July 15, 2018
8th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
It was the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, in 1986. I was a young seminarian, and my brother Tom and I were chosen as baptismal sponsors for our tiny niece, Amanda. The pastor at her family’s church met with us before the service. He told us that we didn’t have to remember the actual date, but that we should just remember to remind Amanda on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost every year of her baptismal day.
Pentecost 8. Remember your baptism. My brother told me, “Look, I’m never going to remember this. It’s up to you to remind me each year that Pentecost 8 is coming up.”
I don’t recall whether the text for the day Little Amanda was baptized was the execution of the John the Baptist. I kind of hope it wasn’t.
How could we teach a child the wonder and delight and goodness of the eternal love of God while we also had to answer her questions about the destructive and abusive power of tyrants? How could you bring a child into a world in which powerful people do really awful things? How would you teach her that a world leader could use the excuse, “A child asked me, so I had to,” as justification to do something as horrific as serving up the head of a prophet whom he respected?
How could you explain to her how adults would sometimes use children as political pawns in their attempt to enact their own hatred and violence? And why would you tell a beloved child about such vengeance as this, at a time when you wanted her to know only eternal acceptance, hope and goodness?
How indeed? Amanda grew up. I suspect she learned the truth one way or another. She and the rest of her generation have learned that children are (and much too often have been) used for destructive motives.
This week we saw how the needs of breastfed infants can be played against the desires for profit and trade control[i]. In the last few weeks we’ve heard much about children separated from their families at the border. How many children is somewhat unclear–because different groups inflate or minimize the number depending on what argument they are making and whose political side of the immigration issue they are on[ii].
But we ought not pretend that this is the only era in which children have been used by groups in power. From child laborers in global sweatshops, to child warriors and suicide bombers in the heart of conflict, to children trafficked through prostitution, children have long been abused by the powerful. The number of children and youth addicted to opioids is routinely ignored by the media. You have to wonder whether someone is profiting from ignoring this crisis, preventing it from becoming front page news every day. Whether the arguments are over child tax credits or funding streams for education, the wellbeing of children is still being used as political fodder and has been for a long time.
What kind of a world would treat children this way, and where does God’s Spirit intervene?
Today’s gospel text[iii] is the only story in the book of Mark in which Jesus does not appear. But don’t miss it, there’s a hint about him and his power hidden right in the first line. In fact, this is a story about life, after all.
Herod has been hearing accounts of Jesus’s disciples, of how they were reaching out to people who were sick, anointing them, and proclaiming God’s reign to them. He is curious about whose disciples they could be, and what their message is about. Maybe a new prophet has arisen? Someone like Elijah? But Herod fears something more dramatic is happening. Did you catch it? He senses the power of resurrection–about new life coming from places where we thought it had been squashed.
It’s then that Mark takes an aside to explain how John had been killed– how the tyrant had been amused by a little girl’s dance. Biblical scholars and preachers often presume the dancer must have been a seductress. Artists portray her so voluptuously that Herod can’t help himself. He’s so sucked in by her dance that he promises her anything she wishes.
I wonder if we’re guilty of our own abuse of children by that interpretation. The word for girl in the text is the same we heard a few weeks ago for the 12-year-old daughter of the synagogue leader. She’s not even mature enough to know what to ask for when the king makes his absurd offer, so she has to consult with her mother.
I wonder if the adults in the story, and all the generations since who have painted her as a cunning temptress are all guilty of trying to absolve our complicity in using a child to justify our violence.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, because I don’t think this story is finally about that. Rather, I think it’s about that hint of Herod worrying whether even after all of the horror of what he did to John, the prophet’s message of God’s realm and truth has not been damaged after all. After his horrible willingness to stop John’s message of justice and righteousness once and for all, it somehow is still afoot. It wasn’t demolished. It’s still dancing.
The message of God’s love and truth is still alive. In fact, it’s spreading. It’s healing and anointing, restoring faith to places where hope had been denied. It’s alive and well and responding to needs and fears and power in ways that bring life and compassion and promise.
This is a resurrection story after all. It’s about life springing up from places we thought were dead[iv].
And it’s a story to offer us a way through the despair and horror we encounter today. We may worry that goodness is being destroyed around us. We may despair that kindness has grown out of favor, but God is able to raise up goodness and hope even from the grave. Love is not destroyed even by our violence, our neglect, or our abuse.
The power of Herod may try to silence it, but the psalmist sings a deeper promise. Righteousness and Peace will kiss each other, and faithfulness will spring up from the earth[v]. Creation itself will share the power of resurrection with us.
A few weeks ago, Deanna Thompson from our congregation described her family’s surprise experience on vacation in a national park in Canada. “We didn’t realize,” she posted, “that 80% of the park had been devastated by wildfire last September. Even with charred trees and burnt hillsides surrounding us, an unexpected gift–the best wildflower showing in forty years. Out of the ashes–life[vi]”
That’s resurrection. It’s not just that Jesus will rise from the dead at the end of the gospel, it’s that God is already making life happen even now, no matter what we have done or not done to deserve it, even in ways we can’t imagine.
We glimpse resurrection when flowers bloom after years of neglect or destruction. We witness it when those who are grieving find a reason to smile and move through another day. We marvel at it when couples who have been struggling and feuding find new hope to work on their relationship, and when those who have left painful marriages discover new chances for happiness in an unexpected friendship. We sense resurrection as young people set out on mission trips, or off to college, or off to new jobs, and suddenly commit themselves to endeavors we never expected of them.
This week we witnessed resurrection with fingers crossed and hands clasped in prayer. It was there as divers risked their own lives to float out that team of soccer players from their underwater cave, birthing them to new life, reuniting them to their families, and relieving the world’s fears and anxieties.
And yes, we see resurrection in the goodness and delight of young children, dancing under the refreshment of sprinklers, or in the company of puppies, or beneath the sparkle of fireworks. We see resurrection in their giggling, and the ways they bring delight to those who watch. We recognize it as they elicit from their loved ones’ foolish promises to share not just half of their kingdoms, but the whole of their hearts to make the world a better place for the generations to come.
My sweet niece has grown up. Somehow she has learned to love and hope even without my brother and me always remembering to wish her well when Pentecost 8 rolls around. In fact, she and her husband are anticipating the birth of their own child this fall.
New life, in spite of brokenness, neglect, and destruction caused by their elders, will delight and comfort them. They will glimpse the power of resurrection in the gift of that child. I suspect it will challenge them to deepen their commitment to make the world a better place.
When God’s spirit is at work, the dance of children can always do that for us.
So today, let the children dance. Let them dance not for our selfish needs, but for their need to share the joy and delight of God’s love for them and the world around them. Let them dance in the kiss of righteousness and peace, and show us faithfulness springing up from the earth.
Who knows, maybe God’s glory can still dwell in our land.
Thanks be to God. Amen
[iii] Mark 6:14-29. The death of John the Baptist.
[v] Psalm 85:8-13.