“Yet I am always with You; You hold my right hand. You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will take me up in glory.”
As psalms go, it isn’t the prettiest. In fact, much of it is existential angst about the prosperity and popularity of the arrogant and wicked, which apparently was as commonplace in the Biblical world as it sometimes feels in ours. But sandwiched amid the despair and disappointment are two verse of sheer grace. The psalm writer describes God in tender terms. Like a caring guardian and guide, God walks with us, holding our hand and providing the wise words that are needed most. There’s a beautiful promise, too, of honor and glory to come.
Unless we live a very charmed life, we all have days when we could use a holy friend to hold our hand and whisper reassurance. At the risk of sounding like a whiney psalmist, I’ll admit that there are day when I wouldn’t mind being first in line for the cosmic handhold, even if my problems are universally “first world” and smack of privilege. I work too much. I minister to folks in crisis. I cry most days over the dog who died in January. I have a parent undergoing surgery. I’m so sick of COVID that my eyelid begins to twitch when I hear the possibility of new mask mandates. I live in an historic home amid an ocean of honey-dos (Please, Lord, let the bathroom be finished sometime soon). The slugs are taking over the garden — and the deer just ate my daylily buds, which were liberally sprayed with deer repellant last night. Really? That’s my moment of existential angst.
How about you? Take a second and let it rip. I won’t tell anyone.
But maybe today, amid the despair, disappointment, and Delta-variant, we can claim the psalmist’s truth: God holds our hand and walks alongside. Can you imagine it? Take a quiet moment. Place one hand in the other. Breathe deeply, use your imagination, and listen with the ear of your heart. God is with you, like a patient and loving parent; like your best friend from elementary school; like Jesus, who called his disciples his friends. Thanks be to God.
“It is in the small things we see it. The child’s first step, as awesome as an earthquake. The first time you rode a bike, wallowing up the sidewalk. The first spanking when your heart went on a journey all alone. When they called you crybaby or poor or fatty or crazy and made you into an alien, you drank their acid and concealed it.
Later, if you faced the death of bombs and bullets you did not do it with a banner, you did it with only a hat to cover your heart. You did not fondle the weakness inside you though it was there. Your courage was a small coal that you kept swallowing. If your buddy saved you and died himself in so doing, then his courage was not courage, it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.
Later, if you have endured a great despair, then you did it alone, getting a transfusion from the fire, picking the scabs off your heart, then wringing it out like a sock. Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow, you gave it a back rub and then you covered it with a blanket and after it had slept a while it woke to the wings of the roses and was transformed.
Later, when you face old age and its natural conclusion your courage will still be shown in the little ways, each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen, those you love will live in a fever of love, and you’ll bargain with the calendar and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.”
Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die. This poem is found in Claiming the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. p. 320.
A thirty-five-year-old nun, serving as the principal of a girl’s school in Calcutta, heard Jesus’ “call within her calling:” to abandon her teaching and go forth into the city’s slums to tend the poorest and sickest of people. She completed a six-month course in basic medical care, traded her nun’s habit for a sari, and left her convent behind so that she could be the hands and feet of Jesus for those whom she saw were unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. She tended lepers dying in the street, fed maimed children who begged for a living, and cared for women forced into lives of prostitution. All that need of the streets of Calcutta plus one poorly trained nun should have been a formula for failure. Yet by some crazy cosmic math, two years later Sister Mary Teresa was joined by twelve like-minded nuns and together they launched the Missionaries of Charity. Today, there are 5, 167 sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, serving the poorest of the poor in 758 communities in 139 countries.
