Make the Reason Love

       Can I admit something to you?  Just between us?  I’ve never really liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”  Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear someone say that it feels like the assumption is that the reason is always good.  In reality, as the old meme says, sometimes the reason things happen is “you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  More often than not, sometimes things happen because addictions are powerful, mental health is fragile, power corrupts, and evil is real.  This is precisely what happens in today’s Gospel lesson.  A really bad thing happens to a pretty good person because sin is all too real.

       You might recall that last week’s Gospel lesson ended with Jesus and his disciples travelling all around the Galilean countryside preaching repentance and performing miracles.  When it was just one roaming Rabbi, nobody in power paid too much attention, but as the crowds around Jesus began to grow, and as his disciples began to branch out, word spread rapidly.  The Good News of God’s plan of salvation was beginning to gain a foothold and it was seen as a real threat to the powers-that-be in both the religious and political realms.  All around Israel, people were wondering who this Jesus character might be – Elijah, Moses, or another prophet – but Herod Antipas, the puppet King of Galilee, had no doubt, he was John the Baptist, risen from the grave.

       Herod had good reason to be wary of Jesus and to wonder if he was, in fact, some sort of Zombie John the Baptist back to threaten his power and privilege.  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ruled Judea during the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Herodian family tree is a bit hard to unravel, what with multiple wives and various sons with similar names, but after Herod the Great died or was killed, depending on which story you believe, three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas, took rule over his kingdom.  Our Herod, Antipas, ruled the region of Galilee in northern Israel from about 4 BCE until his death in 39 CE.  After divorcing his first wife, Herod Antipas essentially stole his second wife, Herodias, from his brother, Herod II.  Herod II had been removed from the line of succession because his mother knew about, but did nothing to stop, a plot by another brother, by a different brother, Herod Antipater II, to poison their father, Herod the Great.  Confused yet?  I know I am.

       Anyway, according to the historian Josephus, Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of [Israel], and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.”[1]  As you might imagine, a prophet like John the Baptist, who was deeply concerned with the sinful dealings of all of Israel, would have strong opinions about this, and he wasn’t afraid to share them quite publicly.  Eventually, Herodias became fed up with John’s complaints and convinced her husband, Herod Antipas, to have him arrested.  Interestingly, Mark tells us that Antipas refused to let John be killed for speaking out against their marriage, but instead kept him in protective custody where he enjoyed listening to his perplexing words.  Herodias waited and watched for her opportunity, which finally came during the celebration of Antipas’ birthday.  The powerful gathered, the wine flowed, and after watching his young stepdaughter delight the crowd with her dancing, Antipas blurted out, “Whatever you want, even up to half of my kingdom, it is yours.”  Salome ran to her mother with excitement.  “What should I ask for?” she wondered, but Herodias had no doubt, “The head of John the Baptist.”  Salome returned to her stepfather, and the girl of probably only twelve, asked not just for the head of John, but that it be served to her on a platter.  Fearful of losing face in front of his guests, Antipas had no choice but to oblige.

       I’m guessing that the disciples who came to retrieve John’s body weren’t thinking, “everything happens for a reason.”  There seems to be little, if any, redemption in this story.  John the Baptist’s gruesome death happened because power and privilege combined with anger and violence.  This deadly combination is all too common, even in 2021.  Moreover, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, John the Baptist’s head ended up on a platter because Herod Antipas loved to listen to, but never really heard, the words of the prophet John.[2]  No matter how much he might have enjoyed his time with John, when push came to shove, Antipas had learned nothing about repentance, forgiveness, and grace.  Rather, in that moment, he forgot everything he had heard, and impulsively reacted, choosing to save every last ounce of his overwhelming level of privilege over the life of a man he had come to respect.

       As Christians, we have similar choices to make every day.  It isn’t likely that we’ll ever have the power to order someone’s head be brought on a silver platter, thanks be to God, but there are plenty of moments in our lives when the choice between saving face and hurting another child of God is all too real. Borrowing again from Debie Thomas, personally, the death of John the Baptist invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I so bent on conflict avoidance that I harm other with my passivity.” Or “Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?”  Corporately, as a church and a society, we must consider, “When we choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?” And “When we decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly to pursue, who suffers in the long term?”[3]

       I guess maybe it is true that everything happens for a reason, but often that reason is the result of sin and has nothing to do with God.  Whether it is individual sins like pride, envy, greed, and bigotry, or corporate sins like white supremacy, heteronormativity, or xenophobia, the power of evil in this world is quite real.  As not merely followers of Jesus, but disciples, we are called not to just hear stories like the death of John the Baptist and forget about them, but to learn from and be changed by them.  The more we dig into these stories, looking for how evil is at work in the world around us and how Jesus calls us to lives of grace and love, the more we will be equipped, when push comes to shove in our own lives, to choose right over wrong, compassion over indifference, and love over hate.  We may not have the capacity to beat down evil in our lifetimes, but every time we choose love, the Kingdom of God moves just a little bit closer.  If everything does happen for a reason, may the reason we do anything be out of love of God and love of neighbor, to the glory of Almighty God.  Amen.


