Herod’s Choice. Mark 6:14-29

“The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for his guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”

He didn’t want to do it–that much is clear. The Gospel writer is at pains to tell us that he “was deeply grieved” over the prospect of having that good man John executed. Herod’s problem was that he knew full well the difference between good and evil. And when you know what is good you are equipped to make a righteous choice and responsible to do it. But upon one little word–“yet”–this whole lurid story of human weakness and evil hinges.

Herod was saddened, and yet there were other considerations that came into play–political considerations, personal ones too. There was the rash and impetuous oath the king had sworn in front of his guests, a promise to give a spoiled child virtually anything she wanted. And like every petty politician of his sort, Herod felt the need to appear strong. And like every parent, even the worst, he felt the pressure to keep his promises, no matter rash and ill-considered. He had gotten himself into a corner, and now there was the devil to pay. The right response to the girl’s viperous request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter was obvious, as most right responses are. No. But he said yes instead, to his eternal regret.

This story would be just a salacious footnote in Mark’s Gospel story if Herod’s problem were not ours too, beloved. Too often we also let our value as human beings be determined by the worth we have in the eyes of others. It is an immature way of thinking; it is the way teenagers think. In many ways this is as much a story about immaturity as about weakness and evil. Way too often our choices like Herod’s are determined at what others think and not by what we know to be right.

So we have two men contrasted here, the king and the Man of God. One powerful but weak, the other powerless but strong. The king was governed by his fear of consequences. The Man of God who wasn’t afraid of them—when Herod took his brother’s wife, Herodias, John openly said it was adultery according to the Law of Moses. He told the truth regardless of the cost. So St. Mark tells us that “Herod himself sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison.” Herod took John’s freedom away, but the king didn’t do anything more because, although his wife, Herodias, had a deadly grudge against the prophet, yet—and there’s that word again—“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

And why was that? Herod was not a righteous or holy man himself—by no means!–but he did recognize the real thing when he saw it. That he protected the Man of God only goes to prove what my father used to say—“There is some good in the devil’s cat.” There was a spark of goodness in King Herod. Every good thing, no matter where we find it, comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit was at work even in Herod, the corrupt, scumbag politician, whose old man of the same name had ordered the massacre of the infant children of Bethlehem, according to St. Matthew’s gospel. King Herod was a man born, raised, and graduated in the school of evil.

Yet—and there is that word again—“when he heard [John the Baptist talk] he was greatly perplexed.” People like Herod don’t understand the language of God, but they are drawn to those who speak it. He was a murderer and a petty tyrant and yet. . . and yet he liked to listen to him. The Holy Spirit is at work in the worst of human beings, just as in the best of human beings the devil is alive and well and doing his worst. It goes on like that—push and pull–but eventually a choice has to be made.

Herod’s choice came on the night of his birthday, appropriately enough. He gave himself a sumptuous birthday party. It was a stag affair. It probably wasn’t an orgy, but at a Roman dinner party there would be a lot of booze. Then at the climax of the evening, there was a special birthday surprise. It wasn’t a birthday cake with Roman candles on it, but it was certainly something hot. The daughter of Queen Herodias, Josephus tells us that her name was Salome, danced for the guests.

Which she must have done well, because when she had finished Herod said to the girl—“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you, even half my kingdom.” The girl ran to her mother to say—“What shall I ask for.” And her mama told her—“Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” And that is what the girl requested—the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things because we don’t know any better. These mistakes are still bad, and occasionally they have disastrous consequences, but the danger to our souls is not great. They are in the end just mistakes.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things by accident, intending to do the right thing. These accidents are still bad, and we suffer the consequences of them, but the danger to our souls is negligible. Things like that happen. We make mistakes as long as we try.

But Herod’s choice was not like that at all. He knew the choice he was making was evil, yet he let other people’s opinions determine his decision. He was not quite a monster, but he did a monstrous thing, for which the Gospel writer does not forgive him. Because when we know right from wrong, when the Holy Spirit tells us clearly the difference, then we are in the greatest danger, beloved. Those are the choices for which we are fully accountable.

We are all faced with choices we know are between right and wrong. We think that some of those choices are personal—no one else’s business. But there is no such thing as a purely personal choice—every choice is made in reference to other people, judging our worth. It is easy enough to make a decision because of the opinion of others, but it takes the courage that comes only from the Holy Spirit to make a decision in spite of their opinion. Yet those are the only decisions that can be called good or right.

