MARK 10 :17-27
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’
He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who trust in wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Welcome to Lent!
Not only are we dust and ashes and soon enough to return to our beginnings, but the inability to let go of our accumulated trappings will be our demise. Thanks be to God.
Actually, this seems about right. This has been a particularly difficult week to be a human. Putin’s forces attacking Ukraine brings the superpowers and Europe to edge of our seats. A new climate report places the natural world further along the timeline than was expected. Cascading effects of war, economics and climate put all of our lifestyles, our expected comforts, and our notions of freedom and future under a transfiguring light. What will it take to survive? What must we let go of if we are to survive? What will be the collective will for the sake of the world?
I believe Jesus speaks here knowing the truth – describing the truth – not prescribing a plan of action.
He tells the young man what he has been telling the Pharisees. You must go beyond strict observance of the Law. You must connect to the values beneath the law that undergird the law. You must get to compassion and open-heartedness, truly seeing yourself, your fate, your future, your own value in the face of that other one, that other face that we do not recognize or know. The value of your life is no greater than that of the homeless, hungry outside your door. If our perspective extends only to what is personally satisfying and fulfilling, and does not encompass the needs and rights of others outside our gates, then we are not living within the kingdom of God.
This is a hard word, and yet we know it to be true – maybe more so now than at any other time in recent history.
Paul wrote in his letter to the early church in Rome, “We do not live to ourselves, and and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” These were words of comfort, bracing words, for people facing persecution for their faith in Christ, for proclaiming a kingdom other than Caesar’s, for throwing their allegiance to a reign of equality where the hierarchy of male and female, free or slave no longer holds, but where we willingly serve one another out of respect and recognition.
Tonight’s word’s, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” seem to me to be saying the same thing to us. We belong to God AND we are of this earth. The life we have, we live here on this earth where Jesus was born and lived and died, inaugurating a new age in the ongoing kingdom of God. The Spirit of God has come to stay – in the way that the wind stays – that is to say, here and there, always somewhere specific and always moving on.
This spirit is what inspires our faith, fills ordinary lives with courage and hope and the drive to care deeply, passionately about improving life in unique and individual and collective ways. We might not feel it in our own selves, but can see that ecstatic spirit living out of others and be inspired by them, like ripples in a pond.
Dust to dust reminds us who we are – earthlings animated by the breath of God.
Dust and ashes also come as a reminder of the ways that humans across history have destroyed one another, of how we have, with unholy finesse, reduced one another’s homes, cities, histories, habitats and bodies to ash.
This day grounds us, makes us mindful, again, of the humus, humility, the earthiness of which we are made and of the God who brings life from ashes, “who works wonders amid destruction, who cries out and grieves in the presence of devastation and terror, and who breathes God’s own spirit into the rubble. It is this God who breathes into us, calling our awful and glorious ash-strewn selves to speak words of life and freedom and healing amid violence and pain.” *
“On this day of ashes, we do well to remember that we are capable of inflicting pain and destruction. Yet this day reminds us, too, that God knows what to do with dust and ashes, knows what can come from them. As we cross into the season of Lent, how will we give our ashy selves to the God who longs to breathe new life into us and into the world? Where is God calling us to be a presence of healing amid devastation? How is God challenging us to stand against the forces that deny freedom, that seek the silence and captivity of others?” * And in the enormity of the challenges that face us, how can we find a hopeful way forward? * Upon the Ashes, from the Painted Prayerbook, by Jan Richardson
The theme for the weeks of Lent is ‘Good is Enough, embracing a life of imperfection.’ This might sound like giving up. Like it’s all too hard and too big, so let’s settle for Good Enough. That’s not what it’s about.
Good is Enough is realistic. Good is Enough is acknowledging our starting point every day and realizing that change is possible and potential – and we’re not there yet. Good is Enough is admitting that a gap exists between where we are and what’s needed, but it is not conceding the struggle it will take to get there. God looked at all she had made and said, “It is good. Indeed, it is very good,” and God rested. We do not need to be superlative, exceptional, noteworthy, our best selves unto the fray – at least not every day. We need to be engaged. We need to recognize our abilities and gifts – and our disabilities and flaws. Good is Enough when perfection keeps us from trying and when failure isn’t an option.
Each week will have a theme, a scripture reading, a devotion or two from Kate Bowler’s book, Good Enough, 40ish devotionals for a life of imperfection …… and room for reflections from you.
Blessing the Dust – A Blessing for Ash Wednesday ~by poet, Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace
All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners — or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial – did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?
This is the day we freely say we are scorched. This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning. This is the moment we ask for the blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.
