The Wildest Party

A while back we added the “Question for the Car Ride” to our bulletin. Its included at the end of the liturgy and is meant to be used to stimulate conversation, so that you can strike up a conversation with anybody. This week our question is: What is the wildest thing that ever happened to you at a party?

That could make for some good stories, because you might have been to some crazy parties. At a party you’ve been to, someone might have asked you to hold their drink, their cigarette, and their baby while they got in a fist fight, you might have been underage at a party that was visited by the police and so you ran into the woods to hide, you might have been at a party where you lost a car in a card game. Whatever is the absolute craziest thing that’s happened to you at a party – I defy you to name something crazier than what happens at Herod’s party in Galilee.

This is the backstory for those who have forgotten:

Herod Antipas had a father named Herod the Great who tried to kill Jesus when he was born. Of course he failed, and after Herod the Great’s death his kingdom was broken into 4 parts, and in good nepotistic fashion Rome appointed one of them to be governed by his son Herod Antipas – the region of Galilee and Perea.

Later on, Herod Antipas stole his brother Philip’s wife, confusingly named Herodias, and John who was preaching out in the desert and looking for a good illustration for the kind of brokenness and selfishness we are to repent from, spoke against Herod and Herodias by name.

So Herodias, whose reputation has been tarnished, whose name is trending in the news because of John, wants to make John pay and convinces Herod to throw John in prison.

Sometime later, Herod is having a decadent birthday party and his daughter comes to dance – to add to the confusion of multiple people with the same name, her name is given as Herodias just like her mother (although the Jewish historian Josephus calls her Salome). So, Salome/Herodias dances for her father and his friends and everyone is so pleased that in an unguarded moment Herod says, “That was such a great dance I will give you anything you ask for up to half of my kingdom – just name it and you can have it.”

Mother Herodias convinces her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter and while Herod would rather not kill John and is grieved in this heart about it — just like today people in power find it easier to continue with a foolish policy rather than admitting an error — Herod gives his daughter and wife what they’ve asked for and has John’s head cut off and brought to the party.

You’ve not been to a party crazier than that!

Now, all that John did to receive his grisly end, was to say Herod shouldn’t have married his brother’s wife. If he had just not said that, he would’ve lived. That one soundbite was the difference between continuing to be out in the desert feasting on locusts and wild honey and having a successful preaching ministry and being put in jail and murdered.

The only difference in those two outcomes, was speaking the truth to those in power.

How easy it is not to tell the truth. How comfortable it is to assume we don’t have a responsibility to tell what is. How tempting it is for the church not to get involved in conversations about race or immigration or politics in this country. We can say: the courts will just figure it out. We can say: it’s not something that we have the power to decide anyway. We can say: we are many people and we are all living out our obedience to God as best we can, but we don’t all agree about everything so we shouldn’t say anything.

Its not easy to tell the truth but are called to speak the truth. In the tradition of the prophets, and John, and Jesus, and his apostles and all the generations from then until now, we are called to simply to say what is true.

Jesus Christ is God’s love for the whole world and especially for those who are marginalized and vulnerable, so we can say with confidence:

Women deserve equal treatment. Racism is wrong. Families should never be split up for any reason. LGBTQ members of our community should be treated with respect and the same rights as everyone else. Bullying is never okay. Hollywood celebrity worship is a sham. Our selfish overconsumption is making our planet sick.

It is not always easy to tell the truth but we are called to tell the truth no matter what the repercussions and this crazy party at Herod’s house shows us what might happen.

Up until now we have been following Jesus and seen he is determined to oppose and defeat the forces that rob people of the abundant life God intends for them.

And last week we heard how he sent the disciples out to extend his work and so Herod has heard about Jesus.

And he wants to know who Jesus is. Is he a prophet? Is he the figure of Elijah? Is he John returned from the grave for revenge?

Herod’s question is, “Who is Jesus?” And the accompanying question that the Gospel of Mark wants us to consider is: “What will it mean if we follow him?”

This crazy party at Herod’s house provides an answer.

If we speak the truth of Jesus to the power of the Herods of this world, there will be repercussions. Its always been true.

Amos, who spoke truth to the power of Jeroboam, was banished from the land.

John was beheaded, Jesus was crucified, his apostles were murdered.

There is a cost to discipleship. And we should know what that cost is.

Yesterday afternoon we were at a little party – a birthday party in fact – and some folks asked me why Epiphany does a Vacation Bible School. It was a genuine question. What is VBS and why do we do it?

Our Vacation Bible School team has been working for months to get ready and working around the clock for the last week so that everything is in order: the building, our supplies, our teachers. Why?

My best answer yesterday was that we want our children and the children of our community to have an experience with Jesus Christ, and to come to know him as a friend and as their savior.

But that question: Why do we do VBS, was more insightful that I think this person realized.

