Saturday, July 11, 2009

The PG-13 Bible

Everywhere I have been as pastor there has been a tradition that bibles were given to young children. I never started this tradition, but then I never stopped it either. It was always one of those cross your fingers sorts of acts. You know, stuff you do that a part of you thinks "This isn’t really a good idea" but you do it anyway hoping that nothing will come of it. And I kept doing it because the other part of me said it was a good thing to do.

I love the bible, for all sorts of reasons. Not the least that it is gripping literature. The stories can out pace any thriller on the shelves. The passion can shame any romance novel you can name. The poetry reaches heights that most poets can only dream of attaining. The wisdom can reduce front porch philosophers to puzzled silence. It is a wonderful read.
Yet, as you are no doubt hoping I’ll admit, it is much more than that. It is Truth. Not just truth, but Truth. Not just good advice, not just rules for living, not just a sacred text, but it is Truth. Truth without regard for feelings, Truth that sometimes hurts, Truth that reveals, Truth that points out the fundamental disconnect between the life we claim we want to live and the life we actually live. Truth that acknowledges that evil exists in the world, and sometimes in us. It is dangerous, an IED - improvised explosive device that just might cripple us if we aren’t careful.
Is that something you want to put in the hands of children? I console myself with the knowledge that they won’t read it. Or that they will be guided by those who know how to handle such volatile materials. I trust that the sheer weight of the words will keep them safe enough until they are given a context within which they can read the terrible texts.
Like this one. Well, our Gospel lesson for this week isn’t the most gruesome in the bible, or the most - uh - racy. But still it is hard to see much uplifting content in these verses. In preparation for the bible study I was checking some of the sources I usually use and it is interesting how some of them don’t even mention that this is the assigned passage for this Sunday. As if they were suggesting that we take a look at the Epistle, or the Old Testament reading for this week. There might be something of value elsewhere. But for some reason I decided to take a look at it, during our "Fun in the Son" summer month of July. Here you go. But be warned!
Mark 6:14-29 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." 17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it."
23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
John had made Herod’s commitment, or lack thereof, to family values a point of discussion . One of the problems with this family is that they had a shortage of names for boys. They were all Herod, or something Herod or Herod something. Needless to say it got confusing. Kinda like Prince Michael I and Prince Michael II. Anyway, this Herod stole his current wife Herodias (yeesh) from his brother Philip (actually Herod Philip). Some say that he killed Philip first (or had it done - royalty don’t actually do the deed) and then married her, others argue that Philip was still around wondering what happened while Herodias packed up. Either way, it was messy, and John wasn’t one to let sleeping dogs lie.
Well, Herod didn’t like what John was saying, but Herodias was murderously angry. She convinced Herod to have him arrested, in order to be killed, but Herod kind of liked hearing what John had to say. So, he would go hang out in the dungeon and have tea with the imprisoned prophet.
Not satisfied, Herodias cooked up a plot and sent her daughter, who might have been named Herodias too (sigh) or Salome, depending on which version you read, to entice step-daddy into a promise. So, on his birthday she danced for him. And he enjoyed it. A lot. More than a step dad should have, let’s say. While panting for her, he said "anything, you name it, you got it!" After checking in with mom, she comes back with the classic "Give me the head of John the Baptist." And the prophet was served up.
Truth. Ugly, to be sure, but Truth. The truth is that sometimes we make decisions based on less than rational thinking. The truth is that given proper motivation or stimulus, any of us might be prone to rash acts. And then feel caught in a corner we can’t get out of. Sometimes we worry too much about how we might look, and not enough about what is right. And often we regret it.
Mark inserts this little flashback to explain Herod’s reaction to the news about Jesus in verse 16. There is some argument as to whether Herod actually believed that John was raised from the dead in Jesus, or whether what he was saying is that his guilt followed him, even beyond the grave. There is no indication that Jesus was pointing out Herod’s indiscretions, like John had done. But he felt the shame anyway.
Which is another painful truth, I suppose. When you encounter Jesus there are no more secrets. We aren’t able to hide out faults, our sin, our weakness from him. And sometimes just knowing that hurts. Luckily, he doesn’t leave us in our hurt and our guilt. The invitation is to come and be forgiven, come and be healed and then to find a new way to live. "Neither do I condemn you.." What a wonderful grace that would be to hear. "Go and sin no more." Live a new way, with a new priority and a new hope. Live out of love rather than worrying about what others might think. Live fully alive, fully engaged, fully in joy.
Which, come to think of it, must be why we give bibles to children. They come closer to living like that than we do. Maybe we sound find some kids to read the bible to us. Maybe.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Way to Go Home

“Show me the way to go home.” Do you remember that scene from Jaws. They are out there on that boat, it is late and they are waiting for the monster to come. And they start singing “Show me the way to go home.” Remember? “Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I wanna go to bed. I had me a drink about hour ago and it’s gone right to my head.” It is a silly moment in the midst of a great horror. But I wondered why that song. There are lots of other little ditties to take our minds off the troubles to come. So why that one?