Faced with the biggest moral decision of his life, Herod made it not on the basis of right, but out of regard for a vicious teenager and her still more vicious mama and the opinion of a brunch of drunken cronies. Like Pontius Pilate on another occasion, Herod was more concerned about the judgment of insignificant players than on whether he was putting an innocent man to death. Both men had their excuses. Tyrants always make excuses. They never want to take responsibility for anything. But no excuse ever really works. And we need to keep that in mind as we face Herod’s choice, whether to do the right thing and face the consequences–because the right thing always has consequences–or to do the wrong thing for the sake of other people’s opinions.

 

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Laughter in the Wings based on Mark 5:21-43

“When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he entered he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”

People do laugh at the strangest moments, don’t they? There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything funny about the situation in our gospel lesson. The death of a child, twelve years old, at the dawn of life, is nothing less than tragic. So why did they laugh?

They laughed because Jesus said—“The child is not dead but sleeping.” To them it seemed an absurd statement. And when we hear something absurd, even in the most tragic circumstances, we laugh. It is a natural response. Absurdity is our recognition that we are being asked to believe that the impossible can happen. The absurd is a statement or a situation is so contrary to common sense that it cannot be. So the mourners in the story thought Jesus was being silly, and they laughed at him. The tragedy was not theirs, after all. It was someone else’s heartbreak.

They were there simply to make a racket. The etiquette of death in our own time demands silence and hushed voices. But in Bible times it was just the opposite. A well-to-do family like that of the ruler of the synagogue might have hired professional mourners to cause an appropriate commotion. They may have been paid for making a hullabaloo. Or it may be that the people who were there that day were just neighbors there to offer their condolences–and perhaps have a bite to eat. In either case they knew death when they saw it, and the child was dead. Kaput. Children died with much greater frequency in that place and time, but the situation was no less poignant for being relatively common. A life had been cut short. There was nothing more to be expected of the dead. Jesus walked in on a noisy wake and hushed the mourners. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” And they laughed because there was no rational answer to such a ridiculous question.

But what the gospel writer wants us to understand is that the presence of Jesus is able to make what would otherwise be absurd, not only possible but inevitable. Nothing is ever over. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he says. It is worth noticing with what tenderness the miracle is accomplished. Jesus took her by the hand, we are told. And then we are given something very rare and precious—“ipsissima verba dei”—the very voice of the Christ speaking. “Talitha cum,” Jesus says in Aramaic, a phrase which the evangelist Mark helpfully translates for his gentile readers—“Little girl, arise.”

And it says “she arose.” It is the very same word in Greek—“anatasis”—which is used for Christ’s own resurrection. And we are to understand that it is by the same power that Jesus was raised from the dead that the little girl is returned to life. So absurdity is abolished by the presence of the risen Lord. Now nothing is absurd. Anything can happen. That is the essence of the Gospel, and that is the central reality of the Gospel life we are called to live. It demands a changed attitude toward the whole of life.  If Jesus rose from the dead now anything can happen. With God nothing is impossible.

That does not mean that everything that can happen will. What it does call us to do is offer up those impossible situations in our lives to the power that raised Christ from the dead. And all of us have those circumstances we deem hopeless. Consider this, beloved. Are there people from whom you are estranged, with whom you have not spoken for years? Do you have relationships that seem impossible to mend–with relatives, maybe, or with old friends? Are there chronic health conditions to which you have resigned yourself? The gospel demands that that we give up our old ideas of what is possible and open ourselves to any form in which healing and reconciliation may come.

The mourners in the story represent the old way of thinking about things. Their laughter is cynical, hopeless, and without joy. For them the dead are dead. Kaput. So it says that Jesus hushed them up, and “then he put them all outside. . .” He put them outside not only because they provided a noisy distraction to the miracle he was about to perform, but because they could not believe that the absurd can happen. But it can. And it does. The death and resurrection of Jesus provides the paradigm for a new kind of life. If he died an absurd death on the cross and rose again against all expectation, then the world is not the dead end it sometimes seems to be, but a realm from which the impossible has been banished, and a place of genuine laughter and great joy.