In 1990, Tom Logan was visiting Dr. John Knowle’s, a missionary doctor at the Ekwendeni Hospital in Malawi. The two men came across the pump and raw materials to build a shallow well, delivered by the Malawi government years before but never installed. Knowing that waterborne disease from foul, open, community water sources was the leading cause of death for Malawi’s young children, the two men were shocked and angered. “Why don’t you install it?” Logan wanted to know. Dr. Knowles responded, “Why don’t you install it, Tom?” And so was launched the shallow well program of the Marion Medical Mission. That first year, Logan installed thirteen wells. Marion Medical Mission now installs more than 3,000 wells each year in partnership with local villages and leaders. Thirty years after Tom’s bold question, “Why don’t you install it?”, four million people in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia now have safe, clean drinking water, thanks to the shallow well program.
Millard and Linda Fuller were self-made millionaires before they were thirty. Instead of retiring and living large, the Fullers sold most of their possessions and moved to Koinonia Farm, the Christian community founded by pastor and Bible scholar Clarence Jordan. Aware of the need for adequate housing for the poor of rural Georgia, the Fullers teamed with Jordan to develop the concept of “partnership housing.” Those in need would work side-by-side with volunteers to build decent, affordable homes. The first partnership home built was for Beau and Emma, who lived with their five children in an unpainted, uninsulated shack without any plumbing. Two years later in 1976, the Fullers founded Habitat for Humanity, International, which now works in all fifty states and more than seventy countries. Habitat has helped more than thirty-five million people achieve their dream of “safe, decent, and affordable shelter.”
We are well-acquainted with miracle stories. Today’s reading may be the best-known miracle story of all. The feeding of the 5,000 is told by all four gospel writers. Today we get to hear it from John’s perspective. Jesus had been teaching his disciples on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee when he looked up to see a huge crowd on the move. They were in need of his wise words and healing touch. It was also late in the day, and there were no resources at hand to meet their physical hunger.
To test his friends, Jesus asked how they could feed the multitude. Philip surveyed the throng and knew that their need for bread far exceeded the financial resources they had on hand. Andrew did some reconnaissance and came up with five small loaves of barley bread and two little dried fish—resources that weren’t even his to share. The other ten disciples were silent, clearly thinking that they were powerless in the face of such need—there was nothing that they could do about it. The twelve disciples likely expected that would be the end of the discussion.
Jesus confounded those expectations. He took their meager provisions, blessed them, and shared them as if it were Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house with all the fixings. Then, by some crazy and holy math, five loaves plus two fish equaled enough to feed 5,000 men and their families, with leftovers to spare. That vast, hungry crowd was miraculously fed in body, mind, and spirit. Praise the Lord!
Well-acquainted as we are with miracle stories. We are also familiar with times when we have felt like we needed a personal miracle, like when we lost our job, like when our marriage was on the rocks, like when the doctor gave us that scary diagnosis, or like when we were lost in grief. Given the history and crazy math behind faithful people who accomplished extraordinary things with the Lord’s help, we might think that when life gets overwhelming, or crisis strikes, or the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet, we would have faith and trust that the Lord will make a way and see us through. But we can tend to be a little like the disciples. Like Philip, we can only see all the ways that we are woefully inadequate to meet the moment. Like Andrew, we hope someone else can provide what is needed to fix our problem. Like the other ten disciples, we shake our heads, we throw up our hands, and think it is hopeless. The need overwhelms us. We want to give up. We want to run away. We want to crawl into bed, pull up the covers, and retreat into denial. There may be miracles out there, but we cannot imagine that any amount of multiplication or distribution could meet our need. We say, “Jesus, where is my miracle? Jesus, where are my loaves and fish? Jesus, where are my leftovers to spare?”
Miracles often begin with the smallest of faithful acts. A thirty-five-year-old nun with inadequate training decides to go out and help just one leper, one child, one woman, one person at a time. Tom Logan and his friends install a long-forgotten shallow well. The Fullers help their impoverished neighbors build a concrete block house with indoor plumbing. Jesus says grace—he blesses five barley loaves—the bread of the poor. He prays over two salty, dried fish. It starts small. It starts with just one simple faithful act. We can do that. We can launch our hopeful intent into that impossible void. We can place our little bit into the hands of Jesus. We can trust that some crazy math can begin to unfold. Somehow, with the Lord’s help, we find that we have what is needed to face the impossible. Really and truly, it is a miracle.
