Sunday, July 22, 2012

22 July 2012 -- Proper 11 / 8 Pentecost

PROPER 11 / 8 Pentecost — 22 July 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant  — 9:00 am

[Track Two]  Jeremiah 23:1-6   |   Psalm 23  |  Ephesians 2:11-22  |  Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

   I’ve told this story before, but I don’t remember whether I’ve told it to you, but even if I have, it’s okay, I guess, because the rest of the sermon is mostly new!

   In Scotland, at least some years ago, there was a lot of what we in the American West called “open range”—unfenced moors where unattended livestock wandered about as they would.  In the American West it was normally herds of beef cattle.   In Scotland it was unshepherded flocks of sheep.  For some reason known only to the sheep themselves, it often pleased them to stand in the middle of the road, just on the other side of the crest of a hill.  My college roommate and I were touring Britain on motorbikes one summer, typically running some hundreds of yards apart, and whoever was leading would come over the crest of the hill only to find the road full of sheep, screech to a sideways stop, engage the sheep in vigorous and contentious conversation (generally without much success), and finally persuade them to move over to the shoulder of the road, to permit passage.  After which the sheep would saunter back into the middle of the road to stare with minimal curiosity at the departing form of this rude Yankee who was so insensitive to local Scottish ovine custom.  At which point the other one of us would come over the crest of the hill and screech to a sideways stop.  

   “He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  

   This is kind of an interesting Gospel reading selection for today.  I’ve indicated in the past that I’m never always quite sure what the Revised Common Lectionary Gnomes have in mind…  Anyway, you will perhaps note, from the bulletin or from your Bibles if you were following along or if you looked this reading up in advance, that there is a big break in the middle of the reading, eighteen verses.  What’s that all about?  Those of you who have your finger in your Bible may have already noticed that what’s been left out is the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and also the story of Jesus Walking on the Water.  ???!!!  Well, fear not, little flock.  As it turns out, next Sunday the Gospel reading is the Feeding and Walking stories, only from St. John’s Gospel instead of St. Mark, and the Gospel readings continue to be taken from the sixth chapter of St. John through August, returning to St. Mark in September.

   But that leaves us with today’s reading, in which it’s not quite sure what’s happening.  And in fact it’s true that in St. Mark the two sections are both transitional passages, except the stories that they are transitions into and out of are left out!

   Still, you may recall that I said last month that Mark’s Gospel is a very sophisticated literary composition and is not just a simple stringing together of Jesus stories.  So he’s up to something even in these transitional passages, and there is a Word of God to be heard in them.  (And God says, “You got that right.”)

   You remember that two weeks ago, before last week’s story about John the Baptist being executed by Herod Antipas (which may have seemed like a digression but it really wasn’t), Jesus had sent the twelve out in pairs on a preaching-and-healing mission.  Well, now they have come back, and Jesus says, “Let’s go on retreat and debrief a bit.”  Alas, the crowd doesn’t let them get away.

   Last month I noted that the word Mark uses that we translate “the crowd” does not mean just “a lot of people,” it’s “the poor folks,” “the peasants,” “the nobodies.”  But Mark’s point is not that these folks are just a bunch of dumb sheep as on a Scottish moor.  Mark is making a very clear allusion to the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament.  And we heard that this morning in the First Reading from Jeremiah:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.… Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold.” 

   This theme of the scattering of the Lord’s sheep (Israel) by wicked shepherds (faithless and corrupt kings and priests, the religious establishment) runs throughout the Hebrew prophets.  For example, Ezekiel [34:2b,4-6]:

“Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?…You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”

   So when Jesus sees the crowd like sheep without a shepherd, this is really a loaded image.  It’s not just a bunch of dumb folks.  They are God’s People, suffering under the oppression of the domination of corrupt powers, locally the temple establishment and other dimensions of the religious establishment such as the Pharisees, and the political establishment of Herod Antipas in Galilee, and overarching them and especially in Judaea, the Roman Empire.  Establishment powers which are not shepherds of God’s people.

