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.”
The Church has long been embarrassed by the unabashed sensuality and eroticism in this series of love poems. Some of the early Church fathers, and later many Calvinists, wanted to purge Song of Songs from the Biblical canon due to its erotic qualities.
Interestingly these puritanical minds never called to edit out the violent texts in the Bible, only the ones about human love and sexuality. Clearly the old adage, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," applies here. How often are religious people today squeamish about human sexuality and love, but benignly accepting of the rampant violence that infects our culture? Too often, I would say.
Song of Songs is a call to love. Scholars are divided as to whether Song of Songs’ poems describe the love between two human beings or are metaphorical, describing the love between God and God’s people. As many of you know, I am not a Biblical literalist and so I am open to hearing these poems either way. Why limit the way God, through the text, can speak to us and enrich our spiritual lives? And frankly, these poems incarnate holy truths either way you read them.
Yet, if you want to be a Biblical Sherlock Holmes, a clue indicating that the poems are actually about the love between two human beings is that the name God is not used at all in Song of Songs. Along with the Book of Ruth, they are the only two books in scripture to not mention God at all. And yet both are rich with the holy truths of God.
Finding and expressing love is high on the list of human priorities. It’s why the recent movement to legalize same-sex marriage was so important. Healthy, mutual, committed, loving relationships between two adults are a critical component of human life. Legitimizing and sanctifying two people in marriage honors, upholds and sustains that love.
Ask anyone in a happy marriage and they’ll tell you, there is nothing like it. We might very well ask Anne and Bob Elliott, who celebrate their 50th anniversary and are renewing their sacred wedding vows this morning, if this isn’t the case. Whether it is love’s first blush or the seasoned love of having lived and loved for decades, committed lovers would have it no other way. Anne and Bob are witnesses to this truth. We at Christ Church see this all the time in their love for each other, a love that has endured and grown richer over a half century.
But, as the immortal and seductive voice of Barry White once crooned, “Love ain’t easy.” The truth is, lovers can’t take their love for granted, just like we humans cannot take for granted our loving relationship with God. Love and relationship take hard work, or maybe better put, nurturing.
In the Church, we make vows to be totally committed to that nurturing: a couple to each other in their wedding ceremony, and as individuals, to God in the baptismal covenant. In the later these vows call us to persevere in our relationship with God and when we have failed in our endeavors to repent and return to God. In the wedding vows we commit to love, honor and keep one another, in sickness and in health and forsaking all others be faithful as long as we live.
This wedding vow is something our culture poignantly needs to be reminded of, especially in light of the recent Ashley Madison website scandal, where millions of people have forgotten – or set aside - the hard work of love, ignoring their vows to be faithful to their spouse.
Love ain’t easy. It requires constant cultivation of the relationship soil so that mutual conversation, intimacy and trust can thrive. This is a sacred endeavor, achieved through mindfulness of and attentiveness to the other. We do this – as Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel – being doers of the word, and not merely hearers; ever mindful that it is what comes out of the human heart that allows us to succeed - or fail - at love and relationship. This is not occasional work; we endeavor to do it daily, hourly and even on a minute-to-minute basis. It is our life’s task. Most importantly, we do this sacrificially — a seemingly alien concept these days — setting aside our own needs because we highly value our love for our beloved.
Another key detail to note in Song of Songs is that the woman’s voice predominates over that of the man’s, appearing just under 75% of the time in the poems. Her voice is heard clearly and in a positive light. Those of you who have some understanding of the scriptures know this is unusual. All too often, women in the Bible are seen in a negative light or no light at all. Eve, Bathsheba, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene and many other women are portrayed as problematic and even inferior characters. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is only seen in a positive light (well, except when she is the nagging Jewish mother in the Wedding at Cana story) because she is generally characterized as being meek, mild and compliant: Just what the male patriarchy likes women to be.
One scholar theorizes that, “perhaps [Song of] Songs was included [in the Bible] to counter the many references comparing the adulterous woman [in scripture] to Israel’s idolatry in its relationship with God. What better way to make that contrast than a positive portrayal of an intimate relationship with the woman’s voice preeminent?”
This interpretation of the book makes Song of Songs a unique gift to us.
We live in a time when music, movies, the media, advertising and many of our political leaders simultaneously extol and exploit love. These images are often distorted, abusive, misogynistic, and titillating.