I mean, why introduce our children to Jesus knowing he will set them on a path in which they will certainly face opposition. Why ask our children to be a part of this counter-cultural movement full of awkward conversations and moments of sticking out like a sore thumb? Why invite our children to learn how to tell the truth to a world that will cause them to suffer for it?

And all I can say is: Because it is the truth.

Because we will all suffer in this life. If you have not yet – thanks be to God – you will. And if we will all suffer in this life, and if it can’t be escaped – then we might as well suffer for the truth. We ought then to lift up the name of the One on whom we can call for help and for life.

The writer of Ephesians knows the seriousness of this call to speak truth to power, the probability of suffering, and so he writes what is essentially a motivational speech, a pep talk; like Braveheart’s William Wallace on horseback, the writer of Ephesians encourages those following Jesus not to turn back and not to be afraid.

You who go out to follow Jesus:

Hear and trust again that God our Father and our Lord Jesus chose us before the foundation of the world, destined us for adoption into his family as children, has forgiven us our sins, has lavished his grace upon us, and has given us an inheritance so that we might hope in him and live for his glory.

The writer of Ephesians reminds us: God has a plan. I don’t know about you, but MY plans fall apart, are poorly constructed, and leave me disappointed. But God has a plan – divinely imagined and sure to be exacted – God has a plan to gather up all things – in heaven and on earth – all things including those people who hear his truth and accept it, including those who hear his truth and reject it, including those who are too self-absorbed to hear it at all – God has a plan to gather all things to himself in love and healing and forgiveness and mercy in Jesus Christ…

And I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like a party – a wildly beautiful party – the likes of which you and I have never seen, but which is being prepared for all creation. And get this: we receive a foretaste of this feast today at the table of the Lord.

At this wildly beautiful party, the body and blood of Christ are given as a burning coal to touch our lips, to purify us, and make us vessels to speak God’s truth to power and to a world in need.

Brothers and sisters, may God fill you with courage to tell the truth. May God bless you with confidence in his love, and may we party on in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!



Windows Down

Last Saturday night, 31,000 Lutheran youth poured out into the streets of Houston, Texas, having worshipped and praised God together in the NRG Stadium. Our service day in the community earlier that day had been amazing, the band that night – 10th Avenue North – was incredible, and we were on a high as we danced, sang, and swayed on the light rail all the way back to our stop, then down Dallas Street toward our hotel.

There was an electricity in the group you could feel pulsing as we looked around at the city, the skyscrapers above us, the wide streets around us with buses, cars, and trucks – and the youth spilling out into it all in our brightly colored t-shirts. In a moment of spontaneous joy one of our Epiphany youth looked at the cars lined up at a stop light and yelled, “Jesus loves you!” It was a pastor’s dream come true. And the driver of a gray sedan glanced at the sound of that proclamation and looked away as he rolled up his window.

With a smile, all this young woman could say was “I guess he didn’t want to hear that,” but we were unphased.

In the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus is rejected by his neighbors and those who know him best. They are offended. Not because he is not wise – they admit his wisdom. And not because they think he is a sham – they say, “Look at the powerful works of healing he is able to do!”

They are offended because they know him and his family and they know the kind of people that he comes from and what kind of person he is.

THE GREAT DIVIDE in the Greco-Roman world at this time was between those who worked with their hands and those who did not have to. And Jesus, like his father Joseph, was a TEKTON. Tekton most often gets translated as “carpenter,” but rally means something more general, like “builder.” A tekton might work in wood, or metal, or rock. And we don’t know exactly what Jesus did with his hands, but we know that because he used them in his daily work, he was from the lower class.

A scholar named Gerhard Lenski in his book, “Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification,” defines upper and lower class in Jesus day more specifically in order of descending importance.
The upper class was made up of:
1) Rulers and governors, 2) Priests, 3) Military generals, 4) and Merchants.
The lower lass was made up of, 1) Peasants, 2) Artisans, 3) the Degraded, 4) the Expendable.

The offense is not that people are being healed and God’s work is being done, but that it is happening through someone who is from the lower class.

As an artisan working in Galilee in a fairly prosperous time, Jesus was not impoverished, but he does fall squarely into the lower class, and even worse, he is fearless in his willingness to befriend people that others would have defined as expendable and degraded – reaching out to them to heal and restore them.

Jesus’ neighbors can’t accept the extraordinary gifts Jesus offers because they’re convinced he is ordinary.
The Son of God is standing on the corner of their street with buses, trucks, and cars zipping by, but the people in Nazareth just glance away and roll up their window. So not many people are healed. And not much changes.

It might strike us as odd that God’s power could be limited by us. What power could we possibly have in comparison with God? It might sound like heresy to say that we could limit God, but the truth is that we either choose to be a vessel for God’s Spirit or we turn away and say I don’t want to share the forgiveness, kindness and mercy with my neighbor that God has so freely given me.

