Jesus: “Sit down!” (OK, that was easy)
When I was in high school I went to a youth camp in Michigan every year; one year the theme for the week was, “Obeying the Commands of Christ”. We were told we should learn all of Jesus’ commands, and focus on obeying them. It sounded reasonable on the surface, but looking back, it’s one of the perspectives that drove me away from fundamentalism. The perspective of focusing on commands turns grace on its head and makes the entire focus of spirituality a drudgery of law-keeping. Anyway, I don’t know how they came up with the list of Jesus’ commands we were supposed to obey, but they missed the one we have in this text today. He told the people to sit down (v. 10). They did. This is the second easiest command to obey in the whole bible – the first is of course, “be fruitful and multiply.”
Moses: fame and human side
Normally when we think about commands and laws in the bible, we think of Moses. He was famous for many reasons, and going up to THE mountain, Sinai, and coming down with the torah, the law is what he is most famous for. I love the whole Moses’ story – how on that first Passover night in Egypt, the Hebrew slaves were liberated from Pharaoh’s oppressive hand. Moses led the people through the waters of the sea, and though they grumbled, he interceded and fed them with Manna in the wilderness – warning them not to try to save the leftovers. (Exod. 16:19)
I love the story of Moses because the bible lets us see him in his frail, reluctant, self-doubting humanity as well as in his moments of true greatness. We see him at the burning bush where God is trying to call him into service – but Moses isn’t so sure he has enough of what it takes to do the job, or even to be listened to by his own people. God speaks out of the bush to Moses, saying
“I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exod 3:14 )
Later, he again questions his ability to keep leading, making God promise again that his presence will be with Moses. Compassionately, God acquiesces:
And He said,
“My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exod. 33:14)
I’m certain that if people knew where Moses died, it would be one of the great religious shrines of all time – but of course Moses died alone, so we do not know where. But Moses continued to live on for the people of Israel – not just in the fact that he gave them the torah, the law, but also in the expectation that he left behind. Moses predicted that in the future, God would again raise up a prophet like himself!
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. (Deut. 18:18)
The expectation and its questions
A prophet like Moses? The people in Jesus’ day had this expectation – and it filled them with questions. “If such a prophet came, could there be a new exodus from foreign domination? Could God’s people once again hear those reassuring words, “I AM” and know that he was with them, that he could again feed them when they were overwhelmed by their scarcity? Could they again go through insurmountable barriers, like the sea – even in these new stormy times? After all, nothing seemed less likely. They were living in tough times, pawns in a foreign empire. They even renamed their own sea of Galilee after dear Emperor Tiberius.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves as our gospel text opens. Jesus went to the side of the sea of Galilee, or rather, “Tiberias,” with a large crowd. John says he went up THE mountain – like Moses had done, and at the same time of the celebration of the first exodus, at Passover, he gave them a command, which they followed: sit down. Is it any wonder that the next thing that happens is that the people in the wilderness are miraculously fed? Is it even surprising that there are enough left overs so that each of the 12 tribes of Israel gets a “to go” basket?
Should we be surprised that the very next thing that happens is a crossing of the sea, of course in a storm? And couldn’t we all by now predict that we would hear the words from Jesus repeating the words God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, “I am” – which only makes sense to translate in English “It is I”?
The connection: our time of scarcity
What are we to take from this thickly layered text?
I believe this speaks powerfully to us today – being, as we are, in remarkably similar circumstances as those people who obeyed the command to sit on the grass that day.
For the first time since the Great Depression, we are living in times of scarcity where there used to be abundance. Many people have lost homes, jobs, security, pensions, and for some, also hope. But speaking of economic scarcity only scratches the surface of the scarcity-issues we face in these times. We are living in a time when even the Baptists are loosing church members, not to mention the fact that the Presbyterian Church has just seen its biggest single-year decline on record. To make matters worse, we are told that the new generation does not plan to take their parents’ place in churches in the future. And to top it off, time itself is also scarce in churches like ours in which, according to our recent survey, the average age is 75.
What are we going to do? Is there a way out of this scarcity-crisis?
I believe that the answer is qualified “yes, if.” The answer is “no,” if we think we will be saved simply by economics. I certainly hope that the economy can turn around quickly so that the suffering caused by this crisis can be alleviated, but even if it does get better, that will not solve the problems of the church, or our own sense of being alone at sea, at night in a storm. We can no more be saved by economics than those people in Jesus’ day could have been saved by making him king – which is what they wanted to do.
The answer is “yes,” there is a way out of this scarcity-crisis, “if”. If we are indeed willing to sit down on the grass and allow our Lord to feed us. The solution to our scarcity-panic is to stop long enough, to hear what this new Moses has to say to us on THE mountain. Listen to the very words used of him that day:
Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; (v.11 )
He took bread, he gave thanks, and he gave/distributed it to his disciples. This is Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist – which means “thanksgiving” (in fact, this is the only eucharist that John records).