So let us be marked not for sorrow. And let us be marked not for shame. Let us be marked
not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are…
but for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made and the stars that blaze in our bones and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.
Thanks to Christy & Jeff Wetzig for leading worship this morning!
(Note: the recording starts a few minutes in to the service)
Little flocks of late winter birds have moved into the neighborhood and visit our feeder – 30 or more at a time – red polls, juncos, purple and gold finches are joining the usual year-round varieties. During the latest snow storm, the tangled, barely domesticated hydrangea stalks that grow against the east wall were full of juncos. The dried flower heads functioned as umbrellas. Wild grape vines that wind around three sides of the porch were sheltering finches. So were last summer’s wild raspberry canes that didn’t get cut back. The parsonage back yard is my favorite place on the property. I have plans every summer for small improvements, moving plants to a better spot, neatening up the various overgrown areas, making it gorgeous. And it never is. Improvements in one aspect mean other areas are neglected. Snow always falls before I’m ready – certainly before the clean-up and cut-back has taken place. I look through garden magazines and websites with awe and envy at the beautifully managed chaos, uniformly lush summer lawns and neat, intentional winter scapes. None of them have standing dead clumps of weeds and flower stalks.
But the juncos and finches seemed pleased to have found shelter near the feeders. Birds continue to pick the wild grapes and nip at them to get to the seeds. If I had gotten all my backyard clean-up done, I would be the only one to appreciate the well groomed orderliness. The juncos would be roosting somewhere else.
All of this is to say that perfection depends on one’s perspective. I could (hypothetically) mow every weed and spent plant to the ground, spread weed killer, clip the hydrangeas back to a few inches, and thin the grapevines every fall. It would look better to my magazine-trained eye. But what does perfection look like to the critters who actually live in my back yard?
This is a simple-minded example of the spiritual practice of perspective – always seeking a larger view. Perspective is aided by questions: Who benefits from this attitude, action or policy? Who will be hurt?
We as communities, cultures, and nations pay the price for narrow perspectives, for not asking the second question, especially. Cultural and racial sensitivity, environmental sustainability, financial well being are spiritual issues. How we address the two questions and adapt our attitudes, actions and policies for the sake of those who are hurt by the status quo are indicators of our spiritual health. Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees and scribes concerned their narrow perspective. The religious leaders excelled in knowledge of the law. But they failed to understand the purpose of the law. Acting out of love for God, they neglected to love their neighbor. The law was given for life, for living with one’s neighbor, for sharing the love and provision of God with those not as well positioned.
In this polarized, antagonistic age, a spiritual discipline of expanding our perspectives, seeking with empathy the viewpoint of those who may be hurt by our actions, attitudes and policies would be a meaningful practice to take up for the 40 days of Lent – and beyond.
Mark 8: 22-9:1
[Jesus and the disciples] came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village!”
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. [If you remember from the previous weeks’ maps, this is Philip’s territory. Though technically he’s a Jew, his rule is very friendly to Rome. Today Caesarea Philippi is an archaeological site in the Golan Heights and is administered by Israel as a national park.]
On the way Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called to the crowd along with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
`And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
There is so much good stuff in here. By rights, this reading should be divided into about four sermons. But in order to get to Easter in the gospel on Easter in the calendar we have to take big gulps and soldier on.
I tend to start sermons with geography or history or some point of science because those connections are of interest to me and because I think we can never know enough about the setting, or the times, or culture of which we are reading. While I absolutely believe these writings are inspired, I am equally convinced that they were not written for us in the 21st century, and are not equally applicable to us – and that learning bits and pieces about the ancient world can only help.
So, a bit out of order, I’m beginning with Caesarea Philippi:
It was about a 25 mile walk north from Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee to Caesarea Philippi and the base of Mt. Hermon. In our day it’s an archaeological site in the Golan Heights administered by Israel as a national park.
It’s also, still, the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River. This abundant source of water made the area very fertile and, therefore, an attractive spot for religious worship. The ancient city was adjacent to the spring, a grotto, and related shrines dedicated to the Greco Roman god Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks, the god of desolate places, and fear (hence our word ‘panic’).
This area had been annexed to the Kingdom of Herod the Great (who was Jewish by birth). In 14 AD, Herod’s son Philip changed the name of the Greek city to Caesarea in honor of the Emperor. The gospel of John’s Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd” and in Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s accounts, Jesus comes up to the area of Caesarea Philippi with its shrine to the shepherds’ god, Pan, and is transfigured before his disciples, and God’s voice is heard by them, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” But it is only to three of the disciples and they are ordered to say nothing about it. The transfiguration will be told next week, but they’re up in this area, up in Greco Roman culture and religion and it adds a really interesting layer to what we hear in the gospels, because Mark was writing to this kind of gentile, the Pan worshippers. They aren’t the equivalence of our modern day “nones” – those who mark no religious belief on surveys. They believed in the pantheon of gods, the mythology we learned about in school. Jesus is a very, very different kind of God.
