Got power?

It was the Tuesday after Friday’s windstorm—a “derecho,” we are told—and I had just boarded the elevator at Lewis-Gale Hospital.  It was crowded, and my vertical traveling companions were a representative cross-section of our fair city, people of varying races, backgrounds, and states of health.  I always feel awkward on crowded elevators, and this time I decided to make conversation.  Given the circumstances across the valley following the devastating windstorm, I asked vocally, “Ya’ll got power?”

It turns out that, storm or no, when a priest poses such a question on a crowded elevator, people receive it in many different ways.  Clearly, a couple of folks took my inquiry to be about the progress of AEP work crews in their neighborhood.  But others thought I’d asked, out of the blue, a deeply spiritual or existential question.  Their circumstances when they boarded the elevator were many: Some were ill; some were grieving; some were in shock.  And the priest had just asked them, “Yes, but do you have power?”

Today’s Gospel gives us the beginning and ending of a story but leaves out the middle.  The middle of this story—the part we don’t hear—is the feeding of the five thousand.  At first glance, reading the beginning and ending of a story while omitting the middle might seem like eating the top and bottom bun of a hamburger and throwing out the meat, but sometimes in storytelling it can be an enlightening thing to do.  So what does our Gospel today reveal?

Our reading begins with Jesus and the disciples taking a boat across the Sea of Galilee in order to rest and recharge their own batteries.  But the masses from the surrounding countryside hear of their presence, and Mark tells us they “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of [Jesus].”  By the time Jesus gets off the boat at this supposedly deserted place, it is filled with the least, the lonely and the lost, seeking him out.

We then leapfrog over the feeding of the five thousand, with its loaves and fishes, and the end of our reading today has Jesus and the disciples crossing back over the Sea of Galilee, hoping finally for that elusive respite.  This time, Mark says, “When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized Jesus, and rushed about the whole region and began to bring the sick…wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they…begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

You see, today the lectionary is trying to tell us a truth that holds no matter what the middle of the story is: The movement of Jesus’ ministry, day in and day out, was punctuated by yearning people—powerless people—seeking him out, following him over water and across wilderness, to ask, “You got power?” to touch him, and to experience that power for themselves.

Armando Maggi, a professor at The University of Chicago (my alma mater), teaches a class entitled “Preserving the Spell.”[i]  Professor Maggi begins the class by showing his students a clip from the opening scene of Walt Disney’s 1938 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  The movie begins with the evil witch in her castle asking her magic mirror who is the fairest of all.  It then cuts to Snow White in her scullery maid’s smock, singing as little cartoon birds gather round her.  When Professor Maggi turns off the DVD, his students giggle at the silliness they’ve just seen.  It is the reaction their professor hopes for.

Seventy-five years ago when the film was first released, dismissive laughter would not have been the audience’s reaction, Maggi says.  But now, fairy tales lack magic.  We’re no longer satisfied with them, which is why we desperately attempt to retell them in new and compelling ways.  (Indeed, Snow White has been remade on the big screen twice this year alone, once as a comedy and again as a dark and somber action film.)  Stories that once enchanted us, gave us hope, and offered windows into something different and new have exhausted their ability to move us.    The old stories have lost their power.

The same week I read about Dr. Maggi’s course, TIME Magazine published a story entitled, “The Greatest American Antihero.”[ii]  The story tips its hat to today’s top-rated TV dramas—shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad—but it also points out the disturbing nature of our adulation for their main characters.  Don Draper in Mad Men is a talented and suave adman, but he’s also a philanderer who will bury the good work of his staff in order to further his own jet-set career.  Walter White in Breaking Bad is a high school chemistry teacher who turns into a crystal meth drug lord, eventually killing anyone who stands in his way.

The heroes in these shows are antiheroes, and—as the title “Breaking Bad” conveys—they succeed by drifting from morality to amorality to immorality, and they rise to dizzying heights while maintaining a veneer of goodness and polish.  And people love to watch them.