Simultaneously, we live in a time when we need women’s shelters to protect women and their children from domestic and family violence. We live in a time when human sex trafficking rivals the drug trade for illegal financial gain. We live in a time when women around the globe are kidnapped, raped, disrespected, physically mutilated, sold like chattel and murdered if they don’t acquiesce.
These horrific situations do not portray love. Rather they speak of violence, subjugation, abuse and inferiority. All of which have nothing to do with love.
We need the Song of Songs. We need the Song of Songs to remind us that women are as equally created in the image of a loving God as men. We need Song of Songs to remind us that mutual, respectful, faithful, sensual love between two human beings is a gift from God.
As we celebrate Anne and Bob’s love for each other, today is a lovely day to hear the Song of Songs and its words of intimacy and fidelity. We need to hear the Song of Songs every day. We need to hear voices like those of the man and the woman in the scripture, and of Anne and Bob, and of all people who are truly, deeply in love. We need them in word and deed to speak boldly out of their hearts of what true love is, and of its holiness. We need them to do this because we need to be reminded of what love can be.
 Alphonetta Wines, Pastor, Bible Scholar, and Theologian, Dido United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, Texas
So, if any of you think you come from a dysfunctional family, think again. The reality is that yours most likely has nothing on the Herod Antipas family. In fact one might say that Herod and his kin put the “D” in dysfunctional.
We have just heard the lurid story of the murder of John the Baptist by Herod as a result of a ridiculous offer of reward for a little party dance. John’s beheading is actually one of the more gruesome events in the Bible, with the capricious manner of his beheading evoking images of current day ISIS murders of hostages. Between this beheading and Salome’s little seductive dance, this passage is a favorite theme in Western dance, art and literature. Because of that, it’s a pretty well-known story well beyond the Church and her scripture. But try as it might, the art fails to capture the depravity of Herod’s family and his court in Galilee.
It’s a little convoluted to wrap one’s mind around, but let’s try. Herod Antipas was one of three sons of Herod the Great; he of the slaughter of the innocents fame at Jesus’ nativity.
The three sons inherit portions of their father’s kingdom at his death, with Herod Antipas becoming the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. This Herod lusted after his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who also happened to be his niece, a daughter of a half-brother Aristobulus who pre-deceased him. Aristobulus, by the way, was murdered by his own father. Herod finally seduces Herodias to the point that she divorces Philip and become his wife. This was illegal according to the Levitical law, which states that a man “shall not uncover the nakedness of [his] brother’s wife.” (Leviticus 18:16). This was the law that John the Baptist referenced as he railed against this marriage. For the religious people of the time, this marriage was an outrage against morality and decency.
Herodias’ daughter, who danced for Herod at his birthday banquet, is commonly known as Salome. She is not so named in any of the Gospels, but we have her name on good authority from the great Jewish historian, Josephus in his book Antiquities. So, if you are following this, Salome is the daughter of Herodias and Philip. Herodias is Herod’s niece, so by extension Salome is also his niece through his niece. Josephus also reports that Salome eventually married Herod’s son, another Philip. Talk about keeping things in the family!
Herod Antipas’ kept a very decadent and debauched court. The solo dance that Salome performed, and which pleased Herod so much, would have been an erotic and licentious pantomime. That a princess of royal blood should be so encouraged to dance this way is commentary itself about the moral state of the court, her mother and Herod.
This debauchery is exacerbated when the drunk Herod offers Salome anything she wants as a reward, anything up to half his kingdom. This was the opening that the mean-spirited, spiteful and plotting Herodias – who was humiliated by John the Baptist’s condemnation of her –-was looking for. Not knowing how to respond to Herod’s excessive offer, Salome runs off to Herodias to ask what she should ask for. To gratify Herodias spleen, John is immediately executed.
Many people wonder why Mark’s Gospel includes this lurid story – which is a flashback — about John’s murder. On first reading it seems oddly out of context to the surrounding narrative. But Mark is intentional about reporting on John’s depraved death. When taken with its companion piece about the feeding of the 5,000, which immediately follows this story, Mark is making a powerful statement about power.