 

 

 

 

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Confusing Facts–Mark 4:35-41

The Gospel of Mark tells us that as the storm raged around them, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and the disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

 

It was a tempest, a real gully-washer, and the disciples were understandably alarmed by it. They thought they were perishing. But the Lord of Life was there with them in the boat. They can be forgiven if they did not enjoy the ride, but they should not have been afraid—nor should we be.

I was told the other day of a certain evangelical pastor who counseled his congregation not to listen to the news any more, that is would just confuse and alarm them. They should give the time they would spend listening to the news and reading the paper to prayer and Bible study. Now there is nothing at all wrong with prayer and Bible study, heaven knows. And that might even be good advice, if ignorance were ever a good thing—which it is not.

We have to be suspicious of anyone who wants us to remain ignorant of the facts, for whatever reason. They pretend it is for our own good, but they always do it for their own reasons. The Apostles of Ignorance don’t want their people to attend to the “liberal media” because they want us to listen to their version of the truth instead. Uniformed people are always more biddable and easy to manage. It is always a mistake to turn your mind over to anyone else, no matter who.

But that pastor, misled in much else, was right about one thing–there is no doubt that listening to the news these days is confusing, aggravating and sometimes downright frightening. We can readily identify ourselves with those disciples, quailing in the boat with the storm howling all around them. We too are struggling against the contrary winds of bias and opinion; we too at times find that our little boat is in danger of being swamped by distressing images and dire warnings.

The news is not an invention of sinister forces, liberal or conservative. Just like in the Bible story, the storm around us is real, not imaginary. That it is confusing is not an excuse to ignore it and pretend that it isn’t raging. We could try to hide from it, closing our eyes tight and huddling in the bottom of the boat. But ignoring the storm that is raging around us does not deepen our Christian faith. It only serves to make it naïve and shallow and all those other things that unbelievers say that it is. No, if Christians should be anything, it is more concerned and interested in what is going on in the world, because we believe in a God who speaks through history, not just ancient history but our own. His prophets and seers have always seen his hand at work in it. And God is still speaking to us through the chaotic events of our moment in time, even when we do not always understand what he is saying and hear only the roaring of the storm.

What was always been true remains the case, beloved–to be a Christian is to be confused. To be a Christian in this world is always to be waiting for further clarification. As St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:8-9)—“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We are confused and perplexed by the news, by the wars and rumors of wars that Jesus said must come before the end, by the monstrous lies we hear shouted from on high, by the vulgar materialism of our society, by the staggering callousness of our government, by the decision of a large part of popular Christianity to regard the political fabrications as truth, and by religious leaders waging war on the facts in the name of Christ.

It is easy to become obsessed by it all and start yelling at the television screen. It is easy to misunderstand and overdramatize our position, like those disciples in the Bible story. They thought Jesus was indifferent because he was sunk in exhausted asleep. They thought they were in mortal danger of drowning, when in fact that his presence with them in the boat ensured their safety.

The storm is real enough, but God is with us–that is the good news we need to hear right now. So when Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea—Peace! Be still!—his Holy Spirit is speaking to us as well. The facts are facts—that they confusing is no reason to ignore them. But the presence of Christ in the boat is the Fact that governs all other facts. The news is the news. What is important for us is to remain calm and still in the midst of the storm. Not to spend our little all to buy into any one point of view. The truth is that the truth is endlessly complicated and complex. But God is at work to simplify and distill it into a single limpid word—Jesus.

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Minor, Minor Prophets based on Psalm 141

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.

Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds

in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

Let the righteous stroke me; let the faithful correct me.

Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head,

for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.”

There is no more appropriate way to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist than to be a prophet a little like John. Not exactly like, of course; we each have another life. And forth-telling was seldom a fulltime occupation for the prophets of the Bible. John the Baptist was exceptional in this as in many other things. He was a professional prophet literally from the womb. St. Luke tells us that as a child he “grew and became strong, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publically to Israel” (1:80). Most prophets in the Bible were other things before—and after–God called them to speak his word—farmers, mothers, fathers, priests, and carpenters. Some were called to speak just one prophetic word of warning to the powers that be before they dropped back into their former lives.

And so each one of us who have the Spirit of Jesus in us are given our prophetic moments, I am convinced. We may be only “minor minor prophets,” beloved, but that does not mean that when confronted with evil we are not called to speak out in the tradition of John the Baptist. We have a sacred duty to do so, because unless we speak out against evil when we see it, we are a party to it and responsible for it.

