A Message delivered to St. David of Wales Episcopal Church on Luke 6:17-26
Luke’s gospel leaves no doubt that Jesus has come to turn the powers of the world upside down.
When our readings for this liturgical year turned to Luke’s gospel in Advent, we heard the promises of God’s plan through the song of Mary. Upon learning that she would give birth to the Messiah, Mary—an unwed teen in occupied territory—proclaimed that she had found favor with God, that God had lifted up the humble, and fed the hungry, while casting down the powerful and sending the rich away hungry.
A few weeks ago, when we read of Jesus beginning his public ministry, we found him in his hometown synagogue reading from the scroll of Isaiah and proclaiming that he was the one sent to free the oppressed.
And in this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus offers blessings to “comfort the afflicted” and woes “to afflict the comfortable” as the saying goes.
Most of us are used to hearing the blessings, or Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel, where there are only blessings for the poor and downtrodden, those who mourn and those who weep. In Matthew’s account, there are no woes for those who appear comfortable, as there are in Luke’s.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus delivers the beatitudes to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount—he has gone up the mountainside and called his disciples to him. But in Luke’s account, the blessings and woes aren’t spoken in the rarified mountain air by a teacher calmly seated with his disciples circled around him.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus had spent the night on a mountain with his disciples, of whom he singled out 12 to become apostles. Twelve who would not just listen and learn from Jesus but would spread his message as well.
In the morning Jesus, the disciples, and his newly chosen apostles head down the mountain to a level place, and people from all over the region come to be healed. Jesus is alive with healing power, and it radiates through the crowd. Word spreads. More and more people come.
Imagine a time without newspapers, TV, or social media news, a time when aside from secondhand conversation, the only way to know what someone said, did, or believed was to find out in person.
Imagining that, we can surmise that there were plenty of people in the crowd who came not because they needed healing, or believed in what they’d heard about Jesus, but who came out of curiosity, disbelief, and even scorn.
Those who gathered from towns and villages would have been from a variety of social classes, power, and privilege. And here on the plain, in this level place, no listener is elevated above another. It’s not like going to the Super Bowl with the rich in their private boxes, or club level seats, and the less well-to-do in the nosebleed sections watching the action through binoculars, and the poor, unable to afford tickets listening to radio broadcasts or watching the game at home on TV.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, the playing field is level, so to speak. The religious authorities and town officials aren’t invited up front. The women and children aren’t herded to the back. Everyone’s view is obscured by everyone else. Everyone is struggling to hear over the noise of each other.
No one is getting special treatment, and the equality of everyone before God is made visible just by that fact.
And then we have Jesus’ blessings and woes themselves. Here is Eugene Peterson’s interpretation in “The Message” Bible:
You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.
“Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like! —for even though they don’t like it, I do. . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you’ll ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.
In her “Living by the Word” commentary for the Christian Century Amy Ziettlow, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, Illinois, writes this about the gospel passage:
On first read, I often fall into the trap of reading these blessings and woes as I would a personality quiz. I want to find a comfortable place to land and find my identity.
But every verse can seem to fit, so I see myself in conflicting categories. On subsequent readings, it seems Jesus cares less about sorting us out than welcoming us to live in the tension of all these experiences.
She continues: Jesus aims to remove any barriers to seeing God’s image reflected in our lives. Poverty, hunger, tears, and being hated can distort our reflection and convince us that we are less than human. Jesus brings blessing, comfort, and hope in order to restore a sense of holy createdness.
Wealth, full bellies, mirth, and the esteem of others can also distort our sense of self. Jesus calls out, “Whoa!” and in that holy pause we can repent and make room for God’s presence in our lives. Jesus does not come into the world to condemn.
Jesus doesn’t come into the world to condemn. And he doesn’t come into the world to save us from the pain of being human. He comes to the world as an infant, utterly dependent and vulnerable. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote, “God acts by giving away all strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the manger and the cross.”
In her sermon at the Washington National Cathedral on God's vulnerability, Mariann Edgar Budde says, “We’d like our God to be more powerful than a baby or a man sentenced to die… The truth is we don’t know what to do with a God who gives all power away; with healing that comes through suffering; with love that meets us in our vulnerabilities and stays there with us, rather than providing the escape from it that we so desperately want.”
