Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Gateways, Glory, and the Gospel in the Midst of Empire: Psalm 24 and Mark 6:14-29

Airports and Airlines. 

They can be the glory of expedited domestic and international travel. They can also be the symbols of some of our more stressful and anxious moments. 

For my recent trip to the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis, it was the latter.  It all began when I was the last to be dropped off at Terminal F by a local shuttle service. When the driver handed me my bag, I froze as I noticed- it wasn’t my bag.  

“Where’s my bag?" 

"I must have given it to the gentleman at…Terminal A." 

Yes, the terminal a half mile before mine. 

In what I believe was my fastest mile pace to date, I hauled to Terminal A just in time to intercept my bag from being checked by the gentleman who was unaware he had the wrong luggage and headed to Florida.   

Then it got worse- like I was living out the children’s story, Alexander’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day,  

Because some days are like this- especially at the Philadelphia Int'l Airport. 

My flight was canceled at 11 p.m. because of computer glitches that failed to schedule a flight crew. My bags were lost only 90 minutes later to be found.  The hotel offered by airline was in Bala Cynwd.  No restaurants were open for post-stress snack. I missed the General Assembly’s opening worship. Then, just as my rescheduled morning flight was about to touchdown in St. Louis, I could have dangled my legs out the window and touched the ground, the plane made a quick re-ascent as an unexpected plane was on our landing strip.  

I was never getting to my destination.  

Needless to say, I eventually made it. As my Lyft driver drove down the highway, I saw the St. Louis Arch that welcomes you into the city. Then I breathed.  

The Arch stands 630 feet high and is a beautiful feat of architecture adjacent to the Mississippi River. Originally designed as a symbol of America’s gateway to glory through Westward expansion, each morning as I ran by the monument I could not help but wonder if there was another side to the story of America’s quest for glory and expansion? What about the Native Americans who had lived on that land long before we arrived? What about Africans who would be enslaved on these lands? Is the Arch really a symbol of glory and a gateway of hope for all? Depends on whom you ask.  And in the shadows of this Arch are both a historic courthouse and an old Christian cathedral.  

Which begged more questions, hence snapping this photo. 

Where is the church in the midst of it all? 
Whose glory do we pursue? 
What kind of gateway are we daring to open? 
Are we a gateway to the glory of empire or the glory of God and the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? 

These were also some of the questions raised in their own way by the faithful gathered for the General Assembly.  This was also the question posed by Psalm 24 that called us into worship this morning- fling wide you gates so the King of Glory may come in. 

Now for some context. The people of God were called out of Egypt to be an alternative community to Pharaoh and his empire and gifted by Yahweh with their own rituals, laws, and sacred practices that hinged on the worship of God who will be who God will be.  And who will this God be? One who cares for the poor and oppressed, widows and orphans, hungry and enslaved, and all who look for refuge and safety from emperors, empires, and their own expansive quests for glory. This God was also calling out a people to fling wide their gates to this God’s glory and become an archway of jubilee for those so often exploited by the Pharaohs of every generation.  This is why the Psalmist writes, “who shall stand in God’s holy place? Those with clean hands and pure hearts and who do not lift up their souls to what is false.” 

I could go on. But the lectionary story to be engaged this morning comes to us from the Gospel of Mark Chapter 6, with the likes of Psalm 24 as backdrop for the events leading to the rather gruesome beheading of John the Baptist.  

Not exactly the text you would expect for a guest preacher on a Sunday morning in July.   

The Baptist has been moving about the region proclaiming a message and baptism of repentance. While we have often reduced repentance to the confessing of individual sin for the forgiveness of the individual believer, this is only a part of John’s prophetic and radical call. After all, John did not eat locusts and honey and wear camel skin just so you and  I could feel good about our personal relationship with Jesus. 

I hope not- have you ever tried that kind of diet or wardrobe? 

John’s message of repentance was a revolutionary and countercultural call to turn from the ways of empire and towards the ways of God; to fling wide the gates for a new movement of jubilee in the very presence of Pharaoh dressed up as Rome whose quests for glory came on the backs of the poor and subservient classes.  