[1] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3065-greatly-perplexed

[3] ibid.

Me, Baptism Excited – a sermon

Back when I was in seminary, before anyone could even read a lesson in the chapel at VTS, they had to pass LTG4 – The Oral Interpretation of Scripture.  Somewhat un-affectionately referred to as “Read and Bleed,” this course was offered during the August term before my first year.  It was an hour a day for a week, and in it, we learned how to read the Bible out loud.  As you’ve learned over the past eighteen months, I’m not one to be overly animated in my tone, and so my experience in LTG4 was more bleed than it was read.  In my small group there was a former actor, a professional clown, and a man who grew up in the Black Baptist tradition, and so, comparatively, I was less expressive than a doorknob.  At one point, as my small group leader tried to coax me into a more excited interpretation of Matthew 22, I said to her, “I’m sorry, I’m trying, but this is me, wedding day excited.”  That expression has become something of a recurring joke for me over the years.  Never one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, I can be hard to read, which isn’t always helpful.  At times, when my expression doesn’t betray my joy or exuberance, I have to tell people, flat-out, that I am excited.

So, in case you can’t tell this morning, this is me baptism day excited.  I love baptisms, especially when those being baptized have asked for it to happen.  There is just something extra special about hearing someone take on faith for themselves, especially when it is a child who has been a part of this community for a while, who has grown in the faith thanks to the many role models they have seen here at Christ Church – staff members, Sunday school teachers, children’s church volunteers, and other members of the community.  As we prepare to formally welcome Zoë and Wyatt into the Body of Christ [at 10 o’clock] this morning, we do so with excitement and joy for what the future holds, both for them and for us.

One of the places where this excitement and joy really becomes clear is in the prayer that we pray after the baptism itself.  Despite my tendency away from emotional expression, this prayer catches me short every time I have the opportunity to pray it.  New to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, this particular post-baptismal prayer uses more modern language to ask God to impart upon the newly baptized the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have been prayed for since the prophet Isaiah roamed the earth nearly three-thousand years ago.  For Zoë and Wyatt, we will pray for wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe.

It is by sheer coincidence this week, as we baptize Wyatt and Zoë into the family of the Church, that our appointed epistle lesson is from the opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians.  These words of affirmation read, in many ways, like post-baptismal prayer.  One long, run-on sentence in the original Greek, these words flowed forth from their author’s pen as an excited, joy-filled, admonition for the faithful in Christ Jesus.  Unlike last week’s lesson from Second Corinthians, which Mother Becca rightly reminded us was written by a particular person, to a particular community, in response to a particular set of needs and never meant to be read as a universal letter containing comprehensive truth, the letter to the Ephesians, in its earliest form, never actually mentions the Ephesians.  This text seems to be the antithesis of the Corinthian letters, written for more general consumption by Christian congregations around the known world.  Its goal, it seems, isn’t to address particular issues in one church community, but rather, to encourage all the faithful to seek unity in Christ, empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised to us by Jesus himself and bestowed upon every disciple at their baptism.

Through this ancient exclamation of praise, Paul reminds his audience of God’s great power to restore all things.  Despite the fact that Zoë and Wyatt have asked to come to baptism today, Paul reminds us all that we are, first, passive participants in God’s redeeming work.  That any of us comes to faith is only because of God’s invitation.  It is God’s will that all of creation might be returned into right relationship with God, and each time a new believer comes to faith, we rejoice, alongside God and the heavenly chorus, that another breech has been repaired by the grace of God whose will it is to gather up all things.

