This Sunday I preach in my home parish as my last Sunday before beginning internship:
Have you have ever said “yes” to a job, or a project, only to discover it turned out to be a whole lot more than you bargained for? I once had a friend who excitedly signed on for a job in a Big 10 accounting firm that gave her a great salary and power, but included “opportunity for travel in a fast paced environment.” In other words she was asked to do too many things in too little time, and she saw her house about once every two weeks for a day and half. Long enough to do her laundry, go to bed, get up and do it again. She just didn’t really believe it would be THAT fast-paced. Often in the excitement of new work, we convince ourselves that part of the job may not actually be expected or if the time comes, maybe “someone else” will do it. Truth is- we don’t like to have our expectations, our boundaries challenged.
We live in a world of boundaries, boundaries used to keep order; to keep things in and to keep others out. Some boundaries are imposed upon us by others, but just as many are created by each of us- Ways we stretch that bright yellow “DO NOT CROSS” tape across our world to create control and influence and power. Much of the Gospel of Mark is about the crossing of these human-created boundaries and how God’s vision of the order of the world is often vastly different than our own. Almost immediately in Mark we hear about John. He crossed lots of boundaries, of where he lived, how he dressed, what he ate and in having the audacity to challenge the powers that be. He was sent to prepare the way- for another who had been sent. This one, Jesus, would cross all boundaries, gathering and then sending others, who would send others, right on through to today, all part of a divine mission. But as I said, God’s vision is vastly different than we or those in power may think. We the audience of the story get a second warning about the gospel challenge to power and what people do out of the desire for power, and how changing our view of power and living involves more than we might wish.
In an early example of truth in advertizing, the disciples were warned. They were called and sent out and do miraculous things, but Jesus warns that not everyone will be receptive. There will be challenge. But as they go about they sense a great buzz of excitement in the preaching, teaching, baptizing and healing, and it feels… powerful, not challenging. This “Jesus movement” is growing! This is when Herod gets wind of the movement, a movement that if it flourishes will challenge the power structure, economics and status, will promote equality not hierarchy. . Herod flashes back to the last time he heard about preaching, teaching, and baptizing in the wilderness, and remembers John. Who is this Jesus, these new followers, threatening boundaries, challenging the way things are? Our story shows what happens when those at the top feel threatened, and what will happen when the faithful call out hypocrisy, and remind people of what is lawful or right, and shine the bright light of day on the dark recesses of culture.
It’s like a TV drama- and Herod is a pretty tragic figure. He didn’t actually have much real power- only a title. He didn’t have charisma, only a structure to demand attention and to keep things the way “they should be.” To top it off, he had the title of king, but he was really working for Rome- having only the power that others gave him. As one of four sons of Herod the Great, none of whom inherited the whole kingdom, he was “Herod the Not So Great.” In his world of buying and selling influence, truth was optional. John had the nerve to enter this world? Cross these boundaries? Herod was fascinated, mesmerized that John cared nothing for power, or influence and fearlessly spoke the truth. Though Herod feared the truth, he was both drawn in and perplexed by John’s message.
Herodias was perplexed too, but in a different way. She didn’t have the power either, but she wanted it desperately. She and Herod left other marriages to be together- he probably was motivated by desire, but she may have traded up for a better kingdom. She held a grudge against John – how dare he mess with her world and called her path to marriage what it really was! It was obvious to her that John would just keep coming back unless he was silenced for good, but how? How to get to Herod? She devised a new power source- a new temptation- She sent her daughter to dance before Herod. Pictures often depict the daughter as an adult, but historians tell that this real person was probably about 12 years old. Herod was enthralled- lost himself for a moment- had to have this new toy. Used to offering money and connections to get what he wanted, he forgot that she was 12, and offered the girl “whatever she desired.” Caught in an adult game, she was too young to comprehend power and the desire for it. She had no idea how to respond, but Herodias did and we know how that turned out for John.
In the midst of this world, John didn’t fit the mold of the powerful. He was using a different power source, and an entirely different view – a God’s eye view that shaped his living, leading him to confront Herod. This was not a one time conversation, but in the original Greek, is depicted as a much more intense experience. John told Herod repeatedly, over and over again, like a haunting whistleblower. Not once , not twice, but repeatedly stepping into this world ,where to all others it would seem he should be smart enough to keep his mouth shut, and go back where he came from. And Herod is repeatedly confronted by John with his own guilt, even after death.
Herod, seemingly a man of great power, lacked the power to stop the lunacy that ended with John’s death. Because he couldn’t change his power source or his view- he chose silence and complacency, because it was too awkward to stand in the face of desires, his own and those in his midst. In the world of power it makes no sense what John did. He risked it all by using this different view of the world, and by continually sending himself across boundaries. In our modern times, there have been new faithful voices against corruption, oppression and wrongdoing- like Oscar Romero in Latin America, Dietrich Bonhoffer in Nazi Germany, and many others. Some like John have paid with their lives for standing up to power and influence, and for some Christians around the world today, discipleship is a life and death struggle- but for most of us the struggle is more internal. Yet we are asked what boundaries will we risk as the “sent out”? Will we risk our own sense of comfort or power?
