Monday, July 13, 2015

This Is not the End

Proper 10, Year B
Mark 6:14-29
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

The Lectionary has given us an odd Gospel reading this morning. To begin with, this is the only part of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is not the central character. Instead, here, and only here, Herod Antipas takes center stage. This is not the King Herod of Matthew’s Gospel, who orders the execution of every baby boy in Bethlehem. That Herod is Herod the Great. Instead, this King Herod is one of Herod the Great’s three sons, all named Herod, who ruled over a portion of their father’s kingdom. Herod Antipas was ruler of Galilee and Perea, and is the same Herod that Pilate sends Jesus to for judgment in Luke’s Gospel.

Beyond this sudden character change, this reading is also odd because it’s hard to point to the good news in it. That’s odd, because it’s a gospel reading, and gospel, after all, means “good news.” But good news seems to be in short supply this morning. Instead, all we have is the vicious politics of the Herodian dynasty. We have insinuations that Herod Antipas was a weak king, who was manipulated by his wife, a woman of questionable virtue, who like Jezebel before her enticed her royal husband into wickedness. We have the death of John the Baptist as part of a court intrigue. It’s hard to see how there’s any room for good news in these fifteen verses of Mark’s Gospel.

But this part of Mark’s Gospel, is most familiar to us. We weren’t there when Jesus stilled the storm or walked on water or multiplied the loaves and fishes. We weren’t there when Jesus raised the dead or cast out demons or healed the sick. We weren’t there when the tomb was found empty, when the risen Jesus appeared in that upper room, or when he ascended into heaven. We believe these things, but we can only wonder what they were like. But we have experienced politics. Maybe less bloody politics than those of the Herodians, but perhaps no less brutal. The petty politics of the school lunchroom, the economic politics of the boardroom, the political wrangling in Annapolis and Washington, DC, even the politics of the church. As we hear Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death, we are reminded of the darker parts of our human nature: the desire to maintain power whatever the cost, the temptation to use other people as pawns to achieve our own ends, the hatred that drives us to rash decisions. We see the heartbreaking tragedy of John’s undeserved end reflected countless times in our own day and age, perhaps, most heartbreakingly of all, in conflicts within the church.

It’s hard to find good news in any of that, I know. Believe me, I know. But this is the gospel reading the Lectionary has given us,  and there must be some good news in it.

I spent the past week at Camp Claggett with campers between the ages of nine and twelve. I have to tell you, I saw these sorts of politics even there. One of my “others duties as assigned” as chaplain ended up being giving a stern talk about name calling to a group of campers. But I also saw the campers do amazing things. I watched the children show amazing concern, at least at their better moments, to make sure that everyone was included, that there were no outcasts at camp. I listened to them pray for things both incredibly mundane and incredibly profound in chapel. I was even told by a camper than chapel was almost as much fun as the swimming pool.

The theme of Camp Claggett this year is  “In Your Own Words: Finding Your Place in God’s Story.” We talked about the importance of stories,  both stories of our own lives and of our families and also the Great Story of God’s love for us that we call the Gospel. That story began at creation, when God spoke the world into being. It continued with the calling of Abraham, the choosing of the children of Israel to be God’s people, their exodus from Egypt, wandering in the desert, and settling in the Promised Land. It continued with the judges, the kings, and the prophets, with exile and return, with the promise of the messiah. It continued with a young peasant girl named Mary, who accepted her place in the Story with a courageous yes. It continued with the birth of Emmanuel—God with Us—in Bethlehem. with his teaching, preaching and healing. It continued even after the cross, with the resurrection and ascension, with the birth of the church, and it is still being told today, in your life and mine as we follow Jesus Christ.

God’s story is our story, and our story is God's story.

Maybe that is the good news for us today. Because, in the vast scope of God’s Story, Herod Antipas is just a footnote. All those rulers who abuse their power are. They are never permitted to have the last word. Herod doesn’t have the last word in Mark’s Gospel. He fades into obscurity, as do Herodias and her daughter. The Good News for us today is that the last word is always God’s. The Story is still being told. God has not abandoned us. God will not abandon us.

