Archive for tragedy

In All the Murk

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2018 by timtrue

Operation Iraqi Freedom 04-06

Mark 16:14-29

1.

I think most of you know I wasn’t raised in the church.

I came to the Christian faith through a series of tough life events during my adolescence. My parents’ divorce was the catalyst: it sent me on a spiritual quest—a quest I’m still on to this day!

Early on in my faith journey, during high school, I attended some off-campus Bible studies taught by adult leaders of local youth organizations.

These leaders weren’t ordained; nor did they claim to be Bible scholars. They simply loved Jesus and wanted to do something with their lives that made a difference. And they definitely made a difference in my life, for which I am grateful!

However, some of the lessons I learned in those early days were not the best.

Jesus, I was taught, has all the answers I’ll ever need. God will make his will known to me—his exceedingly abundant will for my life—if I’m just patient in my personal prayers and Bible reading—in my “quiet times.”

All would be made clear in time, I was taught; and if all didn’t become clear, why then it was my fault: I didn’t have enough faith; or I was being stubborn, stiff-necked, hard-hearted.

My Christian faith, I was taught, should make things black-and-white, easy-schmeasy.

In other words, I was presented with a kind of Clarity Spectrum; a way to gauge my faith.

If the road ahead seemed clear to me, then I could be sure I was walking with Jesus as I should be.

On the other hand, if the road ahead was murky, well then something was wrong. I needed to spend more time in prayer, reading and studying the Bible, going to church, confessing my sins, volunteering at the local rescue mission; or maybe I just needed to give more money.

Have you ever heard this kind of Christian teaching?

Well, it shaped me profoundly in my early spiritual quest, affecting even the many decisions I’d make each day—from the insignificant ones, like which pair of shoes I should wear; to the huge ones, like where I should go to college.

When it came to reading the Bible, I’d approach passages like today’s as if they were Shakespearian tragedies.

2.

Herod has heard about a man named Jesus walking the countryside with a group of disciples, teaching, preaching, and healing. He then worries that this man might be John the Baptist risen from the dead. And if that’s the case, he knows, his days are numbered; for it’s only a matter of time before the risen baptizer comes for revenge.

For Herod, we learn in a grisly commentary provided by the omniscient narrator, has only recently beheaded John. Herod is riddled with guilt and fear for doing something clearly, obviously, indisputably, black-and-whitely wrong.

Today’s Gospel is a lot like Hamlet!

Do you remember him? He saw a ghost—or thought he did—the ghost of his father. And this ghost tells him he was murdered by his living brother and usurper to the throne; and that Hamlet should thus take vengeance.

Which he agrees to do.

Despite its being clearly, obviously, indisputably, black-and-whitely wrong!

Now, Hamlet doesn’t follow up on his promise straight away, but waits, waffling between fear and guilt, wondering in time whether the ghost is to be trusted or is instead some demonic spirit.

And the audience is left only to wonder: Is Hamlet’s apparition imagined? Is he going insane?

What we are not left to wonder about is good and evil. These are easy for us to see. We want to shout out at the players, especially Hamlet, “Hey! Can’t you see what’s about to happen? Don’t do it! Duh!”

Likewise, in today’s Gospel, Herod has made some really dumb decisions, clear, black-and-white, good-versus-evil decisions! And each time he has chosen the wrong way!

And now—serve him right!—he’s haunted by the fear that John the Baptist’s ghost will hunt him down and find him and take vengeance on him.

Is he imagining things? Maybe he’s going insane.

Whatever the case, reading this passage through my adolescent lens, I concluded, clearly, Herod has no faith. It’s the most logical explanation. Why else would anyone make such a foolish choice to oppose such a clearly shining example of a man of God as John the Baptist?

It was the lens I knew. Namely, truth was black-and-white, right there in front of my face, if only I took the time to notice it.

3.

So, I know my early Bible study leaders meant well and all, but this easy and clear faith doesn’t seem to jibe with the larger picture of the scriptures.

Over in Luke, for instance, we’re exhorted to count the cost; and in one of his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul bemuses, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.”

And, besides, what about before Mark wrote it all down? Was it really all that clear to Herod? Or, for that matter, John the Baptist? Was it black-and-white, as we, the audience, see so clearly today?

What was John the Baptist really like?

He ate locusts and wild honey and wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived in the desert—so we know he was eccentric. But what else?

Remember his messages? “Repent!” Or, “You cannot have your brother’s wife!” They were full of imperatives.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never done all that well with all imperatives, all the time.

And then there was that time Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What was that all about? Had Jesus offended John? Was John an easily offended person? Was he thin-skinned? Was he, maybe a little, hotheaded?

He was a man of God, yes. But men of God are imperfect people too.

And what was Herod like in real time?

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was a puppet of Caesar, to be sure, put in charge of an obscure province in a far corner of the empire, eventually exiled for his excessive misuse of power.

He was also half Jewish, held in suspect—perhaps a little unfairly—by both Rome and the Jews.

Even so, in this context of potentially low, low approval ratings, Herod Antipas offered many liberties to the people groups within his domain.

During his forty-two years as Tetrarch he completed numerous beneficial building campaigns, including the establishment of the city Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which became in time a Mediterranean center of Rabbinic learning.

He also showed political sensitivity, minting image-less coins, for instance, for the Jews’ use.

Overall, he continued the program of hope begun by Augustus Caesar, who had appointed him to his position.

Now, I’m not trying to defend him; history is telling the truth: he was a tyrant. I’m merely trying to make the point that Herod had to make his way through life without clarity, without an omniscient narrator shouting directions to him as he navigated his way through each day.

Same with John the Baptist.

Same with us.

4.

Tragedies—whether in the Bible or Shakespeare—appear otherwise to us spectators.

We as the audience watch; and we see clearly where the protagonists are headed long before they see it themselves. Whether to the actors on the stage or on the silver screen, we find ourselves wanting to shout out, “Hey, can’t you see what’s right in front of your face? Don’t do it! Duh!”

That’s because we, looking at their stories, which are narrated from hindsight, see much more clearly than the players do.

Everyday life is not like this!

We wake up and, before we’re even dressed, must make choices, decisions: “Which shoes am I going to wear today?” or, “Khakis or shorts?”

Or more significant ones, like: “Is today the day we move Mom into the assisted living facility?” or, “How much longer till I can afford to see the doctor again?”

When we’re living it, we’re not so easily aware of the bigger picture going on around us, of the story each of us is in the midst of.

And we sometimes end up making choices that put us in the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time.

There is no omniscient narrator telling us, “Hey, can’t you see what’s happening? Don’t do it! Duh!”

Like John the Baptist and Herod, we are trying to navigate our way through daily life in accordance with our callings.

It’s not that the road ahead should be clear. Our faith journeys are not black-and-white. We’re not living in reality TV tragedies with omniscient narrators to guide our way.

Rather, the Christian faith is three steps forward, two steps back; or even, sometimes, two steps forward, three steps back.

Easter’s great and all; but you can’t experience resurrection without first experiencing death.

This is the real Christian story: not black-and-white, easy-schmeasy; but the two sides of death and resurrection.

Today’s Gospel focuses more on the death side.

 

And maybe this is how you feel. Maybe Christianity isn’t all Easter lilies and milk and honey and clarity for you. Maybe it’s murky, arduous, and even, at times, frightening.

If so, you’re in good company: John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, Jesus of Nazareth. . . .

If so, you’re doing nothing wrong: you do have enough faith.

God’s grace is there, in all the murk, transforming you, bringing you through death into new life.