So, back to the beginning of the reading and to that point. As you may remember, earlier in the gospel, Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from her deathbed. He healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman without ever seeing her. Jesus has healed without intending to – the woman with the flow of blood and later people in crowds who were healed by touching the hem of his garments. He has healed through his touch, with spittle, with mud, with his words. That is what people would expect of a god. Whether one is Jewish, Gentile, or unchurched, if you think healing is possible, God is powerful enough to do it blindfolded and with on hand behind her back.
A blind man is brought to Jesus. He put saliva on the man’s eyes and laid his hands on him. He asks, “Can you see anything?” And the man looks up and says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again; and the man looks intently and his sight is restored, and he sees everything clearly. There’s no explanation of this mulligan. Jesus doesn’t credit the two tries needed to lack of faith, the disciples don’t ask about it. Jesus simply tells the man to keep it to himself – which is a growing theme – and then moves on.
But it’s interesting. And especially interesting in context with Jesus questioning his disciples about the gossip, about who people think he is. And then there’s Peter’s moment of glory which just as quickly dissolves. When will this image come into focus? Who is Jesus? We seem to get less clarity rather than more. Again, I think that’s the genius of Mark’s gospel. There was certainty and awe in the beginning. As we approach the pinnacle of the gospel in the transfiguration that certainty gradually melts away.
As Jesus comes down from the mountaintop he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross – and the image we have of this savior becomes difficult to make out. It’s hard to understand what he has come to accomplish. Despite all the displays of power Jesus performs, in the end we will see God’s greatest work of mercy and redemption revealed not in power but in weakness, not in glory, but in failure. This is not the way it’s supposed to go, this is not what happens to the gods of mythology.
Church teaching over the centuries has read the healing story of the blindman as a metaphor for the life of faith. It takes time for spiritual insight to come into focus. We can see in the rest of today’s reading that the disciples have understood little of Jesus’ identity and mission – partially, yes, hit and miss, yes. They rise to a moment and then flounder. The double take is no less true for us as we try and fail or stumble into recognition of God’s presence and activity. We are so tempted to create an ideal, an idol of what we want God to be, what we expect God to do, that we often miss what God might actually be doing.
Given their time with him, given what they have seen and heard, given the testimony of the crowds, what do his own disciples think? Jesus asks and Peter blurts out: “You are the messiah.” It sounds brilliant, until Jesus begins to explain what that means – “messiah” is the one who saves through weakness, not power; the one who redeems by suffering, not conquest; the one who gives his life as a ransom, rather than call others to die in battle for him. This is not what Peter imagined… or wanted.
It was hard enough to wrap their heads around the deeds of power, the teaching with authority and wisdom, but now to hear that Jesus’ greatest deed will be accomplished by death, by sacrificial love… that’s horrifying.
We’ve gotten used to the idea, but still don’t really believe it or hold onto it. Cultural Christianity focuses on the power, expects power.
We want God to conform to our sense of what a “God” should be – a loving divinity who always looks out for us, who is able to save us from whatever situation we find ourselves in, who restores to us the fortunes we believe we deserve. We desperately want God to do what we want, what we know we need, to answer to our will.
What do we do with a messiah who doesn’t conquer the world, but instead woos it with love? What do we do with a savior of these reversals of power?
There’s maybe no verse in Scripture that shows just how different the kingdom Jesus proclaims is from everyday life than this: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
David Lose was a professor of mine who has written this: “So much of our effort and energy is geared toward saving our lives. From the work we do to put food on our tables to the children we have to preserve and extend our family. From the effort we put in to progressing through school or advancing in work to the networks of friends and colleagues we create to support us. From the homes we buy and security systems we install to the portfolios or savings and retirement accounts we build up.
We are, in a very real way, hard-wired by evolution to survive. We live in a culture that glorifies accumulation, beating the message into our heads that we’ve got to look out for ourselves and that our possessions are the key to our security, wellbeing, and happiness. And so, perhaps quite understandably, much if not most of what we do is to protect, sustain, and advance our lives; that is, to save ourselves.”
Yet Jesus invites us, commands us to let all of that go, to lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel. This is not the God we want, or can bring into clear focus. It goes against reason and the inclination of the human heart.
We can actively defy the cultural logic of accumulation and intentionally deny ourselves in order to follow and depend on God.