Sound a bit familiar?  

So repent, turn, believe, and enter into these cleansing waters of grace all you who are longing for the assurance that you belong, you are loved, you can be a part of something more whole and just than the pho-glory of Pharaoh or Caesar or Herod or whoever is in power. This baptism is a declaration of an alternative allegiance to God’s kingdom come and will being done. 

This is still the message of baptism today, although we do not always think of it in such revolutionary terms.  But that’s a sermon for another day. 

So maybe now we begin to see a bit of the rub between the Baptist and Herod, who was both Jew and Roman governance. While tempted to see John’s witness as apolitical, contemporaries of the Baptist assure us he was a wanted man and a threat to the glory of empire casting a shadow over God’s covenantal people. Ancient Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century, said it this way: Herod feared the great influence John had over the people who might raise a rebellion, for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise. By putting John to death, Herod prevented any mischief John might cause and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late[1]

Aware of this tension, the Gospel writer offers his own cartooning of the events that led to the Baptist’s death. He illustrates the Baptist confronting the marriage of Herod to his own living brother’s wife as a sure power play that violated the laws of God and exploited human life for political gain. Said more brashly- John spoke truth to power, as prophets have for generations and continue still, and challenged Herod’s fraudulent behavior as one willing to expend anything, anyone, even a young girl and his religious story for his own (and Rome’s) glory. So John pleaded with Herod, almost echoing the Psalmist, to repent, clean his hands, and make his heart pure again. And Herod, as Mark wrote, was perplexed by this word- even fearing it. 

Because when God’s people speak truth to power that binds and exploits another human life, especially that of a child, they quake at the messaging- at least, they should. But sometimes the fear of losing their “glory” and power is greater still.

So Mark goes on…

In what mirrors the banquet of King Artexerxes when he made Esther his Queen, Herod’s birthday bash leverages the body and sexuality of his own daughterto entertain and please his aristocratic guests. 

Aside: This is a sermon in and of itself, as we consider this woman as an often over-looked, sometimes blamed victim in this biblical story.

Nevertheless, drunk on the liquor of imperial glory, Herod offers as “payment” up to half of his kingdom. Yet, when this victim of sexual exploitation asks her mother as to the request, playing into the oppressive quest for power, her mother requests the head of the Baptist. After all, what good is half a kingdom if its greatest threat is still living?

Despite being perplexed by John’s message, Herod cannot escape the lures of vainglory and takes the head of the prophet as the final collateral for empire. As activist and biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, this is Mark’s parody on "a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face.” (Binding the Strongman). 

Said differently, the gospel confronts the recycling context of a world where human lives, whether young children or prophets among us, are expended for the glory of empire. If not careful, we can lose sight of God’s ancient story, becoming either drunk on the same lust for power and privilege or worse- numb to it.

Friends, as a preacher I consistently find myself in a place where I find not only a call to, but also comfort within the perplexity of the contexts of the ancient stories. Because in their contexts we find our own, as Ecclesiastes would say- there is nothing new under the sun.

Like John’s world, it is no secret that we live in time and place where human lives hang in the balance and used as political collateral. Whether children and their families at our borders or our local neighbors battling homelessness and poverty, women who continue to face exploitation, harassment, or trafficking, and people of color who fear their lives may be the next to be claimed by those sworn to protect, immigrants who are looking for safety and asylum from war torn nations and others battling addiction and complexities in mental health, to include beloved public figures- we know there is another side to national stories of glory that victimize too many. We dare hope there is a better story than what continues to unfold before us and on our newsfeeds.  

So we hear again the call of the Baptist to repent and believe the good news that there is indeed another way, a better way, even a divine way out from the shadows of imperial glory and towards the glory of God and God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  

This way we see wrapped in the person and work of Jesus Christ, of whom both the Baptist and the Gospel writer are pointing us to in this story. This Jesus, who built upon a call to repentance, announced God’s kingdom come, and, a la John, Jesus was executed as victim of imperial glory yet raised from the dead as anarchway of hope and gateway to God’s glory flung wide open to all who dare to believe death cannot and shall not have the last and final word in God’s eternal story. Not for the Baptist. Not for the Messiah. Not for the young girl in Herod’s courts. Not for you or me or anyone. We all are gifted entrance into this new way bursting forth in the world God made and still very much loves yet strained by empires and emperors. 