How will we, the frightened disciples who will frequently find ourselves at sea in a night-storm, ever hear his reassuring voice saying, “I AM who I AM; don’t be afraid”? (v. 20) We will know his presences as we sit still long enough for him to feed us at his table, together.
Assessments: what do we have?
It will never look like there is enough to go around. There will always be overwhelming needs. We will look around at our resources and we will ask, where are we going to get enough? We will assess our possibilities and we will always come up with amounts too small to overcome the degree of scarcity we perceive. And the resources we could pull together to try to meet the need would indeed be the equivalent of a paltry pair of fish and a miniscule amount of bread, if we were sitting there on the grass alone. But we are not alone. Jesus is here. We are not in the storm alone; Jesus is here. God is present, here and now.
What we need is only for people who are willing to be the boy, to come forward with what they have, and offer it up, to get the ball rolling. And this is exactly what is happening right now among us in an amazing way!
Being the boy with the little lunch
It has been a wonder for me to see people in this congregation step up and say, in effect, like that little boy with the lunch said, “Here is what I have been given: I’m willing to let the Lord multiply it.” People have stepped forward to take leadership and participate meaningfully across the spectrum of this congregation’s ministry teams: from property and worship to fellowship and mission, from membership and communication to administration and congregational care, and Christian education — where we still need more participation.
Not only that, there are new initiatives being born right now, starting with the Acts 16:5 Initiative group. There is a new plan being developed for small groups, and another for increasing our community visibility, and for outreach.
This may indeed be a time of national scarcity, but we are not allowing scarcity to define us. We are defined by the fact that our Lord is with us, and he is giving us himself again and again, in the breaking of the bread, with the result that we have even more than we need for ourselves. In fact, we have substantial quantities left over to share with others – exactly as he wants us to do.
Day follows after day, season after season,
You, O God, have ordained the rhythms of nature.
Empires rise and fall, kingdoms wax and wane,
But You, O Lord, reign supreme forever.
One day in seven, we mark as sacred, set apart; a new beginning;
We come to worship You, O God
Our times, our days, our lives are in your hands, Everlasting Father
In God alone is our trust; in Him is our salvation
Speaking Truth to second-order Power
We have just read one of the oddest stories in the New Testament. It has no teaching, no parable, no miracle, in fact Jesus is only in the story incidentally in the opening paragraph and the point is confusion over his true identity that this story never solves.
It’s a gruesome story – a head on a platter at the end; if it were a film, the review would speak of “gratuitous violence”. The author, Mark does not just narrate the fact that John was killed, or even specifically that he was beheaded; he actually makes it part of the story we mentally “see” as we read that the head on the platter was brought in and given to the girl, who then took it to her mother; we don’t just glimpse it passing by, we watch it change hands.
This is also a creepy story. It would be bad enough if it were a story of a lusty king who was seduced by a dancing woman into making a foolish promise at his drunken birthday bash, but it’s worse. The dancer that gets him all worked up his his niece. Herod (Antipas) has just recently seduced his own brother (Philip)’s wife into leaving him; she is now living with Herod, along with the daughter she and Philip had. Can it get any creepier? Yes! She is referred to as a “girl,” not a young woman.
Mark tells us that John got into trouble with this family by criticizing the immoral relationship between Herod and his brother’s wife – surely this is Mark’s short-hand for what must certainly have been John’s critique of the debauchery that manifested itself in this family in every imaginable way.
Among these people, it is more honorable to have an innocent man executed and his corpse degraded than to back down publicly from a rash oath. If you are horrified by these people, then you are following the story as Mark intended you to do.
Why tell it?
So, why tell this story at all? What does Mark want us to take away from it; and furthermore, what does this nasty little tale have to do with us, in our time? I believe this story is important, and even the gross elements help make the point that we need to hear, especially in our time.
First, this is a looser-story. John may be the character we like, but he gets killed. This is not like the story of the prophet Elijah, speaking truth to power, confronting king Ahab, and getting away with it. It is not like Daniel, refusing to eat the king’s food in spite of the risk, and being rewarded for his faithfulness with approval and success. In this story, it is the “Goliath,” not the “David” to gets to do the decapitating. In this story, the hero looses. John, who dedicated his whole life to preparing the way for Messiah, who lived rough, out in the desert, who, when crowds were coming to him and he was at the height of his success was so humble and willing to defer to Jesus – receives no divine rescue; he doesn’t even get to make one of those last-dying-breath martyr-speeches.
Goodness ≠ predictable success
Why do we need to know this story? First, because we live in such a success-culture. We live surrounded by the cultural expectation that good deeds get rewarded with success, and that, conversely, failure is a tell-tale sign that you were on the wrong side. “You get what you deserve.”