Both stories are set in the context of banquets. One is in a royal court rife with decadence and corruption. This story is all about power misused for one’s selfish purposes. It speaks to the wielding of power for the purpose of destruction. This kind of power, as theologian Karoline Lewis states, is “damaging, demoralizing, debilitating, demeaning, desecrating and discriminating.” I would add, dysfunctional. The story of John’s death is power at its worst.
This kind of power is referred to by Walter Bruggemann as the extraction system; an abusive system of wealth and power that looks to sap all the resources and life out of the less powerful, to meet its own lusts and greed.
This is the power of ISIS; power that subjugates people to terror to comply with their twisted theology and callously murders those who hold religious beliefs other than their own. It is the power of racial hatred that induces people to burn down Black houses of worship. It is the power of a government that gives tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest 1% in our nation, but will not legislate a decent minimum wage for the neediest people among us. It is the power of an Israeli government that subjugates Palestinians to deprivation and humiliation. It is the power of a Bishop in our Church who has padlocked the doors of St. James the Great church in Newport Beach, California, locking out a vibrant congregation from their spiritual home, because he wants to sell the property for $15 million to a developer of luxury condominiums. This is the power of the extraction system. This is the power of empire.
Here is Karoline Lewis again: “Friends, I am tired of the kind of power that has no regard, none at all, for the other. The power that seems to act as if disregard for the other is acceptable. The power that dismisses the loyal for the sake of the new. The kind of power that is reckless and relentless and ruthless.”
Mark then compares this power displayed at Herod’s banquet with the banquet at the feeding of the 5,000, which represents another kind of power entirely. This is about the power of good news of Jesus who brings the message of the power of God’s reign; of God’s embracing love. This power is rooted in humility, sacrifice and compassion and has as its end the hope of approach, the hope of relationship with all people. God’s power is outside of itself and is not turned inward. It is not about greed or self-gain, it is about generosity and abundance. It is about the taking of what appears to be so very little and discovering that it is not only more than enough, but that there is more than enough left over. This power is all about love, all the time and in all circumstances.
This is Mark’s intention: to draw in sharp contrast the depraved, self-serving power represented at Herod’s court and John’s brutal death and the life-giving power represented in the feeding of the 5,000 by the compassionate and loving Jesus.
These two forms of power are set before us by Mark to choose from; one is death and one is life. Which one we select becomes a litmus test for what kind of power we will live by as individuals, as congregations, as business owners and employees, as institutions, as a society. Mark compels us to do a self-inventory and ask ourselves about our beliefs and behaviors. What is power for us: money, the bottom line, rules, control, competition, manipulation, fear, lust, greed? That’s not power, Mark says, that’s abuse. That’s nothing more than looking to get one’s way, regardless of the cost. That’s force. That’s intimidation. That’s narcissism. That kind of power only leads to a head on a platter.
Or is our belief in power incarnated in the abundance of the feeding of the multitude, where Jesus takes away our fears of scarcity which only fuels our desire for more, more, more and the philosophy of “I got mine, too bad for you.”
Do we trust in his power of compassion, of equality, of trust in God’s providence, of God’s mercy and grace to each and every one of us?
Mark calls us to make a choice and he clearly indicates which one we are called too. We are to choose power rooted not in ourselves but in God’s love. This power is rooted in mercy and truth. It is overflows with abundant grace and dignity. It exhibits regard and respect for all. It is the power that will change our lives. It is the power that will save the world.
Mark 6: 1 - 13
As many of you know, Anthony and I love to entertain. Having people over for a meal, some libations and conviviality is one of our great pleasures. And we love it all: the planning, the shopping, the cooking, the decorating, the pleasure of introducing new foods and tastes, the camaraderie and conversation and even the cleanup . . . well, he likes the clean up better than I do, but I help. For us, entertaining adds up to gracious hospitality.
We speak a lot about hospitality in Christianity. Hospitality is one of the ancient Christian disciplines, finding its origins in the mandates for hospitality to all people in middle-eastern Semitic cultures.
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel informs us that those people who will enter God’s reign are the ones who welcome every stranger as Christ himself. That alone is a pretty good incentive for us to practice hospitality to all who we encounter. Before the Vestry updated our parish mission statement last year, the previous mission stated that we at Christ Church offered everyone who entered our doors “radical hospitality.”
And I know that this congregation prides itself in offering hospitality through our warm welcome of the stranger, friendliness to all who enter our doors, our outreach programs, ministries and all our social events, from coffee hour to spaghetti dinners, pancake suppers to picnics.