As is so often the case, television mirrors to us what we demonstrate again and again in our real lives, with the kind of models we raise up in politics, sports, entertainment, and business.  We seek out antiheroes, I believe, because we’ve given up our sense of the heroic.  Snow White, with her message that purity and love can overcome malevolent darkness, makes us laugh.  You see, we need the power of goodness and light, but we no longer believe in it.  We’ve grown cynical, and so we give our admiration—indeed, our hearts—to antiheroes who have learned to use shadow to make their way, to succeed, and to conquer.  Rather than recoiling at the way they compromise goodness for power, we credit their ingenuity and endurance.

First century Palestine was not so different.  Again and again, people’s expectations had been dashed.  God’s prophets had been struck down so often that their messages of compassion and grace were laughed at.  Grass-roots heroes had emerged who could not deliver on their promises.  And so antiheroes like King Herod and his kin, whose royal claims were tenuous and predicated in equal measure on collusion with the Roman Empire and a brutal and heavy hand, who drew strength from darkness, rose to dizzying heights.  What a stark choice in whom the yearning powerless could place their hope: a laughing stock or a polished monster.

Do you see, then, why the masses flock to Jesus?  Do you see why they’ll cross sea or desert just to touch his cloak?  He is different from everything else they’ve experienced or heard about.  He is no fairy tale wrapped in fantasy.  He is real.  His cloak is spattered with the same mud as theirs.  He bears the same sores on his feet from walking miles of dusty road.  But in love he is uncompromising.  He will not succumb to cynicism, and he will not bend to the world.  He is the light which darkness cannot smother, and in his light there is power.  If only the least, the lonely and the lost can cast their eyes upon him; if only they can touch the fringe of his cloak; they know they’ll have power, too.  They’ll find true healing and hope and joy.  They’ll discover light that pierces darkness, and they’ll carry that light with them.

It was true then, and it is true now.  Perhaps the old fairy tales have lost their force and most goodness in the world fails and falls short.  Perhaps the world lifts up antiheroes in whom we are encouraged to place a sorry and diluted hope.  But it’s a false choice.  There is a hero—one hero—and he is present here today just as he was on the muddy banks of Galilee.  [He is present in the waters of baptism.]  He is present in bread and wine of the Eucharist.  He is present in this Body, in the light behind the eyes of each of us gathered here.

My clergy colleague in Christiansburg, Phyllis Spiegel, tells the story of when, as a child, she innocently grabbed the end of a plugged-in extension cord and sucked on it like a pacifier.  She says it zapped her with such force that her mouth tingled for three days.  Phyllis told this story at a clergy meeting, and immediately another priest, an Episcopal convert from another tradition, said, “Yes, I felt that the first time I received Communion.  When the wafer touched my tongue, it was like an electric current.”

The God of love and light and power is manifest in Jesus the Christ.  This is no fairy tale.  It is the deepest reality, the really real that flows beneath the surface currents of the world.  It is here—he is here—this day, offering healing and joy and hope.  He is here, waiting for us to touch the fringe of his cloak.  And so I ask you, “You got power?”

Amen.


[i] “Spellbound,” by Lydialyle Gibson.  The University of Chicago Magazine, May-June 2012, pp. 52-57.

[ii] “The Greatest American Antihero: Walter White is badder than ever, but has dark TV become a cliché?” by James Poniewozik.  TIME, July 16, 2012, pp. 60-61.

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The Pledge

Sunday’s sermon focused on the decision of Herod Antipas to behead John the Baptist. The sermon considered Herod’s story as a cautionary tale regarding the way people of faith should make decisions when faced with complex situation in the world or in the Church.  Several people have asked that I post the sermon on the Rector’s Page, and here it is.  The sermon, and the pastoral letter read to the congregation on Sunday, are also available on the “sermons” page at http://www.stjohnsroanoke.org.