The saving that Jesus offers us, doesn’t save us from experience the blessing or woe of being human. Throughout our lifetimes we will experience plenty of each. We might experience blessing of marriage and the woe of divorce and widowhood. Or the blessing and worry of raising children. Or the blessing of employment and vocation and the woe of unemployment, layoffs and closures. Or the blessing of home and the woe of fire, flood, or homelessness. Or the blessing of good physical and mental health, the woe of disease, addiction, and mental illness.
We are certainly all experiencing the woe of pandemic and the blessing of new ways to interact because of it.
We will prosper, and we will suffer no matter what we believe. But it is so much harder to embrace blessing without hubris and to weather woes without fear and despair our faith begins and ends with our own efforts. When we make room for God in our ever-changing circumstances, we are able to grasp the one constant Jesus offers us: the gift and surety of his presence.
When we call Jesus Emmanuel, we are saying, “God with us.”
God is with us in all things. Always.
A reflection on Luke 21:25-36 for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton, WA. First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2021.
Everybody is ready for Christmas. The Thanksgiving leftovers that crowd our refrigerators are almost all gone. Radio stations are playing Christmas songs 24 hours a day. Stores have been stocked with holiday décor and gifts since Halloween. Black Friday sales flooded our email inboxes this weekend. Neighbors are stringing up lights and inflating super-sized Santas.
Everybody is ready to celebrate, except us. We who worship Christ and follow the church calendar have flipped the page to the first day of a new year that begins not with decorations, celebratory champagne, and countdowns, but with weeks of waiting. And what a strange sort of waiting it is. We wait for what was promised and what has already occurred. We wait for a sign that God is with us. We wait for God to break into human history with the birth of Jesus. And we wait for what was promised but has yet to be fulfilled. We wait for the final redemption of humanity and all of creation. We wait for peace and justice to prevail throughout the earth. We wait for the Son of Man to come again in power and glory.
In today’s gospel, Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus was speaking about the turmoil that beset the church and the people at that time. And the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish worship and authority, was destroyed twenty years later never to be rebuilt. Luke wrote his gospel shortly after the Temple’s destruction to people still reeling from that loss. There have been so many dark periods of human history since then, times when it seemed as though the end must surely be at hand. And the signs are still all around us today. As New Testament professor Audrey West says in her commentary on this scripture written for Luther Seminary:
Jesus speaks in the language of apocalyptic, or revelation. Vivid images—the heavens being shaken, the Son of Humanity appearing in the clouds—depend on the metaphors’ capacity to express a community’s trauma while also offering powerful hope in the midst of those experiences.
When the present reality includes wars and political tumult (distress among nations), climate catastrophe (signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars), global pandemic (breathless from fear and foreboding), unemployment, hate crimes, racist ideologies, death-dealing illness, displacement by terror, or anything else that traps people in fear or despair (weighs down hearts), it is then that we look for the coming of the Son of Humanity, the Christ whose promised future makes all the difference for today.”
Growing up outside a faith tradition in a family that was fractured by divorce multiple times, I was terrified of being abandoned. Both my stepparents disappeared from my life without saying goodbye, and when I encountered scripture passages like those in today’s Gospel on my own before I found a church, it seemed as though a lasting relationship with God was impossible for someone like me and that could disappear from my life without warning.
Even when I became a Christian, it was the mid-1980s at the height of the Cold War, and I lived in fear that nuclear war and the end times were a moment away. I worried that I would never be vigilant enough to be saved, after all I had to sleep. I would never be clever enough to interpret the signs. Was the USSR that President Reagan called “The Evil Empire” the Antichrist or just our biggest nuclear threat? And I was sure I would fail to recognize The Messiah at the second coming, convinced that I would fall for a false prophet instead and be one of those forever separated from Jesus.