We are a pretty hospitable group… Well, most of the time, anyway!
The issue with our approach to Christian hospitality though is that it is one-sided. As commonly understood, hospitality is something we believe we are called to offer someone else. It is not necessarily something we look to receive.
Jesus gives a completely different understanding of hospitality in the second part of today’s Gospel lesson from Mark.
“[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, ‘Whenever 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.’”
According to his instructions to the disciples, Jesus indicates that discipleship demands dependence on hospitality (Mark 6:7-12), and this dependence in the doing of it, but rather in the receiving of it. They are to travel with the barest of essentials and to be dependent on the welcome and hospitality of the places they go to bring the Good News.
So, as Jesus’ 21st century disciples, who here is ready to be dependent on the hospitality of others? Not many. Like compliments, most of us are more comfortable offering someone hospitality rather than receiving it — think about it.
The reason for the discomfort is this: Needing hospitality requires us to be vulnerable and let go of our control over our lives. But that’s precisely why Jesus told the disciples to only take the bear minimum with them, compelling them to be dependent. This initial sending forth foray was to be boot camp for discipleship.
You see, relying on the hospitality of others is to engage in risk taking, because being reliant on the hospitality of another anticipates rejection — and who likes rejection? Jesus forewarned the disciples that they would not always get the red carpet treatment in every town and home they visited. Hoping to encounter true hospitality in the other is to become much too vulnerable for most of us. But to be a disciple of Jesus, it is absolutely necessary.
It’s another paradox of our faith: Being vulnerable and dependent on another’s hospitality is the soil that nurtures God’s love in our lives. When we are received and graciously welcomed by those who we are dependent on, we in turn become able to offer hospitality to those who need us to offer that same hospitality to them. And by recognizing our dependence on one another, we come to understand our ultimate total dependence on God.
On this Independence Day weekend, we should remember that the ethos of this kind of hospitality is deeply woven into our nation’s fabric.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Those words inscribed on the foundation of Lady Liberty, are an invitation to all those who are vulnerable in the world. It is a clarion call to accept and be reliant on the hospitality of this nation; regardless of who you are, what your circumstances are, or where you are from. Emma Lazarus’ eloquent words proclaim that despite the reasons you have been rejected by others, you will receive hospitality in America.
Regardless of your opinions about the SCOTUS rulings on healthcare and same-sex marriage last week, the decisions of the court have major implications for how our imagination works when it comes to hospitality. If we use the lens of the parable of the sheep and goats for one eye, and the lens of Lazarus’ words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty for the other eye, we see that those two Supreme Court decisions offered hospitality to two groups of people who were vulnerable and totally reliant in receiving it from others.
Hospitality is not just having someone over for a nice meal or offering pleasantries. Hospitality is not just tolerating people. And as I have come to learn, there’s no such thing as “radical” hospitality. Adjectives don’t have any impact on the quality of our hospitality. At its heart, hospitality is simply radical unto itself. There is no other kind of hospitality. It’s either radical or it’s nothing. Like pregnancy, you either are or you aren’t hospitable.
So here’s a message to our political leaders, our religious leaders and churches and to business people. Keep this understanding of hospitality in mind when you engage in debate over immigration reform, same-sex marriage, civil rights, selling wedding cakes or photographic services to a couple, or who is and who is not welcome at the altar to receive the sacrament, among other topics. The bottom line is that if you welcome some and exclude others don’t pretend you are hospitable, or in fact a true follower of Jesus, or an American who holds the Statue of Liberty and her symbolic message as iconic. It’s not possible without falling into hypocrisy.
Two Sundays ago, Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston flung open its doors just days after the tragic shooting of nine of their flock. Did you - could you even - imagine what it would be like to walk through those doors on that Sunday? To be totally dependent on the mercy and love of a congregation that had offered that same hospitality to someone just days before and had been betrayed in doing so?
That’s the authentic hospitality of our Christian faith. That’s what it really means to be - as Presiding Bishop-elect, Michael Curry calls it – a member of the Jesus movement. Are we ready to receive that kind of hospitality in our lives? Are we prepared for that kind of showing of mercy in the face of such a heinous act? Are we willing to be received with that kind of welcome, a welcome that is the ultimate expression of Christ’s love?
