Dynamite and Signs

Did you know that the miracle described in today’s Gospel lesson, what we usually call the “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” is the only miracle other than the Resurrection of Jesus itself that is recorded in all four Gospels?  That fact tells us two things at the very outset.  First, this event almost certainly occurred.  Its memory was preserved by multiple apostolic traditions, that two thousand years ago on a mountainside across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus actually was swarmed by a ravenous crowd, and Jesus miraculously fed them.  Second, what occurred on that mountainside must have had special importance for the evangelists, even above and beyond the other miracles of Jesus.  It is set above, or at least apart, from the rest.

Whenever this miracle comes up in the lectionary—which is fairly often, since it’s recorded in all four Gospels—the response to it says a lot about the listening audience.  Some want to explain the feeding of the five thousand by saying that Jesus was able miraculously to regenerate fish Harry Potter-style, with a little magic mojo.  When this is the case, you know you have a group of traditionalist Episcopalians at hand.

Was Jesus able miraculously to regenerate fish Harry Potter-style, with a little magic mojo?

Was Jesus able miraculously to regenerate fish Harry Potter-style, with a little magic mojo?

Others want to explain the story as an act of contagious generosity, in which many in the crowd were secretly hoarding food, and when they saw the young boy share his meager fare at the behest of Jesus, they, too, opened their cloaks and satchels to share.  Thus, the loaves and fishes were multiplied, ensuring that no one went hungry.  If this is the preferred explanation, you know you have a congregation of thoroughly modernist Episcopalians.

And then there is the group of Episcopalians who would gather for church in my home state of Arkansas.  With rapt attention, they also would listen to this miracle story of Jesus in all its detail.  Then they’d eagerly wait in the receiving line after church, and when they reached the preacher to shake his hand, their burning question would be, “Father, was it bass or fried catfish?”

Was it bass or fried catfish?

Was it bass or fried catfish?

The attentive listener will have noticed that already in this homily I have used the term “miracle” to describe the feeding of the five thousand six times.  Much of the preoccupation with this story—and much of the misunderstanding—comes from, I believe, the notion that it is a miracle.  Miracles, commonly conceived, are events caused by a suspension of the laws of nature.  By definition, miracles stretch credulity to the breaking point, and in order to affirm that a miracle has occurred, a believer must set aside what he knows to be true about the way the world works.

But it’s important to point out that, in its original Greek, the New Testament never refers to the things Jesus does—to the healings, the stilling of storms, the exorcisms, or the feeding of the five thousand—as miracles.  That’s a later, Latin translation.  Rather, the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to the acts of Jesus with the Greek term “dynamis,” from which we derive our modern word, dynamite.  And the Gospel of John consistently refers to them as signs.

What difference does this make?  A lot, it seems to me.  Unlike miracles, dynamite doesn’t suspend the laws of nature, but it is explosive.  It does intend to blow apart and wide open the staid and concrete way of things.

Dynamite

That’s becoming more and more difficult to do in our world.  My job requires that I spend a lot of time on social media.  It has become an indispensible tool for ministry.  Or, I’m just addicted to Facebook.  Either way, I have noticed—and you probably have, too—that more and more articles appear on the internet with sensationalistic headlines like, “He thought he was buying a Mountain Dew, but what he discovered when he opened the can was shocking!”  Or, “The tiger was re-released into the wild, but you won’t believe what happened next!”

Superlatives abound, and we become jaded.  If “shock” is defined by a suspect story of a mouse in a can of Mountain Dew (which is, by the way, what that article was about), then our adjectives truly have become trivialized.  The horizons of our wonder have diminished.  We have become numb to awe. The notion that our expectations could be blown wide open is dismissed.  We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Dynamite is what Matthew, Mark, and Luke call the acts of Jesus.  John calls them signs.  And signs…as Will Willimon says, “A sign points to something [else] going on that’s even more important.”[i]  The feeding of the five thousand, John says, is not a miracle; it’s a sign.  So we should ask, to what is it pointing?

clickbait

Look again at what happens in the story, distilled to its simplest plot points: There is a hungry crowd.  There are the disciples who panic that they have neither the means nor the wherewithal to satisfy such gnawing hunger.  There is a boy who steps forward and offers all he has.  There is Jesus, who takes that gift, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the people.  And through the power of Jesus, all are fed.  John the Evangelist ends by saying, “When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’”