From the Left Behind books, to The Da Vinci Code, to the cults that have set dates for the destruction of the earth and Jesus’ second coming, it’s clear I’m not the only who worried about how and when redemption would come. But time has changed me. I’ve been in a relationship with my husband for 40 years, and no longer worry about abrupt and unexpected endings to marriage. I’ve been a Christ follower for 35 years, which isn’t very long compared to many of you, but it’s been long enough to help me relax into my faith, and to find hope, rather than fear in waiting.
When I was training to become a United Methodist lay pastor in California in the late 1990s, my Bible teacher said something about God’s salvation never being narrow. That God’s invitation is wide open and accessible to anyone who will say yes. He said that believing salvation is available only to those who correctly decipher Biblical codes, or believe a specific selection of Bible verses, is bad doctrine, and that those who preach bad doctrine are false prophets who misrepresent the true nature of God and the Good News offered in Christ.
I also learned the distinction between our human concept of time, Kronos, and God’s time, Kairos. Markey Makridakis, in her book, Creating Time, explains it like this:
Kronos (from which we take our word chronology) is sequential time. Kronos is the time of clocks and calendars; it can be quantified and measured. Kronos is linear, moving inexorably out of the determinate past toward the determined future, and has no freedom. Kairos is numinous time. Kairos…cannot be controlled or possessed. Kairos is circular, dancing back and forth, here and there, without beginning or ending and knows no boundaries.
In our personal lives, we get a glimpse of Kairos and the unbound nature of time when memories and dreams transport us back in time to people and places that no longer exist in the physical world but are alive in our imaginations. The idea and experience of Kairos helps us understand our Advent experience, waiting for the birth of Jesus, a past, present, and future indwelling of God with us.
But Kairos time is harder to apply to the external world we live in, bound by chronology where we see worrisome signs of destruction and ending all around us.
The season of Advent begins with the opportunity to ask ourselves how we deal with fear and anxiety, how we cope with tragedy and injustice. Do we hide, ignore, or deny? Jesus warns us to "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”
Weighed down by the worries of this life, I don’t indulge in drunkenness, but I am extremely skilled in dissipation, which can be defined as wasting by misuse, mental distraction, amusement, and diversion. When I’m overwhelmed by world and family events, I binge-watch: Fixer-Upper, The Great British Baking Show, Top Chef, America’s Got Talent. It’s a waste of time, but I’m here to say that God can redeem even our dissipated time.
The week before last, I was brought low by the common cold. Too exhausted to go to work, or to work at home I binged Dancing with the Stars. In one of the last episodes of this season, the TV personality Amanda Kloots and her partner danced to Live Your Life, a song by Nick Cordero, Amanda’s late husband who died in 2020 after a drawn-out battle against COVID. The performance was haunting and beautiful, a journey through love, loss, and grief and ultimately to hope shared with millions of viewers. A moment of transcendence through a medium we often disdain.
How do we bear loss, grief, anxiety, and fear? How do we cope with tragedy and injustice, both personal and global? How do we wait and wait for God’s righting of the world that seems so long in coming?
As co-creators with God, we tell our stories in art, music, and words, transforming pain into healing, bringing the light of hope to the dark of despair. As a community bound by faith, we engage in worship and prayer, in stewardship and fellowship as testimony to our belief in the redeeming power of Christ and the promise of God’s salvation.
Today’s gospel passage closes with Jesus’ exhortation: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
But there is no escape from being human in this world. There is no escape from illness, loss, and death. No escape from hurricanes, fire, or floods. No escape from the ravages of war, inflation, and unemployment. No escape from the consequences of the decisions we’ve made as individuals and as a species that impact all creatures on earth, and the land, water, and air upon which our lives depend.
There is an escape from believing that what we see is all there is. And there is an escape from believing that we have the power to control others—even when we want to use that power to help. And there is an escape from believing the political, economic, and religious powers of the world are the ultimate powers and arbiters of our faith.
Our escape lies in faith. Our escape lies in hope. Our escape lies in prayer—God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Our escape lies in staying alert, in noticing, seeing, dreaming, speaking, and empowering the coming and current reign of Christ. Our escape lies in standing before the Son of Man, who has come, who is here, who will come again, whose existence is God’s bequest to us. Our escape lies in receiving the gift Christmas will bring us: Radical never-ending, ever-present love.
