July 13, 2009

Sermon for Proper 10, Year B

For the first time in the two year history of our Tuesday morning pastor's
Bible study, we did not spend our time looking at and working with the
Gospel lesson for today. The group gathered, we engaged in some small
talk, and then, almost in unison said, “why is this section of Mark 6 a stand
alone lesson for Sunday?” None of us, at the time, planned on preaching the
Gospel lesson, so we focused instead on the lessons from 2nd Samuel and
As the week went by, however, I began to think harder about this text.
We have it as a stand alone lesson for this Sunday for a reason. I thought
and I prayed and I consulted friends and I read facebook feedback, and by
the time sermon writing time rolled around, it seemed apparent that I
needed to preach on this very strange text. I just don't think we can all go
home today saying, “what was the deal with that Gospel lesson?”
First, some context. If you'll remember back to last Sunday, we heard of
Jesus' disgrace in his hometown. Recall that he was “unable to perform any
miracles there, except for laying hands on a few people and healing them.”
Undeterred Jesus leaves town and moves from village to village proclaiming
the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. The response to his
message is picking up so much momentum that Jesus has a hard time
keeping up with all the places and people who want to see him, so he sends
out the twelve, in groups of two, with his name and his authority to preach
the good news, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. Things are looking
up for the Kingdom of God. Its full time staff has gone from one group of 13
to six groups of two plus Jesus – a 700% increase.
Lest we, the reader, get too excited, and too complacent in the fact that
Jesus' message is being well received, Mark stops, mid-story, and takes us
to the fortress of Machaerus, the most menacing of homes of Herod of
Galilee. “[A fortress that] stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible
ravines, overlooking the East side of the Dead Sea. It was one of the
loneliest and grimmest and most unassailable fortresses in the world”
(Barclay, 172). We find ourselves in the middle of a conversation in Herod's
court. The other side of Jesus' message traveling so swiftly and being
received by so many is that he had gained the attention of the powers that
be. Who is Jesus, they asked, trying hard to figure out what his challenge to
their power might be. A guilt ridden Herod is quite certain who Jesus is – he
is John the Baptist, who he beheaded – raised from the dead.
As the Kingdom of God is picking up steam – the Kingdom of the World
once again rears its ugly and powerful head to remind us that we are living
in a period of waiting; what my seminary professors loved to call “the
already and the not yet.” For Mark's Church that means that Jesus has
already been raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God,
but he has not yet returned to finish off the Kingdom of darkness, the
Kingdom of this world, the Kingdom of Rome for good.
For Herod, this already and not yet plays out in his bipolar relationship
with John the baptist. “Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of
John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias,
his brother Philip's wife. John had provoked Herod by naming his
relationship with Herodias 'adultery.' Herodias, smoldering with hate,
wanted to kill John, but didn't dare because Herod was in awe of him.
Convinced that he was a holy man, Herod gave John special treatment.
Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt – and yet he
couldn't stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back” (The
Message). What kept Herod coming back? I believe that he was compelled
by the message John preached. Herod heard hope in the call to repentance
and the promise of forgiveness. Herod hoped to be free from his
imprisionment of guilt, but over and over again was unable to accept the call
to righteousness; he enjoyed his position too much, he feared weakness too
much. The Spirit was at work in the heart of Herod; calling him again and
again to listen to the message of John the Baptist. Without the Spirit at
work, there is no reason for Herod to misconstrue the Spirit's call to right
relationship and instead be “miserable with guilt.” In an effort to escape his
prison of guilt, Herod imprisoned the one who made him feel so bad. But
still there was something about John that kept him coming back. His guilt
and the freedom that John offered lived side-by-side; each struggling for
control in Herod's life, until one fateful night it all blew up in his face. At a
party he threw for his own birthday, Herod's step-daughter brought the
conflict to its conclusion; where it wasn't guilt or freedom that ultimately
won, but pride. Herod's pride, his ultimate “not yet” won and the head of
John the Baptist was handed over to Salmoe on a platter.
For us, the already and the not yet means realizing just how much like
Herod each of us really is. While I'm fairly certain none of us has ordered
the beheading of a prophet from God, most us know what it is like to
struggle with misplaced guilt, with pride, with lust, with greed and on and
on. Even with a pretty solid understanding that God has already forgiven us
from all our sin; past, present, and future – we spend a heck of a lot of our
time in the not yet; feeling guilty, harboring resentment, and ultimately
building up walls between us and God.
The freedom that comes from knowing and loving God is often
overshadowed by a list of oughts and should nots that feel almost impossible
to live up to. Christianity is often sold as a package of self-help steps
toward a better life - if you follow these 800 rules. Even our Collect for
today assumes at least some series of oughts. But oughts, more often than
not, lead to guilt, and I don't think guilt has any place in the kingdom of
The good news is, as Paul told the Church in Ephesus, living in the
Kingdom of God is much easier than sorting through a long list of laws. God
is so kind, so generous, that he has cleared up the mystery that surrounds
his will and made his plan for the fullness of time known to us in the
ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God's will is simply this, that all
things in heaven and on earth would be gathered up in him. Do you see
how freeing that is? A life of faith in God through Jesus Christ is not a guilt
ridden journey of missed opportunities and failed attempts to do all the
shouldas, wouldas, and couldas that come our way. No, the kingdom life is
one where the only question is this, "am I helping God with the restoration
of all of Creation?"
In that party hall on that fateful evening, Herod had a choice. He either
risked embarrassment in front of the crowd and risked being changed by
John the Baptist's message by allowing him to live or he kept his relatively
comfortable station in life by allowing Salmoe to have her wish. Herod's sin
that night was not murder, but it was his pride that lead to another moment
in which the world chose to undermine God's work of redemption.
This day and every day, you have a similar choice. On one hand the
world offers you pride, power, and prestige in return for a lifetime of
thinking of yourself first and others second. On the other, the Lord God
Almighty has already given you the freedom that comes from not worrying
about self; all he asks is that in response you choose redemption, love,
compassion, and the restoration of his good creation over self, over pride,
and over guilt. It isn't that hard; help a stranger with her groceries, pick up
that coke can you would rather step over, spend the night with Family
Promise, help a kindergardener learn to read, bring attention to the plight of
Christians in Darfur, speak out against racism, sexism, agism, love God and
love your neighbor as yourself. The freedom that comes from not worrying
about self opens up all sorts of time with which so much restorative work
can be done.
This morning, in a very strange gospel lesson, we hear the call of God to
give up the life of oughts and shoulds and guilt. We hear him asking us to
worry not about ourselves but instead to work as his hands and feet and
ears and shoulders to help fulfill his will, that all things in heaven and on
earth might be brought back into relationship with him. The Lord has given
you a choice this day, I pray that you choose freedom over guilt. May the
kingdom of God reign this day and forever more. Amen.

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