We know that’s true because there are miracles who walk among us, people who have defied and confounded every expectation. The widow, who wakes each morning to an empty house and the pall of grief, yet finds the courage to set that aside, smile, care for her family, and help her neighbor, she is a miracle. She and Jesus are doing some crazy math. The youth who rises above the dysfunction and alcoholism of his parents to get an education and forge a professional identity, he is a miracle. He and Jesus are doing some crazy math. The impoverished neighbor who finds ways to share with others and be generous with family and still put a little something in the offering plate each Sunday, they are a miracle. They are doing some crazy math with Jesus. Thank God, everywhere we look, miracles of multiplication and blessing and abundance are unfolding if we will only have eyes to see.
So maybe this week, in that best-known of Jesus’ miracles, and in the stories of Teresa and Tom and Millard and Linda, and in those indomitable spirits who live next door or bump into us in Top’s or sit next to us in church, we can find a little hope. We really are well-acquainted with miracles. We can find the courage to stand on our ground. We can throw back the covers and get out of bed. We can take the first simple step. We can place our little bit in the hands of Jesus and trust in the crazy math to come.
Resources: Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009. Yust, Karen Marie. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009. Johns, Cheryl Bridges. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009. –. “Mother Teresa” in Biography, Feb. 24, 2020. Accessed online at biography.com. –. “Habitat’s Story” in Habitat for Humanity, International. Accessed online at habitat.org. –. “Who We Are: The Beginning” in Marion Medical Mission. Accessed online at mmmater.org.
“When I lay my head in my mother’s lap I think how day hides the stars, the way I lay hidden once, waiting inside my mother’s singing to herself. And I remember how she carried me on her back between home and the kindergarten, once each morning and once each afternoon.
I don’t know what my mother’s thinking.
When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder: Do his father’s kisses keep his father’s worries from becoming his? I think, Dear God, and remember there are stars we haven’t heard from yet: They have so far to arrive. Amen, I think, and I feel almost comforted.
I’ve no idea what my child is thinking.
Between two unknowns, I live my life. Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am by coming before me, and my child’s wishes, older than I am by outliving me. And what’s it like? Is it a door, and good-bye on either side? A window, and eternity on either side? Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.”
L-Young Lee, “The Hammock,” in The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Michael Collier and Stanley Plumley (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), 153.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — Genesis 2:1-3 and Mark 6:30-34
This message was shared at the Island Chapel, an ecumenical summer church on an island in Upper Saranac Lake.
Is anyone here on vacation today? Is anyone retired, in that delightful, ongoing state of quasi-vacation? Does anyone wish they were on vacation this morning? We can all affirm the goodness of coming away to a quiet place to rest and renew.
When it comes to vacation destinations, the Adirondacks are about as good as it gets. We love the cool evenings when the magic carpet of the Milky Way stretches across the night sky and the sleeping is good. We delight in the clear waters, whether we take a skinny-dip, test our favorite fishing hole, or explore the back country in the kayak. We rejoice in the mountains: the thrill of downhill skiing, the accomplishment of climbing the 46, the alpenglow of summits set ablaze by the last rays of the setting sun.
I have read that the American use of the word “vacation” derives from the Adirondacks. The English go “on holiday,” but here in the states we “take vacations.” In the 19th century, residents of New York City and Boston vacated their hot, urban homes for the cool splendor of the Adirondacks. All that vacating coined the term vacation. Take a look out the window. Apart from the rain, it doesn’t get much better than this.
In our reading from Mark’s gospel, the disciples could have used an Adirondack getaway. Jesus had entrusted them with his power and authority. Then, he had sent them out in pairs, with meager resources, to minister to the villages of the Galilean countryside. Their mission had been even more successful than their best hopes. As they returned to Jesus, they told stories of sermons preached and prayers shared. They talked about miracles worked. The lame had walked. Blind eyes had found sight. Those troubled by oppressive spirits had found peace. There was great rejoicing.