A reflection on Mark 10:46-52 for the community of St. David of Wales, Shelton, WA, October 23, 2021.
In this morning’s Gospel passage, Jesus is in Jericho with his disciples surrounded by scores of people. Everywhere he goes, Jesus has been attracting attention with his healing and teaching, and now it’s a parade-like atmosphere, with Jesus as the featured attraction as he and his followers, and many of the faithful leave the city to make their way to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Jesus will leave this city never to return. He will enter Jerusalem and the sweep of events in the coming days will lead the throngs from celebrating his power and popularity to witnessing his execution.
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, appears in the commotion. The fact that he is named, unlike so many whom Jesus has healed, is significant. Bartimaeus, or his father Timaeus, may have been well known in the community before the encounter, or Bartimaeus may have been recognized later as part of the new church formed after Jesus’ death. And the story of Blind Bartimaeus is familiar to many of us, one enacted gleefully by blindfolded Sunday school students, who leap and stumble, hands extended, crashing into their friends as they grope toward Jesus.
When the story opens, we find Bartimaeus alongside the road with his cloak spread around him like a tablecloth to receive the coins the faithful toss to him. In his day and age, begging is an accepted and expected ongoing activity for those who cannot find other means of support. And community members are charitable in their response, giving alms to the poor and disabled as a part of their religious practice. It’s more like placing a $20 in the offering plate, or mailing a contribution to the United Way, than handing cash to someone with a cardboard sign at a freeway onramp.
A day like today with crowds afoot would’ve been lucrative for Bartimaeus, providing much needed financial support. Some biblical commentators suggest that others in Bartimaeus’s circumstances would be content with their lot and would not have risked their income by leaving their posts. They say that though blind, his was not a situation of desperation.
By the request he makes of Jesus, “let me see again,” we can assume that Bartimaeus was not born blind, that he once had sight and longs for its return, knowing what he has missed. Though he might not have sight, it’s clear that he possesses insight. When he calls out to Jesus using the words, “Jesus, son of David,” he is the first person in Mark’s gospel to recognize Jesus’s divinity and claim it aloud.
Jesus, who up until now has been shushing those who guess his true identity, does not deny the title. This will be the first time Jesus embraces his identity publicly and the last time he heals another person before his death.
Like the children who clamored to meet Jesus and are met with rebukes from the disciples earlier in Mark’s gospel, many in the crowd “sternly ordered” Bartimaeus to be quiet. I think those voices most likely belonged to the Pharisees and other religious authorities—who else would feel they had the license to silence the blind beggar? Maybe some very bossy neighbors. And how does Bartimaeus react to being told to shut up? By crying out again, only louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This time his voice pierces through the noise of the crowd and Jesus hears him. He stands still, and looks for Bartimaeus, but who can find a man seated on the ground in the middle of a crowd?
So, Jesus enlists the crowd’s help and asks those he can see to, “call him here,” and word travels through the throng, who are now speaking kindly, “Take heart; get up, Jesus is calling you.”
At the invitation, Bartimaeus’s response is immediate. He doesn’t take time to don his cloak and pocket the coins. He springs up, abandoning his cloak and his money, confident that he no longer has need of them.
Like James and John, fishermen who left their nets behind to follow Jesus, Bartimaeus, too, leaves everything behind when he responds to Jesus’s call. He makes his way through the crowd, relying on the hands of strangers to lead him to Jesus. And when he comes close Jesus doesn’t immediately heal him, instead he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”
He answers, “My teacher, let me see again.” My teacher—How is it that Jesus is his teacher? It seems that in the days and months leading up to this encounter he has been listening to the stories about Jesus, and has possibly been in Jesus’ presence before, just one blind beggar in a crowded place hoping to receive alms who received the good news Jesus offered as well. Or maybe he’d made his way to listen in the crowds before, and today he finally has the courage to speak.
In the passage just before this, which was our gospel reading last Sunday, James and John approach Jesus with a request. They’ve been following Jesus since the beginning, and they want something in return: status and honor. They want to be Jesus’s right- and left-hand men when he comes into his glory. A request that Jesus finds ridiculous, since he knows that his glory is coming only through death. Then Jesus tells James and John that to be great, they must become servants.
