Today’s gospel begins with what might be the most audaciously tone-deaf statement in the entire New Testament. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, which is to say that Jesus is walking to his death. And he knows it.
Just before this, he tells his people for the third time that in Jerusalem he will be turned over to the high priests, and mocked and tortured and put to death. The very next thing is, here come James and John with their request. But actually it isn’t a request. They don’t ask a question. They just tell him what they want. Teacher, they say, we want you to do for us what we ask of you. And when he asks what they want, they say, we want to sit at your right hand and your left when you come into your glory.
It’s a little like sitting your kids down to give them some terrible news, and when you’re finished, the next thing they say is, what’s for dinner—we want you to give us something good. It doesn’t acknowledge what Jesus is going through. I can just imagine how he must’ve felt.
So I think when we look back on that scene, it’s easy for us to feel superior. Here are these people who are with Jesus day in and day out, and they just don’t get it. He’s preparing to die. They’re worrying about what their rank is going to be, who’s going to be the greatest among them.
One of the faith-based organizations that I have really admired over the years and been a volunteer with is Habitat for Humanity, the one that Jimmy Carter brought attention to by showing up on their Saturday workdays and swinging his hammer along with the other volunteers.
I’ve worked myself on a couple of Habitat projects in this area over the years ,including one I recall with the youth of Trinity Buckingham back when I was in seminary. But what I’m thinking of today even more than that work experience is the time when I was a member of the Habitat committee that met monthly. I represented my parish when all of those who were involved in Habitat came together. We met at each other’s churches which was always fascinating—there were similarities, and then again there are such differences in the different places we would go/ And we would pray together, and we learned that we pray in ways that are similar and also in other ways quite different.
But that experience of working together to solve a need was always relly rewarding, because there really is a need in this area for decent, safe, affordable housing. Of the 67 Pennsylvania counties, I’ve read that Bucks is fifth highest in cost of living. I’m safe and secure because I’ve owned my home for something like 40 years, but people tell me that these days especially the real estate market in Bucks is what they call red hot, and it makes it even harder for people of… I don’t want to say limited means because it isn’t just the minimum-wage workers who can’t afford a decent place to live, it’s people with good jobs who are struggling to meet the rents that we have in this area.
Back when COVID arrived on the scene last year, you might remember that the first advice we heard for staying healthy was all about hand-washing. You were supposed to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds whenever you came home from being outside, and definitely before you ate anything.
It’s still good advice. My parents taught me to wash my hands before meals, I taught my kids, and they’re teaching the same thing to their kids. And we do the lavabo, the ritual hand-washing before communion here. But in these COVID times, I’ll also go out to the sink in the sacristy and wash my hands with soap and water to be sure they’re really clean before I touch something that will be put into your mouths.
So it seems basic, this hand cleanliness thing, and a bit puzzling that Jesus seems to be defending his disciples’ eating with dirty hands. But to make sense of this dialogue, you have to understand that this is really a debate about religious practices. It’s not so much about cleanliness as it is about holiness. This ritual hand-washing was what the priests did before they led worship, and eventually, it was extended to ordinary people.
But it was a tradition, not something that was commanded in Scripture. And, actually, Mark exaggerates a little when he says that all Jews do this because, in fact, all Jews did not do this, which is why Jesus and the Pharisees are having this discussion. And I think it’s actually a friendly discussion, not a debate, much like we have among ourselves today about how properly to live the faith.
Back in March of 2020, when it was clear that COVID had arrived among us but no one really knew what was going to happen next, my son and his family, who were living in Philadelphia at the time, decided they didn’t want to be in the city right then. So he and his wife and their two little girls, who are 2 and 4 now, came out to live with us in New Hope. And I have to say that for us, it was a great blessing because it really gave us a chance to grow close to those kids, and to my son and his wife.
But we did especially try to find things that would engage the kids while they were with us. So at one point we decided we were going to make homemade pizza, because what kid doesn’t like pizza? And it was a good thing, making the dough and all that. But what we found was, you couldn’t get flour or yeast. It had all disappeared from the shelves. I had a little flour and some yeast that was way past its expiration date. And a friend of mine who’d gotten extra yeast in advance to bake Easter bread gave me a little, and we made do so we had our pizza. But I still think back on that explosion of bread baking. All of a sudden, everybody was making bread. Why?
Back in the days when I used to spend a lot of time in New York City–and this was way before COVID—I saw an art installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which really moved me and which has stayed with me ever since.
It was unusual. Basically, it was a large pile of candy, hard candies wrapped in very colorful foil wrappers, heaped up under a spotlight, which made the foil wrappers sparkle. And people who saw this were invited to take one of the candies. So, over the course of the day, this pile got smaller and smaller. But every morning it was replenished to total 175 pounds of candy, which supposedly is the typical weight of a healthy adult male.