In the words of that familiar hymn: "This is my Father's world, o let me ne'er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Paul's Third Heaven

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. - 2 Cor 12:10

While we’re all used to letters from Paul being at times, confusing, perhaps you noticed this morning he sounds downright wacky! I know a person, he says, who follows Jesus, who was caught up to the third heaven, to Paradise, where he was told things that are secret; secrets of the heavenly kind that no human being should really hear, let alone repeat.  Revelations so wonderful that to get back to earth he received a thorn in his flesh.  To remind him – despite the holy conversations – that he’s just human.

What’s Paul talking about?

Well it’s Paul talking about himself and trying to impress the people of his community who are getting bored.  Because, they are no longer impressed by the incredible ordinariness of living in community in God.  And they are wondering if their leader, the never-there Paul is still extraordinary enough and powerful enough to hold their interest, let alone their community together.

This fantastic description serves two purposes.  One, it’s a reminder of what happened on the road to Damascus.  Remember – Paul used to be Saul – out there persecuting and terrorizing those who followed in The Way.  Until he finds himself on that road and is struck down by a light which blinds him for three days, until the scales fall from his eyes and he sees and hears the risen Christ.  And his heart is forever changed.

What happened over those three days? Three days he refers to as that third heaven?  What was it that Jesus said or showed or revealed that completely turned his life around? Paul won’t tell us exactly.  All we know is that he was a powerful man, a well-off man, a leader who held the lives of people in his hands. And after three days in the dark, he sees the light.

He gave up all the power of who he was to become an itinerant, poor, church planter. Who traveled incessantly, dependent on the hospitality of ordinary people; people whose whole hearts were also moved when they heard him speak Christ’s offer of love, mercy and forgiveness.

This change, this conversion, made me think of a well-known quote – how God saw Saul/Paul throughout his whole life – God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to leave you that way (Max Lucado)

Maybe it’s not that Paul won’t tell, it’s that he can’t.  Words wouldn’t do justice.  You know that experience right?  Something happened – and there’s who you were before, and who you are after.  It’s almost impossible to explain, but explanations aren’t really necessary, because it’s something people see.  When our whole hearts are changed, when God has fashioned His hands upon us – it’s visible, you can’t hide it.

The other thing going on with Paul at this time – is that he’s got some competition. Paul’s wild description serves as a “don’t forget who you’re dealing with people” indictment. Because apparently some handsome, well-spoken and charismatic preachers are poaching Paul’s people in Corinth by selling a flashier more powerful, new and improved version of Jesus (2 Cor 11:5, 12:11)!

Paul calls these guys ‘super-apostles’ in the letter, and these super-apostles are badmouthing him. This is why he owns his “thorn in his flesh.”  We don’t know exactly what the “thorn” is.  Scholars speculate that maybe Paul had a physical handicap.  Maybe he had it all along, or as a result of being tortured.  But we know Paul asks God to remove it, at least 3x.  But it never is, never healed.  The super-apostles keep referring to it as a sign of Paul’s weakness.  But Paul reminds his people – no.  Thorn or not, God’s grace is sufficient for me – for power is made perfect in weakness.  Don’t listen to those guys boast in their strength.  I boast in my weakness – for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:9-10)

You know, if you think about it that might actually be the wackiest part of Paul’s letter.  Not the vision or the holy conversation – but this crazy, not-of-this-world idea – that God’s power is strongest in weakness.

As I reflected on that, this spiritual truth of the gospel, of Christ’s life, I was reminded of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche Communities.  Anyone heard of that?  L’Arche – French for ark – are communities, small ones.   May marked the 50th anniversary of the L’Arche movement founded by Jean Vanier.  Now almost 90 he was the son of a French diplomat, he joined the British Royal Navy College at 13 and was commanding an aircraft carrier in his 20s during WWII.  Clearly bred for strength and power.

