Lectionary Readings: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Theme: Birthday Bloodbaths
Message: There are only two birthday celebrations mentioned in canonical scripture, both of them thrown by paranoid rulers with blood on their hands. Pharaoh marks his birthday by hanging his chief baker (Genesis 40:20-22). In Mark’s gospel story of a royal birthday bash, Herod’s hideous blend of religiosity, grandiosity, and savagery led to the beheading of John the Baptist. Birthdays are no better in the Apocrypha! The tyrant Antiochus insists on a public birthday celebration every month, and makes them occasions for forcing Jews to take part in the cult of Dionysus and torturing some to death (2 Maccabees 6:1-11). Paranoia, narcissism, sadism … scripture won’t let us turn away our faces from the morbid pathology that has always fueled dictatorship, as it does in today’s world.
The majestic poetry that opens the letter to the Ephesians provides a total contrast. Here we are invited to celebrate our own lives—but not as individuals turned in on ourselves.
We glory in our adoption as children in God’s great and universal family, with our lives originating not in the accidents of mere human parentage, but in God’s original “plan for the fullness of time” (verse 10). God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (verse 4), and our destiny is to be caught up in the current of irresistible love that will never rest until everything is drawn into the divine embrace. God intends to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (verse 10).
Quotation: I found the thoughts of the Rev. Martin Smith, pastor of St. Columba’s Church in Washington, DC, to be a way carry out these understandings of God’s mission. The quotes are from the “Living the Word” section of Sojourners for July 2012 Smith outlines the thinking behind his ideas under the heading of Dynamics of Ordinary Time:
“Listening to the scriptures requires a gentle determination to remove the filters that tend, in our religious culture, to allow in only what serves individual solace or personal edification. The scriptures probe the realities of power, how it is cornered, monopolized, deployed, lost, and regained at every level—in societies, in institutions, in families—as well as in the dynamics of our own lives. Even the best Bible study groups and sermons often surrender to the bias exerted unconsciously by our own individual neediness. Perhaps a conscious policy is needed to heed the word of God as it dissects the social body, lays bare its anatomy, and reveals its diseases. This approach may have a greater impact on our personal lives than conventional piety. Far from reducing the spirituality of our engagement with scripture, learning its hermeneutic of power is likely to intensify our appreciation of its relevance to our own immediate issues and needs. As persons, we internalize and encapsulate the forces at work on a larger scale in a struggling world. God is wholly present as redemptive, suffering, hope-engendering love at every level of existence—from the inner dynamics of the soul to couples, families, neighborhoods, nations, the planet, and the entire universe. One of the most ancient religious instincts of humanity gave rise to the concept of the human person as a microcosm, a world in miniature. Scripture’s word is addressed to us in our unique personhood, and to the churches, communities, and nations in which we are embedded.”