A Reflection on Mark 6:14-29 for the community at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church. July 11, 2021.
What a celebration the season of Pentecost has been for our church community with the return of in-person worship. Even masked and humming our hymns, I know we’re all grateful to see more than a handful of humans after so many months of YouTube church.
After the service last Sunday, I had the blessing of a long conversation in the parking lot with a member who spoke of the assurance that God had given her in the midst of difficult circumstances, and of God’s faithfulness in the work of grief and healing. I drove away dripping with gratitude for the ability of worship to bring us close to one another, thankful for the way gathering together on Sunday mornings provides opportunities to share with each other the stories of how we live out our faith day-to-day.
In this Pentecost season of coming together, we’ve been traveling with Jesus and the disciples as they’ve too have come together, immersed in the growth of Jesus’ ministry, witnessing the crowds gathering to listen and learn, hungry for the hope and healing Jesus offers. We’ve seen religious leaders question and challenge Jesus, and the assurance with which he responds, reminding them of who we ultimately answer to. As people are converted, the countryside is abuzz. Last Sunday, we read of the disciples being sent out on their own filled with the power Jesus bestows, and we’re eagerly anticipating their return, waiting to hear about their adventures.
But today, Mark interrupts his regularly scheduled message of empowerment with a horror story. When I told my prayer partner that I was going to be preaching about the beheading of John the Baptist, she immediately mentioned King Henry the VIII. At first reading, it does seem like today’s gospel passage is a script for a mini-series, a look back at political figures, like Herod, who are little more than footnotes in our history, rulers whose power and influence were fleeting. After all, it is in Jesus’ name we gather, not the in name of Herod or Caesar or Henry or any other ruler.
At first glance, we can read this passage and breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that people are no longer so barbaric. Yet even a cursory glance at current day headlines leaves no doubt that not much has changed since Jesus’ time. But when I think about silencing critics, we do that all the time on social media, unfriending people left and right. And the rich and powerful elite everywhere still cling desperately to power by silencing those who speak the truth through arrest, execution, assassination, court decisions, legislation, and terror.
It can be comforting to think that we’re not like Herod, after all, not one of us will ever be governing a territory or divorcing our wives to marry our brother’s wife for political gain. We aren’t going to jail a prophet whose views we otherwise find intriguing because he speaks out against the inappropriateness of our marriage. We aren’t going to be throwing an extravagant birthday party where we bribe our daughter to dance in front of an audience of inebriated men by promising her anything she wants. And we certainly aren’t going to behead the jailed prophet because we’re more concerned about not seeming weak or wishy-washy in front of our guests, than we are about the prophet’s life. We can think that we’d never be as manipulative as Herodias plotting to kill our harshest critic, or as easily manipulated as their daughter asking for something as horrifying as murder and the parading of a man’s severed head at a party.
Out in the world running errands, or at home with my husband and cats, it’s easy enough to think that I'm a good person. After all, I’m never intentionally evil like the villains I see in TV shows. But when I look honestly at my own life, I can find plenty of instances over the years where I have behaved like Herod, Herodias, and the daughter, albeit on a much smaller scale.
I’ve been told how my behavior has hurt others but have refused to take responsibility for my actions or change my ways out of fear and a desire to protect my self-image. I’ve manipulated others to get what I want, trying to control people’s actions, believing they had to change their behavior in situations that were uncomfortable for me, rather than changing my behavior or learning to respond to circumstances differently. I have wanted to hold onto the power and prestige I’ve had in certain roles that I was given by virtue of title, rather than by having earned genuine respect. I’ve made decisions that have gone against my own conscience in a desire to protect the status quo and preserve the semblance of peace in my life when change was needed. You can probably find some parallels in your own lives as well.
For better or worse, none of us can escape acting like humans. But how do we move forward once we realize we’ve caused harm? Jesus said that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
When the news of Jesus’ ministry reached Herod, Herod thought that John had been raised from the dead. Imagine for a moment what might have happened if Herod had then tried to atone for John’s death. What if Herod had gone to Jesus and talked with him? He might have become one of Jesus’ disciples. Instead, he became part of yet another execution and silencing of God.
In its own way, this passage asks us to examine the worst in human behavior so that we might reorder our lives. It challenges us to give up our desire for power and control, to name the brokenness and injustice in our governments, to admit the shortcomings of our social structures that leave many in aching need, to recognize the ineffectiveness of our ego-driven efforts, and to acknowledge the pain we cause one another simply by thinking of our own welfare before we consider the welfare of others and the welfare of the earth itself.
Confession, even when it’s silent, can be uncomfortable, and it’s something we rarely do outside religious circles. Even inside religious circles, confession is something that is skipped very often in my former denomination and in many others.