According to Will Willimon, Jesus’ action “points to the truth of who Jesus really is and the direction the world is really headed…[This] was a sign that God’s kingdom had come close, that God’s intentions for the world had surged forth.”[ii]

This is the sign.  This is the dynamite.  This is the superlative that can blow apart the accreted cynicism in our world and reclaim adjectives like wonder and awe: We don’t have to set out to feed the world, which is an overwhelming and panic-inducing prospect.  We each only must offer what we have to Jesus, who will take it, and bless it, and break it, and give it to that hungry world with the assurance to us that it will be enough.

feeding the five thousand

This is God’s intention for the whole world.  This is the great sign that all four Gospels share.  It is the very sign that Jesus will repeat on Maundy Thursday when he introduces the Eucharist and which he will enact with his own life on Good Friday when he hangs on the cross.

In John’s particular telling of the feeding of the five thousand, he notes something that even the other evangelists miss.  On this mountainside in dusty Galilee, to which the other Gospels refer as a desolate place, John says with his own expression of wonder and even confusion, “Now, there was a great deal of green grass in this place.”  It is as if wherever Jesus goes, life blooms.  You see, Jesus is himself a sign, a human oasis in an existential desert, one so brimming over with the presence of God that simply to have proximity to him is to be fed, to be healed.

The great jazz drummer Art Blakey famously said that “music washes away the dust of everyday life.”  That is what the signs of Jesus intend to do as well.  Jesus washes away the dust of everyday life, to reveal that real life—not the mundane and trivial life of social media and modern ennui but the life God intends—is full of signs, unexpected wonders and surprises that all point to the deep and never-ending love that sustains the whole creation.   The feeding of the five thousand reveals to us that we, too, are among those signs, that we, too, are called to participate and give whatever we have to offer to Jesus, that he might make dynamite of us, rendering us those very agents who blow wide open the expectations of the world, and through whom hungry souls are fed.

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[i] Willimon, William H.  Why Jesus?, 60.

[ii] Ibid., 62 & 64.

Salome’s Silver Platter

Earlier this week, when I visited with our chief operating officer, David Simpson, about today’s Gospel passage, David said, “You’re preaching on that?  I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sermon on the beheading of John the Baptist.”

It’s no wonder.  This text is, perhaps, the most horrifying and lurid story in the entire bible.  Had Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King collaborated on a second movie after “The Shining,” this would be the screenplay.  Everything about it is awful.

Some background: The King Herod in today’s story is a son of Herod the Great, who was the king of Judea when Jesus was born and who murdered the children of Bethlehem in the attempt to kill Jesus.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Today’s Herod has married his brother’s wife, and if that alone weren’t a plotline suitable for a cable television reality show, Herod also has a disturbing attraction toward his adolescent step-daughter, who also happens to be his niece.

Herod Antipas coin

John the Baptist, who has continued to travel the countryside condemning sin since he baptized Jesus, has taken particular note of Herod’s strange household arrangement, and he has not been quiet in his indictment of the royal family.  As a result, Herod has John the Baptist arrested.  Herod wants to silence John, but he is afraid of the potential reaction from the crowd, so he dithers.  Not so, Herod’s wife.  With serpentine calculation, Herodias plays upon her husband’s obsession with her daughter, and she instructs the daughter—called Salome by historians—to dance provocatively for Herod during a dinner party.

Through centuries of literature and art, we have depictions of the Nabokov-like scene: the young Salome dancing suggestively; the libertine king ogling her all the while.  And when the girl’s dance is finished, Herod predictably gushes, promising Salome anything in the world she might want.  Salome is ready with her request, having been prompted by her mother.  “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Herod—afraid of John, afraid of the crowds, afraid of the watchful stares of his dinner guests, afraid of this girl who has him enthralled—cannot but give her what she asks.  The deed is done.  The head is displayed grotesquely on the dinner plate.  And in a moment, John the Baptist—the second Elijah, the forerunner of our Lord—is snuffed from the story.

A few weeks ago this grisly story was displayed in vivid relief for Jill and me.  We were in the oratory chapel of St. John’s Co-Cathedral on Malta, staring at the largest canvass ever painted by the great Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio: “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.”  It covers the entire altar wall of the chapel, and it does justice to the biblical tale.  In the snapshot of the painting, the executioner has struck the primary blow with his sword, and he leans down to finish the job with a knife.  All the while, Salome eagerly awaits, holding forth a large platter to receive her trophy.