In a strategy recently announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it is the stated policy of our government that anyone who enters the country illegally—including those who come here seeking asylum from Central American violence and drug gangs–will be prosecuted to the limit of the law, with their minor children taken from them and placed in separate custody as a form of deterrence. It is a controversial policy. Everyone more or less admits that forceably separating parents from their children is an inhumane practice—even the president doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.  But that doesn’t matter to those who are enforcing a policy that is callous even for this administration.  “If you don’t like that,” Sessions said, “then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

More than 700 minors, including toddlers and babies, have been separated from their parents at the border between last October and April of this year; another 600 since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced in May. The kind of pain and anxiety and trauma these numbers represent is unimaginable. This is not the rule of law, this is intentional cruelty. There is no other way to describe a policy of a government that criminalizes desperate people, and uses children as a way to punish their parents. It is a national sin—there is no other word for it.

There are some people who simply cannot cut a deal with evil, and they are the “major prophets” of every time.  John the Baptist was like that. With evil he was like dog with a snake—he could not leave it alone. He could not keep his mouth shut; that is what cost him his head.

But most of us are not possessed with that passion for justice that John had. We are not “a voice crying in the wilderness.” We are able to accommodate ourselves to the little injustices around us quite neatly and live with the living. If we do not find ourselves and ours in jeopardy, it is easy enough for us to resign ourselves to the suffering of others, and to deplore life’s small cruelties, but do nothing about them.

It isn’t very nice, perhaps, but that’s how we ordinary people are.

But there are times when we stand in the presence of self-righteous evil and are forced to make a choice. This policy of separating parents from their children as a form of punishment and deterrence is manifestly wicked, but it is only the beginning of what will be done. If we want to call ourselves followers of the crucified Lord we have to resist it now, and become minor minor prophets.

Cruelty is not an unintentional byproduct of the White House immigration policy, it is its objective. Its intention is to cause pain and agony for parents and trauma in young children for the sake of vague policy goals, which are not succeeding anyway. It is revenge upon the poorest. It is cruelty for its own sake, beloved, and we cannot ignore it without adding to the suffering of Christ.

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Sticks and Stones…Mark 3:20-35

In our gospel lesson from Mark it says that when Jesus’ family heard what he was up to, “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’”

Who knows, it could have been some sort of bad Pharisaical joke—in the worst possible taste under the circumstances.  At this distance in time it is impossible to say what the scribes meant exactly when they said Jesus had Beelzebul. It seemed clear to everyone that he had some sort of spirit, but from whence did it come?  His family had already become convinced that he was “beside himself”—possessed perhaps by a demon. So they came to collect him. Big disgrace!

But taking it one step further, those scribes alleged Jesus didn’t have just any old demon, but the prince of demons himself. (In the demonology of the time “Beelzebul” is a term of derision for the idol of the god “Baal” meaning “lord of the flies”—see 2 Kings 1:2ff. The gospel writers use the name interchangeably for Satan.) This accounted for his power to expel demons. He was their ruler. But did they really believe that Jesus was possessed by the prince of demons or was it just something to say to malign him in the eyes of that eager crowd who mobbed him and his disciples “so that they could not even eat?”  Was it a joke at Jesus’ expense? If it was a joke it was in unforgivably bad taste. Not only did the scribes fail to recognize the Holy Spirit as the source of Jesus’ power, but they went so far as to call the Holy Spirit Beelzebul. It was over the line, because, as Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” For those scribes, spiritually speaking, it was a career ender.

And speaking of career enders, his week saw a racist tweet by the show’s star get ABC’s highest-rated show “Roseanne” canceled. Roseanne Barr has long been infamous for her outrageous smears and wackadoodle conspiracy theories. But this time she went over the line, tweeting of Valerie Jarrett, an Iranian-born African-American who served as Barack Obama’s senior adviser, that if the “muslim brotherhood & the planet of the apes had a baby = VJ.” Was it just a “bad joke,” as she claimed? Maybe. But not just that. The network called the outburst “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values” and almost immediately canceled its biggest hit comedy amid a firestorm of condemnation.

