Baggage

Sermon on Mark 6:14-29 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

When it comes to cultural influence, few films compare with The Godfather. From lines like “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” to iconic scenes like the one where a movie executive finds a severed horse head in his bed, references to The Godfather abound in every aspect of popular culture. imgresPerhaps the most well-traveled trope from this genre defining gangster film comes from the opening sequence of the movie, in which Marlon Brando’s character is hearing requests and dispensing advice on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Robert Duvall’s character explains: “No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day.” Though this idea has been thoroughly parodied, this statement sets up an important dynamic for the rest of the film: though this family is engaged in criminal activity, honor and reputation are very important to them. For the godfather, keeping one’s word is the highest good, trumping law, morality, even the preservation of life.

This morning, Mark’s gospel tells us a story about how keeping one’s word can lead to trouble. The first thing to notice about this story is its length. Of the three gospels that describe the execution of John the Baptist, Mark devotes the most space to the telling of the story. While this may not seem significant, Mark tends to be incredibly economical with his language. The fact that this story takes up as many verses as it does, in other words, means we’re supposed to pay particular attention to it. And this is surprising, because while this story is ostensibly about John the Baptist, a pivotally important figure in the gospel, all of the action centers around King Herod. Now, this is not the Herod from the Christmas pageant. This is, rather, his son, a client of the Roman Empire who has been given titular authority in Judea in exchange for his loyalty and obeisance to the emperor. King Herod is an empty shirt who can only exercise authority with the permission of his Roman masters. But Herod desperately wants to project the image of power and authority, as we see in the scene that Mark sets this morning. The king is throwing a lavish birthday party, to which he has invited all the leading citizens. He’s hobnobbing with the beautiful people, eating fancy food, and in all likelihood, drinking too much wine. As part of the entertainment, his step daughter dances provocatively for the assembled guests, leading Herod to promise that he will give her even half of his kingdom. Notice that he can’t keep this promise: remember, it’s not his kingdom; at best he’s a steward, at worst he’s an impotent puppet. Now Herod is hamstrung by a promise he should not have made and might not be able to keep. This leads to Herodias’ grisly request; in a Gothic twist, John doesn’t enter his own martyrdom story until his severed head appears on a platter.

CaravaggioSalomeLondonWhile Herodias’ gruesome demand for the head of John the Baptist may sound like a horrifying overreaction, it’s important to remember that first-century despots would kill people for even perceived slights. What is actually more surprising is Herod’s reluctance to execute John. The reason for his hesitancy is unclear; perhaps he was compelled by John’s charismatic authority, perhaps he feared a revolt among the people, as Matthew’s gospel implies. Regardless of the reason for his disquiet, it should have been enough to save John. It is striking that Herod, who wants people to think he is the master of everything around him, gets played like a fiddle by the people in his court. He is so concerned about saving face, about “having regard for his oaths,” about keeping up appearances, that he is willing to send an innocent man to his death. He could have very easily refused Herodias’ request; indeed, he could have easily released John. Instead, he abdicates his power in order to preserve the appearance of authority. This story is recapitulated when Jesus is brought before Pilate, who is also more interested in projecting the image of authority than he is in actually exercising authority.

In some ways, this story of John’s death feels like a non sequitur. After all, this salacious, tabloid-ready account of John’s grisly execution is sandwiched between two fairly straightforward and seemingly unrelated passages about the triumphant mission of Jesus’ disciples. But this abrupt narrative transition is not clumsy storytelling; it actually illustrates an important theme that runs through Mark’s gospel. For Mark, the death of John the Baptist and the mission of the disciples are deeply related. Indeed, by juxtaposing these two stories, Mark is making a profound statement about the nature of discipleship. Of course, his most obvious point is that being a follower of Jesus has a cost. Even as we hear about the dazzling successes of the disciples, we are reminded that the forerunner of Jesus was executed for zealously proclaiming God’s righteousness. But in addition to this observation about the cost of discipleship, Mark is making a subtler and more important point. You’ll remember from last week that when Jesus sent out the disciples, “he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” Moreover, he gave them no instructions about what they should preach, except repentance. When Jesus sends out the disciples, in other words, they are completely unencumbered by possessions or expectations. This stands in sharp contrast to Herod, who is imprisoned by the trappings of wealth, enslaved by the illusion of power, and hamstrung by his own vain promises. Even as he nurses doubts about killing John, Herod succumbs to the worst kind of legalism: he keeps his word only so that he can say he kept his word. Like Pilate after him, Herod is rendered powerless by his desperate desire to retain power. Mark’s point is clear: while Herod was weighed down by his oaths and kingly baggage, the disciples are free to go out into the world carrying nothing except Jesus’ proclamation of repentance.

