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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Proper 10 - Year B
II Samuel 6:1-5,12-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
'This Man is Disarmed and Dangerous'
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." In the early 1920s, Gandhi and India's National Congress Party began moving more and more towards civil disobedience as a chief political strategy in order to achieve independence from British colonial rule. In spite of violent setbacks to the cause and regular clashes with British authorities, which frequently landed him in jail, the founder of modern India never gave up his vision that the British could be driven from India without shedding one drop of British blood; and he continued to walk his way back and forth across the country preaching the gospel of non-violent resistance. As he did so, his reputation began to spread throughout the Indian subcontinent such that both Hindu and Muslim villagers would come from long distances on foot, with their bedding on their heads and shoulders, on bullock carts, and on horse back just to catch a glimpse of him. Never before, it seemed, had any political or perhaps religious leader, in his own lifetime stirred the masses to their very depths throughout the country and received the homage of so many people. Even the civil authorities had to sit up and take notice. Although they resented deeply what Gandhi was attempting to do, they could also not help but admire what he had come to represent. Eventually, the skeptical British Governor of Madras, who lost no love on Gandhi, was forced to declare that British Home Rule was now dealing with an entirely new political phenomenon. Gandhi is here with the whole of his gang. It is amazing what an influence this man is getting. One of my ADCs came from Calcutta with them in the train and was tremendously impressed with the huge crowds at every station, their orderliness, and absolute devotion to their leader. . . . Now I admit the position is becoming one of extraordinary difficulty. There is no doubt that Gandhi has got a tremendous hold on the public imagination. Because that is the kind of threat that the rulers of this world fear most. + Mark plunks us down squarely in the world of Real Politik in this week's gospel. It is the only story in the Gospel of any length that is not about Jesus; and it is no accident that Mark places it where he does. Jesus has just finished giving instructions to his disciples about how they are to embody God's love in the world. Expect opposition and trouble, he tells them, but the only thing you need to take with you is the gospel and a confident faith. And then, Mark, as if to "slam dunk" his point reminds us of the story of John the Baptist; and he does it in a very deliberate way. In the first place he does it by reminding him of the fear of King Herod. Now, you may remember that this is not Herod the Great, who ruled Israel around the time of Jesus' birth. This is Herod the Great's son by his Samaritan wife Malthace. He was called Herod Antipas to keep them straight and he was a chip off the old block. Mark calls him "King Herod", but the truth is he had only pretensions to be a king. He was the ruler of Galilee from about 4 B.C. to 39 C.E., making him the chief political authority, aside from the Romans, during the time of Jesus. His official position was really tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, a position made available to him as a result of his father's accommodation with the Romans. He never did get to be king of anything, although it was precisely this request to be called "King" by Rome and everyone else, the request for this title, that eventually got him sent into exile in 39 C.E. by a paranoid emperor Caligula. He was an ambitious, half-Jew, who, although he enjoyed great power and wealth, was despised both by his Roman masters and his Jewish subjects. He was the kind of ruler who thumbed his nose at Israel's religious laws, both by marrying his brother's wife Herodias and by building his capital city, Tiberias, on top of a pagan cemetery. The story that the gospels, as well as the Roman historian Josephus, tell is that he is the Herod who got into deep political controversy with John the Baptist. John was mad at Herod for several reasons; but the one that really stuck in John's craw was Herod's marriage to Herodias. John publicly accused this famous couple of "living in sin" and that was enough to turn Herodias practically purple with rage. Demonstrating that she was the one who wore the pants in the family, Herodias convinced Herod Antipas into throwing John in jail until she could figure out what to do with him. Well, apparently Herod feared John almost as much as he feared his wife. He knew how popular John was with the people and how dangerous it could be politically if there was ever an uprising over whatever he decided to do to John. At least in prison he could keep an eye on him, thought Herod, as well as keep peace in his own bedroom. But it wasn't just fear that motivated Herod. He was fascinated by John and couldn't help sneaking out of the bedroom at night and wandering down to the basement just so that he could hear John ranting in his old, dark prison cell. The portrait Mark paints is of a man who is transfixed with the very thing he fears and despises. "When he heard him," Mark says, ...he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him. Unfortunately this fascination was not enough to convince him to change his life; and the day Herod decided to throw a birthday party for himself to end all birthday bashes, he unwittingly set in motion forces the consequences of which he could never have foreseen, unless, of course, he had learned a few things from living with a schemer like Herodias. Apparently it was a banquet done in a fashion bound to impress all