Roseanne tried to apologize, saying that “it was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting”—but the makers of Ambien would have none of it. Their CEO said in a statement—“Racism is not a known side effect.” (That was a joke. You can tell because it’s funny.) In this world anything can happen, of course, but the outburst was probably a career-ender for Barr, who is 65. What is certain it that she accidently turned a deadly weapon upon herself with terrible effect and learned with sorrow and regret what we should all know—the truth that is enshrined in a little children’s song—Be careful little lips what you say. . . . .

There is a certain kind of language that it designed to kill, beloved. And whether it tries to disguise itself as humor hardly matters. The intent is there. In the present partisan environment such homicidal language has flowered poisonously. It has become a sort of call and response thing, so that a wacko voice from the right is answered by an equally loud equally wacko voice from the left. So the same week that saw Barr’s downfall, comedienne Samantha Bee, openly called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—t,” using a vulgar word for the female anatomy. Many rushed to her defense. It was a matter of free speech they said.

But the truth is, there is no defense for that kind of language. It isn’t funny. It’s deadly. Deadly to the souls of those who use it, who tweet it, who retweet it, who laugh at it, who excuse it, who do nothing and overlook it. Jesus did not overlook the “Beelzebul business”; he recognized it for what it was, an attempt upon his life and he defended himself accordingly. The scribes who came down from Jerusalem had already conspired against Jesus, “how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6), and now they set about trying to do it with the first weapon that comes to our hand, words. There is a great deal of discussion, much of it hot—and long overdue–about gun control, but there is less said about word control—that is, until something happens that pushes matters over the line. Then lives are destroyed and reputations are tarnished forever, and we all suffer from the decay of manners.

What kind of spirit is within us? In America today it is as if we are at war with ourselves, beloved, and words are the weapons. It is a war in which everyone with a computer can take part. There is no barrier on account of mental illness and moral indigence. It is war of manners, and the winner has the worst. And those who become combatants in this struggle are indeed possessed by the prince of demons.

But you and I cannot be among them, beloved. We cannot be the ones who tolerate and excuse such poisonous language. A portion of the American public has gotten so hardened that it can overlook anything in those with whom it agrees politically, but you and I cannot be part of that portion. The philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1796—“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend.” Laws we encounter rarely and in extreme circumstances, Manners are what make up the fabric of our daily lives and bulk of discourse with one another. If they are corrupted, society is corrupted. And a corrupted society is a society not of laws but of violence. That is the danger of this moment, that the bad taste of a few is pushing us all over the line.

So is it worse to think it or to say it? Good manners answers unambiguously–it is worse to say it. It gives other people with the same nasty thoughts the permission to express them openly. But you and I need to learn discretion and demand discretion in those we who govern us and try to entertain us. There is a difference between obscene language, which is protected by the law, and homicidal language, which represents the end of manners and the beginning of criminality, and all of us can—or should be able to–tell the difference. One is in bad taste, the other tastes bad, like poison to the tongue. Our business is to recognize the difference, avoid the first and condemn the second. Or to put it more positively, to do as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10). Whether or not we do that reveals what kind of spirit is within us.

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Darn Pharisees–Mark 2:23-3:6

In the Gospel lesson for this week it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Are you angry, beloved? Angry enough to admit you are? I am. Angry enough for two of us. Not all the time and with everyone, of course. I wouldn’t say that I’m an angry person, but sometimes with some people my anger breaks through the skin and at times I feel that there is more than enough reason for it. Reading the newspaper and watching television makes it worse, but I can’t stop that either. We live in angry times. But our Gospel lesson, which speaks to us directly about the anger of Jesus, gives you and me some guidance as to how our anger can be controlled and directed by the love of God.

It is a vivid scene that Mark sets for us. Jesus is in a synagogue on the Sabbath day–maybe it’s hot, maybe it’s crowded–and a search light is on him. The Pharisees are watching, because there is a man there with a withered hand and they waiting to see if they can catch Jesus breaking the Sabbath law by healing him. They want to use his compassion as a hook and the crippled man as bait. So there is an atmosphere of tension in the synagogue that day, and Jesus, always sensitive to an atmosphere, feels it. He hears the question buzzing around his head–“Will he do it?” Like a persistent fly. “Will he do it?”