God is living and busy and active in the world but we have to be open to receiving what God has to give for it to make a difference in our life.

God’s love and mercy are present in the world and are coming into the world but it makes all the difference that OUR hearts are open to him, and we are expectant and ready for God to use US to bring his love and mercy into the world through us.
In baptism, God has claimed you as his own. And our Tekton is building us into the community of his church.
Jesus Christ is an artisan, with our life in his hands.

One of my favorite visual artists, Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutch impressionist painter really wanted to become a pastor but instead he became a painter, and he seems exceptionally well-qualified to describe the way in which Jesus is our tekton. He wrote in a letter:

“[Christ] lived as a greater artist than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in living flesh. In other words, this matchless artist, hardly to be conceived of by the blunt instrument of our modern, nervous and obtuse brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor books. He loudly proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he made … living men, immortals. This is serious because it is the truth.”

Jesus is our tekton and is still working in living flesh – in your life and in mine.

Jesus is working in living flesh, with the young men and women of this congregation.

Jesus sent them out into Houston this week, not two by two, but in groups of at least 4 to give their witness.

On Saturday we were in Monroe Park, on the Northside of Houston historically made up of immigrants of all kinds, and currently made up of Central and South American immigrant and refugee families. Monroe Park is next to Martinez Elementary school, which was the recipient of the books we helped collect these past months as a congregation.

The ministry that is happening in Monroe Park is ongoing through the Methodist church and we were there to help them with the work they are already doing and will continue to do.

We spent the day thinking about Jesus question, “Who is my neighbor?” and reading to children in Monroe Park, painting faces, drawing together with sidewalk chalk, and playing tag and football in the name of Jesus. A woman from the neighborhood named Phyllis had her foster child at the park. He was 8 months old and the young women of our group held him the whole time we were at the park.

There was a young boy named Jesus (he was maybe 12 years old) who really enjoyed the sidewalk chalk. Our group hung out with him and they drew a cross together and wrote the words “This changes everything.”

A young woman from our group hung out with Jesus most of the morning. He was really into Marvel, superheroes, and especially Ben 10. The young woman from our group who is a rising sophomore really befriended him and you could tell he loved talking to her.

Insightfully, she asked questions to keep conversation going. At one point she asked Jesus, “If you had a superpower, what would it be?” I was taken back by his answer. Jesus said simply, “Money. Our family is very poor.”

Money is a superpower for those privileged enough to have it. When we are sick, we can receive treatment from a doctor. When we are hungry, we can get something to eat. When we want to beat the heat, we can find a way to cool down. How often do we waste money on things that mean nothing to us, when others have so little? Jesus talks about money more than just about anything, and what we do with our money matters.

I was impressed this past week by two instances of how our youth used their money.

First, on Wednesday night we got to the Mass Gathering late because of the huge crowds and slow light rail, we were starving, the concession vendors were out of food and closing, and only a third of us were able to buy (overpriced!) food. But the third who got food gladly shared their fries, chicken strips, and pizza with those of us who had nothing to eat, because we take care of each other. The youth know that we feed those who are hungry because we have been fed by God with his love.

And even more, I was moved during the offering on Sunday. It had been a busy week and the adults had thought to talk to the youth about giving an offering, and I didn’t mean to spy on anyone, but I noticed that when the basket came by, all the teens I was sitting with were putting bills in. Giving to God and God’s mission, the total amount of offering given at the Gathering on Sunday morning was $261,226.43.

You as a congregation supported us generously – in the tens of thousands – so we could have the experience in Houston – and all I ever heard over this past year as we got ready to go was how glad you were to give it to our youth so that they could experience Christ — in Jesus, and Phyllis, and her foster son, and their new friends from around the country, with one another and the people of Houston.

Sometimes we will be rejected for sharing the love of Jesus. People will roll up their window – They’re not interested in giving Jesus control of their life and they don’t want to be in relationship with people who are trying to follow him.
And sometimes we will be received in gratitude.

One letter that was being shared this week after the Gathering on Facebook is one worth sharing:

Dear ELCA guest,
Thank you for staying with us at the Embassy Suites Galleria. You have been such a wonderful group and we appreciate you coming to Houston. All you have to do tomorrow is drop off your keys. We will have the receipts ready for your group leaders to pick up. Most importantly: We do not want you all to leave. You have been such an amazing group, from the adults, to the organizers, and most impressively the youth. These young leaders have been extremely gracious and kind and it is fantastic to see. Our staff has truly enjoyed meeting you all and love your passion for life.

Sincerely, William Venegas III

However we are received, Christ who calls us out to serve him goes with us, and our TEKTON holds you in his nail-scared hands. He will shape you to serve in his name and the superpower of his love that holds you will be sent out through you to a world in need.

May God bless you and keep you, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.