imagesThis week, the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house in Columbia. While this is yet another important step as our country continues to respond to the gruesome massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, it’s important for us not to let the removal of the flag be the end of this story. We must continue the conversation about privilege and systemic racism. All too often I and people who look like me are too embarrassed to talk about race, too preoccupied with maintaining appearances, too ashamed to admit that we still benefit from a system that has historically excluded people who do not look like me. But Jesus’ proclamation of repentance calls us to look past our own embarrassment and acknowledge that we do not have to say or do anything explicitly racist in order to benefit from a racist system. This is an unsettling place to be, because the world we live in requires us to present a carefully curated and idealized self-image designed to be as inoffensive and “likeable” as possible. Admitting there is a racist system shatters this scrupulously cultivated persona. Normally, because of this pathological need to maintain appearances, we shy away from real conversations and refrain from asking difficult questions. But ultimately, this Herod’s way of looking at the world. Our preoccupation with the way that we appear to those around us leads us to dodge authentic conversations and avoid real relationships. Jesus calls us to something greater. Jesus calls us to repentance. Repentance requires us to leave everything behind, including our expectations of those around us and our preconceived notions about who we are. Our authentic proclamation of the gospel asks us to engage with the world unencumbered by the trappings of our idealized self-image. We are called to leave behind our attachment to power and privilege and proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance and transformation to a broken and hurting world.

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Fearless

Note: During the season of Lent, I will be publishing a devotional on this blog titled “Surprised by Grace,” in which I will write about my efforts to look for grace in unexpected places.

ASH WEDNESDAYToday, I told a bunch of people that they were going to die.  I wasn’t nasty about it; in fact, most of them we eager to hear the reminder.  I told older people who have been struggling with cancer, younger people who have recently lost their parents, and little children who barely understand what death is.  This is, of course, the Church’s custom on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded of our mortality and our complete dependence on God’s grace.

There is unexpected grace in this reminder of our mortal nature, because just after we are told that we are going to die, we are invited to go out and live.  More importantly, we are invited to go out and live with the understanding that we will someday die.  There is no way of getting around it.  While this may seem depressing, it is actually intended to be empowering.  If we live our lives with an awareness of our mortality, all of our ultimately futile efforts to preserve our lives become silly. This is the genesis of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Our cultural preoccupation with wealth and security, our willingness to do anything to protect what we own crumbles in the face of the undeniable reality that our lives will someday end.

When we embrace this fundamental truth, it becomes clear that there is nothing of which we have to be afraid.  If we go through life with an awareness of our mortal nature, we are liberated to try new things, to care for people who cannot provide us with anything, to risk being embarrassed or hurt.  In other words, when we embrace our mortal nature,  we no longer have to fear failure.  In so many ways, this is what characterized the ministry of Jesus.  He refused to worry about what people thought about the fact that he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He refused to be intimidated by touching someone with leprosy.  He refused to run away when it became clear that his ministry would end in death.  Jesus refused to fear failure.  During this season of Lent, I invite you to try new things, take risks, and embrace the fundamental truth that, by God’s grace, we have nothing to fear.

Sarcasm

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on September 22, 2013.

One of the realities of our digital age is that nearly every website gives its users the opportunity to comment on the website’s content.  Just about every article on the internet has a section below it where readers can offer their opinions about what they have just read.  This comment section is, in some ways, similar to the editorial page in a newspaper.  There is, however, a significant and important difference.  While the content of the editorial page is scrutinized and selected by an editor, there is no such filter in an internet comment section.  Literally everyone who can type (and quite a few people who can’t) is given the opportunity to make their voices heard over the information superhighway.  As you can imagine, there are some very disturbed, angry, ignorant, and downright crazy people who post in these comment sections.  If one spends any kind of time on the internet, one quickly learns that these comment sections rarely edify and frequently frustrate.  Responding to these comments is not an option, because the torrent of negativity unleashed by every minor disagreement is overwhelming.  It is better simply to ignore the comments.  The arguments are pointless and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic.  Brothers and sisters, I adjure you by God: for the sake of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, do not read internet comments; it’s simply not worth the anguish.

So while I was reading some internet comments the other day, I was reminded about a particularly annoying brand of internet commenter.  This is the person who wanders into a forum and makes a comment that is specifically designed to make people angry.  imgresFor instance, a University of Oklahoma fan may wander into a University of Texas forum and proclaim how terrible the Longhorns are.  Obviously, the person who does this is not even trying to contribute to the conversation; he’s just trying to get people riled up.  In internet parlance, this person is known as a troll, and the activity he engages in is known as trolling.  As frustrating as internet trolls can be, the most insidious thing about them is that they see what they do as a public service.  If you challenge an internet troll to contribute something of substance to the discussion, he will respond that he is: he’s being intentionally provocative, he’s causing us to moderate our position in response to his ludicrous opinion.  The reality, of course, is that this generally isn’t true: the internet troll is usually just being a jerk.  It’s interesting to me, however, that those who troll tend to embrace this narrative in which they are provocateurs, contributors to the internet symposium who force us to do the hard work of self-examination.