Jesus calls us to that level of discipleship. Jesus says nothing less will do. Jesus says that if you say yes, than you become an authentic follower of me and you will cast out all sorts of demons and heal all conditions of brokenness in the world.
Are you ready? Happy Dependence Day.
Mark 4: 35 - 41; Isaiah 57: 7 - 8
Rev. Peter Faass
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
Nine lambs were led to the slaughter this past Wednesday evening at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. By a perversion of unfathomable, incomprehensible evil they were taken away to their deaths.
After 60-plus years of life, I am still rendered speechless when such ugly, hateful evil engages in such mindless violence as we witnessed Wednesday evening. Nine people gathered in God’s house to study the scripture. Nine people who welcomed the stranger at their door as Christ himself. Nine people who in the very act of Christian hospitality and kindness were betrayed and mowed down, their life-blood soaking the floors of the very House of the God they loved. And all for one reason and one reason only: because they were Black.
I am rendered mute by the sheer obscene insanity of it all. I am not so naïve to delude myself that my shock is everyone’s shock. African-Americans are all too accustomed to white people, through overt and covert racism, rendering their lives as insignificant, sub-human, and dispensable.
Just as the disciples in today’s Gospel find themselves in tempestuous, storm tossed seas, today, we, our nation, is in the midst of such a storm.
In the ancient world the watery deep – especially in the midst of a violent storm- represented total chaos. And for us today, that total chaos is the storm of our un-addressed – our denial - racism. When it comes to race and racism, our nation is in many ways no less filled with virulent hatred and malice from Whites toward Blacks as it was 50, or 100 years ago.
Rather than ushering in a post-racial era, the election of our first Black president has clearly unleashed sublimated hatred. It’s like the Hydra, we thought we cut off the head of racism and yet it grew back two and became more vicious.
We are in a chaotic, tempestuous storm and with each new abuse, with each new atrocity, with each new death, our Black sisters and brothers, like the disciples cry out, “Teacher, (Jesus, God) do you not care that we are perishing?" Where are you Lord? Why do you sleep while we are so imperiled?!
If God is asleep. If God is uncaring. If God is absent in this storm then what hope do we have? What is our lifesaver that will keep us from being drowned and all of us together dying as the boat of our society sinks to the bottom of the sea.
Is there hope for we people of faith, for the parishioners of Emanuel AME, for black and white people, if God does not hear our cry in the midst of our peril?
The evil demon of racism would love the answer to that to be no, there is no hope and your God is not there to save you? But that is yet one more lie, that evil would have us believe. Just like the lie that whites are superior to Blacks which has created the storm we are in, it is a lie that there is no hope, that there is no God who will still the sea and keep us safe.
My faith tells me that God was with the nine when they were murdered, just as God had been with them in all their lives. My faith tells me that Jesus embraced each of them as they died. My faith tells me that because these beautiful children of God were faithful that God was faithful to them. Not sleeping, not absent but embracing and comforting them through the horror of their last minutes.
That’s the theology of the cross. That even in the midst of evil and death, God is there. And that there is not evil or death that is stronger than love. Love always wins. This is the foundation of our faith in Jesus.
This faith is born out – given witness to/incarnated - in the response of the relatives of the nine Charleston martyrs.
Just as acts of absolute evil render me speechless, so do acts of unfathomable compassion and love. Which is what the families and friends of those who died Wednesday night have done in response to Dylann Roof murdering their loved ones. Dylann set out to ignite chaos and violence, to create the catalyst for a race war in our nation, to fuel evil to create greater evil and the response of the families has been to offer forgiveness, compassion and love. Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
I am rendered speechless by this witness to our faith. They bear out a profound truth.
It is in these voices of love that Jesus is present. It is in their voices that we hear the words, "Peace! Be still!"
Their voices help quell the storm. Their incarnating the love of Christ - the commandment to love one another as I have loved you - calms the storm. It brings hope to a seemingly hopeless situation.
It brings hope to us, compelling us to lift our own voices with the only way to still the chaos that threatens to subsume us. And that is the love of God in Christ. Peace, be still: Healing that brings the light that can and will end evil’s desire to destroy us.
The blood of the Martyrs of Charleston demands nothing less of us. May their souls and the souls of all the departed, through the grace and mercy of God, rest in peace.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.