But after the war he studied philosophy, became a professor, and struggled with that something-is-missing feeling.  In Christmas of 1964 he visited a friend who worked as a chaplain at a hospital for men with mental handicaps.  And found his heart overwhelmingly moved while standing in this vast asylum of 80 adults who did nothing but walk around in circles and take a two-hour compulsory nap each day. So, he did something crazy.  He wound up buying a house and inviting two of the patients to live there, with him.

That was the first L’Arche community.  And 50 years later there are 147 houses in 35 countries (the closest to us is DC).  He won a bunch of awards, and often compared with Mother Teresa as a saint.

L’Arche communities aren’t set-up so that the strong (able-bodied) can help the weak (handicap).  They’re about mutuality.  Vanier tells a story of a woman he met who asked, what do you do? And he replied, I have the privilege of living with people with disabilities.  Her response, “Oh but I could never work with people like that – they frighten me.”

I get that.  Weakness – of any kind – is not something we welcome seeing, in ourselves let alone others.  Friday night I was at Oregon Ridge with hundreds of other people – listening to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra grandly play through patriotic songs – while rockets (fireworks) burst in midair.  And I thought – we, myself included, love the feeling of strength that comes with lauding our heroes, recognizing their sacrifice.  But when they come home – weak, suffering – mentally, physically and emotionally handicapped – I’m not as good as seeing and welcoming their presence.  Because weakness is frightening.   – strength that we can see – that helps us feel like we got it all figured out.

Jean Vanier tells a story of waiting in his office with some visitors to his community.  And one man there was “a bit glum” – he says he surprised by how many are.  And there’s a knock at the door and Jean Claude walks in.  Jean Claude, technically has Down syndrome. And Jean Claude shook my hand and laughed, and shook the hand of the other people and laughed, and then grabs the hand of this fellow and laughed, and went out laughing. And the man looks at [Vanier] and said, 'Isn't it sad, children like that?' And Vanier says, what he thought was no that’s not sad.  What’s sad is that you are blind.  Blind to seeing the God-given gifts of Jean Claude’s humanity.

L’Arche communities aren’t intended to solve a problem – but ensure that in a competitive world, where most of us are judged on our strengths – and how we use them to achieve, acquire and ascend – we remember that is not the only value metric of who we are.  And in fact – not a value metric God uses at all.  God’s strength and power is made perfect in weakness – because that is when we know our dependence on God – that is when we realize how many gifts we’ve all been given – that is when we open our hearts to seeing Christ in one another.

Jesus doesn’t send out super-apostles.  Jesus sends out ordinary people.  Ordinary people who are dependent on God - No staff – no bread – no bag – no money (no money).  Go to a house – if they welcome you – stay.  And if they don’t – leave.  To go into the world not for battle, not to win – but to engage and offer – respecting each situation and each person as they find it.

Jesus’ disciples and Paul – they have nothing to offer anyone if they aren’t at the same level as everyone they meet.  They aren’t in a position of power – they are trusting God’s power will work through them.   In each situation and between each person.  There isn’t a need to impose – only invite – and if rejected, to walk away.

Jesus – same thing.  He doesn’t show off with deeds of power.  Not in his hometown – and not on the cross.

Maybe in his blindness Saul saw exactly what he looked like in the eyes of God.  And that moved his whole heart.  Because he finally felt that overwhelming love and acceptance of the Almighty that he had been chasing his whole life.  Almighty God reassuring him Saul, I love you just the way you are – but I love you too much to leave you that way.

I wonder who needs to hear God say that this morning.

I wonder who in our lives needs to hear that from us – not necessarily with words – but through who we are in our relationships.  Where the hearts God has fashioned in us are made known when we allow the grace of God to work through us, behaving as though we truly believe the grace of God is enough.  Amen.