Thankfully, we in the Episcopal church follow a worship liturgy that is relatively unchanging. Every week, whether we gather in person or virtually, we are called to repentance, we are called to turn away from the world, and to turn toward God as we stand before one another and confess our sin, both societal and personal. We bring into the light those thoughts and actions done, and those left undone. We offer those thoughts and actions of which we are aware, and those known only to God. We lay bare our need for forgiveness, and we open ourselves to Christ’s healing power and the transformation it brings. In short, we endeavor to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel in order to save them.
Two thousand years after Jesus and his followers spread the good news throughout Galilee, we are still too much like Herod, yet we know he appears in the gospel as a cautionary tale, as a stark reminder of what happens when we invest all our hope in human power and authority. Two thousand years later, the reign of God has not yet come to fruition, but it is the home and hope our hearts long for.
We are still listening to Jesus’ words, still being shaped by the stories he told, still remembering the lives he changed, then and now. We are still following, still stumbling, still getting up and starting over, still on the path toward the abundant life God offers to the entire human family. What an incredible gift this journey is. And what a blessing to be part of this faith community, to walk this road together, to make our way closer to Christ together.
The wildest thing happened a week ago. I was making dinner in the kitchen, talking to my husband who was standing at the counter when we heard a tremendous amount of avian racket outside. Kevin looked out the living room window and saw a bald eagle take down a great blue heron mid-flight and land in the water. I ran out of the kitchen and we both watched through the windows as the eagle swam, using its wings to “freestyle” struggling to stay above water while it dragged the heron along underwater in its talons toward our beach.
My camera was upstairs, and once the eagle made it to shore, I ran to get it. I opened the bathroom window, popped out the screen and snapped a few hundred photos (sports mode) from there of the eagle eating its prey on the oyster bed just at the edge of our beach. I usually take wildlife photos through my windows since opening doors and windows almost always causes them to scatter, but I didn’t want glass in the way of this rare sight.
Great blue herons eat a fair number of critters eagles eat, and eagles usually only go for nestlings, though a local resident noted he’s been watching one pair of eagles hunt herons for the past few years, and they’re now teaching their juveniles to do so as well.
The eagle looked in my direction, but it stayed put, not wanting to leave its kill. Watching it stand atop the heron, and tear into it, spitting out feathers was like watching a nature documentary that spares nothing. When the eagle moved off as its mate approached, the heron sat up, and it was then that I realized the poor bird was alive while being consumed. Kevin, who was still in the living room watching, had to step away at this. But I kept on snapping, looking through my camera, thankful it served as a filter that gave me some distance as I became a documentarian of this disturbing yet fascinating moment in the circle of life.
I usually photograph sunsets, mountains, rainbows, gorgeous watery reflections, and wildlife in attractive poses because I live in a place abundant with natural beauty. But there is another side to life in paradise that involves violence. Violence necessary for survival which I as a human carnivore can blithely ignore since others kill and butcher meat for me. My only struggle is in following recipes.
I'm humbled and fortunate to have witnessed the food chain in action without even seeking it out.
A message given on the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021, for St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton WA. Gospel: John 17:6-19.
Today’s gospel reading takes place on Jesus’ last night with his disciples. After washing their feet, he has spoken to them about what is to come, for him, and for them, and we have heard some of these words in recent Sundays in Jesus’ metaphor of the true vine and branches and his commandment to love one another as he has loved them.
In John’s gospel, 7 chapters are devoted to Jesus with his disciples in the Upper Room. Knowing that his time with them is swiftly drawing to a close, Jesus has done everything he can to prepare his disciples to live without him. And after he has said and done all that, he turns to the one who sent him and prays for his dearest friends, those he has travelled with, those who have borne witness to his ministry, those who will somehow carry on his name, those who have become his family.
This prayer is different from the prayer he gave his disciples when they asked them how to pray. This prayer is less linear. It moves back and forth over the same themes, like a poem or tapestry, with words or stitches repeated with subtle changes that add texture and nuance to the meaning. Let’s listen to some of these themes.
Jesus utters words of giving and receiving:
you gave them to me
everything you have given me
the words that you gave to me I have given to them
on behalf of those whom you gave me
I have given them your word,
they have received them
Jesus speaks of being sent:
they have believed that you sent me
I am coming to you
now I am coming to you
As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world
He speaks of being glorified, and sanctified:
and I have been glorified in them
Sanctify them in the truth
for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth
He speaks of protection:
protect them in your name
I protected them in your name
I guarded them
protect them from the evil one
And of the world:
I am not asking on behalf of the world
now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,
I speak these things in the world
the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world
I am not asking you to take them out of the world
As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
And He speaks of belonging:
They were yours
that they may be one, as we are one
All mine are yours, and yours are mine
Jesus’ prayer comes after his last supper with his friends, after he has said much to them, and before they leave the house for the garden where he’ll be arrested. Here, he turns his heart and mind inward to pray. Our reading drops into the prayer after the 5th verse, and the prayer continues through verse 25. The verse that follows our reading, the 20th, offers important context for us. Jesus continues with these words:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one.”
