12 July 2009 - Proper 10 Year B
Amos 7:7-15; Eph 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
We were told on Friday morning that there is no longer any neutral ground; that it is not possible to adopt a neutral position. I do not want to address the context of that remark but rather to view it more generally and in relation to this morningís readings.
What happens when there is no longer any neutral ground? Though almost a hundred years ago now, those accounts of Christmas meetings between German and British troops in no-manís land have not lost their power. We can sense something of the relief at the suspension of hostilities, the reassessment of relationship, the rediscovery of the humanity of the enemy. We see them as fragile moments of hope in a bleak landscape.
To be told there is no neutral ground is to increase pressure, to increase the determination to hold oneís position. It easily results in an increase in fear and anger and resentment.
Todayís Gospel is an astonishingly human account of how all this is acted out. It is one of those rare Gospel passages in which Jesus plays no direct part and his name is only mentioned as an aside - "King Herod heard of the healings and other miracles for Jesusí name had become known." Herod is the focus of our attention and Mark is careful to tease out the context. It is the news of healings and miracles - things which are catching the popular imagination and stirring up deeper hopes and aspirations - it is these things which disturb Herod. They are an assault on his authority; they threaten his identity and his political security. Indeed, at this point he might well take the words of Jesus "whoever is not with me is against me" (Mt 12:30) to describe this loss of any neutral space between him and this new threat.
But, like all of us human beings, Herod does not see clearly. He does not know that it is Jesus who is the challenge to his authority. Why? Partly because his own story has clouded his vision. His horizon is still filled with the figure of John the Baptist. Yes, he resented John because he questioned Herodís right to Herodias but he also respected John. Resentment and attraction - both ended by a fatherís foolish indulgence of his daughter that opened the way for Johnís execution. Now this: a kind of mocking from the grave, it seems and a mocking that forces Herod to question himself.
Now, there are circumstances in which such a challenge can free us to face questions, to review our judgments and choices. But we are more often like Herod; we are blinded by our own earlier follies and weaknesses and are so taken up with the apparent assault on our identity that we swiftly get ourselves into an attacking position. Thatís all we can think about.
At this point, it is possible that you have drifted off into a comfortable Sunday morning day dream. You may even be thinking about the Magnificat and Benedictus antiphons for this weekend - just what do they have to do with anything? Well, none of this morningís Gospel text is set in the vast corpus of antiphons. There is a studied avoidance of anything that recounts human evil and sin from the New Testament. Instead, we have two texts from Luke 9 about the mission Jesus entrusted to his disciples - to preach and to heal. These texts are undoubtedly fine in themselves but what place do they have here?
I want to suggest that we are not meant to limit our attention to the bald Gospel text. As it stands, the text is an account of human sin and frailty - sin intensified by the reported signs of the kingdom of God. The antiphon texts remind us that we are bound to ask ourselves, what is the word of Jesus to us here? What would have happened if Herod had been able to see that this was not John raised from the dead to haunt him, but the work of God in Jesus?
Is it not the case that the answer is unequivocal good news. Despite that Gospel saying in Matthew and Luke "whoever is not with me is against me", the repeated experience of men and women through the centuries is that the encounter with Jesus affords a seemingly limitless "neutral ground". Jesus does not bully or threaten, he does not seek to attack our identity. Rather, he offers us the gift of himself and, as we so slowly learn to accept his gift, we discover that we become both more ourselves and more like him. Which is why we have our two antiphons, recalling us to our vocation to be his disciples and to accept his call to preach and to heal in his name - and to invite others to discover the generous space in which we are free to explore our response to the God of our salvation without fear or threat.
Perhaps there is also a hint of that plumb-line in Amos - for a plumb-line makes visible an invisible dimension and thus enables the wall to be built up straight and true.