You may have noticed that this morning Mark tells us a gruesome story.  Herod Antipas, the son of King Herod the Great, has arrested John the Baptist and put him in prison.  Even so, we are told, Herod is unsure.  Herod is confused and angry because John’s words indict the king and the decisions he’s made, but Herod also knows John is truly holy and finds John challenging in the best way.  Mark tells us, “When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

This dynamic could have gone on, and perhaps Herod eventually would have been moved by John, but then Herod’s beautiful step-daughter emerges to dance for the king on his birthday.  Herod is so tantalized that he pledges to Herodias that he will give her anything her heart desires.  And she, who has colluded with her mother, says in reply, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Why does Mark tell this tale?  It seems fit for a modern slasher film rather than the Gospel, but I don’t believe the story is included merely for its Hollywood shock value.  It must be trying to teach Jesus’ disciples—and teach us—something.  It shows up as an interlude in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, and its location may shed light on its purpose.  This story appears in the narrative just after Jesus has sent the disciples out two-by-two to spread grace in the world.  One intention of the story may be to offer the disciples caution: “Look what happened to John the Baptist.  For those who follow Jesus, the same may occur.  Be ready to pay the potential price for fidelity.”

But we also may be supposed to imagine ourselves in Herod’s shoes.  This story may offer a window into how decisions are made in the world, and by contrast to Herod, how perhaps decisions should be made by people of faith.

Herod Antipas is faced with a situation in which his pledge to his step-daughter is at odds with his heart.  He is faced, we might say, with a decision of law versus grace.  He is, after all, the king, and he has decreed.  A king’s word is law; his pledge is his bond.  But Herod struggles because his experience of reality—in this case, his experience with the holy word preached by John the Baptist—suggests to him that acting against his pledge would be the more faithful thing to do.  It’s impossible to know what the result would be of such action.  It’s impossible to know how those around him, whose admiration, respect, and love he covets, would react if he denied Herodias and freed John.  It’s impossible to know the response he would get outside the walls of his palace.  And so, Herod denies grace and leans heavily on law.  Mark says, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his pledge and his guests, he did not refuse Herodias.”  Herod severs the head of John the Baptist and puts it on a platter.

The best teaching stories are clear cut, and this is surely one of those.  We all know what Herod should have done.  He should have thrown out his pledge, told Herodias to go to her room for asking for such an abhorrent trophy, and freed John the Baptist.  The brush strokes of this story are in bold primary colors.  For the reader, there are no shades of gray in this tale.  The right decision for grace over law is easy.  And so we take notice, and we remember it.

But while primary colors make for good teaching stories, they’re not always, or even usually, the way the real world is colored.  In our lives, both personal and corporate, we face situations in which law and grace, the temporal and the spiritual, worldly reality and heavenly ideal, often mix black and white into shades of gray.  How to act faithfully in the face of such complex situations is not always clear, and our decisions are made—God willing—with some fair measure of fear and trembling.  To know how to apply the lesson of Herod and John in such situations requires deep and sometimes anguished prayer.

Even so, Mark gives us the story of Herod Antipas as encouragement to deny that the easiest and safest answer is necessarily the most faithful.  Mark tells us this tale as caution that worrying overmuch about the reaction of those around us can lead us astray.  Mark includes this story to remind us that humility and grace provide truer direction and grant us more support than leaning on law.

Of course, in our lives this work sometimes feels like the disciples being sent out into uncharted territory two-by-two with no staff, no map, and no money in our belts.  It’s perplexing and scary.  Pick your conundrum: Child-rearing, marriage, business decisions, political choices, or the church.  Confidence in the right answers is hard to come by.

But those who paid attention to our first reading this morning will know that Herod’s decree is not the only pledge mentioned in scripture today.  They’ll have picked up on the truth that it’s not our own decisions, not our own pledges in which we must have ultimate confidence.

In Ephesians, St. Paul reminds us of God’s pledge to us.  It is a pledge in which law and grace never conflict, because God’s pledge is the law of grace.  For our lectionary to place God’s pledge alongside Herod’s this day reveals to us just how small we human being are, and just how big God is.

What is God’s pledge to us?  What is his promise?  We know it, but listen again very carefully:  Paul says, “In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace that he lavishes on us.”  God will “in the fullness of time gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

This, Paul says, is the pledge God makes to us with the seal of his Holy Spirit.  Regardless of whatever decisions we face in matters of the world or the church, regardless whatever differences, disagreements, or distinctions we encounter, God’s pledge, in the fullness of time, is to gather us all—to gather us all—to him.  It is his pledge, and nothing we choose to do or not to do, that enables us to “set our hope on Christ.”