Caravaggio,

Caravaggio, “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,” A.D. 1608

There is one mysterious, unidentified figure in Caravaggio’s painting, an elderly woman standing next to Salome.  She can’t be Herod’s wife Herodias, both because the woman in the painting is too old and because she is clearly shocked and horrified by the event she has just witnessed.  The woman’s hands are raised to the sides of her head, as if to cover her ears from the sound of her own scream.  What has happened seems impossible to her.  She isn’t sure how it can be.  John the Baptist had just been standing before her, courageous and undaunted.  He was vital.  He had a role to play.  And now he is gone.

She is why this distressing, seemingly unique story is worth preaching, because it is not unique at all.  Certainly, the exact circumstances stand apart, even from other grisly stories in a bible full of them.  But the shock experienced by the lone woman in Caravaggio’s masterpiece, the experience of a storyline being abruptly cut off, of a character leaving the scene before his role is complete…that’s an experience we all know intimately well: The life of one important to our world is ended by an assassin’s bullet.  The grace-filled days of a saint in our lives are cut short by heart attack or cancer or stroke. A phone call tells us that the loved one we kissed goodbye scarcely a moment ago has been in an accident.  With jarring suddenness, lives simply end.  Purposes go unfulfilled.  And we despair at the futility of our abbreviated existence.  We are reminded of Shakespeare’s words in MacBeth:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.[i]

How many of us know the shock, horror, and sorrow of the woman in Caravaggio’s painting?  Who among us doesn’t?

Both theologians and secular skeptics say that the religious impulse is, at root, a search for enduring meaning.  Theologians find this impulse reliable, while skeptics suspect it is delusional, but that it is a defiance against MacBeth’s futility, against Salome’s silver platter, they both agree.  Our souls rebel against the notion that the axe man, or the errant car at a traffic light, or the clogged artery, have the final say over the purposes, plans, and people in our lives that are so important to us.  We won’t, we can’t believe it, and so we come here seeking hope that meaning does not end with the last gasp of breath or beat of the heart.

“How many of us know the shock, horror, and sorrow of the woman in Caravaggio’s painting? Who among us doesn’t?”

It is good that we do.  But in the modern era we have become content with a diluted hope.  Uncritically, we talk of heaven as the “what’s next” of this abbreviated existence, with its images of chaise-lounge rest, gauzy white surroundings, and freedom from discomfort and distress.  But while that may be better than pain, it seems to me that it is hardly the fulfillment of the purposes so central to us here and so often stopped on a dime by sudden tragedy before their completion.  Rather, our prevailing notion of heaven is of a place in which those purposes no longer matter to us, where we blithely abide, sleepy and carefree.  It is an anesthetized life, lived on a cloud.  Isn’t that how our culture portrays heaven, when we portray it at all?

But that’s a mere shade of the hope and promise of our Christian faith.  Put bluntly, our common, conventional understanding of heaven is an escape from death, a close call with nothing but our new angel’s wings on our backs.  God has something far greater than that in mind for us.

Saint Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians today that we were chosen in Christ before the very foundation of the world, that we are part of God’s good plan and will be, in the fullness of time, gathered up in Christ as part of a renewed world.  You see, Jesus doesn’t escape death; he defeats death.  Jesus enters all those moments, those sudden shocks that seem to steal from us our loves, our purposes, our very meaning, and he says, “No!  This person, whose candle was snuffed too soon; this project, that was the source of such good in the world; this relationship between two souls, that joined them in a whole greater than its parts: they will have the last word, not death.  I will gather them up into me.”

The plans and purposes of God, in which our own good plans and purposes participate, will not, ultimately, be thwarted.  Until recently, all Christian burials entailed the feet of the deceased facing east.  That was not so the gravedigger would know how to align the headstones, while the souls of the departed napped in heaven.  It was so that, on the day of the General Resurrection, the faithful would rise newly embodied, ready to meet the returning Lord and go to work in God’s new world.

I’m not interested in debates between literal versus metaphorical understandings of the Resurrection.  I’m interested in what the Resurrection means, and its promise is that even when the sword came down on John the Baptist with suddenness and shock, John’s role in God’s tapestry was not ended, but only interrupted.  John, too, like our loved ones, like you, and like me, will in God’s new world carry on our joys, our loves, our work, contributing to the beauty and goodness of the whole.