The reason I bring this up is that in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus seems to be trolling us a little bit.  This is probably the most bizarre parable in all of the New Testament, because it seems to go against everything that we know about what Jesus did and taught.  This is especially true in the gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus is incredibly concerned with how preoccupied people are with money and influence.  To get a sense of how strange this parable really is, we need to take a look at some of the other moments in Luke’s gospel, many of which we’ve looked at over the past few weeks.  Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the great dinner, in which he warned us not to think to highly of ourselves, not to exploit the influence we believe we have in order to gain advantages over people.  A few weeks before that, we heard the parable of the rich fool, who built huge silos to store all his stuff and ensure his security, only to die that very night.  And next week, we will hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in which a man is thrown into Hades because of his obsession with his wealth and possessions.

So when we arrive at the parable in today’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward, I think we’re right to feel a little thrown off, perhaps even a little uncomfortable.  The story goes like this: a rich man has a business manager and discovers that the guy is mismanaging his boss’s assets.  Maybe he’s made some bad investments, maybe he’s skimming off the top, maybe he’s just incompetent; whatever the reason, the rich man demands an audit from his steward.  Instead of buckling down, getting the books right, and hoping that his boss will give him another chance or instead of updating his resume and hoping that he can get some honest work, the manager proceeds to go around to his boss’s debtors and reduces what they owe the rich man.  The thing is, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, he doesn’t do this because his boss is unjust; he does this in order to get consideration from the people whose debt he’s forgiving, he does it for purely selfish reasons.  At this point, we can’t wait for the owner’s reaction.  This manager is going to get it!  He’s defrauded his boss; he’s been completely selfish.  There’s no way that he’s going to get away with this.  So imagine our surprise when Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the steward for acting selfishly.  Really?  Did you get that right Jesus?  Not only was the rich man not mad, but he praised this dishonest manager?  As if we weren’t confused enough already, Jesus goes on to instruct us to follow this manager’s example: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

 

What is going on in this baffling parable?  Is Jesus really telling us to emulate this dishonest steward?  Are we really supposed to follow the example of a guy whose life is dictated by his own selfishness?  It’s hard to say.  One disadvantage of the study of Scripture is that we don’t have the tapes.  We don’t know how Jesus sounded when he said the things recorded in the gospels.  The result of this is that many of us tend to have a Scripture reading voice in our head (mine is some combination of James Earl Jones and Billy Graham).  Whatever it sounds like, it’s usually magisterial and full of authority.  But the reality is that Jesus probably had a variety of ways of communicating.  Sure, there were times in his ministry when a Scripture reading voice would have been very appropriate, like in the Sermon on the Plain.  But, what about when Jesus takes up a little child in his arms and says that it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs?  Are we supposed to think that he spoke to these children the same way that he spoke to the crowds?  Probably not.  sarcasm01In the same way, I wonder if we are mishearing this parable of the dishonest manager because we are assuming our James Earl Jones/Billy Graham voice.  What if we’re missing a note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice: “Go ahead, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, because when it’s gone they’re totally going to welcome you into the eternal homes.  See how that works out for you.”  Now, I may be treading on some perilous ground here, but this interpretation seems more consistent with what we’ve heard before and what we’re going to hear in Luke’s gospel.  In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus makes it very clear that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with wealth because we can’t take it with us, because wealth is not eternal.  In the same way, it stands to reason that if we make friends with our wealth, that thing which isn’t eternal, those friendships won’t last very long.  Regardless of how we hear this parable, I think it’s clear that Jesus is being intentionally provocative, that Jesus is encouraging us to look closely at this dishonest manager and determine what we can learn from him.

On one level, I think we sympathize with the guy.  He’s in a position that too many of us have been in at one point or another; he’s about to lose his job.  And the only way he knows how to take care of himself is by being shrewd but also by being selfish, by looking out for number one, by worrying about himself first and about his impact on other people later.  This manager looked at his situation and was terrified, because all of his possessions, including his job, his friends, and his money are in jeopardy.  As one New Testament interpreter has remarked, possessions are our guard against nonexistence.  This manager was convinced that if he lost his possessions, if he no longer had what he once had, he would cease to exist, that he wouldn’t matter, that his life would be meaningless.  This manager defined himself in terms of what he owned, he defined himself in terms of what he could get out of other people, he defined himself in terms of things that are passing away.  But what Jesus reveals us to us in telling this parable, what Jesus reveals to us in all of the gospel according to Luke, what Jesus reveals to us in his death and resurrection is that we are not defined by what we have.  We are not defined by how much we make, by what circles we travel in, by how nice a car we drive, by who our parents are, by how much education we have, by who we voted for, by what we post on the internet, or by any of the thousands of other ways that our culture defines value.  We are not defined by what we have; we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God.  That’s it.  Jesus tells this story not to give an example of how not to behave; Jesus tells this story to remind us that what we have does not define us; Jesus tells this story to reminds us how much God loves us.  Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for us on the cross.  By destroying the power of death, Jesus affirms the promise that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ.  When we embrace our identity as beloved children of God, when we lose our preoccupation with what we have, then we will be empowered to share the love that God makes known to us in Jesus Christ, the love that transcends divisions and unites us, the love that reminds us of our eternal home.