210711 – Cohen & Cockburn

Yr B ~ Pentecost 7 ~Mark 6:14-29

I thought about calling this sermon “What We’re Up Against”, but I decided that sounded too ominous. So I kept searching for a way to lighten it up. Honestly, I’m not sure I can. It is what it is. I eventually landed on calling it “Cohen & Cockburn” – which I’m particularly pleased with – and I hope you’ll understand why by the end of it. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before I can get into that inspired title.

This is the second week of a 3-part series on the E-word – yes, evangelism! If you weren’t with us last week I really encourage you to go to our website (faithunited.ca) and look up the sermon. It was called “Two By Two.” In it I went on at length about what evangelism is and isn’t, and why I feel it’s such an important thing for us to be focusing on now. So last week was groundwork, this week is about obstacles and realities, and next week is about strategies. I will say again that this series is inspired by a wonderful book by Martha Grace Reese called Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism.

Let’s start by thinking about that wild scripture reading we heard. Are you wondering why I selected such a thing? I mean, it’s nasty stuff, and it doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with evangelism – which is about person with a warmed heart, nurtured in a vibrant church, encountering someone they have some kind of relationship with, and somehow sharing a sense of the benefit of it all, and how it’s warmed and nurtured.

So while it doesn’t really speak to evangelism – it absolutely speaks to what we’re up against. And it offers a glimmer of hope that I think is really easy to miss – both in this scripture passage, and in real life.

The scene is in King Herod’s court. It starts with a debate over whether Jesus was the re-embodiment of the great prophet Elijah, or of John the Baptizer. Herod says Jesus is like John, whom Herod had had beheaded. And the narrator fills us in that John the Baptizer had taken Herod to task for Herod’s morals and ethics. And the narrator also tells us that despite John’s scoldings Herod had a great interest in John.
Here’s the line – the one that I think is the hidden gem in this passage:

Mark 6:20 – Herod feared John, knowing that John was a righteous and holy man, and Herod protected him.
When Herod heard John (speak), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

Then we get a flashback scene like in the movies.
It’s Herod’s birthday and there’s a great party. Herod’s daughter Herodias (who has the same name as his wife – yeah, it’s very confusing) – anyway, the daughter dances and mesmerizes everyone, and Herod in a moment of foolishness gushes at her that he’ll give her anything she wants. She goes to her mom, who because of Herod’s (and hers) illicit and immoral actions had been humiliated by John the Baptizer’s rebukes, and mom tells daughter to ask for John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. Herod, it says was “deeply grieved”, but he felt he couldn’t refuse and John’s head is lopped off. Gruesome stuff.

And that’s evangelism! [grin]
No, obviously I’m going to make a point. Soon. I promise!

The point is that this is what we’re up against. No, I don’t mean any of us are in any danger of being beheaded. But John in this story, well always really, was an evangelist. He was evangelizing Herod. John’s heart was passionately stirred by God, he had a supportive community of faith (including Jesus, if you’ll recall), and he wanted to share with Herod how John’s life was better because of the God-thing, and so too could Herod’s life be better.
THAT’S evangelism!

Remember Mark 6:20 – When Herod heard John (speak), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

Herod was perplexed by John. He didn’t really get it.
John’s ethic and way confused and confounded Herod. It didn’t match with Herod’s worldview.
And yet Herod liked to listen to him.
What are we to make of that?

Think about Herod’s station in life. He was a puppet king under the control of the occupying Roman Empire. But as king he had every material thing he could desire – power, wealth, food, status, freedom to do as he pleased. His self-importance, and self-obsession, and self-interest was inflated to the nth degree. He was technically the king of the Jews, but he had no identifiable moral or spiritual grounding.
It’s no wonder John perplexed him! – Coming from the same spiritual centre as Jesus, preaching life-reorientation and embracing an ethic of loving God, loving others, and loving your community. John may as well have been an alien. He was certainly speaking an entirely different language, and coming from a remarkably different worldview.

And yet Herod liked to listen to him.

Herod, despite succumbing to political corruption and manipulation, was drawn to John the Baptizer.
Herod was far outside of lovingness, but he sensed something in John, and was intrigued.
And John was not doing a soft sell!

Without drawing too literal a comparison, this is what we’re up against today. The world out there is a lot more like Herod than it is like John. It may not be intentional in some ways, but the effect is pretty much the same. We face a world immersed in self-importance, and self-obsession, and self-interest. And while not everyone is a king, in Canada at least just about everyone has more than enough power, wealth, food, and freedom. Not as much as they may want, but more than enough. And they certainly seem to think they’ve heard all they want about church. Maybe that’s because we haven’t been speaking?

The statistics are sobering. A hundred years ago churches had the ears of a great proportion of the population. Over decades that has steadily receded. In 1965 our United Church of Canada had its highest number of members ever. Then it all went downhill. The reason? Simple. I was born in ’65 so it must be all my fault! The truth is the decline had started long before. We hit our numerical height in ’65 but as a proportion of population we were already waning.