Salome's Silver Platter sermon

This is the word of hope we Christians have to offer to the world: to the Jewish people who still lament millions of lives interrupted in the Holocaust, to the Yazidis and others whose lives are being ended each day by ISIS, to those worldwide whose lives are abbreviated by poverty and natural disaster, to the skeptic in our own society struggling with emotions of meaningless and despair, and to those of us in these pews who grieve each day for those we fear we’ve lost.  This is the word of hope we offer: Death and the agents of death do not win; God wins.  Nothing is lost.  All is gathered up in Christ, and our purposes will be renewed, to continue on toward their fulfillment.

What does that mean for us now?  It means that we are called not to live tentatively, not to hedge in our endeavors but be bold in our risky, courageous service to God.  We are called to stand with Jesus against the powers of death.  We are called to engage this life with gusto, with verve, and with joy, acknowledging surely that the shock may come to us at any time, around any corner, but fearing it not, because we know that we were made by God to play a part in God’s grand drama, and that no matter what interruption, our role will endure to the end.

[i] MacBeth, Act 5, scene 5.

To be a patriot

American-Flag-Flying

From that night on, he knew they’d kill him.  He had come home a day after having been arrested, intimidated, and thrown in jail for a trumped-up traffic violation.  His wife and baby daughter were in bed.  It was midnight, and he sat alone at the kitchen table.  The phone rang, and when he answered it a voice on the other end of the line vomited every epithet imaginable, putting particular emphasis on the “N” word.  Then the voice said, “We’ve taken everything from you we want.  Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”

And Martin Luther King, Jr. knew.  He didn’t know if it would be the next day, the next week, or in several years, but he knew just as certainly as if an Old Testament prophet had predicted it eons ago that they would kill him if he would not be silent.

That night, Martin Luther King was doubting and afraid.  He thought of his wife and daughter and the danger to which he’d exposed them.  He felt himself begin to falter under the weight of his conviction.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Mark today, Jesus comes home.  When last Jesus left Nazareth, he was a construction worker, a day laborer (which is what “carpenter” most likely means in the biblical context) who’d wandered east to check out his crazy cousin John baptizing in the River Jordan.  The good folk of Nazareth haven’t seen him since, but they’ve received increasingly strange reports by those who travel through town.  If the reports weren’t so frequent, they’d be dismissed as so many jokes.  First, citizens hear this Jesus—a poor, lower-class, boy born in questionable circumstances—is preaching in the countryside as if he knows God.  That’s bad enough.  But then reports waft in that with Jesus the mentally ill have been soothed.  The sick have been healed.  Those whose lives are paralyzed have found the strength to walk, to move forward with new hope and promise.  Worst of all, as Jesus’ power has grown, his message has become threatening to some.  He has spoken of the Way that leads to the kingdom of God, and however you try to interpret it, it is a way that brings discomfort to those who are comfortable as it raises up those whom the world has cast low.

Today, unannounced, Jesus walks back into Nazareth, his hometown.  The Greek word for “hometown” used in Mark is “patris,” which is the same root from which we get the terms “patriot” and “patriotism.”  That’s interesting, isn’t it?  That the lectionary would posit this text on this of all weekends, as our eyes still glimmer in the afterglow of last night’s fireworks, with our stomachs still comfortably full of Independence Day fare, suggests to me what might be called in today’s parlance a “God moment.”

On this Independence Day weekend, it is surely fair to ask, “What is patriotism?”  At its root, as in Mark today, to be a patriot is simply to be from the patris, nothing more or less than to be a member of some organized political entity: a city, a state, or a nation.  But we know from the emotions that welled in us as last night’s sky was lit by starbursts that, for us, patriotism is also more than this.  Indeed the second verse of “America the Beautiful,” which we just sang, says:

America the Beautiful quote

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife.  Patriotism, then, is tied to liberty.  But what is liberty?  The easiest answer might be that liberty is freedom from any and all fetters placed upon us.  We enjoy the most liberty in this sense when we are free to do whatever, whenever, and however we choose.  But that is, at root, a selfish definition, and it doesn’t fit with the verse just quoted, about those “who more than self their country loved.”  The heroes of Katherine Lee Bate’s blessed hymn were focused not on their own individualistic selves, but on something larger than themselves.  What was it? The hymn reminds us: They sacrificed their very lives to free their brothers and sisters from strifeThis was the liberty they cherished, for which they lived and died: to raise up the one next to them, to ensure his liberty, or hers.