We can also take Jesus’ words as descriptive rather than as a prescription. To realize that it’s only when life falls apart that we begin to recognize that we cannot save our lives and so come to depend on God. Sooner or later life will fall apart for each of us, whether because of death or illness or disappointment or whatever. At those times we realize that we are met by God there in our weakness, that we are actually helpless when it comes to saving our lives, and that our cultural illusions of self-sufficiency are just that – nothing, that God’s grace is all.
Like the blind man’s physical vision, our spiritual vision, our spiritual lives come in and out of focus. What’s required of us? What values and life choices flow from our faith’s convictions? How do we understand or follow the call to give ourselves away for the sake of the gospel? I suspect we answer these questions differently throughout our lives – as it should be. Living faith grows and changes, inspiration is a passing breeze or a headwind or leaves us in the doldrums. And though we don’t have shrines to Pan, we do have shrines aplenty calling for our allegiance, wooing us with short-lived promises always in contention with the gospel’s call.
So although these stories weren’t written about us, or for us – although they came into being 2000 years ago and the powers and principalities of the age have come and gone and come again in new forms… we find ourselves and our lives of faith in the pages among Jesus’ disciples. The names and places have changed, but it’s still remarkably true and the challenge just as relevant. Thanks be to God!
7:31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
8:1 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ 4His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ 5He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ 6Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Magdala.
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. 12And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ 13And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ 16They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ 17And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ 20‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ 21Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ Then they came to Bethsaida.
This is another week of maps gracing our bulletin cover. I probably spent too much time trying to find a clear description of what was considered Jewish or Gentile lands in Jesus’ day. It may not actually be as pertinent as it seemed to me at the time – but, still, I find history and maps helpful.
Herod the Great was the ruler of all these lands at the time of Jesus’ birth and died in the year 4 of our CommonEra. Rome adjudicated his will and divided the kingdom among his four children: Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. This is the Herod who had John the Baptist killed and who washes his hands of Jesus’ death. Archelaus was given the lion’s share of the property (the blue part), but he lost it. He brutally crushed a revolt by the Pharisees at the beginning of his reign and after ruling for just 10 years was removed from power by emperor Augustus in the year 6 CE, following complaints about his cruelty and his offenses against Mosaic law. He was replaced by a Roman prefect, and his territory was re-organized as a Roman province – which is how Pilate came to be in power over Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ trial. Herod’s daughter, Salome 1, received the pink parts of the map, which included the Gaza Strip, and Philip is the other half-sibling who concerns us. He was tetrarch of the brown area of the map which covers the eastern side of Lake Galilee.
His was the poorest share of his father’s inheritance, but he ruled it well. Because few of his subjects were Jewish, he followed a policy of Hellenization. His coins bore the emperor’s image, and he rebuilt the town of Bethsaida renaming it Julias in honor of the emperor’s daughter. Smart man. : )
Philip was a less extravagant ruler than any of his brothers. He avoided prolonged trips to Rome, travelled extensively within his own territory and devoted his time to his subjects. So, although technically he was a Jew, he ruled his territory in the manner of the majority of his Gentile subjects.
Bethsaida, in Philip’s province was why I was interested in all of this. Was it Jewish or Gentile? From what I’ve read, it sounds like it would be considered Gentile territory at the time Jesus was traveling in the area and crossing from one side of the lake to the other. Galilee and Judea seem to be the only lands considered to be Jewish.
This matters because I think it mattered to Mark.
This section of chapter 8 isn’t included in any of the lectionaries, and I wondered why. I guess it’s because it seems repetitive following so closely on the heals of Jesus feeding 5000. But why did Mark include it? Neither the author nor subsequent scribes would have wasted papyrus and ink on a duplicate story if it wasn’t significant.
This center section of the gospel features Jesus healing, teaching, and the recognition that accompanies him – or that doesn’t, as in the case of the Pharisees and scribes. We are also privy to the difficulty of seeing him clearly through the disciples’ many blunders. That is certainly true in the readings for today. One of the commentaries reminded me that this is not an eyewitness account. It is a theological account, a teaching document for discipleship and faith, and so the disciples make all the mistakes and ask the dumb questions for us – the students of ‘the Jesus way’.
So, in this teaching, healing, and recognition mode, I think there are two reasons for repeating a story of unfathomable food – of feeding thousands with a basketful of bread and a few fish. One is to make sure we don’t miss the echo of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness. God provided manna with the morning dew and quail in their camps each evening to sustain them until the promised land. Jesus is like Moses – the Shepherd, the Comforter, the interpreter of God’s word, the conduit to God who provides and protects.
