July 15, 2012

“Hidden in Plain Sight”

Mark 6:14-29

“If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.” – Rousseau

John the Baptist is dead.  For those who are connected with the 1% it appears as though the most recent threat to them and their grip on the people is eliminated.

St. Mark tells us that some stories have been making their way through Judea.  A local Rabbi has gathered twelve disciples and sent them out into the countryside to preach to the people.  They were telling them what they were told to say, that they should repent.  They also were busy with a ministry of healing and confronting evil where they found it.

People who were anointed got well.  Lives were changed.

As you can imagine, these stories made their way throughout Galilee and Perea, up the social and political hierarchy.  Eventually the stories came to Herod Antiapas, the ruler of the region.  This is the man who divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretus, King of Nabatea for the purpose of marrying his brother’s former wife, Herodias.  This marriage was not of the levitical requirement, his brother was not dead.

This marriage is contrary to Jewish law (and it was incestuous, as Herodias was also Antipas’ niece).  Herod was also fearful, as all politicians are, that news like this would be his undoing.  John the Baptist had to Go.  But how?  Here’s where the story gets worse; Herod’s wife uses her husband’s promise to her daughter to have someone killed because he criticized her.   Afraid of killing the Baptist, Herod was never convinced this was a good idea, but if you want your step-daughter to dance for you at your birthday party you have to give her what she wants.

In the gospel lesson for today, Mark tells of Herod’s motivation for getting rid of the Baptist.  I realize that even good church going folk like us are somewhat numb to stories like this.  I read the paper during the whole John Edwards thing and never once threw-up.  For those of you my age and older, do you remember President Nixon addressing the nation, saying, “I am not a crook?”  It is, and has been, everywhere.  I don’t know about you but I have come to simply accept conditions like these as the way of the world.  I hardly notice.  The reasons why people do what they do doesn’t shock me anymore.

St. Mark wants us to take seriously that this is, indeed, the way of the world. Those who stand up to City Hall often take a beating, and those who advocate an alternative to the status quo can usually expect those who benefit from the status quo to come down on them hard. We watch programs like Mad Men, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, West Wing, The Sopranos, and the like because we see in them our world. We might not always like what we see, but at least it seems real. And Mark is, if nothing else, a realist. He is writing, after all, in the wake of the devastation caused by the Romans exercising their brutal power by destroying the Jerusalem Temple.

This is the way of the world, but it is not the whole story. Because Jesus comes, you see, precisely to show us that there is something more, something beyond the heartache and intrigue and tragedy of Herod, and Don Draper, and Richard Nixon, and anyone else who chooses to compromise their beliefs or values for fame or reward.

Let me tell you why I think St. Mark includes this sordid tale in his Gospel: We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own.

This scene, played out in these verses of Mark 6, played out daily in the news and on our street corners; This is the truth of the human predicament that we know and watch and revel in and despair over. But then tell us the second truth, the truth of God’s loving response to us and our predicament and God’s tenacious, indefatigable effort to redeem us by writing us — and writing us into — a better story than we deserve or can imagine.

Apart from God’s promises of grace and peace, redemption and salvation, this is all we have.  But there is more.

A prime example of the alternative is here, hidden in plain sight, on the altar, covered with a fair linen, contained in trays and cups.  There are other examples, to be sure, a kind word, a loving touch, a brilliant flower amongst the weeds.  It is present whenever a word of truth is spoken to the seats of power.   Here we are encouraged to look, no, feel beyond the obvious.  The glorious is here, but it is sometimes hard to see.[1]

This is the one scene in all of Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus makes no appearance. I have a hunch that’s not by accident. Because apart from God’s promises, this is about all we can expect — good intentions gone bad, fearless candor rewarded with imprisonment, the triumph of the powerful over the powerless, and so it goes. For his readers, and for us, we might not see Jesus present at first glance, but he is there, God’s promises are there, and that is good to remember.  Hidden in plain sight is the source and substance of our strength.

[1] Descartes said: “Ego cognito, ergo sum” or, I think therefore I am ; Rousseau claimed: “exister pour nous c’est sentir” or I exist because I feel.