Yet as Jesus listened to his friends, he saw the need for rest. They had been going flat-out for weeks now. Their voices were shot. They were sleep deprived. They were beginning to get on one another’s nerves. They couldn’t concentrate, and they weren’t making good decisions. The crowds pursued them. Longing for wholeness and healing, everyone wanted time with Jesus and his friends. It was so frantic that they couldn’t eat or attend to their bodies or hear themselves think.
Jesus knew exactly what was needed. He stopped his friends mid-story and said, “Come away with me to a quiet place and rest awhile.” Then, Jesus stood up and invited them to follow him. They walked down to the breakwater, climbed into the boat, cast off, and hoisted the sail.
We are all familiar with the toll that overwork and chronic busyness can take. Science tells us that it effects our bodies. Our stress level rises, increasing our heartrate and blood pressure. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol which makes us ready to fight or flee and piles on the belly flat. We are at increased risk for heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. Our brains don’t work as well when we are work-weary and stressed out. It’s hard to focus. Our creativity and resourcefulness plummet. It becomes difficult to make wise choices. Our feelings can be on edge. We are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. It’s easy to cry or lose our cool and blow up. Does any of this sound familiar?
To be whole and healthy people, we need vacation; we need rest. In fact, time set apart, free from work, is an essential part of God’s plan for creation. It’s right there in Genesis, in the foundational story of Judaism and Christianity. God spent six days creating everything. God launched the Big Bang and coalesced the stars and planets, shaped the continents and gathered the seas. God coaxed life out of the raw material of God’s very self, jellyfish and blackflies, elephants, octopi, and corgis. God brought humankind into being with the awareness of God and the task of caring for creation. Then, as the crowning achievement of creation, God chose to rest, not because God was weary—we are talking about God here—but because it was right and fitting to have a day set apart to savor and delight and be.
This keeping of sabbath is echoed in the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day—to keep it holy.” Our sabbath rest honors God’s work in creation. It reorients us and reminds us who is really the boss. For Christians, our sabbath days and sabbatical times remind us that God creates and re-creates us. The sabbath is the day of resurrection, a celebration of the new life we find in Jesus, who called himself the Lord of the Sabbath. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann teaches that when we enter into this intentional practice of observing sabbath and taking rest, we choose to participate in the tranquility of God. We return to the foundational rhythm that God ordained in the structure of creation. We live into the image of God in which we were made.
The science supports the scripture. Times of rest restore us and make us healthier people. All those critical numbers that shoot up with work-stress fall with rest. Blood pressure, heart rate, cortisone levels, all drop. Our brains function better. In fact, the spontaneous activity of a rested brain can suddenly solve problems that we thought were impossible. Our ability to concentrate is renewed. Even our emotional health finds healing and new possibility. Dr. Sarah Mednick, in her TED Talk “Give it Up for the Down State” says that the GDP would grow, businesses would thrive, and workers would be happier, healthier, and more productive if we incorporated more sabbath rest into our lives. An ideal work week would feature an intense Monday-Tuesday, a Wednesday half-day with an afternoon of rest, and a busy Thursday-Friday, followed by weekend downtime. Sign me up!
Finding time for a weekly day of sabbath or an afternoon of rest or a weeklong vacation isn’t always easy. We think we are indispensable. If we don’t do the work, who will? We aren’t crazy about giving up control. We find it hard to walk away. In fact, most Americans do not take the vacation time that they are allotted. I suspect that when Jesus called the disciples to come away, there were some foot-draggers. They looked back, wishing they could heal one more leper. They were afraid they would lose the direction of that killer sermon they were planning to preach. But when we refuse to rest, we deny the sovereignty of God, we reject the example set for us in creation, and we do our world a disservice as our gifts are dimmed and diminished by the fatigue and impairment that come with stress and overwork.
