Saturday, July 14, 2018

8th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year B

Let’s Dance an Alleluia!

Readings: 2 Samuel 6:1-4, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

We have two very different dances in the readings today; one, a dance of life, the other a macabre dance of death.
The dance of life is a great parade with lots of music, song and dance, an exuberant celebration of God’s presence. David and the people of Israel dance before the Lord. The Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of their common life together is returned to the city amidst great rejoicing. This is not David, the dignified King. This is a down to earth David, truly celebrating with the people. He gives in with his whole being, heart, body and soul.

There is, of course an undercurrent of unrest. There is no doubt in my mind that David loves God in these wonderful stories, but there is also little doubt that he loves himself more. David is not without political motivation. It is a victory, after all; one that has not been without violence. We will see that other side of David in the stories that follow. And even in this story, not everyone is pleased with David’s joyful dance. An irreconcilable rift comes between David and his wife Michal. She does not join in the celebration. In fact, David may never have treated her as a wife the rest of her life. There is certainly political motivation behind that. If she were to have children, Saul’s line would continue. Her barrenness completes God’s choice of David and the rejection of Saul.

The dance of death is a story made in Hollywood. In fact, it has been made into a movie. There is also an opera, Salome, depicting the story. Richard Strauss achieved instant success with it. If you have ever seen the opera you know that he admirably captures not only its fairy tale qualities but also its horror. It has an amazing, if terrifying appeal.

The setting is a magnificent banquet hall in Herod’s palace. From a terrace at one side of the hall you can see the dungeon in which John is confined. Salome goes out onto the moonlit terrace to take a look at the prisoner. John has denounced Salome’s mother, Herodias saying that she is an evil woman. Salome is at the same time smitten by John and angered by his words. He seals his fate when she tries to lure him, and he rebukes her instead of succumbing to her charms. Later, during the sumptuous feast, Herod asks the beautiful Salome to dance for him. He tempts her by offering to give her anything she asks. She performs the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. After its wild climax she demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod, knowing that it is wrong, offers her anything else, peacocks, gems. But he finally gives in and has John executed, then in a fit of remorse kills Salome as well.

The facts, though distorted from Mark’s account, do not change the effect of the story. The adultery, the evil, the lack of conscience, the weakness, the spirit of intrigue; all are in opposition to God. John is caught up in the vicious feuding of an evil family. It foreshadows for us the way Jesus gets caught up in the sinful power struggle that leads to his death.

Mark’s story of John’s death is incredibly sophisticated. The characters are truly complex. It tells far more about Herod, Herodias and her daughter than it does about John. The girl is young and impressionable, not yet capable of thinking for herself. Herodias has it in for John to a violent degree. Herod is a total contradiction. He likes to listen to what John has to say, but is condemned because of his adulterous relationship. He protects John, but then has him killed. He is boastful, but he is afraid. He is truly sorrowful for what he has done. Perhaps underneath it all he is a person honestly seeking the truth.

The real question for me all week has been is there a message in the gospel that is relevant for Christians living in the world today? And the answer is, most definitely! I know that it is said that religion and politics should not mix. However, that is impossible, at least in this instance. The reading is about justice. It invites us, above all, to have the courage to be truth tellers. There are consequences, even today, to bearing the prophetic voice. As Anglicans we love to play it safe in order not to offend. There is a sobering reality in the story that calls us to stop playing it safe and take a risk for our faith.
How many times has this story been lived out in our own era? It is a truly contemporary story. It could have been written about Oscar Romero, the voice of the voiceless in El Salvador. An all-powerful government martyred him as the church looked on helplessly.

It could have been written about Esquivel, a human rights worker in Argentina, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. In spite of torture, he continued to witness to his faith and to help the families of those who disappeared, fight back against an oppressive regime.

It is the story of continuing terrorist acts throughout the world. Senseless killing and loss of life carried out over and over again in the name of God! Consider the current situation in the world. There is Syria. More than 400,000 people have died because of the Syrian conflict since 2011, with five million seeking refuge abroad and over six million displaced internally. There have been chemical attacks, civilian casualties, the withholding of humanitarian aid, starvation as a war tactic, torture and ill treatment. The list goes on, and countries around the world argue about their responsibility to help.

And what about the ecology? What really are we doing about global warming? Are we simply giving it lip service and hoping that the whole problem doesn’t affect us? How do we forge the link between human rights and environmental abuses?

We cannot forget our responsibility here at home. Canada enjoys a global reputation as a defender of human rights, yet we face longstanding human rights challenges, particularly when it comes to our indigenous peoples; inadequate access to safe drinking water, mercury poisoning, violence against Indigenous women and girls, treaty rights. We also need to grapple with human rights issues in relation to immigration. The United States is not the only country to hold children in immigration detention.

The story of Herod and the death of John the Baptist is shocking. But by far the most shocking thing about it is that someone who could have acted differently didn’t. That is also what is most shocking about the stories of violence that take place in our daily lives. For most of the time someone who could have acted differently didn’t, resulting in lives scarred irreparably or lost.

Any act of violence is shocking, all the more shocking when we see that violence is so commonplace. It has become an expression of frustration, which by its silence is condoned by society. We need to find a cure. There are many models put forth for violent behaviour. Movies and television are full of them. Can we replace such models of violence, such heroes, with models of peace, with our own heroes and role models? Can people like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Jean Vanier be role models to us? Can we ask God for peace in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls?