The artist was a guy named Felix Gonzalez-Torres. And this piece of art didn’t have a title but it had an official subtitle, which was “A Portrait of Ross in L.A.” It was a tribute to his partner who had died of HIV-AIDS. And the diminishment of the pile was meant to suggest the diminishment of his partner’s own body as he moved through that illness.
There’s a lovely children’s story called The Velveteen Rabbit, about a little boy and his stuffed bunny. Maybe you remember it, maybe from your own childhood, or if you have kids, maybe you read it to them when they were little. It’s about how, when you love someone—and I’m talking about a love that is true, and deep, and enduring—everything about that person comes alive for you.
And I’ve been thinking about that this past week as I pondered what it is that Jesus is saying to us in this morning’s Gospel. But before I say more about that, I want to mention a few things to put this Gospel in context.
I’ve been taking pictures of this Friends meetinghouse for more than forty years and I still don’t have it quite right, but little by little I think I’m getting there. I love the simplicity of the wooden benches and white walls and the play of light through clear glass, most of it so old it has ripples.
I love the places where people have worshiped. I can’t explain it, but they seem to retain some residual sense of peace and presence that grounds me. Even in the years when I wasn’t particularly religious, I looked for churches that were open during the day so I could drop in and sit for a while. In the silence I could feel myself drawing closer to a mystery I could not name or explain but knew I wanted more of.
In the name of the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
I was sorely tempted during this pandemic to get myself a pandemic dog.
We had had a wonderful family dog who died about a dozen years ago. And I remember so well how good it was just to be sitting with her, to have her at your feet while you were reading, to have her jump up onto the couch—which wasn’t really allowed, but which we all permitted anyway—to have her sit next to you, and lean into you. To feel the comfort of the warmth of her body against yours.
And she had a knack for knowing when you especially needed to be comforted. And I really missed that and I thought about it, but in the end, I didn’t do it. I was looking ahead to a time when we might not be in isolation, and I wanted the freedom to be able to come and go without worrying about the dog. And I remember hearing someone say once—and this sounds terrible, but there’s some truth to it—that true freedom begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.
But I at least was fortunate to have my family around me, my husband, my son and his wife, and my two little granddaughters. They were with us for weeks and months at a time. So that time together was really one of the blessings of the pandemic for me, to be close to them, to be in their presence, but not everyone was so lucky.
Today we have the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. What a lovely story it is. One that we preachers just love to preach on. It makes an especially great children’s message, don’t you think? I think that the shock of this story, the absolute horror, is so overwhelming that it almost invites us not to take it seriously, not to pay attention to it. What’s the moral here? None of us are beheaders. None of us are at any risk, I don’t think, of doing something like this. So okay, the lesson is what? Don’t be mean? Okay. Move on. That’s it.
But I think that actually there is some meat here for us to consider, that’s worth dwelling on. Not the brutal details, but something deeper than that. And one way to approach a story like this and reflect on it is to imaginatively put yourself in the scene, in the story, and to think about, which character would you be if you were one of the players in this story? That’s what I’ve been reflecting on this past week—who would I be in this story—but before I talk about that, I want to talk a little about the backstory here.
The king is named Herod, but this is not the same Herod who tried to get the Wise Wen to tell him where they found the baby they had come to see. And when he failed, he decided to solve it by having all the children under two years old killed. This is not that Herod. That’s Herod the Great. This is his son, Herod Antipas. Herod the Great died not long after the birth of Jesus and his son took over. And his wife is named Herodias.
When I was preparing to preach today I took down a book that I really like. It’s called Jesus Freak[i], by a woman named Sara Miles. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She’s a mid-life convert to Christian faith and she writes in a very contemporary style, but I think she has the ability to get right down to the essence of the Gospel message. Take the subtitle of this book: Feeding, healing, raising the dead. That pretty much sums up what Christ’s mission on earth was all about, and we get two out of the three in today’s Gospel: healing, and raising the dead.
This Gospel is the story of Jesus’ healing a young girl and an older woman, and it’s classic Mark. We get two stories in one, told very directly, but all of the details are so important. Jesus steps off the boat, he’s just crossed the sea of Galilee. The crowds are there waiting for him. They want to be in his presence. They want his healing touch.
Today’s crowd includes this synagogue leader, Jairus, who’s quite a prestigious person in this society, and the unknown woman with an illness that the doctors have not been able to help. In fact, she’s spent all her money on doctoring, and the only thing that’s been happening is it’s getting worse. Desperate, she comes to Jesus.