Category Archives: general

Bible TV

Preached at Concord Presbyterian Church, July 12, 2015

Mark 6:14-29

Game of Thrones has nothing on the Bible, huh?

That might come as a surprise for some of us. But somehow it is always the stories of violence and betrayal and intrigue and hurt that capture our imaginations and inspire cult followings, and that has been true since even before ancient people began to write our stories down.

Now I don’t watch Game of Thrones myself, but I am a huge fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (with its focus on sexualized violence against women and children), Orange Is the New Black (set in a women’s prison), and The Walking Dead (about survivors of the zombie apocalypse).

So what’s that about?? Aren’t Christians, like, not supposed to read that kind of stuff?

Well, I guess someone should tell that to the writers of our scriptures. You’ve been reading recently from 1st and 2nd Samuel, which are as full of death and political maneuvering and exploitation and violence as any of the stories that grace our TV screens today; while in my church we’ve been following the gospel of Mark, with stories of sick and wounded and mourning people finding healing, while Jesus is thrown out of his home synagogue by the people he loves and then sends out his faithful disciples with nothing but the shirt on their backs and sandals on their feet.

They are not pretty or happy stories, but they feel like true stories. We would like our world to be a place where these things don’t happen – where there is nothing that drives us to be hateful to one another, where the inhumanity of our power structures does not trap us in destructive patterns, where we can trust the people around us not to betray us when times get hard. But that is not the world we live in, and stories that start and end with “love one another” just aren’t quite enough to help us make sense of a world where that feels like pie-in-the-sky dreaming.

* * *

So today, we get this bloody scene from the palace of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He is deeply conflicted, this almost-king, which we can see from the very beginning of the story when Herod hears of Jesus and immediately thinks that John the Baptist must have been raised from the dead and come back to terrorize him. He is afraid.

In a long flashback, Mark tells the story of John standing up against the bad behavior of Herod’s family, calling them to repentance from their immorality. Herod, Mark tells us, is greatly perplexed, but somehow he is drawn to John and “likes to listen to him.” But his new wife Herodias has a grudge against John, maybe just because he drew attention to her scandalous marriage, or maybe his preaching struck something deeper for her and she would rather have him killed than be faced with his call to repentance.

Herod throws John in jail to keep some peace, and for a while Herod can protect him from anything worse. But finally Herodias gets her way, by using their daughter to back Herod into a corner. Herod makes an extravagant promise, under the influence of the party and probably wanting to show off for his friends and officers: anything you ask me is yours!

The girl runs to ask her mother. We don’t know how old their daughter is in this scene, but she doesn’t seem quite ready for the world where she finds herself. In her innocence she becomes a pawn for her parents, and I can imagine her getting caught up in the excitement of trickery and intrigue, knowing that she is doing something important, adding an extra flourish when she asks for John’s head on a platter.

And then she gets what she asked for. Suddenly the game is not just a game, and I imagine the scene crashing to pieces around her as she takes the bloody head and feels its surprising weight in her hands.

* * *

Maybe one of the hardest things about this story is the question of how do we find our way in? Who in this story can we identify with to help us figure out what on earth we’re supposed to learn from this story?

First there’s John the Baptist. We know him, we’ve met him earlier in the gospel story, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, preaching repentance and foretelling God’s chosen one. He’s a striking figure and probably not someone that most of us would associate with, but he’s the only one in this scene who acts ethically and so maybe we want to side with him at this point.

He’s speaking truth even when it defies the ruler, but then his truth-telling goes and gets him executed! And how does that help us understand anything? Sometimes doing the right thing will get you killed?

Well, that’s certainly true, as we keep seeing over and over again. But that’s not a very satisfying end to the story.

So how about Herod? That’s a tough one. He’s obviously the bad guy, but then again, the story is more complicated than that. He’s got a little bit of power, but not a lot – his father’s kingdom was broken up into pieces among the brothers, and now Herod Jr. is a tetrarch, literally “ruler of a quarter,” and pretty conflicted about how to exercise his power.

We don’t want to see ourselves in Herod, but it might be useful for a moment. As our society again is starting to boil up with conflict about who’s got power and why, especially along lines of race, perhaps those of us who are white should take some particular time to consider where we fall in this story. Are we hearing God’s prophets call us to repentance for our past behavior? Is their message perplexing, but somehow compelling?

Do we hear God’s truth and mostly know what we probably should do, except when it would upset our family and friends too much?

At what point might our silence become fatal?

Or have we gotten ourselves caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and without even realizing it we become the ones who pull the trigger and end someone’s life?

Or, do we hear God’s prophets and turn away in protest? Like Herodias, have we stopped our ears when suddenly the message got too personal? When God’s truth means we ourselves might have to change something?

That’s not a very comfortable place either. But then, I’ve begun to suspect that God’s truth is rarely very comfortable.

* * *

There’s one other place we might find ourselves in this story: John’s faithful disciples who come to the prison when all has been said and done, to take the body of their dear truth-teller and bury it with care. They have stayed carefully out of the spotlight and off of the chopping block, but they heard God’s word being spoken and followed.

Some of them, I suspect, went on to follow Jesus, and maybe they were with the twelve or the seventy who were first sent out to proclaim the gospel. Mark places this flashback story right between the sending-out of the twelve and their return some weeks or months later, as if to say, this is the world into which we are sent. We who would follow in their footsteps are not sent just to tell happy stories to happy people; we are sent into a world of hurting and betrayed people to tell stories of impossible hope, of God’s goodness breaking into the most despairing situations, of even the most broken people finding wholeness.