The ideal of this great patris in which we are blessed to live was penned by Thomas Jefferson two and a half centuries ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  And patriots are those who give themselves to this ideal of the patris, who are willing to sacrifice even life, if necessary, to ensure that this equality and these rights are freely enjoyed by all.

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As sidebar, it’s important to note that patriotism differs from nationalism.  Nationalism extols the existence of the state for its own sake.  The state is seen as the collective embodiment of power, strength, and security.  The core of one’s being becomes the state—not its virtues or ideals but the mere fact of it.   The state becomes a fetish and an idol on which the nationalist hangs his hopes, and the nationalist obstinately refuses to acknowledge when the state has become an impediment to liberty rather than its defender.  Beware nationalism.  Beware when we hear it from our politicians, and doubly beware when we hear it from our preachers.

Not so, patriotism.  Rather than giving his heart to the mere fact of the patris, the patriot gives his heart to the best that the patris stands for, and the patriot does this even in the face of fear, challenge, ridicule and assault by those who claim patriotism but have lost an understanding of what liberty really means.

We see, then, in today’s passage from Mark that Jesus is the patriot.  He enters the patris of his hometown as the one who embodies, come what may, God’s hope for Israel, the liberty that is the kingdom of God.  But we must pay attention to the character of this liberty.  It is a liberty in which all the lonely and the lost are found; those with blinded eyes—and those with blinded hearts—are given sight; those who have been pushed to the bottom of society and walked upon are raised up in love.

The citizens of Nazareth want nothing to do with this patriot Jesus.  His liberty doesn’t strike them as good news.  It sounds threatening to their well-being.  It sounds as if it might require something of them, some sort of cataclysmic change in the way they see the world, like fireworks lighting up a darkened night sky.  And so they ridicule Jesus.  The spread rumors that he has no father.  They threaten him.  In Luke’s account they actually manhandle Jesus and try to throw him off a cliff in order to shut him up.  They’ll fail in that attempt, and he won’t be silenced, but Jesus also knows the cost of his patriotism will eventually be his death.  Self-sacrifice is the price he’ll pay for his commitment to the liberty of God.

"In Luke’s account they actually manhandle Jesus and try to throw him off a cliff in order to shut him up."

“In Luke’s account they actually manhandle Jesus and try to throw him off a cliff in order to shut him up.”

I have been out of town for the past two Sundays, and my goodness, this nation has changed in my absence!  Things tragic, joyous, and challenging all occurred while I and twenty-eight Cathedral pilgrims were away: the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, the historic changes wrought at our own General Convention.  My clergy colleagues here have preached passionately on these specific topics, so I will instead offer this: Often on Independence Day weekend, the question arises whether the United States is a Christian nation.  People with varying stakes in the answer to this question address it in different ways.  I would respond by asking about the character of our patriotism.  What does it look like?  It seems to me that the degree to which we are both faithful Christians and good patriots is perhaps best discerned by the degree to which our American patriotism also looks like the patriotism of Jesus, the degree to which we pursue his liberty in our private and public lives, in our hearts and in society, and the degree to which we are committed to that liberty, even in the midst of ridicule and danger.

In other words, for those of use who claim to be both Christian and American, our patriotism is measured by whether or not we are working toward a day in which the kingdom of God envisioned by Jesus is witnessed in the nation around us.  According to that yard stick, in our responses to the issues facing us these days, how patriotic are we?

Real patriotism was surely evident in the tortured prayer of that twenty-seven year-old preacher in Montgomery, with whom I began this sermon, who understood better than most what it looks like to champion the kingdom of God in the patris.  That night Martin Luther King prayed, “Lord…I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage.”

And Jesus Christ responded, “Martin, stand up.  Take courage.  And I will be with you to the end of the world.”  And King stood as a patriot, even at the cost of his own life.

We remember again this weekend the birth of a nation unlike any other, one founded not through a desire for power but through a passion for liberty.  May liberty be our passion, through which we commit ourselves to God’s vision for this and every land.  It is a vision in which aching hearts stand not alone, hungry children are fed, and lost souls are found; where those of us born of plenty freely give of our lives in order that all God’s children may know love and joy.  May that vision dazzle us like fireworks in the sky, so that we commit ourselves to it against every challenge—including self-sacrifice if necessary—that we stand up and take courage wherever God leads us.