I hope I have made my case about the importance of rest. I also hope that your sabbath time includes some intentional God-time. Sing a song of rejoicing for the lotus that rises from the mucky lake bottom to bless your paddle. Take Jesus along on your trail walk. Tell him all your troubles and thank him for sabbath. Commune with God on the mountaintop, savoring the mystery and magic of the world spread out at your feet. Go to church. Every vacation, every rest, every time apart is an opportunity to be re-created in the hands of the ultimate Creator.
As I close, I’d like to return to Mark’s gospel. The way Mark tells it, it doesn’t sound like the disciples got much rest. They got in the boat. They crossed over. They found crowds of hurting people waiting on the other side. But I did a little research. If you have a favorable wind, sailing from Capernaum to the Gentile coast of the Decapolis takes a good six hours, longer if the winds are variable, longer still if you have calm. That means the disciples had a whole day of sailing with Jesus. How good would that be? They soaked in the quiet. They allowed the horizon to delight their eyes. Peter relaxed at the tiller and allowed his mind to roam. James and John stopped bickering. Andrew threw in a line and caught dinner for everyone. They all began to breathe with the rhythm of the breeze and the waves. At some point they realized that it wasn’t just Jesus in the boat with them. At one point, they knew that they were somehow sailing on, with, and into God. Someone sang a doxology of rejoicing, thankful for the wholeness that is found when we come away and rest awhile with the Lord. Amen.
Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009.
Hasel, Gerhard. “Sabbath” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Cherry, Heather. “The Benefits of Resting and How to Unplug in a Busy World” in Forbes Magazine, Jan. 15, 2021. Accessed online at Forbes.com.
Mednick, Sara. “Give It Up for the Down State” in TEDx Talks, June 4, 2013.
A few weeks ago, Duane and I were in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts for a family wedding. It was a lovely occasion, made even lovelier by the chance to check out a local trail. The Basin Pond Trail in Lee has an interesting history. The Berkshires are the traditional home of the Mohican people, who were forced west, first to New York in the 1780s and later to Wisconsin in the 1820s. Twice efforts to dam the outlet of Basin Pond have led to disaster. In pursuit of water power to drive manufacturing, mill owners from East Lee built a dam in 1873. When the dam failed in 1886, flood waters destroyed twenty-five mills and countless homes downstream. Seven people were killed. In 1965, a second dam was built at the outlet by real estate developers for the construction of a resort community. Three years later when the second dam failed, twelve million gallons of water surged downstream and killed two people in their Cape Street homes. Today, the property is a peaceful refuge, owned and managed by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. The 2.5 mile moderate trail crosses a network of streams and is a haven for beaver, moose, chipmunks, squirrels, and hermit thrush. For those who are into such things, the trail work is amazing. Click on the photos in the gallery below to enjoy the views.
“After she’s gone to camp, in the early evening I clear Liddy’s breakfast dishes from the rosewood table, and find a small crystallized pool of maple syrup, the grains standing there, round, in the night, I rub it with my fingertip as if I could read it, this raised dot of amber sugar, and this time, when I think of my father, I wonder why I think of my father, of the beautiful blood-red glass in his hand, or his black hair gleaming like a broken-open coal. I think I learned to love the little things about him because of all the big things I could not love, no one could, it would be wrong to. So when I fix on this image of resin or sweep together with the heel of my hand a pile of my son’s sunburn peels like insect wings, where I peeled his back the night before camp, I am doing something I learned early to do, I am paying attention to small beauties, whatever I have–as if it were our duty to find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.”
in Claiming the Spirit Within. Ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Our nation has a long tradition of people who have spoken hard truths to those in power. In 1777, Midshipman Samuel Shaw and Third Lieutenant Richard Marven blew the whistle on the torture of British prisoners of war by Commodore Esek Hopkins, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. Commodore Hopkins was well-connected. His brother was the Governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In response to their truth-telling, Shaw and Marven were dismissed from the Navy, jailed, and slapped with a criminal libel suit in the Rhode Island courts. When the Continental Congress learned of the injustice afoot in Rhode Island, they unanimously enacted America’s first whistleblower protection law on June 30, 1778. Shaw and Marven were exonerated and Commodore Hopkins was censured for misconduct.
