Thursday, July 09, 2015

Proper 10 - Year B
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost                                                  
Mark 6:14-29

"When [Herod] heard [John the Baptist], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him"

"I didn't join this church to be criticized."

"I didn't get married in order to become the object of criticism."

"I never anticipated that having children would result in the withering criticism of me which they sometimes dish out."

"When I agreed to manage this part of the company the last thing I expected was a delegation of employees with a document critical of my management style."

Critics. We've all got 'em. The more we do and the greater the risks we take the higher our degree of vulnerability to such criticism. If we play safe, though, we are criticized for that too. 

Critics - blast them! Why don't they leave me alone?

Herod Antipas (a Roman client-governor based on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee) was a curious fellow with an odd love-hate relationship to his greatest critic - John the Baptist.  The Baptist had zeroed in on improprieties in Herod's family life - most especially his marriage to Herodias, the former wife of his brother Philip Antipater. Whenever John preached, though, Herod would always listen. He was both "perplexed" (set backtroubled or confounded) by the Baptist's critical preaching and yet, at the same time, strangely compelled to pay attention. Aren't we most angered by those words of criticism which resound somewhere within us?  We worry that they might be true. We find that they mirror what others have said about us before. Those ultimately caught in a significant fault by their critics will say it was something they knew themselves all along. It didn't come as a surprise.

You'll hear the whole story this Sunday: Herod is tricked by Herodias and her daughter into beheading the Baptist as part of a rash and injudicious wager which the ruler has made. Herod does what he knows he ought not to have done.

What would happen to you if you got your wish? What if your critic could be silenced?  It could be the voice of some other person - an enemy or a meddling friend. It might be something within your own self - the voice of your own troubled conscience. It might be some word of Scripture which cut straight to the bone of what ails you.  

It's not impossible to turn such a voice off - it can always be done.

You will distance yourself from a meddling friend. You can destroy your enemy. You might school yourselves that the voice within you is just some neurotic nagging force which is best not-listened-to. You could avoid those Scriptures which trouble you. It happens all the time.

Would you be better off, though?  The face of Herod Antipas, when he is presented with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, is often depicted by artists as being the face of a man facing the horrifying truth that he is now suddenly and entirely alone.

There can be no road now out of the hole he's dug for himself - no one left to shake the branch he's sitting on.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost                                                     Proper 11 - Year B
Psalm 23

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

What is it that we keep around for a rainy day? An awful lot of life's activity consists of collecting resources for ourselves and our families. It's always been that way. If your hobby is metal detecting you live in hope of finding one of those coin hordes which some punter, centuries ago, hid from the taxman in the fourth tree to the left of the bend in the old road.

That the teenager with the metal detector even found the coins meant that the original owner was never able to collect them back in the day. That datum, in itself, should tell you something.

As I was sitting in my office this week looking at Sunday's readings I realized two things; that the 23rd Psalm is very popular (I know at least four different ways of singing it) but that most folks would regard the sort of reliance upon God which the psalm prescribes as being a sign of personal failure on their part.  If you are walking "through the valley of the shadow of death" then you must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. You could be reproached for that. If you are relying on God to lead you "in green pastures" or "beside still waters" or to place a cup in your hands which "floweth over", then where exactly was your brain when you were planning your life? The psalm may be popular but we take it as a big part of our life's work never to be in a place where its precepts and promises become necessary. We strive for self-reliance. We've been told that there's a science to it. With a bit of self-discipline it can be done. We don't need to rely on God.

The Church (at least in the First World and since the Second War) has often played along with this. More's the pity really. A quick side glance at world history will tell us that civilizations rise and fall. We can count ourselves merely lucky to be living where and when we do. Every second page of the New Testament seems to subvert - in parable and pronouncement - the idea that self-reliance is the normal human condition. Where such self-reliance is even possible due to accidents of history and geography, rarely is it pious. Our "great cloud of witnesses" contains all those saints (not to mention the philosophers, the aid-workers, the poets and the musicians and other sundry heroes) who forswore their place on the upward path towards "their piece of the pie" in order to embrace the beauty and the sense of a life that could only be found when uncertainty is sought out and embraced.

What makes us safe and well-equipped does not necessarily make us deep or useful. It cannot ensure that we are good.