Heroes and Villains: Herodias

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 6:14-29.

In my second appointment I preached an October sermon series called Fright Nights where the congregation studied four texts of terror contained in Scripture. These stories – all contained in the First Testament – are accounts of abuse, exploitation, and violence against women…and sadly each of these four stories conclude without any just or comforting resolution, which is quite upsetting.

I remember when I finished the sermon series that one of my congregants approached me after worship, “Oh pastor…I am so glad these ‘nightmares’ are finally over! What will we begin next week?” “A stewardship series!” … “The nightmare continues…”

(We are not starting a stewardship series…yet…)

I consider our Scripture passage for this week a text of terror; it recounts the gruesome death of John the Baptist. Disregarding his humanity, his personhood, his contributions to the developing world and the world of faith – even his relationship with Herod! – John the Baptist’s life ends on the whim of Herod’s daughter. It is jarring that such an evil request would come from a teenage girl. The request might be a bit more palatable if it were to come from a warlord…but from a girl…dancing at her father’s birthday party? The very thought knocks the wind out of me.

That is the way of evil. It can surprise us. It can crop up in unexpected places. And if we are not prepared for it, it can execute its plans while we are numb with inactivity.

I think evil has the opportunity to take control of us when our center – when what anchors us – becomes dislodged or warped. God desires to be the center of our lives, to anchor and guide our decision-making capacities…but at times other forces come on the scene and skew God’s intended scheme. Sex, money, addiction, power, jealousy, greed, envy, fear – any of these left unchecked can become lords over us and unleash evil in our lives as well as the lives of others that we did not intend.

Texts like this one are not easy to read. We may be tempted to skip over them entirely or skip to the end in order to find the moral and then (gratefully) turn to the next page. Taking care to read these texts is one way for us to evaluate not only what we are capable of – both good and evil – but also to evaluate how (if) God is the guiding and anchoring center in our lives. If we find ourselves in a situation similar to Herod’s – and we will if we have not already – how will we respond? What will we do? The answer to these two questions will vary greatly depending on how or if God is the guiding and anchoring center in our lives.

I encourage you to take time in reflection this week to consider who or what is your guiding and anchoring center. What, if anything, needs to change? What, if anything, needs to be strengthened?

Prayer: “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in every change God faithful will remain. Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”* Amen.

*”Be Still, My Soul,” The United Methodist Hymnal 534.

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Something Old to Something New

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 1:9-11

Last January on a particularly blustery day at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park I interviewed for elder in full connection status in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. This interview would be my last in a long line of interviews, written essays, recorded sermons, discernment, and constant prayer in pursuit of my call to ordained ministry – though I have learned that ordination is not the end – it is a new beginning.

In the interview any question about the applicant’s understanding of theology, leadership, proclamation, and/or personal development is up for discussion. I studied. I prepared. I knew my answers backwards and forwards. I had even prepared extended answers to what I had submitted as evidence that I am still seeking, still discerning, still discovering what God will reveal next in my understandings in these areas.

The interview went well – especially after one of my interviewers told me to take a breath! – and then my friend Melissa asked me about baptism. I had been discussing my understanding of the sacraments; I said quite a lot about Eucharist, which probably prompted curiosity about my understanding of baptism. So she asked…and all my studying and preparation and knowing answers backwards and forwards and extended answers flew out of my head faster than students fly out of school at the end of the year.

I stumbled for a minute or so, remembered again to breathe, and started piecing my answer together. Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The water of baptism symbolizes God’s grace being poured out upon us to cleanse us from our sins and incorporate us into Christ’s Body the church. At some point I think I gave a brief history of the theological and biblical roots of baptism from the First Testament…what exactly was Melissa seeking in my answer? She raised her hand to stop me and said, “Sarah, remember the devotion I led in worship before the interviews started; it was on baptism. What stands out about baptism and Jesus?” And the answer dawned on me. The baptism of Jesus was by water and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus was something new and through the grace of baptism we are invited into this newness.

(Thanks, Melissa, for leading this nervous horse to water…what a drink!)

In the baptism of Jesus we experience something new. Baptism was a typical initiation rite for many religious and military sects throughout the Holy Land. It was an act through which a person would pledge their allegiance. The initiate would pass through water, or some other liquid, leaving the life before and starting the new life right now. John the Baptist called people forth for baptism as an outward and visible sign of repentance from sin, drawing, I believe, on the mikveh tradition from Judaism. This baptism rite drew the people away from the world so they would be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Why then would Jesus present himself for baptism since we believe that he was without sin? Why is Jesus in need of repentance? I think that Jesus presented himself for baptism to connect humanity to God. Remember that Jesus is one person with two natures – fully human and fully divine. As fully human Jesus stands in solidarity with us who are in the line for baptism because we have some repenting to do. As fully divine Jesus connects us to God’s life-giving grace that is received through our baptism by water and the Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism a heavenly voice proclaims, “This is my son.” Jesus is publicly recognized as God’s child and so we believe in our baptisms we are recognized before the community of faith as God’s children. A bond is formed between the person baptized, the community of faith, and God that we are all in this together. We are family. We are called to something new and we will do it together.

We take time this week to remember our baptism not so we can parade our recent sins through our minds, but so we can remember the blessing of community that surrounds, the abundance of God’s grace, and that our dying to sin leads to new of life marked by union with Christ, receipt of the Holy Spirit, and inclusion in Christ’s Holy Church.

It is still early in the new year. What a wonderful reminder that God through Christ Jesus calls us to new life through our baptism. May we relish in this call this week and be strengthened for discipleship this year.

Prayer: “Father in heaven, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Grant that all who are baptized into his name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”*

*”Baptism of the Lord,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 253.