The other reason has to do with the maps and the continual back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. He fed 5000 somewhere between his hometown of Nazareth and the seashore, because he immediately told the disciples to get in the boat and cross over to the other side. Between then and now, Jesus has led them on a walk-about up into Phoenicia, back to Galilee, and down into the territory of the Decapolis. A man was brought to him for healing. He ordered the smallish gathering to say nothing, but they were astounded and awed and couldn’t hold it in. Word spread and soon there was a great crowd without anything to eat. Sounds remarkably familiar. But, this time, Jesus is deep in Gentile territory. He is among Gentiles in Roman ruled, Hellenized culture. They were not like the people of Bethsaida who might have been Jewish even though they lived in a Roman town. Here in the Decapolis things were decidedly Roman with reverence given to the gods of mythology: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Mars, Venus.
Pagan, polytheistic people heard Jesus teach of the kingdom of God, saw and heard of his healing and followed him like sheep. He worked this sign of God’s power among them – among these people who didn’t know anything firsthand or by tradition about a God of love, a God of provision. With Jesus, you didn’t leave a sacrifice at an altar, but brought your sick and diseased and spiritually stuck and stunted and this God/man healed them with words and his warm touch, with the spittle from his own body and the dust of the earth. And instead of demanding tribute, he told them to stay quiet; instead of demanding payment, he gave them food. This is more than a repetition of a miracle. When he was home in Nazareth, Jesus could do no acts of power because the people knew what they knew and couldn’t imagine anything else. Here in pagan lands, he has astounding success. Their minds and expectations are open, are sponges soaking in the life God gives through Jesus. This is not a repetition. It’s a warning, a premonition, a promise. Jesus learned from the woman in Phoenicia that his mission was bigger than Galilee or Judea or Jew. He had power and was free to use it, expected to use it for all the people who had eyes and hearts and ears for this word of life. Wherever they live. Whatever pigment their skin. Whatever their creed or belief or birth. It only takes vision beyond sight, imagination beyond knowing, trust beyond need. And God will be there, because God is already, always, there.
So Jesus feeds them, sends them on their way and immediately gets into a boat and they cross over again. Back over the water, back into the womb of Jewish territory. And the Pharisees are the first at the dock. They began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven… a sign to test him. They are not pleading for healing or for sight or new vision or to have their hearing restored. They don’t want to be part of feeding hungry hearts and bellies. They are there to test him asking for a sign from heaven. Mark calls miracles deeds of power, not signs. There are three signs from heaven in Mark’s gospel. Chapter 1:10, Jesus’ baptism: “ And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” In chapter 9, we will hear about the Transfiguration: “Jesus led them up a high mountain… and he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” And at Jesus death. “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last and the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
The Pharisees aren’t present for any of these. Jesus says no sign will be given to them and gets back into the boat he just stepped out of, pushes off from Jewish land and crosses over to the other side: the equivalence of shaking the dust off his feet when not welcomed. They cross Lake Galilee again, but to the north, landing at Bethsaida where he is met at the dock …. by some people bringing a blind man to be healed. An opposite kind of landing party.
Mark is really wonderful. ‘The first will be last and the last shall be first’. We can see why. ‘From those who have much, more will be expected’.
Mark is really wonderful – until we pause for a breath in this breathless account of Jesus criss-crossing Jewish and Gentile land, and realize that something sad and unpleasant is soaking in.
Maybe it’s just me. I have admitted before that I fear I am a Pharisee. I find comfort in rituals and traditions and the way things are – even though I can readily agree that I benefit at others’ expense, and I don’t like that. Systemic change is needed, but is difficult to bring about when you are comfortable and cautious. The Pharisees are like a flipper in a pin ball machine. Jesus comes near and they strike out at him and he ricochets to the other side. But he is always called back to the heart of his people, to open the doors, to unlock the hardened hearts. And maybe things would go better this time, maybe the chicks would run to his sheltering wings if it weren’t for the Pharisees swatting at him, ringing his bells.
I don’t want to be a Pharisee, unable to perceive the God of Love; unable to sit down on the good earth in the middle of a crowd and take a big ol’ hunk of bread out of the basket and pass it along trusting that there will be plenty, watching it be plenty, trusting that God does not disappoint or slumber, or create and then not care for all that exists.
I too often get stuck in the Pharisee’s fear for what will come, for what will happen, longing for what has been and been good. I want a sign that love will win, that seeds planted will grow and not be choked or rot in the ground before they have a chance to thrive. I’m not looking for a miracle – which is a gift of unexpected grace. I want a sign – assurance, accountability, a voice from heaven telling me all will be well and all matter of things shall be well – and here is a list of things for you to do, Linda.
But… looking for the list, I’m in danger of missing the little wonders at my feet, the little ripples that cause light to dance, the little gestures that multiply fish and bread as the basket circles, hand to hand, smile to smile, eye to eye.