In today’s passage, even as he sets his foot toward Jerusalem, Jesus demonstrates that he is a servant, willing and able to grant requests that align with God’s purposes. When Bartimaeus asks, “let me see again,” Jesus performs an act of service: he restores Bartimaeus’s sight saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.”
And where does Bartimaeus go? He goes with the disciples and the crowds following Jesus. He does not go back through the throng to his place at the side of the road. He does not retrieve his cloak or his coins. He follows on “the way.” The way to Jerusalem. The way to the cross. The way to the resurrection. They way to a faith that exists beyond the body.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the story of Bartimaeus in the 35 years I’ve been a churchgoer, but it’s often enough that I’m in danger of it becoming so familiar that I think I know the point of the story and the lessons I’m supposed to take from it, the lessons I passed on to my Sunday school students years ago: Be bold like Bartimaeus. Don’t let your limitations hold you back. Be brave enough to ask Jesus for what you want, and you’ll be rewarded.
As a new believer at age 25, it was easy to accept the seemingly simple takeaway of the story: that our faith makes us well. Becoming a Christian, a follower of Jesus, healed the God-shaped hole that I’d felt my entire life. But as time went on, I noticed that my own faith didn’t remove my fear of abandonment, or my anxiety over not being in control of my life. I wasn’t cured of my faults and personality. And I assumed I was struggling because my faith wasn’t strong enough. But when I looked around to the pillars of my church community, men and women of deep faith, I saw that faith didn’t spare some them from suffering and death, loss and grief.
Faith restored Bartimaeus’s sight, but faith didn’t prevent Jesus’s death. It led him to it.
When I think of being made well, I think of being healthy, of being cured. But what does it mean when faith doesn’t cure us? Does it mean that Jesus chooses not to heal us? That he wants us to suffer? I wish I had easy answers, ones that I could share with you. I’d like to say “your faith has made you well” with the certainty of a second grade Jesus acting out a Sunday school skit.
Part of my struggle comes with the limits of language itself, especially as we try to describe the mystery of spiritual experience. And the gospels, especially Mark’s just the facts version, leave so much to the imagination. What happens inside a person’s body, mind, and spirit when these miraculous healings take place? Surely there’s a shift that no one can see, something that is healed and moved beyond the scope of affliction and disease.
Sometimes “your faith has made you well,” is translated as, “your faith has made you whole.” For me that’s a shift from a cure to a way of being. One definition of “whole” that resonates for me is “undivided.” In troubling times of illness or emotional turmoil, my mind is often divided, fighting between what the situation is and what I want it to be. When I can allow myself to remember that Jesus is with me in all circumstances, and to really feel that knowledge in my mind, body, and spirit, then I can let go of my need for what I want and come to a place of acceptance and peace about what is, even when what is a hard and painful reality that I wish were different. When I come to a place of deep knowing, I am no longer divided. I become whole in Christ’s presence with me, even when I have not been cured, even when nothing in the external situation has changed. I don’t often leap up and embrace possibility like Bartimaeus, I’m more often dragged to it, clinging by my fingernails until I finally surrender.
I do well to hear the story of Bartimaeus over again with new ears.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus cries on the streets of Jericho.
“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. A sinner,” we cry today in the words of the Orthodox church’s Jesus prayer.
All of us wonder if our faith is strong enough. We wonder if we have the courage to speak our truth not only to ourselves, but in front of a crowd. We wonder if we’ll allow others to silence us with their rules. We wonder if we’ll risk making a scene to ask for our heart’s desire, or if we’ll allow possibility to pass us by. In the midst of illness, pandemic, loss and grief, we wonder how we’re going to make it through another day.
“Let me see again,” Bartimaeus asks.
Jesus, when we doubt ourselves, when we doubt you, when we struggle with our own self-worth, when we struggle with our faith, when the state of the world knocks us low, when we’re blind to your presence with us, let us see again, and again, and again. Amen.
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.
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.