Thinking again about today’s lesson, where do we see ourselves? Are we John, willing to risk, continually speaking and acting? Or are we the disciples who comfortably think they have the mission under control only to discover there is more to it? Are we at times the Herods and Herodiases of our context? Caught in our own desires for power and holding grudges when others mess with our world?
Probably “all of the above.” At varying times we are each of these. Sometimes we want to act, but we allow the world’s view to cause us to be silent. Sometimes we are angered by those who want to change our worldview- who challenge us. Sometimes we lack the energy to keep up the effort, or we are surprised when we face resistance and we lose our nerve.
What does this say to us about the walk of discipleship? That discipleship is a life in tension, both within us and in our culture. Our culture today and some popular religions tell us that with the “right life,” we will receive abundance and prosperity, and material success, that God will bless US. That he who dies with the most toys wins. That we can claim that “God is on our side” in the world’s game of power and influence. Yet today’s gospel says that discipleship is not an end to troubles, nor the key to financial success, nor the roadmap to great power and influence. In fact, we are reminded that the message of the gospel is decidedly opposite. Those who have power, as measured by the world’s standards, don’t want to hear the gospel challenge- and there will be consequences. Today’s lesson is not a good ad for seminary. But it is not an easy lesson for any of us who make up the priesthood of all believers- because we are called to cross boundaries- to engage in a life that challenges us and others to let go of our boundaries and our desires that sometimes lead us to distort facts; to hoard more than we need; to oppress;, to insist upon having what we want when we want it, regardless of the way we get it. We are challenged to let go of the boundary of our own need to control – that leads us to choose silence, or complacency, or choosing to only care for those we find it easy to care for. We are called to challenge those who suggest that things that are wrong can be overlooked for expediency. This challenge is not limited to “great heroes of the faith,” but for all of us, disciples sent out with a message.
Our discipleship is a life of joy and challenge. Being a disciple involves times of being sent out in great enthusiasm and joy and the rush of seeing it all come together. But being a disciple will also involve disagreement, struggle and rejection of the message we bring. In our life as disiciples, will we choose to stand with others in the face of social injustice? Or will we choose complacency? Will we speak against wrongs in our world, in our community, in our very midst? Or will we be silent, deciding that unless we are individually, personally affected, that there is nothing we can do? Are we willing to question how the power to make choices in our daily lives can affect the very lives of others, in the things we buy and consume and the policies we embrace? Are we willing to speak truth to power, or will we just keep our heads down?
And today we are asked to consider not only whether we will speak and act, but whether we will keep speaking and acting, like John, or will we say, “ I did that once, let someone else take a turn”? Do we want to gather and be sent, or just to stay put? It is challenging to speak and act with truth and integrity, standing in the face of all of the world’s desires. How will we respond if some in our midst mock us for our stance, when we answer a calling that does not mesh with the ways of the world as we know it? When we think about this are we still willing to be sent out? Still want to be a disciple? Hard questions.
Our youth are responding to this challenge and will confront these very questions as they are sent out to NOLA. Some may think that the Youth gathering is a great social event, and it is, but it is also first and foremost a chance to serve the least. This gathering is intentionally identified as a servant event that confronts and addresses illiteracy, lack of housing, lack of resources for clean water, the inability for some to have really fundamental things we take for granted here. To face racism, class-ism and social prejudices head on. To stand toe- to- toe with people of whom one could say- “they are so far away, they’re not like me”, or about whom we could say “it’s the government’s job to take care of them, isn’t it?” I suggest that these statements are all expressions that some use to try to justify not speaking, not acting, not sharing and not standing with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It would be easier to stay home, but our youth are disciples being sent out as messengers, to teach, to heal lives, and yes, to preach. Living out the words of St. Francis of Assisi who once said- “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” They will be risking their understanding of the world; they will be risking the raised eyebrows of some who think that it is not worth risking comfort and safety, much less the cost. They will be at times challenging others and they themselves will be challenged.
Just as John kept telling, discipleship is not a story told once and then not heard again, but a mission and message across time- to continue to cross boundaries for the sake of God’s kingdom. So, when the youth return I urge you to hear their stories not as a single moment in time that is now ended, but as a story that keeps being told-as guidance for your journey into the future of this congregation together- to be open to new ideas, new challenges; to be open to being activated by the Spirit- commissioned and sent, even if this challenges your world, your desires and your boundaries. Called not only to gather, but to be sent out again and again and again, living out your baptismal identity.
This living challenges our boundaries. When our boundaries get the best of us, may we give thanks to God for the grace shown to us. But may we not be lulled into believing that grace is the only word we hear. We are saved by grace, but God desires that we are not only to gather and be still, but to live out our baptismal calling daily. It is a challenge to follow God’s calling wherever it may take us for the sake of the kingdom, but may we also remember that power source that will sustain us in the many journeys in discipleship.
So as we leave this day, our journeys continue -For many of our youth this journey will soon involve being sent out to NOLA; for myself, it involves being sent out to Trinity Lutheran in Lancaster City. For each of you, it will be wherever God will send you. Wherever the journey takes each of us, may we be willing to risk, trusting in God, graced and empowered to go beyond our own boundaries for the sake of the kingdom.