Is it perhaps that it wasn’t a little distracting, nonsense ditty, but in fact was a real plea? The veteran shark hunter, the marine scientist and the land-lubber sheriff might have been giving words to what was in the back of their minds - get me out of here! When things look bleak, when options run out, when enemies threaten, we want to go home. It is a natural impulse. It is a place of safety, a place of peace.

There is a pull toward home in the best of situations, not to mention the worst. We are all like those birds who baffle scientists with their ability to find their way home. Or the salmon who swim upstream for miles to get to the spawning grounds - to get home. Show me the way to go home. Robert Frost said that “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Or do they? Jesus went home in our gospel text for this week. Didn’t seem to be much taking in going on there. Take a look:

Mark 6:1-13 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.
7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

The lectionary writers gave us two passages this week. Or maybe not. Maybe they are really about the same thing, but one is a failure and the other reaches the goal. Maybe.

Jesus goes home. Why he goes home, Mark doesn’t say. Mark isn’t given to reveal motivations and deliberations. He just says that Jesus went home. But we can imagine why Jesus went home, because he is like us. So, he goes home for the same reasons we go home. He goes home because, well, because its home! He goes for comfort, he goes for identity sake, he goes because maybe he thinks that Robert Frost is right and that no matter what he has done to this point, they will take him in. Or maybe he is riding a bit of a high and wants to share it with those who know him best. The previous chapters have Jesus performing all sorts of incredible acts, and now he is going home to let them see how the local boy has made good. Or maybe he is going home to try and heal what might have been broken by a misunderstanding.

Go back to chapter three in Mark’s story. Jesus heals the man with the withered hand and gets in a fight with the authorities who wished he had waited a day to do this work! But the crowds loved him and came by the hundreds. Then Jesus took a teaching time out with his disciples, went up a mountain and taught and prayed. But word got back home. And their conclusion was that he was crazy. Carpenter kids from Nazareth don’t go off and do such things. He’s upsetting the powers that be and drawing attention to himself in all sorts of ways. He must be off his rocker. So, they went to bring him home.

When they got there and word got to Jesus that his mother and his brothers were waiting with one of those white coats with the sleeves too long, Jesus said “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” That had to hurt. So, maybe in chapter six, Jesus goes home to explain what he really meant. Maybe he goes to heal the hurts of misunderstanding. Maybe he goes to give the family another chance to catch a larger vision of what family might mean, what family needs to mean to live in the world in which we live.

So, he tries again. And it works! For a moment or two anyway. He spoke in the synagogue and they were astounded by him. For a moment. When they listened to his words, they were knocked out of themselves for a moment. They were swept up in his vision, they leaned into his promise. Until someone said “wait a minute. Isn’t this that carpenter kid? Who does he think he is?” And everything fell apart. They turned away from him, because they thought they knew him. They turned against him because they thought he should stay in his place. They called him names - “Son of Mary” instead of the usual “Bar Joseph” implying that his parentage was suspect. They laughed, they sneered, they ignored him. And even Jesus was amazed at the level of their disrespect.

Jesus went home, but home didn’t take him in. My inclination in such a scenario would be to feel sorry for myself. Poor me, they don’t understand me, the real me, the me I have become. They still see the goofy kid I was instead of the man I have become. I could have a real self-pity party if such a thing happened to me. Because there is within us the desire to go home. Or maybe better, there is within us the desire to be home, to be welcomed home, to feel at home. And if home won’t take you, what’s left?

“He called the twelve and sent them out, two by two.” What’s left when you’ve left home, or home has left you? Make a new one. He sent them out to create a sense of community, build relationships, care for those you meet, trust them, rely on them, make yourself at home with them. Jesus vision of evangelism, or of mission (and he never really separated those two as far as I can tell) is not one of “winning souls” or of drive by mission efforts. Instead, Jesus seems most interested in relationships. His work is done in the presence of relationships, and because they refused to enter into a relationship with him “he could do no deed of power there.”

Home is not so much a place as it is a level of relationship. It is a welcome, Robert Frost was right, they will take you in at home. But Jesus tells us that home is about a commitment to a vision of home he called the Kingdom of God, and a commitment to love one another with the same kind of love he pours out on us. In other words, he is trying to show us the way home.

On this holiday weekend, it seems to me that what we really celebrate is neither a historical happenstance or the glories of a richly blessed nation. Instead it is an ideal, a vision of what we could be, what we long to be. We who call the United States of America home love our country, but at the same we hope for more - more justice for all, more equality, more hospitality. We celebrate who we are even as we celebrate who we might be. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We want a country that feels like home. Which means we need people, all the people - of the people, by the people, and for the people - to show us the way to go home.