Sermon preached at Bath Abbey on 12/7/15. Rev (Dr) Sarah Archer places the immediacy of divine mercy over against the urgency of human base instincts.
“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison…” 1Mark 6:22-27
Life can sometimes feel like it’s going at a snail’s pace: the child wanting desperately to be 8 and not 7 and a half; the pregnant woman anxious for the safety of her unborn child waiting for the next week to pass; the prisoner gazing out through the bars at the dawning of another day inside; the person weighed down with debt or grief or pain who feels it will never get better. Waiting can feel like the hard thing. “How long O Lord” the psalmist cries. We know that patience is a virtue, that we need to learn patience, and that waiting is often the way that we learn it. It’s tempting to look at the gospels and imagine that Jesus is the one to teach us this.
He must have lived at a much slower pace of life than us, surrounded by sheep grazing peacefully on hillsides, women kneading dough and then waiting for it to rise, crops and weeds growing and producing seed imperceptibly, slowly, quietly. No 24 hour news cycle, no twitter or the well named for our frenetic times “Instagram”. But actually that’s not the story of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Mark loves the word Euthus – (which means immediately) and it occurs 40 times in his gospel. Jesus is the man of action who immediately heals and forgives and speaks out and moves. That I knew after my bible studies at vicar school.
Jesus was a man of action who immediately heals and forgives and speaks out and moves.
But as anyone who spends any time reading scripture will know, there’s always something that will surprise or delight or knock the stuffing out of you when you read even a familiar passage like this one: a story found not only in scripture but also within the walls of theatres, art galleries and cinemas. I thought the Euthus in Mark’s gospel, that word immediately, spoke only of Jesus- he was the fast moving meteor scorching a trail through Palestine.
But here it is, right here again. Euthus. Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested the head of John: immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head.
Realising this as I prepared this sermon made tears prick at the back of my eyes. I thought of those for whom it’s not the goodness of God that comes immediately. It’s those who have had the warning and now need to flee their homes in Syria and Iraq immediately. It’s those who rushed immediately to their phones on hearing of the attack in Tunisia. It was those who heard the knock at the door and were immediately taken at gunpoint and loaded onto trucks going to Auschwitz.
We live in an age of harsh and immediate judgement.
For John, waiting in a dark prison, there was no court attendance, no discussion, no trial. He might have been thinking – I wonder what the day will bring? But then there’s a door opening and within minutes he is dead.
I can understand why so many people have brought their artistic gifts to bear on the story of the beheading of John the Baptist: it’s all done and dusted in the gospel in one page of A4 and yet there is so much drama and emotion there – and we get strong hints as to what they are: the King appalled but compliant, the queen scheming, the daughter malleable and careless for the life of another.
But in other parts of scripture it’s much more difficult to interpret what’s REALLY going on. And that’s amply illustrated by the story of another dancer and another person watching. Michal’s not a prominent character in the Old Testament, but she does pop up a few times. She’s notable for being the only woman in scripture described as loving a man with all her heart. David pays her dowry in the rather unusual currency of 100 Philistine foreskins. She rescues David from Saul by tricking the men sent by her Father to capture him. But then he goes off to war and Saul marries her off to Palti, who is one of my favourite men in scripture: when Saul is finally dead David reclaims his bride and Palti follows her carriage, weeping noisily as he goes.
Who knows at what point Michal’s love turns sour: it might have been when David went off to war and left her behind. It might have been when she found out he’d taken another couple of wives. It might have been when she was forced to leave a man who clearly adored her; who knows. But in this passage of scripture we see evidence of her heart in the immediacy of a single glance of contempt. 22 Samuel 6:12-16
There is a psychologist called Gottman who has observed thousands of married couples in his lab and based on a 15 minute video, with facial expressions read by trained observers, he can predict with 90% accuracy whether they will still be married in 15 years time. And contempt is the key emotion: seen by a rolling of eyes or a look of disgust.
Biblical commentators on Michal have very different things to say about her. Some say she is the mistreated woman treated like a commodity by so many men that it’s hard not to understand her attitude. Others say she gets her come-uppance for her negative attitude to David’s unbridled worship of the living God by remaining childless; who knows. But we can relate to her. How many of us have made harsh judgements of others based on past hurts or misinterpretation of events. And we do them instantly, immediately. Euthus.
We have a God who knows our every second of trauma and grief.
We live in an age of harsh and immediate judgement. Someone says or does anything and the critics are immediately on Twitter lacerating them as if it’s quite obvious that they are total idiots and only they (the judgers) see things clearly. I can’t bear Question Time and the Today programme when it descends to one person affirming one position and the other pouring scorn on it in return. Isn’t there a middle ground to be found? Isn’t the truth likely to be more complicated? Wouldn’t it be more fascinating to hear the areas of agreement between the parties? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to our judgemental and vicious society to see people humbly trying to see the point of view of the other as they try to build a better future for us all?
So how are we to respond to this: the immediacy of hurt, and the immediacy of judgement? Let’s look first at the immediacy of judgement. One bit that always puts the hairs up on the back of my head in the service of Holy Communion is when it says “And on the night he was betrayed he took bread and gave thanks” and then of course as the nails were being driven in he says “Father Forgive”. That’s how we are called to judge.
Second, how do we respond to the immediacy of hurt, the Euthus of trauma? It occurred to me that half the gospels describe 3 years of ministry, the other half, a week at most. And for the first time I saw it as if God is pressing pause on his pain, on the disciples pain, on Jesus’ suffering and saying “I am there in every last millisecond of this pain. It may be sudden to you, but I feel every second. I see every second, every tear.”
We have a God who knows our every second of trauma and grief and can therefore come in and heal even the most sudden of traumas – there are no surprises for God. And so every time that we take and eat and drink the bread and the wine, we do it in remembrance of the one who is going to be our judge, the one who will judge rightly, the one who forgives and the one who heals.