All of us, then, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, are called to claim our inheritance and to work alongside God toward the restoration of all people.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit and gifted with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and, perhaps most importantly, the gift of joy and wonder, every follower of Jesus who has been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism is encouraged to claim their inheritance and baptismal identity by working with God to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

And so, even as we prepare to pray the postbaptismal prayer for Zoë and Wyatt, in our Collect of the Day, we pray that by God’s grace we might all know and understand the things we ought to do as a result of our adoption as beloved children of God, and not only that, but that God might give us the power to accomplish them.  Both of these prayers aren’t simply about a future looking hope that someday God might fix everything in the great by and by, but rather, they are calls to action for today, that right here and right now, we might respond to God’s amazing grace by rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.  Utilizing the gifts that we receive in our baptisms; our everyday lives are meant to be spent working toward the restoration and renewal of God’s good creation.

I had the joy of spending this past week at All Saints, serving as a chaplain to the New Horizons Camp for 5th and 6th graders.  The theme for the summer at All Saints is “environments around the world,” and alongside seminarian Allision Caudill, we tried to help these young campers see that even at ten or eleven years of age, they too have a part to play in God’s ongoing work in the world.  The overarching narrative for our time together was the first creation story from Genesis 1.  Again and again, we reiterated that at the end of each day, God looked at what had been created and declared it good, but on the sixth day, as God looked over everything that had been made: the sun, moon, and stars; over the earth, its land and seas; over all the plants and every living creature that swims in the water and cattle and creeping things on the land; and ultimately over humankind, which God had made in God’s own image; when God saw everything working together in harmony, it wasn’t just that it was good, but rather, it was very good.  “Good good,” as the Hebrew says.

As baptized disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been set free to work toward making creation “good good” again.  We are encouraged by God to use our gifts to build up the Kingdom of Heaven through acts of loving service, through caring for our neighbor, by treating everyone with respect, and sharing the Good News of God’s redeeming love with a world that desperately needs it.  That is what makes me so excited this morning.  This is me baptism day excited, as once again, we are all reminded of our place as co-workers in the Kingdom of God.  Later on, as we pray for Zoë and Wyatt to take their place in God’s work of redemption, embrace that prayer for you as well.  May each of us this day be encouraged and empowered by the new life of grace to claim our blessedness and build up the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

Perplexing words we like to hear

As the calendar flipped over from June to July, the internet in my hotel room at General Convention quit working.  I’d been fighting with it for days, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the effort for a 256k connection that 16 year-old Steve on a dial-up modem in an AOL chat room would have scoffed at.  So I’ve been remiss in keeping up with my duties here at Draughting Theology as of late.  I apologize to my regular readers for my failure to maintain my usual pace, but I hope to get back in the habit again.

I missed blogging about several things at General Convention during my internet blackout, but what I feel saddest about was not getting to tell you how excited I am about the election of the Rt. Rev’d Michael Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.  In his Vision Statement (see page 11), Bishop Curry wrote these words about the future of our beloved Church:

At a deep level I am suggesting a church-wide spiritual revival of the Christian faith in the Episcopal way of being disciples of Jesus. While not the only player in this, I believe a significant role of the Presiding Bishop is to provide leadership, inspiration and encouragement for that revival. Obviously the Presiding Bishop has CEO (Chief Executive Officer) responsibilities that must be exercised clearly, collaboratively and effectively. But in this mission moment of the church’s life, the primary role of the Presiding Bishop must be CEO in another sense: Chief Evangelism Officer, to encourage, inspire and support us all to claim the calling of the Jesus movement.

In his first public sermon following his election, at the Closing Eucharist of the 78th General Convention, he preached a sermon based firmly on this vision.

We are all a part of the Jesus Movement, called to go and make disciples, and we are going to hear that call again and again and again over the next nine years.  At an event like General Convention, it is easy to get swept up in the energy of it all.  We cheer and applaud when Bishop Curry calls the impromptu mega-church to Go, but the reality that for most of us, the call to evangelism is downright scary work.  The words of Bishop Curry feel easy because he fervently believes them, he lives them, and he offers them in a medium that makes us feel like we can live them too, but as with any prophet, the words of Bishop Curry are perplexing, even if we like to hear them.  They are, in many ways, like the words of John the Baptist, whose arrest and death we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. They push us out of our comfort zone.  They invite us to see the world differently.  More importantly, they invite us to see ourselves differently.

As General Convention fades into the past and we prepare for the seating of the Presiding Bishop-elect on November 1, 2015, it is my prayer that a we will, over the next nine years, move beyond being enamored with the medium of Bishop Curry’s message and fall deeply in love with its content.  I pray that we will allow his words to perplex us, challenge us, and propel us into the world as evangelists; heralds of the Gospel; bringers of the Good News.  May we have the grace to follow our Chief Evangelist and Go!