   Jesus is, as St. John’s Gospel says explicitly, the Good Shepherd.  But in the context of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and in the specific context of first-century Roman Palestine, this really doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of sentimental pictures of the wimpy Victorian shepherd and his cute little lambs (like the stained-glass window over the altar over at Trinity, Iowa City – but let’s not go there right now!).  Jesus is the Liberator, the Savior, the King.  

   Yes, Jesus is political.  Yes, St. Mark’s Gospel is political (as are all the Gospels, as are the Letters of St. Paul, as is the whole Bible).  Yes, the Kingdom of God is political.  But that doesn’t mean competing with the powers and dominations of this world, or trying to overthrow them forcibly.  (I said all this last Sunday, but you weren’t there!)  “Politics” is about the ordering of the common life of the polis, the city, the state, the community.  It’s about how we live together as human beings in justice and peace.  But the more “politics” becomes about power and domination, the more it has become corrupt.

   The politics of the Kingdom of God is about how we love the Lord our God, and our neighbor as ourselves.  The Kingdom of God is not about life in the sweet by and by, at least not initially.  Yes, of course the Kingdom has a transcendent, eternal dimension, but Jesus doesn’t really say very much about that.  (Most of our images about what “heaven” is like don’t come from the Bible, they come from New Yorker cartoons.)  Jesus talks about how we are to live with each other now, in this world, in justice and peace and love, and thus subverting the kingdoms of this world.  

   And these are, I think, among the “many things” that Jesus taught the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd.

Monday, July 16, 2012

15 July 2012 -- Proper 10 / 7th Pentecost

PROPER 10 – 7TH PENTECOST — 15 July 2012
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

[Track One]  2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19  |  Psalm 24  |  Ephesians 1:3-14  |  Mark 6:14-29

   One of the nice things about being retired is that when I want to I can just sit and watch stuff on television.  (I do have to find a way to tune out the little voice in the back of my head that is saying “Vacuum cleaner?”  “Supper?”)  One of the things that I have been watching lately is a mini-series that was originally on Showtime (we don’t subscribe to Showtime, I got this through another online source).  The series is called “The Tudors,” which is a dramatization of the life and reign of King Henry VIII of England.  It is sometimes historically accurate.  And sometimes not.  But it’s all good fun – lots of sex and violence and corruption (that much is accurate!), and as Anglicans it is good for our humility to be reminded of our tawdry origins.  So far I’m up to the episodes in which Henry renounces papal authority, sends Katherine of Aragon off to the countryside, and marries Anne Boleyn.  Thomas Cranmer has now shown up.  He’s depicted as kind of a wimp.  (That part’s not historically accurate, I suspect!)  Thomas Tallis has also shown up in Henry’s court, probably a year or two early.  A musical genius, but we already knew that.  It’s not entirely clear in the series how any of these people had time to run a kingdom; but never mind.

   So, speaking of sex and violence and corruption in the courts of power, in the Gospel today we hear the story of the execution of John the Baptist.

   It’s not entirely clear why St. Mark tells this story (which Matthew copies and abridges).  The beginning of Mark’s Gospel itself, with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, is really a lead up to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of whom Mark sees John as the forerunner.  Today’s story, after the opening transition, is apparently simply about John, not directly about Jesus, the only story in Mark that isn’t. 

   We start with Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee (you recall he was a son of King Herod the Great of Judaea), hearing about what Jesus and his followers were doing, and wondering if John the Baptist had come back to life.  It’s not clear how we should take that.  Herod Antipas wasn’t very religious except when it was politically expedient, and it’s questionable that he would have seriously believed that anyone could come back from the dead.  (Of course, Pharisaic Judaism believed in the resurrection, but only at the end of the age, not before then – that’s why the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus upset the Pharisees so badly.)  But on the other hand, Herod Antipas may well have been very superstitious, as not-very-religious folks often are, and therefore might believe almost anything.  But perhaps Antipas just meant, “Rats!  Is this Jesus fellow going to turn out to be yet another John the Baptist?  Am I going to have to kill him too?”  So that may be the subtext here.