So when he looked around him in the synagogue on that Sabbath day what did Jesus see? He saw the man with a withered hand, whose life was wasted by his physical deformity, and the sight of human suffering always ticked Jesus off. He felt the futility of it. The isolation of being different. The tragedy of wasted existence. But what stirred his ire particularly were the Pharisees, watchful as spiders, whose bodies were whole and strong enough, but whose souls were shrunken and distorted by their cold indifference and their immovable prejudices.

Jesus had much in common with those Pharisees on purely religious grounds. He also was an observant Jew. He taught many of the things they believed—the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and evil spirits, the judgment of souls, heaven and hell.  But he was not one of them. Our Lord was a carpenter, yes, but not a joiner. Nothing in the gospels indicates that he identified himself with any particular sect or group. He stood apart from the religious set-up of his time. He was critical of all its parties. But in particular he did not get along with the Pharisees.

And why? Although they were scrupulous in keeping the Law of Moses to the letter, they were terribly careless about the suffering of others. They were rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. But what made Jesus particularly angry that morning in the synagogue was their silence. When he asked them–“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It says that “they were silent.” And that is what made Jesus angry enough to heal the crippled man on the Sabbath just to spite them. He was angry because although they were the most religious of God’s chosen people, and the most rigorous followers of his Law, they would not commit themselves to life.

And what Jesus saw when he looked around at the synagogue that Sabbath day is what the Lord sees when he looks at the Church today. Many of the most religious, the most scrupulous, who wear the name of Jesus in the boldest characters, are the most indifferent to ordinary human needs. They too, like the ancient Pharisees, are rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. When Jesus looks around at the Church he beholds a place where principles, laws, and political agendas too often trump compassion, and no doubt the Lord is angry.

His anger is a comfort to those of us who share that anger. It says to us that Jesus feels our frustration and our exclusion. His anger is a comfort, but not an excuse. Anger secreted inside withers the soul. Jesus’ anger did not lie smoldering in his heart. It moved him to concrete action on behalf of those in need. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man in our story; and “he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” By way of comparison, what did the anger of the Pharisees do? It says they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Our anger is more often than not a result of hurt feelings. We feel it when we think, rightly or wrongly, that we are being attacked. (“Progressive?” Franklin Graham recently told a group of conservative pastors and evangelists in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. “That’s just another word for godless.”) But the answer is not to add our anger to the already poisonous atmosphere that surrounds us. The answer is to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to life. We need to vote, to give, to work, and to speak the truth in the Spirit of Jesus.

It is pretty hard for any of us, whatever our persuasions, not to get angry these days. There is anger all around us, on the right and on the left, above and below—it is an atmosphere that is always threatening to choke out our better feelings. It is reassuring that Jesus too could be angry like we are, but he could not be indifferent as we can so easily become. Even in the most hostile of circumstances he was always able to take a stand for life. In the synagogue one morning we are told he saw a man with a withered hand. He might have inquired regarding his religious preferences, his immigration status, his sexual orientation or his political party, but all Jesus said was—“Stretch out your hand.” He was obedient because he knew he needed healing. And so we should stretch out our lives to Jesus, beloved, and the Lord will restore our withered hearts to be like his.

 

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Like a Child at Home Romans 8:12-17

In his Letter to the Romans St. Paul writes: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. . . .”

 

It seems as if everything these days wants redefinition. Nothing is exempt. That is certainly seems to be true of the word “church.” All sorts of outlandish things want to be thought of as churches. So what exactly is a church as opposed to some other organization that uses religious language to talk about themselves?  Well, the word “church” could be defined in any number of different ways, but usually means a group of believers of whatever number who gather to worship together, who perform rituals and rites that mark the stages in their lives, and who are encouraged to nurture and care for one another. That seems to me like a rather cold but pretty accurate definition of what “church” means.

So, beloved, what do you think that an organization that doesn’t have a congregation, doesn’t hold worship services, doesn’t baptize, doesn’t do weddings or funerals. Is that a church? Probably not. Then how about Focus on the Family? Last fall Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that promotes socially conservative causes, declared itself church. What churchly things does Focus on the Family do? Well, not much of anything, the truth be told. It does do some things churches shouldn’t be doing.