Perhaps the most notorious whistleblower of the twentieth century was Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst with RAND Corporation. In 1971, Ellsberg and colleague Anthony Russo leaked a top-secret study—the Pentagon Papers. The study revealed a web of deception and misinformation about the war in Vietnam. The Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had lied to Congress and the American people about the viability and success of the war effort. Ellsberg was charged with espionage. He would likely have been convicted if Nixon conspirators G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt—The Whitehouse Plumbers—hadn’t burgled Ellsberg’s workplace, illegally tapped his phones, and plotted to have him dosed with LSD. When their efforts to quash Ellsberg’s truth telling were uncovered, the case against Ellsberg was dismissed.
Employees who speak hard truths in the workplace also face harassment and persecution. In 2010, Everett Stern was working as an anti-money laundering compliance officer with HSBC when he blew the whistle. Stern uncovered a massive, multi-national, money-laundering network at HSBC tied to terrorist groups in the Middle East. Stern sent numerous alerts to his supervisor about the problem, but his boss quashed every effort to stop the illegal wire transfers. Out of options, Stern made contact with the FBI and CIA. As the government noose tightened, Stern lost his job in October 2011. Blacklisted by the financial industry, Stern couldn’t find work. He resorted to waiting tables at PF Chang’s before eventually launching his own business in fraud detection. HSBC paid the federal government $1.92 billion in fines but never faced criminal prosecution for their actions.
John the Baptist knew all about the danger of speaking truth to power. As our reading from Mark’s gospel began, John was imprisoned at Machaerus, Herod Antipas’s mountaintop fortress and retreat. John was the only man in Israel with the chutzpah to call out Herod on his illicit marriage to Herodias. Herodias was Herod’s niece, the daughter of his brother Aristobulous, who had been murdered by their father Herod the Great. Herodias was also already married to his brother, Herod Philip I, who was very much alive and living as an ex-patriate in Rome. The incestuous and illicit union of Herod and Herodias was proscribed by the Torah. Leviticus eighteen and twenty expressly condemned their marriage. But not one priest, not one scribe, not one rabbi in Israel would confront the king about his sin. Everyone at Herod’s Feast knew that the king’s conduct was scandalous, an affront to the Torah, a sin against God, and an embarrassment to the nation.
They left it to John the Baptist, who was known for his blunt and fiery speech, to deliver the message that neither Herod nor Herodias wanted to hear. The Baptizer blew the whistle. He exposed the whole sordid scandal. His condemnation set tongues a-wagging and invited questions and scrutiny. As a result, John found himself a permanent guest of the king, confined to the dungeon at Machaerus, where he continued to denounce Herod and call for the king’s repentance. The king listened to the Baptizer with mixed fascination and fear.
Every message John preached from his prison cell was an opportunity for change. Herod could return to righteousness. He could make the choice for a holier life. Herod knew his guilt, and so did Herodias. As a woman in a deeply patriarchal world, John’s truth telling could lead to her banishment or execution. Rather than renounce her illegal marriage and return to her rightful husband, Herodias waited for the opportune moment when the whistleblower could be silenced, once and for all.
Being a whistleblower is risky business. We may not ever expose military misconduct or the abuse of Presidential power or corporate fraud and profiteering, but we all face moments when our moral sensibility tells us that something doesn’t smell right. Something is wrong. We know that if we remain silent, we will be complicit. Refusing to speak up, to say, “Stop. No.” is really a “Yes” because we have allowed wrong to go unchallenged. We know that if we speak out, there will be painful consequences for our lives: job loss, broken relationships, angry arguments, malicious gossip, outright rejection. Speaking the truth can be the hardest thing we ever do.