God’s pledge to us is unbreakable and true.  And therefore, we have nothing ever to fear.  We can lean on grace in our own decisions and rely on God’s promise ultimately to draw us—potential mistakes and all—to him.

With respect to complex decisions we make in the life of the church, hear this: We are one Body; we are one Church; we are one parish family—all of us—today, tomorrow, and in the fullness of time.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of us, and we set our hope on him.  Because of God’s pledge to us, there is no situation we can’t face together.  And in the end, it will be that witness more than anything else that will cause people to look at us in this place and say, “There are the children of God’s inheritance.  There are those who lean on grace.  Whatever else they may be, they are most certainly the Church.”

God in the heart of the Inferno

It turns out “Dante” isn’t just a medieval Italian poet.  The name also signifies a tiny coal town in Wise County, Virginia.  There, the name is pronounced Dant; the “e” is silent.  Dante, Virginia, is named after William Joseph Dante, who provided the money to build the town’s first post office.

Even so, the association between Dante, Virginia, and Dante the Italian poet is apt.  The poet wrote Inferno as the first book of his Divine ComedyInferno depicts hell as nine spiraled circles of suffering, each of which draws hell’s residents further from the presence of God.  Inferno’s hell includes flame, heat, and dusty ash, but most importantly it is characterized by despair.

The history of Dante, Virginia is not so different.  Its spiraling cycle of poverty began when people arrived a century ago to work in the coal mines.  Since then, generations have been born and died never leaving the hollows and bottom lands of which the town consists.  The heat from mine blasting was surely like hell.  Men suffered and died from black lung caused by coal dust.  Illiteracy continues to be rife, and despair is almost overwhelming.

I know about Dante, Virginia, because I’ve just returned from a mission trip there alongside twenty-two senior high youth and nine adult leaders.  We worked on four houses, accomplishing everything from clearing brush to putting in an entirely new kitchen.  In the dilapidated trailer in which my team labored—home to three adults and three children—we donned breathing masks and gloves to repair a child’s room that had black mold hanging from the ceiling and holes in the outside walls through which snakes and hornets could enter at will.  The living conditions were, indeed, like hell.

There is, however, one crucial difference between Dante’s Inferno and Dante, Virginia.  In the center of Inferno’s hell one finds Satan, forever beating his wings.  The very icon of despair lives in the heart of hell, ensuring that those trapped there will be separated from God forever.

But in the heart of Dante, Virginia, instead of the Devil there resides a perfectly pink, clean, three-week-old baby boy.  He lives in the home in which my team worked last week.  The little basinet in which the baby sleeps is the only new piece of furniture in the home.  I have no idea where his parents got it.  He is a blessed child, and our incessant hammering and sawing barely fazed him.

The baby’s name is Dominic.  His mother was awed when I explained to her that Dominic is a derivation of Dominus, which means Lord.  It is the Latin term we use to describe the Lord Jesus, and the shining, healthy presence of Dominic in the midst of such despairing conditions reminded me of the baby Jesus at the Nativity, resting in the deplorable conditions of an animal barn.

In Dante, Virginia, as in Bethlehem, the presence of the baby signifies the redeeming presence of God in the heart of things.  Dominic reveals that God is found even where despair seems to reign.  Those of us who were serving as Christ’s hand and feet in that place found Christ already there, waiting for us.

Last week in Dante, we saw hope kindled that hell can be dispelled. On the last day of our mission trip, when Dominic’s grandmother saw the tangible change for the better in the living conditions of her grandchildren, she wept and said over and over, “I am blessed; I am blessed.”  Just as Dominic’s mother was awed when she learned the origin of his name, I was awed by the hope and faith of his grandmother.

God is present in even in the Inferno.  When we serve as Christ’s hand and feet, we meet God there.   I learned this lesson while serving alongside a remarkable group of youth and adult leaders.  It is a lesson I was taught by the unexpected presence of Dominic, sleeping peacefully as walls were literally falling down around him.  It is a lesson I pray I never forget.