It uses its $90 million annual budget is to deliver to its estimated 38 million radio listeners a message that often frankly political. It funds ads against state legislators who support bills intended to prevent discrimination against L.G.B.T. people. It initiates programs to combat what it calls “gay activism” in public schools. It opposes public assistance on principle—believers are charged with the task of caring for the poor. (Considering some of the believers I know, I certainly would not want to be dependent upon them for my daily bread. But be that as it may.) It opposes legislation aimed at gun safety. It resists access for women to comprehensive reproductive care. It calls environmentalism “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.” It carries a spear in the war on science, and distributes material that teaches that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old.

Of course, our constitutional freedoms give Focus on the Family a perfect right to do all of those things, but its claim that to be nonpartisan is laughable. James Dobson, the group’s founder, staunchly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, saying on the air that the prospect of a Clinton presidency “scares me to death.” So why would any organization with such a blatantly political agenda want to be considered a church. Well, the short answer is money. Churches enjoy a number of tax benefits over other religious nonprofits. Various tax exemptions are made for clergy, for instance. But more important, unlike other nonprofit groups, churches do not have to disclose where their funds come from. Exemption from reporting contributions would allow Focus on the Family to accept large amounts of “dark money” intended to be used for overtly political ends. You may agree or disagree with those ends, but gathering bucks into a war chest to influence politics is not what it means to be a church.

So what does church mean?

My family and I go to the Episcopal Cathedral here in St. Petersburg—a church in every possible sense. The music is very beautiful and the preaching excellent. Things are done with a rightness that I find very satisfying. But the order of service does not take up my entire attention. When I am there I still have plenty of leisure to consider who else is. You know how that is, beloved. Church is other people, and it is always interesting to see who we have become one with.

We usually sit in pretty much the same pew every Sunday. There is a little family that sits directly ahead of us—two middle-aged men, obviously a couple, and a boy of about twelve years, the son of one or other of them. It is often hard to tell which. They are as unremarkable as three people could be. They do nothing whatsoever to draw attention to themselves. They are simply there to go to church like everybody else. But you can’t help noticing—focusing, if you will–on the great tenderness that exists among them. They both treat the boy with the gentleness and firmness of a father, and he treats both of them with offhanded, casual affection of a son.

And seeing them together I can’t help reflecting on what a church is not. It is certainly not an organization intended to support political candidates of whatever stripe or to influence social values, either toward the left or toward the right. It is a community in which we find a home within the Trinity of Persons–one enormous, inclusive family bound together by the Holy Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today.

The Church spent much of its early life trying to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, and finally gave up. (Someone once said—“If you try to explain the Trinity you will lose your mind, if you deny it you will lose your soul.”) It remains the great Christian mystery and also the great Christian reality–the essential Really Real that underlies everything else. It is the energy that holds together the Church, the world, and the universe. It is easy to exaggerate how the persons of the Trinity are three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–but it is impossible to overstate how much the three persons of the Trinity are one. Someone once tried to clarify it for me this way: The Son is the Father’s love for Himself, the Spirit is His idea of that love.

But the more you try to explain the Trinity like that the less sense it makes. We can only really define it by the effect it has upon our lives. It is the power that draws us together, that makes families out of strangers. It is eternal, but it is not a closed circle—the love that binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit together into One has been opened to us by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. And the church, where his cross and resurrection are proclaimed, is the place where the life of the Trinity spills out into the world and into our lives.

In the church we are welcomed into the interior life of the Trinity. We are adopted into its oneness, and we become one with God and a part of a family that includes all who have confessed the Trinity in every place and time.

It is abundantly clear that the boy loves both his care-givers deeply and they love him. By the grace of God, three random people have become one family–not a conventional family, but part of an adoptive family infinite in space and time—the family of the church. It is the miracle which is degraded when we turn the church into a mere tax shelter or a political club. Churches sometimes become that, but that is not what a church is.

A church in order to be a church must be a family, a group of people gathered around shared beliefs and experiences, and the chief among those experiences is oneness.  Its profoundest meaning is summed up in the Holy Trinity. The church participates in the unity of the Trinity, which is as much an unconventional family as that little group that sits ahead of us in church. But they have found a place—Bless them!–a home, an abode within the family of the God who has opened his life to them in Jesus Christ.  In the words of  that wonderful hymn–“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”—“Here would I find a settled rest,/ while others go and come;/ no more a stranger, nor a guest,/ but like a child at home.”

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Filed under Church, Holy Spirit, Letters of Saint Paul, Life in the Spirit, New Testament, Trinity