Proper 10, Year B, 7th Sunday after PentecostAmos 7:7-15
A week ago we had a beautiful display of Northern Lights. Great flowing curtains of green light with some hints of pink and white and blue. I caught a hint of it from inside and couldn’t resist the chance to go outside and bask in the glory of God’s creation. The lights eventually faded into a gentle haze of soft green. I went back inside, but not because the lights had faded. Honestly, I harbored hope they would explode again. Know what drove me in? Mosquitoes. There were probably 10 but it seemed like hundreds of them, whining in my ears and apparently able to find the smallest hint of bare skin. (Why did God create mosquitoes anyway?) The story I tell, though; the experience that was transformative and brought home the glory of God was that heavenly display of lights dancing across the sky.
So, in the midst of that glory and wonder I contemplated today’s Gospel. And I thought, “Mark. Buddy. What are you thinking? Somehow, this story is not imparting the transformative glory of God.” This is more the stuff of bad sensationalist television.
The story that precedes today’s is the one we read last week. Mark shares the excitement of new mission as Jesus commissions the disciples to go forth 2×2. They perform wonders and miracles. The story that follows today’s (spoiler alert – you won’t hear this until next week) is the disciples’ triumphant return, having healed and taught and done deeds of power followed by the feeding of the 5 thousand.
Sandwiched in between these 2 momentous and uplifting events, Mark finds it necessary to tell a gruesome, sordid story of hatred, manipulation, corruption, power grasping and murder. Why? Apparently, Matthew and Luke had the same question. They had access to Mark’s material, yet Matthew skims over the event with a minimum of detail, and Luke doesn’t mention it at all. This is the only story in the entirety of Mark’s gospel which does not have Jesus at its center, and yet he practically lingers over all the unsavory details.
Why? Why does the typically terse Mark find this grisly tale crucial enough to spend so many words on it? Perhaps because Mark does not sugar-coat. This is the world in which we live. This is the world into which the disciples were sent. This is the world into which we are called to bring the light and love of Christ.
We meet the unscrupulous Herodias and her charming, but apparently conscience-free daughter. More interestingly, we are made privy to the internal struggles of the ambiguous villain Herod, a man torn between his own innate sense of the Holy and his insatiable appetite for power. We want to despise him, murdering a holy man at the bidding of a 12 year-old and her spiteful mother. But do we not recognize ourselves in the flawed Herod? Fighting the battle between the truth within us, and the picture we would present to the world.
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other,” the Psalmist says. “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” This is the promise of God, and we rightfully cling to these words. But the promise does not come to us gift-wrapped, fully assembled. This promise is one we are called to keep with God in Christ.
I am not a prophet, Amos tells us in the first lesson. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” Yet, the Lord called him to speak truth to power. Met by threats and derision, he followed the Lord. The truth was told, the plumb line set.
The message of truth, and oddly, the message of love, is not always met with joy and earthly rewards. John the Baptist, and later Jesus himself died for the sake of truth, justice and love. In more recent times, consider Martin Luther King, Jr. Born into segregation and anger and hatred, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood and told the truth. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” He let his light shine. He let his love show. He died, but the Kingdom of God came closer.
I am no prophet, you may say. I am an engineer, a grandmother, an administrator, a retired person, a gardener. I’m just an ordinary person. Still, you are a child of God, and you have a choice to make. We can choose the way of Herod, recognizing but ultimately sacrificing truth for our own self-serving purposes. Or we can choose the way of Amos, of John the Baptist, of Martin Luther King, Jr.; living the truth of God regardless of the cost of that discipleship. Living the way of Christ.
You may say, “Um, but I have made other choices. I have, on occasion, chosen self over truth, comfort over justice, anger over love.” The beauty of a life in Christ is that unlike Herod, we get to make another choice, a different choice.
We live in a broken, frightened world. That is the way of the world. It is the world Mark shows us today. But Jesus came to show us this is not the end of the gospel story. It’s not the end of our story. The five thousand will be fed. The aurora borealis will shine again in the darkness. If we choose the sometimes difficult path of love, then amidst the brokenness, amidst the fear, we can live a life in remembrance that joy and praise and gratitude and love are crazy mysteries this broken world (T. Haut, Midrash, 2012) – mysteries far more profound than the creation of the mosquito.
I want to close with the Mosquito Prayer offered by the Reverend Timothy Haut,
O God beyond all understanding,
you have created a wondrous world
which includes mosquitoes.
Everything has its place in the marvelous web of creation,
and certainly these little beings may be a blessing
to swallows and bats, to fish and frogs.
But we, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve–
we who are made just a bit lower than the angels–
are nothing more than meat to little Anopheles.
Their squadrons are the bane of a summer night;
they are the buzz of disease and death
among your precious people.
We could do without them, please.
But if nothing else, O Lord, let them remind us,
when we are tempted to use each other
to satisfy our own appetites,
that there are already enough mosquitoes in the world.
Help us not to be bearers of distress,
but the givers of life.
–Timothy Haut, Midrash discussion, July, 2012