Jesus prays for those beyond the circle gathered around him. He prays for those who will believe in him through his disciples’ word. That is every single person who has come to believe in Christ after his death. That’s two thousand years and millions of people. That is you and me. Jesus prays for us. Jesus asks all these things on our behalf. He wants protection and unity for all people. He wants us to receive and give God’s gifts and to spread God’s truth into the world. This is not a small private prayer; this is an expansive all-encompassing prayer.
Even with the threat of death looming, Jesus doesn’t allow fear or anxiety to turn his focus inward, as it would for many of us. He focus on caring for those he loves. His words and actions model for us how to stay present and grounded in the reality of God when the powers of the world have an agenda that seeks to squelch and silence God’s truth. Jesus models for us how to stay present to and aware of those who look to us, even while we struggle with our own pain, fear, and doubt. He models for us how to do what is in our power, and how to turn to God in trust for so much of life that is beyond our control. He shows us how to love well and how to say goodbye in a way that honors life even in the midst of grief.
His prayer reminds us that though we do not belong to the world we are in the world—For better or worse. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” John tells us in 3:16. God loves this planet and all of creation. The mountains, valleys, seas, and deserts, and creatures that inhabit these places.
And God sent Jesus, who in turn sent his disciples, who in turn sent us, into this beautiful and broken world. A world corrupted by human sin and greed, by ignorance and apathy. A world that yearns for peace and groans for justice. A world that sustains all life, that still shimmers with kindness and love. To be alive is to be fully immersed in this world. Breathing its air, eating its food, creating new life, transforming the resources offered up by the good earth, exchanging goods and services, developing cultures and societies, and endeavoring to live peacefully with our neighbors.
There is no denying our physicality and the suffering and death that are an inevitable part of the human experience. And yet, our true identities are not based on worldly measures: social security numbers, credit scores, property deeds, or retirement benefits. Our true identities aren’t tied to diseases or diagnoses. Our true worth is not measured in W-2s, job titles, degrees awarded, trophies on shelves, plaques on our walls, the number of children or grandchildren we have, mountains climbed, illnesses survived, church committees chaired, or pious acts performed.
Our identities and our worth are determined by only this: The fact that we belong to God. The fact that we belong to Jesus. And in those facts, the undeniable reality that we belong to each other.
“You belong to God. You are beloved. You matter.” These are the words we are called to speak in this world. These are the words of hope and comfort we can offer to those we befriend easily, and those we find difficult, those riddled with hopelessness and despair, those who are “failing” by the standards of the world, those forlorn and forgotten, those caught in the grip of systemic poverty and injustice, those crippled by racism, sexism, and the many -isms that constrain our spirits, those who seem to “have it all” in celebrity or success, yet feel nothing but hollow.
Jesus’ prayer sends those he prays for straight into the world where we can give each other his truth. And that’s not easy for those of us who doubt our own voices, or fear conflict, or are introverts. And it’s not easy for any of us who’ve been sequestered in this COVID year and don’t feel comfortable having these conversations electronically.
May we receive the gift of this prayer and may it empower us. As we embrace the gift of this prayer, may we carry Jesus’ wish for our protection and assurance of our belonging close to our hearts. And wherever we are sent, let us send these words, too so that all might receive their reassurance and promise. When the needs and demands of living in this world threaten to overwhelm us, we need only to remember that God is the foundation of the world and the very center of our being. Our true home as we live in this world but are not fully of it.
In his prayer Jesus say to the holy one who sent him, “now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they [meaning his followers, meaning us] may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
May our joy truly be complete in Christ’s indwelling presence.
A meditation for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Shelton, WA. Given on Palm - Passion Sunday, March 28, 2021.
Our observance of Palm Sunday begins with so much hope. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of an unbroken colt. An action he has deliberately chosen. An action reserved for rulers. Crowds cheer him on throwing their coats into the road and waving branches before his path. They shout Hosannas and bless the one who has come to set them free from Roman oppression. And yet this Sunday always moves us to the cross. Jesus arrested, tortured, murdered. It’s a hard place to be.
Last Sunday Father Duane said in his sermon that as Jesus set his focus on Jerusalem, his goal was death. I’d never heard it said in those exact words, and it was such a startling statement that I wanted to protest.
Surely, I thought, Jesus’s goal was something else. He was going to Jerusalem to spread the Good News like he had around the countryside. He was going to preach, and teach, and heal, and gather up followers. Right?