The thing is, in those decades prior to that, because we were still building lots of churches, it fooled us into thinking we were still growing. Growing generally means that what you’re doing is connecting with the world around you and meeting a need. To be fair, back in the day some of that ‘need’ was the need for society to think you were ok, and you had to attend church for that. Such thinking is long gone!

My point is that for a very long time we haven’t had to think about communicating deeply with the world about why we’re here, and what lights us up from the inside out, and what inspires us and empowers us to do all this loving that we’re always on about. We haven’t had to think about that for generations. And then we had a generation of denial, and then we had a generation of head scratching about what to do about all this – and now we’re here today fretting about evangelism – which only the so-called ‘bible thumpers’ have been thinking about for the last hundred years, because we’ve been lounging in our comfortable pews.

(By the way, Pierre Burton’s book The Comfortable Pew, that warned about all this, came out in ’65. And we generally ignored it.)

Jesus would send those of us with spiritually-warmed hearts, who are nurtured and supported by loving communities of faith, out into that world to…love.
But we are indescribably ill-equipped to answer that call – yet.
In fact, after all those challenges I just piled up you may be thinking the task is impossible.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t think that’s true.
But we need some prophets to rise up and speak some truth to us, and to stir us into righteous, loving action and interaction.

And so I turn to the words of two great modern prophets – Cohen and Cockburn. That’s Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn. If you’re not familiar with them, they are both brilliant Canadian singer-songwriters. Bruce Cockburn self-identifies as a Christian person. Leonard Cohen was a sabbath-observant Jew, who also spoke admirably of the person of Jesus saying Jesus was, “a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness … A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.” [Devlin, Jim (Editor) (March 1, 1999). Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words. Omnibus Press. p. 96.]

Listen to these words from Cohen’s song “Anthem” –

Ring the bells that still can ring | Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack a crack in everything | That’s how the light gets in.

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the ‘light’ gets in!

Herod was a mess of a human being.
And yet.
There was a crack.
And yet Herod liked to listen to him.
That’s how the ‘light’ gets in!

If there was a crack in Herod, don’t you think there’s probably a crack in just about everyone, and everything? In every ‘ism’ and in every system.
Nothing is apart from or outside of the love of God.
Oh, God’s love is certainly ignored, and avoided, and rejected – but none are outside of it.
There are cracks everywhere. That’s how the light gets in.
The statistics are overwhelming and daunting. The world seems to be so self-absorbed that it seems impossible sometimes to speak love into such hardness.

So love as you can.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack – a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

And…don’t forget about our other prophet, Bruce.
His approach is a little bit less gentle, and a little bit more emphatic.
Cockburn realizes that those cracks are wonderful, but they’re not enough.
Sometimes we have to do something about it.
Sometimes we have to wade into those spaces, find those cracks, and make them bigger.

Remember who we are. We are followers of Jesus.
We are warmed-hearted, faith-community supported people who love, love, love.
We are lovers.
And these times are dangerous.
It’s hard to love in the face of unlovingness. Cockburn says this:

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime —
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight —
Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

Don’t take it literally. But do hear how emphatic a point this prophet is making.

Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

That means there’s light behind, around, and under that human-created veil of darkness.
Love lifts the veil.
And sometimes it has to tear the veil.
Systems and power structures do not tend to crumble quietly.
Principalities and powers do not tend to yield without a fight.

Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

We have a history of being ‘nice’. Nice is good. But nice tends to wither in the face of opposition.
Maybe we should be more forthright in standing for a theology and worldview that gives us life, instead of pussy-footing around trying to be nice all the time!

John the Baptizer stood before Herod.
John. Wasn’t. Nice.
John spoke truth to power.
Herod listened anyway.
There was a crack where the light was coming in.
John kicked at it until it bled more and more light.

Of course, in the end it cost John his head – and Jesus a crucifixion.

Nah, I guess we shouldn’t bother then, right? Too costly.  [that is sarcasm!]

Evangelism is a person with a warmed heart, nurtured in a vibrant church, encountering someone they have some kind of relationship with, and somehow sharing a sense of the benefit of it all, and how it’s warmed and nurtured – drawing them, through actions and interactions, into a deeper relationship with God and/or a Christian community.

That makes it all sound so nice and easy.
It ain’t.
And yet, like Grandma and her grandkid pictures, our hearts are so full that we can’t help ourselves.

But we’re probably feeling stuck because even though we feel it we don’t know what to do, or what to say, or how to face opposition, or any of that stuff.
That’s what next week is about. I hope you’ll come back for it.

Until then, I hope you’ll listen to Cohen sing “Anthem” and to Cockburn sing “Lovers In A Dangerous Time.”

The prophets are speaking of cracks and kicking.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.