   Anyway, Mark then tells the story of John’s execution at Antipas’ orders. We also have a version of this story from an outside source:  the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Antipas was afraid that John’s vigorous preaching and strong following among the people might lead to a popular uprising, and so he arrested John and put him to death, for political reasons. [Antiquities 18.5.2]   Josephus doesn’t mention the daughter of Herodias dancing for her stepfather/slash/uncle at his birthday party.  The girl’s name, of course, was Salome, but we know that from Josephus, not from the gospels.  And I don’t think anyone says anything about the seven veils until the play Salome by Oscar Wilde (who else?!), which then was the basis for the opera by Richard Strauss, which is not an opera to which you would want to take the kids, and not just because of the seven veils part.

   But this story is not just about people being naughty, and persecuting God’s prophet.  It’s a political story, and I think that’s why Mark tells it as part of his very political Gospel (in case you hadn’t noticed).  Here’s the back-story, which Mark and his community knew very well; after all, they had lived through it:  Herod Antipas had married the princess Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabataea.  Nabataea was a very powerful kingdom to the east and southeast of Judaea.  (Its capital city was Petra, which is now a major archaeological tourist site in Jordan.)  So the marriage of Antipas and Phasaelis was a political alliance, and there was probably nothing romantic about it!  Well, Antipas got tired of his Nabataean princess and dumped her so he could marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip.  Upper-class Romans did this kind of wife swapping thing all the time, but the Jews didn’t, and so they, evidently including John the Baptist, added this to their long list of grievances against Antipas.  And when the rejected princess Phasaelis came running home, her father King Aretas got very very mad and declared war against Antipas.  (Which Aretas won, inflicting major casualties on Antipas’ army.)
  Josephus tells us that many Jews thought that the military defeat of Antipas’ army by Aretas was God’s punishment for the execution of John the Baptist.

   Hmm.  Divorcing your first princess bride in order to marry your girlfriend.  Where have we heard that before?  No wonder I started out by talking about the TV series “The Tudors”!  Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Except in Henry’s case, it was the first bride who had been his brother’s wife. 

  Did you note that at Herod Antipas’ birthday party, the guests were “his courtiers and officers and … the leaders of Galilee”?  That is, the political establishment.  Ched Myers notes, “Mark accurately describes the inner circle of power as an incestuous relationship involving governmental, military, and commercial interests.”  [Binding the Strong Man, page 216]

   Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.  Oops.

   I said this was a political story, told in the context of a political Gospel.  That idea may ruffle our feathers, accustomed as we are to the notion of never mixing politics and religion.  Which just demonstrates that we don’t really understand either politics or religion.  We usually think of “politics” in a very narrow, partisan sense.  We’re spoiled because in our democratic republic, our political life is actually fairly civilized.  Even this year, believe it or not!  At least compared to politics elsewhere in the world and in world history.  But “politics” is about the ordering of the common life of the polis, the city, the state, the community.  It’s about how we live together as human beings in justice and peace.  But the more “politics” becomes about power and domination, the more it has become corrupt.

   And so, yes, the Gospel, the Good News, of the Kingdom of God is about politics.  It’s about how we love the Lord our God, and our neighbor as ourselves.  The Kingdom of God is not about life in the sweet by and by, at least not initially, and Jesus practically never talks about that kind of stuff.  Jesus talks about how we are to live with each other now, in this world, in justice and peace and love.  This entails confronting the kingdoms of this world, for which the bottom line is power.  But the Kingdom of God does not come through forcibly overthrowing the kingdoms of this world, but by subverting them with love and justice.  But this is a hard road.  It led John the Baptist to Herod’s dungeon.  It led Jesus to a Roman cross.  Where should it be leading us?