Although we may know the ethical challenge of being the whistleblower, we also know the shock and shame of having the whistle blown on us. We have heard hard truths that have confronted us with our bad behavior and sin. Our John the Baptist may have been the father who told us to swallow our pride, straighten up, and go home to the wife and kids. Our John the Baptist may have been the friends who confronted us about our addiction and insisted that we seek professional help. Our John the Baptist may have been the boss who noticed that we were cutting ethical corners and gave us the “Come to Jesus” speech. Our John the Baptist may have been the professor who caught us plagiarizing a paper and made us face the academic consequences for stealing someone else’s work.
We all know John. We have all had people in our lives who have cared enough to invite us to change, to be our better selves, to repent and begin again. Sometimes, we use the power at our disposal to silence them. We disconnect from the relationship. We tell them they are crazy. We deny we have a problem. We resort to threats and insults. Occasionally, we listen to them. Our lives take a new trajectory that isn’t easy, but it is right.
Herodias’s opportune moment came as her husband hosted a banquet to curry favor with his nobles, military commanders, and leading men of Galilee. The table was decked with delicacies. The wine flowed in abundance. The disturbing passion of the evening reached its crescendo as the daughter danced for her father’s pleasure. As Herod promised half his kingdom in reward for his daughter’s performance, Herodias knew she would get exactly what she wanted: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. When the tragic request is made to kill John, there is a graced moment, the king could have challenged his wife and risen to his better nature. He could have acknowledged his wrong and saved John’s life. But the moment passed and John’s fate was sealed in gory fashion.
When the Flemish artist Peter Paul Reubens painted “Herod’s Feast” in the 1600s, he did so with bold color and sensuous detail. Reubens portrayed Herod’s daughter in a scarlet silken dress, bosom bulging, coquettishly lifting the cover on a silver platter bearing the bloodied head of John. A smirking Heodias, at the king’s side, plies a fork with her pinky finger lifted in elegant fashion, ready to poke John’s lifeless head or perhaps serve him up to her husband. Herod looks on, eyes bulging in horror, hands clenching the table cloth in guilt and remorse, barely holding it together. All around them, the party continues, guests feasting and drinking and gossiping, as if the death of the whistleblower were a foregone conclusion.
It’s a terrible story. It’s hard to hear that Herod would sooner take an innocent man’s life than admit his sin and make a change. We are appalled to think that a mother would manipulate her husband and her daughter to bring about a murder. John’s death anticipates the cross and the death of the innocent Jesus at the hands of a weak Pontius Pilate and an angry mob. When this passage pops up in the lectionary cycle, preachers are tempted to give it a pass. But it is a story worth attending to. John’s end questions our moral character. Will we stand up for truth, or will we fail to blow the whistle and live in guilty silence? John’s demise also ultimately confronts us with our own whistleblowers. We have all walked in Herod’s sandals. We have not always risen to our better natures when forced to listen to the message that we do not want to hear. We read of Herod’s Feast and John’s death, and we know our aversion to the hard truths and our reluctance to change, even when it is the right and holy thing to do.
Our John the Baptist blows the whistle. There is a graced moment – the potential for change and growth. Will we become our better selves, or will the prophet lose their head?
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,” says the Lord.
Playground. That word may evoke a swirl of memories: the first time you braved the slide, the creaking of the swing set as you pumped your legs in pursuit of altitude, the bone-jarring thump of the teeter-totter when your friend dismounted and you plummeted earthward. A number of years ago, I did community organizing in a hard-hit, diverse community. The playground spoke volumes about the marginal status of the community and its people. Seats were missing from the swings. Plastic horses had been stripped from the toddler rides, leaving behind sharp springs, rising up from cracked blacktop like a curious and dangerous crop. Hypodermic needles lurked beneath the slide. I never saw a child play there. Nowadays, I live just a few blocks away from a newly refurbished neighborhood park. Mornings might find young mothers parked on the benches, scrolling through social media feeds while their wee ones explore. Evenings welcome teens for pick-up basketball, shirts against skins, trash talk flying.