of Herod's political cronies and enemies and to offend the religiously scrupulous. The climax was when Herodias' daughter Salome, who was actually Herod's niece, danced an apparently lascivious dance that was meant to arouse Herod and make him vulnerable to suggestion. Whether the sexy Salome meant anything by it other than strutting her stuff, her mother saw it as the chance she had been waiting for. Caught up in the moment like a dirty-old man and macho ruler, Herod gave in to both his lust and his pride by following through on an oath to Salome to give her anything she wanted. Herodias made sure that it was John's head on a platter that "she wanted"; and that, as they say, was the end of John the Baptist. Or so everyone thought. By the time Mark tells us this story, John has been dead for some time and Jesus has been actively preaching his own message throughout Galilee. Although Herod apparently didn't know Jesus, he knew that something equally as powerful as John was stirring out there among the people. ...when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." This is what Mark wants to tell us. This is not just a story to remind us of the dangers of preaching the truth, although that is certainly true. It is a story to remind us of the delusions of the powerful. Herod's own actions have engendered in him a deep-seated fear about the results of his deed. He interprets what he hears about Jesus "and his gang" by imagining John having come back to get him. Nor is this merely a story to tip us off about what is likely to befall Jesus in the end too. Of course, a similar fate is going to befall Jesus, as it befalls anybody with the courage to speak truth to the powerful. But that is not something Mark's church would ever have questioned. What they would have had doubts about was the effectiveness of such truth-telling. Would following Jesus and speaking the truth to loveless power ever make any difference in the end? Mark says that even defenseless, unarmed, de-capitated, dead men, like John the Baptist, come back to haunt the powerful of this world. They do. + One of the things that kept such moral and religious giants like Gandhi going in the face of such overwhelming odds was the profound conviction, not just that love would eventually conquer, but that evil would defeat itself. "When I despair," he said, "I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end. Think of it. Always." And you and I, dear friends, are part of what the prophets called a "saving remnant", that is to say, those who are content to cast our lots with the courageous victims of this world if only because, from the point of view of human survival, it seems better to do so. The very nature of the predators of this world who must, by force, disturb the balance of nature in order to survive, eventually becomes too big to survive. They fall on account of their own monstrous weight. Resurrection, therefore, belongs to those who want it badly enough. So does extinction. ------ II Samuel 6:1-19 - It is the kind of story that has inspired Hollywood movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark of Yahweh symbolized tribal unity in ancient Israel and was believed to be Yahweh's actual throne whenever he sat down to judge Israel. As long as it remained outside David's city Jerusalem, it was a focus of power that resisted his control. In essence, it was a very heavy, ornate, portable religious shrine. The story of Uzzah, who seems to be zapped by whatever power the Ark has and is left dead and smoking in the dust just for trying to steady the Ark sounds magical and superstitious. David's ecstatic dance before the Ark as he brings it into Jerusalem also seems just as bit too contrived. If David had actually been affected by what the Ark stood for - the love of God - throughout his monarchy, perhaps he and his house would have fared better. As it was, David pursued power more insistently with consequences that proved ultimately tragic for himself. 1. What does this story of the Ark tell you about the prevailing religious and political mentality of the time? 2. In what ways have you observed Christians treating religious objects in incongruous and even tragic ways? Ephesians 1:3-14 - This opening summary of the letter to the church at Ephesus is in the form of a eulogy or prayer of blessing. God's work of election of believers is set forth. God's grace is lavishly bestowed on believers through Jesus Christ. God's saving work is conceived as a mystery that is now revealed. The church thus becomes the means by which God's manifold wisdom is displayed. 1. In what ways does this prayer speak to what you believe? 2. In what ways have Christians abused the notion of being "destined" for "salvation"? Mark 6:14-29 - Mark recounts in sordid detail the death of John the Baptist in order not just to explain the fate of John but to foreshadow that of Jesus. The portrait of the Herodian court takes on the character of a medieval morality play: an impressive political gathering, a dancing girl, a drunken oath and a scheming wife determine the end of one of the great prophets of Israel. But, as this week's reflection also suggests, perhaps Mark's larger purpose is to encourage Jesus' disciples and members of his own church with a reminder of how the rulers of this world are always haunted by their own dark deeds, thereby giving hope to all who dare to wear the prophetic mantle that their work is not in vain. 1. What does Mark's story indicate about what Herod was not able to do? 2. Of this gruesome event, Chrysostom remarked, "He cut off his head, but he did not cut off the voice. He curbed the tongue but he did not curb the accusation." What did he mean? In what way does this give you hope? 3. Why are the disarmed and morally courageous - dangerous? HYMN: Be Thou My Vision (Voices United 642)
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