Texts: Amos 7.7-15; Psalm 85.8-13; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29
StoryCorps is a project that invites people to record interviews with each other. The purpose of the program is to share and preserve the stories of our lives. These stories are often fascinating, and one published this week about premature babies born in the early 20th century was no exception.
Today, if a premature baby is born, the family’s hope for their survival lies in the medical establishment. Makes sense. But sometimes we find hope in the strangest of places, the places we would least expect. Lucille Horn, born in 1920 (prematurely), survived not because of a hospital but because of a Coney Island sideshow. Dr. Martin Couney kept premature infants alive in his incubators for decades. The medical establishment had rejected those incubators, but every summer for 40 years, he funded his work by displaying the babies and charging 25 cents to see the show. This meant parents didn’t have to pay for medical care, and many children survived who never would have otherwise.
(Read the story here)
Sometimes we find hope in the strangest of places. We expect to find hope in the Bible. Especially in the Gospel texts we read on Sunday. And yet today we as face down the story of John the Baptist’s head on a platter, perhaps the last thing we expect to find would be hope. And let’s be realistic, we’re maybe not all that excited about looking to closely at the gruesome story. But perhaps hope is exactly what we find in this most unexpected place.
The part of the story that tends to hold our attention is the grisly stuff about a birthday party (likely influenced by a lot of wine), a sinister trick, and a dramatic ending. But that part of our reading is a flashback. What’s currently going on in this story is that Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected. John, the victim of that horrible evening, is back. We know from the flashback that Herod had been listening to John - he may have been afraid, but he knew this was a righteous and holy man, and until that evening, had been protecting him.
And so perhaps, Herod was hopeful. Hopeful that this could be a chance to beg forgiveness for what happened that night, hopeful that maybe things could go back to the way they were before. Herod’s hope is a desperate hope. And perhaps for Herod, this hope born out of desperation unraveled him a little bit. It left him hoping for something as crazy as resurrection, perhaps he had become a man obsessively focused on that one night when everything went wrong.
And the ironic thing about this is that his hope for forgiveness for that one act blinded him to the fact that what was happening was even better than he could have hoped for. This was not the man he had wronged, returned so that Herod could soothe his guilty conscience. This was Jesus. We know now what Herod did not. We know who Jesus is and what this means.
We know that Jesus is our source of hope, and through him we can hope for far more than we would have thought. Yes, through Christ we receive forgiveness for the things we do that are sinful. Herod - forgiven. Curious George - forgiven. We as individuals and a community - forgiven. We know too well that when we are consumed by guilt, simple forgiveness for that action can seem like the most important thing in the world.
But the good news is that in Christ we receive so much more than just this. Because of Christ we can hope for what we hear about in the psalm, because we have been promised it is coming. Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace. Steadfast love - hesed is the Hebrew word. It means unrelenting, never-ending, steady, persistent, pursuing, unbreakable love. Faithfulness - the ultimate gift from God. Righteousness - when all creation is right with God, being exactly who God made us to be. Peace - shalom is the Hebrew word. Shalom is far more than a simple lack of war. Shalom is about the whole being being well. It is all the pieces and parts of a body or a community humming together in peace and wellness and joy.
These things are not pipe dreams. They are not even far away, untouchable in our lifetime. They are what we have already begun to experience in Christ. Yes, what is to come will be these things in greater quantities and in higher resolution that we can possibly imagine now, but through worship and community and the table and incarnation we get glorious glimpses now.
Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace - they are not just things that God does or creates or gifts. Listen to how they are personified in the psalm - they meet, they kiss each other, they spring up from the ground, the look down from the sky. These things define who God is to us: not only are these qualities present, they are active and interactive - they are in relationship. Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace are what the dance of the trinity is made up of - they are who God is.
Our reading from Ephesians today is a response to that, and it is busting with energy. In the original Greek, these 11 verses make up one sentence. A sentence that is busting at the seams with joy about what God in Christ has done for us. We not only are God’s adopted children, but that was always the plan. Redemption and forgiveness is LAVISHED upon us. In the fullness of time the plan is to gather up ALL things into God, not just people, but all creation.
And so our hope is not desperate, because through God we want for nothing. Our hope is not misplaced, because unlike Herod, we can recognize that it is Jesus before us. Our hope looks to a day when we will no longer need prophets to turn us back to God, when the prevailing power will not be of human nature, but of God’s nature. Our hope looks to a day when we will be wrapped up in the embrace of righteousness and peace, when we too will be at the meeting of steadfast love and faithfulness.
And until that day comes, together we can look for hope in the sideshows. Together we can be a good little community, and always very curious. Because even though the day is not yet complete, it has already begun. Forgiveness and grace are lavished upon us. And we thank God for the opportunities we have to lavish forgiveness and grace upon each other and our community, to show the world what a hope born of God, and not desperation, can look like.