There are a number of reasons why we need to be disabused of this notion. First, because it is simply not true. Or at least, not as true as people make it out to be. There is, it must be admitted, truth to the general idea that if you work hard, if you are honest and disciplined, if you get a good education and are dedicated to your craft, you will have lot more chance of making a success of your life than if you are lazy, sloppy, irresponsible and negligent. In general, this is the message we try to send to our kids; be honest, play fair, do your homework, study, and some day it will all pay off for you. “Goodness will lead to success,” we tell them.
But we know it does not always work out that way. Tragedies do happen; some people get sick; some die young. Some marry badly; some have children that get involved in destructive behaviors; others just seem to catch all the bad luck (and Presbyterians do not even believe in luck). So the first reason we do not believe that goodness is always rewarded by success is that it just isn’t an accurate picture of the world.
Failure ≠ fault
The flip side of that coin is the second reason we need this looser story about John. It is simply not true that failure is a sign of fault. It may be: it is easy to see how irresponsible choices in life leads to failure, but it is not at all a consistent clue. This is crucial for us as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, to understand. When there is a poor person at our gates, as in Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, he is not lying there with the dogs licking his wounds because he was bad and God is punishing him. Over and over Jesus finds people who are sick, lame, blind, dying, or having died – and there is never a suggestion that they deserved their fate. In fact the opposite. Remember the man blind from birth? Jesus’ disciples asked him whose fault caused this result – and Jesus emphatically said that it was no one’s!
It is never appropriate to withhold ministry to the poor because they may not be “deserving”! Jesus never did that. Some people are poor because they make bad decisions – yes. And some who make those bad decisions were raised by a parent who never once made a good decision for them to witness, never delayed gratification, never practiced self-discipline; it would be a miracle if they somehow overcame all of that on their own without help and guidance.
But in any case, we are not put here on earth to be the enforcers of some divine retribution scheme; we are here to be channels of God’s healing, forgiving, restorative love to a hurting, needy world. Failure in life – like John the Baptist’s early and awful demise, is not a sign of fault.
Who controls the universe?
So, success is not necessarily a sign of goodness, and failure is not necessarily a sign of fault; there is yet another reason why this story is so powerful for us today. It has to do with the question behind the question: who is in control? Why do bad things happen?
I love the way Mark tells this story because he makes this point with subtlety and with power. First, he sets the story in the the heart of power and influence. King Herod is there – so is his woman, a princess in her own right (her daddy is a neighboring king too). Of course the little dancing girl has royal bloodlines – she is probably destined to follow her mother in power and influence. Then, mark allows us a glimpse at the guests at that exclusive royal birthday party. He mentions the presence of three kinds of people:
Verse 21 ... courtiers and officers and … the leaders of Galilee.
Courtiers: these were the extended royal family and the people who had weaseled their way into being important faces in the halls of power. Next were the officers: the top military brass – tyrants and dictators often have them at the ready. Finally, the “leaders of Galilee” would include the wealthy families, the aristocracy, the people who controlled the economics. These are the people who collectively have all the power in their hands. They are in control.
But Mark brilliantly undermines this picture of power and control in a subtle way. At the very beginning of the story, he shows us Herod the king, in a double bind. First, he has had to submit to the demands of a woman who is not even yet his wife, and imprison a person he finds interesting – so much for being king and having it your way. But second, this whole story is told as a flash-back, so in the opening paragraph, we get a glimpse of the internal state of this monarch after he has already had John killed. He is being tortured by the idea that Jesus – who bears a striking resemblance to John – is in fact John raised back to life!
What does this mean? It means that even if you are king, with the authority to have someone’s head chopped off, at they end of the day, you are not in control at all! In fact, the only one who could raise the dead would be God, so if Jesus is John, back to life, then God has just raised the guy you killed: presumably God is not happy with what you have done at all. This leaves Herod the opposite of the man-in-charge. Now he is a man-on-the-run with no place to hide.
The whole point of this juxtaposition of earthly wealth, power and muscle with a mixed up mistaken belief in ghosts is to deconstruct the surface appearance. Herod is wrong about Jesus being John, but he is clearly not in control, and neither are his courtiers, officers, nor the leaders of Galilee.
We need this looser story because people who believe that God is ultimately in charge of the universe are not afraid of loosing.
- We are not desperate to prove our goodness by our earthly success, and
- we are not tortured by guilt when we go through hard times.
- We do not refuse to help people who are hurting out of some belief in Karma,
- nor do we take it for granted that the successful of the world are good.
There is a deep sigh that I feel coming from this story. It’s a horrible story of bad people being bad, and a good man suffering unjustly, but in the end, it is embedded in a story of redemption. John’s story is a chapter in Jesus’ story. There is no panic here. Instead, though this is a sad story, it ironically asserts what on the surface seems to be denied: that God is indeed in control. John’s death foreshadows Jesus’ death at the hands of the powerful; another version of the unjust murdering the righteous – but somehow, mysteriously, God is at work. Jesus’ story is our redemption story. Take one step back from this story and realize: it’s OK. It’s going to be alright. You are not in control; that’s OK too. Take a deep breath, sigh; God has it under control. It’s OK.