Wrong. Jesus was going to the seat of religious power to speak truth to that power. And he knew the confrontation would lead to his death. He had told his disciples as much. And they didn’t want to believe it; they didn’t know how to believe it. And I am exactly like the disciples.
Every year as we enter Holy Week, I wish for a different outcome, as if the Gospels have morphed into a “choose your own adventure” book, and I can write a different ending, an ending where the religious leaders have their eyes opened to the ways they’ve corrupted God’s word. An ending where they invite Jesus to lead them in a complete overhaul of the church, and give up their power for the good of others. An ending where God’s kingdom comes, where God’s will is done on earth right then. An ending where Jesus not only gets to live, but gets to live happily ever after.
My ending is a fantasy born of love, and naivete, and self-protection. Love, because it’s been my practice as we move through Holy Week to identify with Jesus and his suffering. And out of love, I want to spare him from this violent death and emotional pain. Naivete, because I have not wanted to believe that those in power would go to such extremes when threatened. I wanted to think that their response was an aberration. And self-protection, because if I could somehow erase the crucifixion, if I could somehow make it unnecessary, then I could feel safe. I wouldn’t have to confront my own discomfort at the injustices in the world, I wouldn’t have to face my complicity in systems that oppress others, and I could ignore my failure to be like Jesus, my unwillingness to sacrifice my life for God.
Unless we’re brand new to the faith, we come to the edge of Holy Week with the experience of having cycled through this liturgical season before. We come with expectations about how we will carry the weight of this week along with living in a world that largely carries on without marking its significance. We hold the tension of Jesus journeying toward death, while we live with the gift of the Resurrection. And we approach this week with rituals, both personal and communal for observing the critical events in our religious heritage.
Lat year we observed Holy Week in lockdown. This year we approach at what I pray is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, as more and more of us are vaccinated against COVID-19, as the counties in our state move into Phase 3 of reopening. And as our vestry plans and prepares for St. David’s to safely reopen for in person worship. We have spent more than a year in the wilderness, isolated from one another, all the small things we once did without thinking, like sitting in crowds and hugging, have become magnified.
We have lived through a year that has also magnified our brokenness and shone a spotlight on our sinful human nature. And without our ability to gather safely, these events have left many of us feeling powerless. COVID-19 has killed 2.77 million people worldwide, claiming over half a million in the U.S. Systemic racism and the murder of Black Americans as a law enforcement response has been exposed in ways that we with white privilege can no longer ignore. Hate crimes against Asian Americans and mass shootings have filled our newsfeeds in recent weeks. Christian Nationalism has hijacked everything Jesus stood for. And those at the highest levels of power in our government, responded to election results with denial, invented claims of voter fraud, and insurrection. When those tactics failed, they began a campaign of voter suppression legislation in states across the country. In Georgia, it is now a crime to offer water to voters waiting in line.
More than ever before I see how much the injustice in our time and place looks like the injustice in Jesus’s time and place. As much as I’ve wanted to believe in progress, I find the present mirroring the past. And for me, that means confronting the reality that we are still in desperate need of Jesus’s sacrifice. It means coming to terms with the fact, that like the disciples, I do not know how to accompany Jesus all the way to the cross or to stay with him until his death.
Like the disciples, I do not know what to do when everything looks like it’s going to hell and I can’t stop it. In our natural fight, flight, or freeze response, both the disciples and I opt for flight and freeze. Like the disciples, I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet when I ought to speak up. Like the disciples, I’m not brave enough to risk the consequences of speaking truth to power, so I run for safety. And like the disciples, I abandon Jesus in his final hours when bearing witness to his pain feels just too difficult.
To accept the inevitability of Jesus’s sacrifice means also to accept the inevitability of the disciples’ failure. And to accept the inevitability of the disciples’ failure, means to accept the inevitability of my own failure. And that is so difficult. I want so very much not to fail. I want so very much to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I want to emulate Jesus. Except when I don’t. Except when I’m too frightened, too tired, too lazy, too distracted, too upset, too confused. Too… In short, I always fall short. And I always will.
Thankfully, the crucifixion is not the end of the story. And in many ways, it’s just the beginning of the disciples’ story. But I don’t want to jump too far ahead. I want to carry my palm branch along with my own weakness. I want to honor this king riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt, this one who gave up power in order to empower others, who sacrificed his rights rather than insist upon them, who challenged us to find comfort and safety by letting go of our striving. I want to hold that image of Jesus buoyed by the triumphant crowd before we all failed him. Despite the coming fiasco, despite our well-intentioned betrayal, despite everything that will happen next, I know in that moment, looking at Jesus, we will see in his eyes the hint of forgiveness and the shimmer of God’s eternal promise.
Image by Poppy Thorpe at Pixabay.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.