The gospel is a call to each of us to seek for justice in the face of entrenched political power. We are called to fight against the violence that abounds in our world. We do not need to be part of it. We can overcome it. We can let God’s peace flourish within us. This can be a different world. Is not that the message of the cross? Jesus came to bring peace. Let us be instruments of peace.

Perhaps the answer lies after all in David’s dance of life. Is it time to put aside the balance sheet, the BCP and the BAS and simply kick up our heels and dance an alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts? Amen

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Proper 14, Year B

Just Get Over It

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Growing up the middle child of five had its challenges. There was one particular evening when I was left in charge of my brother four years younger than I. Patrick was to say the least, a handful. During the course of the evening we had an argument over something or other and Patrick flung his shoe at me, I ducked and it hit a lovely Italian ceramic tiled bowl, a gift that my mother cherished. When my parents came home I explained what had happened, and instead of being angry with Patrick it became and was known ever after as the bowl Ann broke. I did duck, after all.

Fast forward to my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I searched and found a bowl very much like the one that had been broken all those years ago. I wrapped it beautifully and presented it to my mother. She opened it and exclaimed, “That’s just like the one you broke!” There are some things in life that simply never get forgotten.

Jesus had that experience. He was preaching in his hometown synagogue. His message and ministry there were heckled and rejected. People were not able or willing to understand how he could speak with such authority and wisdom. “Where does it all come from?” they ask. After all, isn’t he just a carpenter, the son of Mary? Joe’s kid from down the street? Don’t some of his brothers still live in the town? While they acknowledge his wisdom and power they cannot really accept it. After all, they knew him when he was growing up.

Jesus doesn’t really give it a second thought. He doesn’t let it consume him. “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their kin, and in their own house,” he comments. Jesus is simply saying that this is the way things are.

Families and people who have known us our whole lives have a habit of cutting us down to size, sometimes gently, often harshly. You can grow up and mature and have a respectable position in the community and still be remembered as the brat who was always getting into trouble. You can be a dependable parent yourself and still be reminded about your teen years when you tried your parents’ patience by coming in late. People can even take offense at your achievements. Human nature being what it is, rather than admit blindness to someone’s growth and change we become angry. How dare he or she prove our assumptions so wrong?

Jesus knew that his disciples would also face rejection. He prepared them for it. He gave them some directions, some rules. They had to take care of their own travel. That is what the staff and sandals were for. But for the rest of their needs they were to depend on the hospitality and resources of the community.

What was it that Jesus wanted the disciples to learn as he sent them out? He has nurtured them. Now he gives them responsibility and the opportunity to decide and respond and to act on their own. He sends them out in pairs. We need mutual support and encouragement. How important it is to have feedback on how your ministry is going! But most of all he is teaching them that they are to rely on God. They are to have no reliance upon their own means. Messengers who wish to provide for every emergency simply do not have enough faith. How can you believe the word of those who rely on their resources rather than on the message they proclaim? They are to make use of what is provided, but things are in no way to become a hindrance to them.

Most of us do not have the ability or opportunity to come to such an understanding as the disciples did through an experience provided for their learning. Unfortunately in our human fallibility, it takes the crunches, the difficult times of life to bring us closer to God. It is times of affliction, trouble and adversity that cause us to seek refuge and dependence on a higher power.

For one it might be a diagnosis of cancer. How does one deal with the initial shock of the illness? How does one deal with the resulting treatments that leave one physically and emotionally spent? How does one deal with friends who find such illness threatening? How does one face one’s own sense of mortality?

For another it might be the death of a loved one after a long illness. The prospect of a life alone! How does one fill lonely days, which have been spent in the care and nurture of one who has been ill? How does one deal with feelings of inadequacy and guilt? How does one deal with anger at being abandoned?

For another it may be the loss of a job after a lifetime of dedicated service. How does one begin again? How does one face the financial crunch of being out of work or the feelings of inadequacy, as one gets turned down for job after job in these difficult economic times? How does one even get up in the morning knowing that there is no job to go to?

It was a crunch time for the apostle Paul that brought him to know that he could depend on God for his needs. He shares at a very deep level about a spiritual experience in his life. It is far from clear just what he experienced, but such things are often beyond words. Then he admits that it was the thorn in his flesh whatever that might have been, and not the mystical experience that caused him to put his reliance on God. He kept asking God to remove the “thorn”. Finally he accepted God’s response. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

By ourselves we are inadequate to deal with our brokenness. The things that happen to us, the tragedies and difficult times, cause us to question our faith. Can that same brokenness which leads us to seek God help us in some tangible way to cling to God? Can the memory of our brokenness help us to hold on to that sense of dependency when things are going well? Can the reminders of our brokenness prevent us from going backwards in our faith journey?

Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and the author of the book “The Wounded Healer”, explains that it is our brokenness that allows us to minister to others. It provides us with an understanding of the brokenness of others. In our brokenness we reach out in compassion to others.

I can well imagine that it was Jesus’ compassion for those in need, which led him to give authority to the twelve whom he had chosen. He certainly intended that in this first period of preaching, they would learn that his power extended beyond his presence and could even be delegated to them. They would learn to depend on God for their needs. They would learn that God could supply their temporal needs. They would learn that despite opposition, God would not fail them. They would learn that even in their weakness they could depend on God.

“My grace is sufficient for you,” God is saying to each one of us. Can we open ourselves to God working through our weaknesses? Can we see God’s grace at work in our lives? Can we learn that reliance on God will help us, not only in our daily lives, but will allow us, in compassion to reach out to others? Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...