What kind of world will we create this week? What kind of world will we walk in? Who gets to decide that?
I think Mark is hoping we decide, and that we become something between pagans and Pharisees. Something between ignorant need – and the arrogance of domination and control. I think that’s where discipleship finds its roots, in that space between. Seeing the power of God as gift and not proof; participating in the bounty of giving our lives over to a higher good, a more useful service; a healing – with or without the cure; a depth and breadth and height unmeasured, but enough. I think that discerning space between ignorance and arrogance, between need and comfort, the space between passive and aggressive belief… I think that is where we are called to take risks and to venture – maybe trembling, but curious and unafraid.
Thanks to Liz Dodge for leading worship today!
Audio recording note: the discussion time during the service has been edited out of the recording.
Fear and greed are two of the three great forces in the world, according to Einstein – the third is stupidity. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton coined the phrase in1857, but he didn’t invent the idea. As power increases, moral strength seems to diminish.
“You can only save face for so long before you wake up and realize you have nothing left worth saving,” writes novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde. These are pretty good descriptions of Herod’s birthday party. And they sound a bit too current for comfort, right?
Herod Antipas: tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, was answerable to Emperor Tiberius. His political favor rests in his ability to keep the Jews peaceful. Most historians remember him as ineffectual, weak, and cruel. This Herod is the son of the Herod the Great who ordered the killing of all male babies under the age of two after the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem. Like his father, Antipas is a coward, but he has a lot of power – and that’s a bad combination. Herod married his brother’s wife, which was illegal and considered immoral, a point John the Baptist doesn’t mind proclaiming. This did not please Herodias. Herod seemed to be drawn to John, even though listening to him was troubling, perplexing. He recognized John as righteous and holy, and tried to keep him in protective custody, perhaps out of fear more than valor. But, nursing her grudge, Herodias wanted John dead not detained. Her opportunity (literally, “a happy day”) came at a state dinner, during which her daughter danced and pleased Herod and his guests – greatly. Caught up in the moment, Herod promised her whatever she wished. After consulting her mother, young Herodias sprang the trap: “I want John’s head on a platter!” The town’s elite and powerful were in attendance; image is everything. Herod is stuck. Birthday became death day: John’s head was delivered by a ghoulish bucket brigade.
But why does Mark tell this story? It interrupts the flow of Jesus’ healing and travel narrative, Jesus isn’t a character in the story, it’s quite long, and it’s a flashback. It’s a strange story about John in which he himself never appears.
It’s told because, in good storyteller fashion, the flashback functions as a flash-forward. Mark tips us off in the confusion over Jesus’ mighty works. Herod fears that Jesus is John back from the dead. It’s all about echoes and mirrors. John and Jesus; Herod and Pilate. Like Herod Antipas, Pilate will be amazed by circumstances surrounding an innocent prisoner, swept up in events that spin out of his control, and unable to back down after being publicly outmaneuvered.
Like John, Jesus is passive in his final hours, faces his moment of truth – the opportune moment for his betrayer, and is executed by capital punishment meant to cause scandal.
Greed and fear whisper everywhere: in Herod’s ear, among Galilee’s high and mighty, behind the curtain with mother and daughter, in a dungeon prison.
When repentance is preached to this world’s princes, when brought to a moment of crisis, this is the way of the world. We cannot expect the powerful to relinquish their power, however conflicted they may be.
In the gospel, evil is not only found in the demonic or unclean spirits. It’s also in the centers of power. The real struggle here is between truth and power. And while the characters in the story are of long ago, they ask us to stare into a world of corruption, lust, and power that is not as distant as we would like it to be; and the story demands that we ask ourselves how our actions contribute to such a world – and how our actions may help the power of goodness in such a world.
This is a story about more than just bad morals; it’s a story about how things can go terribly wrong when we put our need to be in control, or our need to preserve our own privilege or power ahead of God’s desires, and God’s ways. And if we are willing to look deeply into the story, we’ll see that it sheds light on the darkest reality of who we have the potential to be and what we have the potential to do. It’s not hard to see how this story applies to the contemporary world and our country. Because if we don’t challenge the Herods of our time, we tacitly endorse what is going on.
As the saying goes, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
In his defense, Herod was trying to negotiate a number of complicated relationships within his household and society, and he discovered it’s hard to please everyone around him and still uphold his own personal standards. He was at odds with his wife over John the Baptist and at odds with John the Baptist over his wife. He was eager to please his constituents and trapped by his daughter’s demand for John’s execution. He feared John while also admiring him from afar. He was conscious of how society can shape your life and expectations, but he seemed to see in John a voice of truth.