New Creation: Pleasing Fragrance

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 2:14-17

This Sunday in the Christian Year the Church celebrates and remembers the Baptism Of Our Lord – when Jesus presented himself to John the Baptist alongside the River Jordan for baptism.

The Gospel of Matthew’s baptism account reads, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 3:16-17).

That day in the Jordan River Jesus is publicly claimed by God as the child of God.  When we anticipate, celebrate, witness, and remember baptisms, we recall how we, too, are claimed as children of God.

Holy.  Worthy.  Beloved.  With whom God is well pleased.

//

I live and serve in an area saturated with Disney paraphernalia – not a bad thing at all! – and as I dwell with this image of Jesus meeting John along the banks of the Jordan River a coy smile creeps across my face as I remember wise ole’ Rafiki leading a weary and lost Simba to the banks of a watering hole.  Simba peers over the side hoping to see his father – who died many years earlier – and instead sees his own reflection.  Disgusted Simba recoils and Rafiki encourages him to look again.  “Look harder…” Rafiki says, “You see…he lives in you” and Simba’s reflection morphs into that of his father’s.

Simba then hears his name rolling across the clouds like thunder and an effigy of his father appears.  “Simba, you have forgotten me,” Mufasa says.  “You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me.  Look inside yourself.  You are more than what you  have become.  You must take your place in the circle of life.  Remember who you are.  You are my son.  Remember.”

Simba protests, “How can I go back?  I’m not who I used to be…”  And Mufasa implores, “Remember.  Remember.”

//

When we return to the waters of baptism – not for rebaptism for God’s grace is sufficient in the single ritual – it is to remember who we are.  Regardless of what we have done or left undone, regardless of where we have said too much or kept silent too long, regardless of who we used to be and who we are now, God calls us to remember.  To remember who we are.  To remember who God is.  To remember what God’s grace has done and is doing.  To refresh our memory of God’s claim on our lives.

We are holy.  We are worthy.  We are beloved.  We are with whom God is well pleased.

I am.  You are.

Remember.

Prayer: “Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, cleansed by the blood of Christ, our King; heirs of salvation, trusting his promise, faithfully now God’s praises we sing.  Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, dead in the tomb with Christ, our King; one with his rising, freed and forgiven, thankfully now God’s praises we sing.  Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ, our King; born of one Father, we are his children, joyfully now God’s praises we sing.”* Amen.

*“Baptized in Water,” The Faith We Sing, 2248.

The Coming King: The ‘Grumble’ Servant

Scripture ~ Matthew 11:2-6

In this Scripture passage disciples of John the Baptist engage Jesus in conversation.  It is not a casual catch-up.  They are not swapping challah recipes.  There is weight in their question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

There’s a fabulous song playing on the radio once every 20 minutes it seems…okay not really every 20…more like every 12…by Avicii called Wake Me Up.  The second verse sings, “I tried carrying the weight of the world, but I only have two hands.”   John the Baptist’s disciples bore a very heavy question in their hands.  And they asked it on behalf of the imprisoned First Century prophet, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I wonder how quickly Jesus answered their question.  Did he grant the question space to breathe, to resonate, to echo before he answered?  The text does not tell us…but what it does tell us is saving.

Jesus says with assurance, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

What have John’s disciples seen and heard?

Healing.

What could our world – and more specifically our individual selves – see and hear more?

Healing.

This Tuesday a dear friend and congregant of mine will undergo a double mastectomy to address and entirely remove the breast cancer from her body.  At the end of the worship service this past Sunday we paused as a family of faith to pray over my friend and her spouse through the laying on of hands and anointing with oil.  Together we prayed,

“My friends, you are anointed with oil in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

O God, the giver of health and salvation, we give thanks to you for the gift of oil.  As your holy apostles anointed many who were sick and healed them, so pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on this gift, that those who in faith and repentance receive this anointing may be made whole; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

May the power of God’s indwelling presence heal you of all illnesses – of body, mind, spirit, and relationships – that you may serve God with a loving heart.

Almighty God, we pray that our sister and brother may be comforted in their suffering and made whole.  When they are afraid, give them courage; when they feel weak, grant them your strength; when they are afflicted, afford them patience; when they are lost, offer them hope; when they are alone, move us to their side.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.”  Amen.*

At the end of the prayer the family of faith at Reeves granted space for the prayer to breathe, resonate, and echo in and around us and finally settle on my friend and her spouse.

Sunday morning I was granted the privilege to witness the healing Jesus testified.  I saw it.  I heard it.  I experienced it.  And even more humbling, I was honored to lead the healing liturgy for this special couple.

In that service of worship became what Jesus assured John was happening and it is happening because the incarnation of Christ is in our midst.  There is no need to wait.  There is no need to wonder.  Christ is the one who is to come and we know that with confidence as we see the healing taking place all around us: in relationships mended, in needs provided, in weakness restored, in sins forgiven.    

Jesus ends his response to John the Baptist saying, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”  After experiencing what I led and walked alongside the Reeves family through on Sunday I understand Jesus’ words as, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at the healing my coming initiates.”

My friends, we are truly blessed.  Christ’s healing is all around us.  May our eyes be opened to see it, may our ears be cleared to hear it, may our hearts be softened to receive it.

Prayer: “O let the Son of God enfold you with his Spirit and his love.  Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.  O let him have the things that hold you, and his Spirit like a dove will descend upon your life and make you whole.  Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.  Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.  O come and sing this song with gladness as your hearts are filled with joy.  Lift your hands in sweet surrender to his name.  O give him all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name.  Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.  Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.”** Amen.

*”Healing Service,” The United Methodist Book of Worship, 620-621.

**”Spirit Song,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 347.