This is the good, O so very good news that funds our discipleship as we love and serve, even speak truth to power as advocates for justice on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors near and far.

The questions for us- where is the church in the midst of it all? Will we dare to be those who fling wide the gateways to this kingdom of glory in a world of empires and emperors? 

This past week, the staff from the Presbytery of Philadelphia went to see the brilliant documentary on the life of Mister Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A Presbyterian Minister ordained as an evangelist in the Pittsburgh Presbytery, Mister Rogers was a prophet and pioneer in his own day. He dared to fling wide the gates of God’s glory as he spoke to children about the hard questions and cultural realities. Mister Rogers even subverted the imperial messaging to children through television sets with the gospel summed up in love for neighbor as your self- and his ministry transformed generations. One of the lines Mister Rogers is famous for is, in times of great trouble, look for the helpers among us. 

In many ways, as your Associate Presbyter, I get to see firsthand and then tell the stories of these helper happenings among us in the midst of empire.  Much like the Baptist, there are teenagers speaking truth to power as they march for the end of gun violence and others, like your commissioners to the General Assembly, are advocating for the end of exploitive cash bail systems that especially target people of color in poor neighborhoods. There are new church initiatives and ecumenical partnerships being developed that go beyond the protests and tangibly work to provide housing and care to refugees seeking asylum. 

Then there is the congregation. Aware of the local and international needs of your neighbors, you have partnered with the Interfaith Housing Alliance to purchase and furnish a home for local families experiencing homelessness. You have launched an on-going partnership with Living Waters for the World to provide clean water filtration systems for your new friends and family in Haiti who lack access to this basic human need and right.  Then, this week, you hosted nearly 200 children through your Vacation Bible School and, a la Rev. Rogers, assured children they are loved and a part of God’s story. 

All this and more serve as evidence that the gates to God’s glory have been flung wide open by the faithful disciples of Jesus who dare to break the bonds of empire and live into Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace, wholeness and what the ancient Hebrew story calls shalom. This is our liberating work and repentant witness of a people who have been drenched in the sacred and sending waters of our baptism that John announced and gave his very life.  

You are all certainly aware by now of the incredible story of the 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach recently freed from a Thailand cave after over two weeks trapped by floodwaters. The work of the Thai SEALS was nothing short of a miracle. What I was most moved by was how those apart of the rescue were willing to sacrifice everything- even their lives- to make this possible. In fact, one did. One of the SEALS was tasked with mapping out the pathway to their deliverance, lining the exit route with a rope and canisters of oxygen to sustain the journey. Back and forth, swimming sometimes for 6 hours or more, this man eventually succumbed to exhaustion, lack of oxygen, and drowned. This tragedy could have halted the efforts altogether. Yet the work of this diver served a far more redemptive purpose, making a way out, a gateway of hope through the narrow tunnels of this Thailand mountain, so that these young kids and their coach could be returned to their families.  

Friends, this is the call of the church. This is the charge of the gospel and witness of John. Dare we be willing to expend everything we have, with whatever resources we have, even the lives of our selves and our institutions, for the sake of our most vulnerable neighbors right here in Ambler and wherever the Spirit calls us next. May we be those who navigate, as Jesus said, the narrow roads that become a gateway to life, even in the bellies of oppressive empires and mountains of despair that threaten our hopeful imaginations.  

May we fling wide the gates so the King of Glory may come in- and who is this King of Glory? The Lord whose face we see in our neighbors in need and all those looking for assurance that they belong, that they are loved.  

You are loved.  

And sometimes to hear and receive such love is the most revolutionary and repentant act of all. 


[1]Paraphrased from Antiquities 18.5.2.