These are not fictional dilemmas. We, too, may need to negotiate similarly complicated relationships. A teenager goes along with the lie so he or she can remain popular; an employee witnesses another employee do something wrong, but he doesn’t speak up because he doesn’t want to be a snitch. A parent allows a child to throw a temper tantrum time and time again because it’s easier than saying “No.” It’s in our nature to care what others think and to want to please those around us by minimizing conflicts. We don’t need be Herod to understand Herod.
When he gets word of Jesus’ ability to heal and cast out demons, Herod thinks John has come back from the dead to haunt him. It’s not John, of course, and Herod realizes that in due time. But Jesus, like John, will face execution at the hands of a ruler who cares more about pleasing his constituents than he does in exercising justice. Both Herod and Pilate act against their better judgment and condemn innocent men. John is described as the one who “goes before,” in contrast to the disciples who “come after”. Mark’s narrative reflects Jesus in John. This role of preceding the “one to come” continues into the story of Jesus’ death, reflected in the language – “they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb”. The death of John alerts us to the future unfolding before Jesus.
Flannery O Connor once said: “There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected even though the reader may not recognize this moment.” Herod’s banquet is one of those moments – seen through a mirror dimly. It’s the first of two meals in this chapter. Jesus hosts the second, in the middle of nowhere for thousands of nobodies with nothing to offer save five loaves and two fish. At that feast greed and fear have no place. At that meal all are fed, with leftovers beyond comprehension.
Wickedness seems to flourish, but goodness has the final word – more importantly to us, not only is goodness the final word, but the word we want to hear, need to hear – and a word we need to share.
It is God’s grace – not our will, not our belief, not even our openness to God’s will that powers goodness – because, as God knows and Mark keeps showing us, we are all flawed and broken and blind to the things that really matter. We catch a glimpse here and there. Epiphanies. We see things that are ‘kinda like’ the kingdom of God that remind us of the love of an almighty God, things that compel us, convict us, and inspire us to clearer vision and broader horizons. It might not sound much like good news, but on days when you feel like a muddled failure and not a pillar of spiritual fervor, we can be really grateful that scripture is full of muddled characters… even the good ones don’t get it, and they – like we – rely body and soul on the grace of a loving, merciful, powerful God… and they – like we – are not disappointed. Thanks be to the God of Love.
Jesus and his entourage leave Galilee and go back to Nazareth, back to his hometown. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were struck with astonishment. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that’s been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him. (It can also be translated as “stumble”, they stumbled over him – I like that. They were astounded and befuddled and frightened; tripped up by the unexpected wisdom and miracles. He had been one of them, and now wasn’t, and it made them really uncomfortable.)
Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. But he was amazed at their lack of faith.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He 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; they were to wear sandals but not carry an extra tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the town. 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.
In the Christian calendar, this time between Christmas and Lent is called Epiphany. In the natural world of the northern hemisphere, this is the season when light is noticeably increasing. We take note of the slight, incremental advances day by day because we miss sunshine. Epiphany, too, is a season of light – ‘the Light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness has not overcome’ as revealed in Jesus. The lectioneries fill these weeks with Jesus being recognized through prophetic words and God’s acts of mercy and healing. So, these dormant months become a multi-layered opportunity for us to consider light.
A few years ago, I was gifted an LED desk lamp that is a 10 by 1 inch light bar. It is endlessly adjustable with 12 points along an arched continuum from ‘barely on’ to ‘bright as day’. There’s also a vertical continuum of color between a warm golden glow and bight daylight. The fixture itself has two joints that bend and swivel independently. It’s endlessly adjustable.
In the diminished light of winter, I carry this little lamp with me from room to room. It was a wonderful gift given by someone else who has a difficult time getting through the winter. We need light! I know there is brilliant sunlight outside for a few hours most days. But it’s cold, And it gets dark so bloody early, And the grass doesn’t need mowing, And gardens don’t grow, And feeding the birds doesn’t take very long, so I have no good reason to be outside, And I like to be cozy. So I don’t get enough light.
If I’m honest, I have just as many excuses that get in the way of a spiritual enlightening. Maybe you do, too. We need light – physical light and God’s light – and yet, we like to be cozy and we’re creatures of habit. Not many of us are in the habit of intentionally considering the Spirit’s light in our lives or commit to a practice of basking in it. We need maybe a tanning booth of spiritual light.
I talk to a lot of people in the congregation and outside of it who are religious but not spiritual – it’s the reverse of ‘spiritual but not religious’ that we hear about out in the community. We go through the motions, we put ourselves in the way of faith, but don’t always (or ever) feel it. Many pastors sit in this boat – so if you’re there too, you have us for company. Religion, practical matters of the church, attendance, become the task at hand, the content of our work, the draw of our attention, a habit, something we do.