In her meditations on the twelve months of the year may i have this dance, Joyce Rupp suggests that July is the playground of God. Adirondackers might be inclined to agree. Hummingbirds hover in the garden, sipping nectar, bickering at the feeder, competing for sugar water. Fawns rise up on feeble legs to follow their mothers. They nurse, tails wagging with joy, like puppies. The cat sits on the screened porch, singing a throaty song to the birds outside and dreaming of the mischief that could be had if the door were left ajar. People get playful. They hike mountains to savor the view from the summit. They paddle canoes amid water lilies, hearts jumping at the slap of a beaver tail. If July is God’s playground, then we are all-in. All of creation—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the finned, the feathery, the slithery—plays, delights, and rejoices in the goodness that is all around.
Have you ever thought what God might do on a playground—or what might inspire God to delight and rejoice like a child in Legoland? The Prophet Zephaniah invites us to imagine God singing and rejoicing over us. It’s right there in Zeph. 3:17, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will rejoice over you with loud singing.” A different translation of verse seventeen puts it this way, “God will rejoice over you with happy song . . . God will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” Picture that.
When Zephaniah wrote those words, the Israelites didn’t have much to celebrate. In the early days of the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE), before the king grew up and enacted reform, violence and corruption were rife. Justice was sold to the highest bidder. The widow and orphan hungered. False gods were worshipped in hilltop shrines. Indeed, for three and a half chapters Zephaniah’s word of the Lord imparts a blistering tongue-lashing for a people who have lost their moral center. It hardly sounds like a day in the park—or on the playground. Yet God holds out hope for the people, the promise of the coming day when holy judgment will end, enemies will be turned away, and the disaster we seem hellbent on making will be averted.
It’s a paradox. We get things so wrong, and yet we are beloved and deserving of celebration and delight. It’s the truth proclaimed by Jesus. When Jesus told Zephaniah’s story, he described a son who treated his father as if he were as good as dead. After debasing himself in a profligate life, the son decided to try his luck with the father again—perhaps out of self-interest, perhaps in remorse. When the prodigal got within sight of home, he saw his father running down the road, tunic hitched up, legs flailing, a dust cloud in his wake. The lost son was welcomed, with hugs and tears and great rejoicing. In the party that followed, we can imagine the loud singing and the joyous dancing. Even so, God sings and dances over you. How good is that?
In an Adirondack summer, it is easy to imagine God singing and dancing in creation. Those raspberry sunsets are like celestial fireworks. The flowers shimmy on the verge in the morning breeze. Waves driven by the wind send whitecaps to rush your boat toward shore. The drama of a thunderstorm ignites the night and rattles the window panes. It’s a sensational, dazzling, sensory overload of a playground out there. In the midst of it, God sings and dances over us, delighting in us, simply because we are her children – in all our beauty, in all our frailty. She sure can throw a party. Let’s get out there on the playground and celebrate. Thanks be to God.
“The Playground of God”
by Joyce Rupp
“If I could share my treasures with you
I would constantly send you blessings
from the depths and beauty of each day.
I would seal your smile with sunshine;
I would leaf your walk of life
with the tenderest of greens
and the deepest of autumns.
I would catch at least three rainbows,
and set a seagull on each one
to sail you constant hellos
from the heart of the Transcendent.
I would whisper wonderings
from silent nooks of mountain tops
and the humming heart of the sea.
I would call for the deer
and all the tender animals
to run with you in happiness.
I would ask each tree
in her most majestic mood
to cover you with constant care.
I would breeze in billowy clouds
to share their rainy wanderings
when you need to feel washed new.
I would take you by the hand
and hold your heart near mine,
to let you hear the constant love
bounding forth from me.
and most of all
I would join my heart with yours
and have you share the path of love
that God has caused and carved
in the shadows of my soul.”
Rupp, Joyce. may i have this dance? Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1992, 2007.