Our modern culture places high value on doing – on being overly busy, multi-tasking, in constant motion. But, you can’t multi-task an intentional awakening to God. You can’t multi-task falling in love with a vision of God in all things and all things in God. It takes time, devotion, attention, care, observation, self-awareness, vulnerability. Falling in love is not a good idea. I mean, it’s not an idea. Falling in love is a whole body response. Brain chemistry changes, thought patterns change, awareness of self and others changes, habituated patterns of behavior change. Falling in love takes over your life for a period of time. It doesn’t matter if the object of that desire and affection is a person, or an animal, a place that feels like home… it can be a field of study, a new discovery that lights you up, or it can be the spirit of God. They are all characterized by letting go of the Martha impulse – being distracted by many things, letting go of the chatter – and instead focusing, opening ourselves, devoting our attention to this new light/love/life.
I hope you’ve had an experience of this that you can bring to mind…… someone, something, some insight that cracked open your world open and filled it with a new light. Chances are it caused you to stumble – awe, fear, amazement, wonder, gladness.
We need light – to wake up, to orient ourselves, to function, to survive, to move forward.
If light is one element of epiphany, recognition is another. How do we know if we’re seeing or experiencing God? How do we recognize God?
The legion of evil-doers who possessed the Geresene demoniac recognized Jesus: They called him by name. The leader of the synagog recognized his power to heal – and so did the woman who interrupted them – based, presumably, on what they had heard. Jesus’ reputation preceded him. Here we see the other side of the coin. His hometown crowd recognize him as one of their own, the eldest of Mary and Joseph’s children. He had been a carpenter in Nazareth – perhaps specializing in lamp stands, or mangers. They knew him. And yet what can possibly account for the changes since he left home? Where did he get this wisdom? How did he learn these skills? What power has he acquired? What is going on? And it got up their nose.
This, too, leads me to think about us, about me.
I had an experience sort of like this at a high school class reunion: it was our 20th, a long time ago. It’s hard to recognize people you haven’t seen for 20 years. I found my old friend group and caught up a little bit. And then I saw Mari Miller. She lived a few houses away from me in high school but we were not in the same crowd. Not at all. She got a ride to high school, then got a car – I had to ride the bus. She was cool and edgy, and I was not. But, I was in the ‘smart kids’ group and she was not. And here she is, 20 years later, a corporate lawyer and ready to retire and move on to other things. What? I was struck with astonishment. I would never have pictured a trajectory from high school that could take her to where she was. I have compassion for this ‘stumbled/offended’ hometown gospel crowd. I don’t like to admit it, but how in the world did this happen? How did she hide it that well in high school? She was in the drinking, smoking group who didn’t take any of the hard classes. How could she have gotten so many miles ahead of me in twenty years?
Well, I was beginning to grow up and see how blinding our expectations can make us to what’s true about a person. I also learned about the suicide of another high school friend who seemed to have everything going for him. I don’t recommend bubbles even though they are comforting to live in. I admire the brave ones among you who live outside of your bubble; and the brave disciples, who followed this crazy man even though they didn’t have a clue, and usually got it wrong. They were there, with God epiphany-ing in front of them all along. They still didn’t really get it, but they kept trying. They never got back into their bubbles and went home.
Expectation is a problem. In the gospel, at least, it seems to be closely related to entitlement. We know. We know what to expect, we know how it’s going to flow, we know best, just leave it to us. It’s very patronizing and settled.
The past two years of covid, the unfathomable, unbreachable political divisions, and racial disparity awareness have shown us how big a problem expectation is if we’ve settled in. Expectation based on the status quo leaves us not very ready to see the new things that God is doing. Expectation aligned with the status quo keeps us blinded to epiphanies of God manifested in the world around us, in people around us, because it limits our ability to recognize what might be possible, though unexpected.
I think Stumbling is a common experience. Whether it is offense or disbelief or expectations, I think many of us don’t know what to make of miracles. Or what qualifies as a miracle. Or how to see God in daily life. Maybe we’re expecting too much or not experiencing enough, or not expecting anything and so don’t bother to really look with curiosity or the kind of imagination that allows vision of God’s hand at work. But I do believe God is all around, in and through and with. And that we need practice.
I want you to think about this. Think about light/enlightenment, about vulnerability, about falling into love and being cracked open, of astonishment. Looking back, can you see God there? Within that experience? Can you picture opening the door wider and letting in whatever will come through, or let whatever God-voice calls you lead you out? Can you imagine being fertile soil for the work of God?
I encourage you to think about epiphanies – manifestations of God’s presence, and then talk about them with someone after church. I’m available!