The gospel we are sent to tell is a story of resurrection; the absurd faith that life really can come out of deep, smelly, bloody death.

It is a hope that is steeped in death, because our world is steeped in death if only we can open our eyes long enough to see it. The good news of Jesus of Nazareth, executed like John to keep the peace, is that resurrection can come – will come – even in those worst moments. Yes, sometimes the scariest stories are real. But God’s story is not done yet, and somehow God’s story will end with life, and peace, and wholeness.

In the meantime, our job is to make sure that we’re living that hope and not getting caught up on the side of death. The story of this world is too often a story of brokenness and betrayal, and too often we are swept up without realizing it – or maybe we do realize it and just aren’t ready to admit it.

There are many parts to play in this drama. We have a choice: we can fall in, out of habit, into the pattern of self-interest and greed and willful ignorance, or we can see what brings death in our world and make the choice to stand outside it. God’s prophets are outside the structures of power and dominance, and we are invited to follow.

That way will not be easy, probably, but that way lies God’s truth, God’s peace, and God’s hope. That way lies resurrection.

May we too find the real joy of following in God’s way.

Ineffective Mission

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, July 5, 2015

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Mark 6:1-13

Mark picks a heck of a story to launch the apostles out on their new mission, doesn’t he? Here it is, the first time Jesus is sending the apostles out on their own, two by two – don’t take anything with you but the shirt on your back – oh and by the way, if you go back to your hometown, they’ll probably kick you out of the synagogue and won’t even listen to what you have to say. Good luck!

It’s a wonder the Good News got this far, isn’t it?

And yet, that’s how God has been speaking to humanity all the way back to Moses’ time – a long string of ordinary people one after the other, some better preachers and some mediocre at best, each with their own human failings and idiosyncrasies right along with their gifts. Ezekiel has trouble even finding the strength to stand on his feet without the Spirit of God in him.

And the results have been mixed, as you might expect! God sent out prophets, and some people heard the good news and changed their lives, and just as many walked right past and wouldn’t give God’s messengers the time of day. Or, more realistically, some people tried to change their lives and mostly succeeded (except where they didn’t), and the others nodded their heads and maybe smiled politely, then went on doing just what they did before.

God speaks through humanity even knowing how risky and ineffective that is. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear,” says God to Ezekiel as he is called into the mission of God to the people of Israel – and somehow even while God grants that a message might not be well-received in that way, God sends words through people anyway. If even the purest of God’s words through Jesus won’t be heard by people who can’t see past what they think they know about him as the son of a carpenter, the son of Mary, why on earth would God ever think that sending words through people is a good way to get a message across?

And maybe that’s the important distinction – a good way or an effective way. God in all God’s holy omnipotence certainly could do things effectively if God so chose. God could control what messages we hear (like the mandatory TV viewing of the world of the Hunger Games), God could write God’s ways on our brains, God could force us to believe or to behave.

And yet God doesn’t. God chooses to speak through broken vessels to stubborn, impudent people, knowing full well how little good that might do. Somehow this is the way God believes is the right way, the better way.

And that says a lot about God’s character, doesn’t it? Speaking through people is about invitation rather than imposition; relationship rather than decree. Our God is not one who rules by force, or would even consider it. Our God speaks truth through regular humans like Ezekiel and the apostles, and then appears on Earth through a human person, who for all his eloquence and power still looks to some people like “that kid Joshua from down the street – you know, Simon’s brother.”

Now when we think about evangelism, we want effectiveness, right? We want people to hear and believe now because we have empty pews and bills to pay!

But God is in the unique position of having the ultimate long view – God knows very well who we humans are, and God knows we require patience. God also knows enough not to take it personally when we fail or dig in our heels or walk right by God’s prophet on the street corner because that homeless trans kid or that woman protesting silently with a Black Lives Matter sign doesn’t look like where we expect God’s word to show up. God knows that says more about our own prejudice than it says about the goodness of God’s message.

In fact, God’s message often goes unheard, it seems, because of the ones God chooses to speak it. I wonder if the folks in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth had trouble hearing what he was saying because he wasn’t what they were expecting? The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be just some guy from Galilee! How could an ordinary carpenter’s son heal us of anything? Who let this guy teach in the synagogue?

And maybe today that happens in a less conscious way. There are some people we expect to hear truth from, and so we believe them when they speak; maybe we even give them the benefit of the doubt when they say something hateful or just wrong. And there are others we’ve been taught not to trust. Who we expect to hear speaking in exaggerations or manipulations or outright lies, without even realizing it.

Usually that falls along the lines of gender and race, which makes it doubly and triply hard for us to talk about the ways we treat one another, because so many of us just don’t believe it when someone talks about facing bias or hatred. We’re starting off those conversations not believing that the world could be different than the way we ourselves perceive it, and then we assume that our conversation partners must be exaggerating or maybe trying to get something out of us, and we hear nothing.

And then there is nothing left for them but to walk on, and shake the dust off their feet as they go.

* * *

God speaks through all sorts of people, and we can be glad of that because it means someone in our midsts, someone around us might be speaking God’s truth to us; just as we ourselves might be led to take up God’s call and speak some good news. It is not an easy or a glamorous call – that’s pretty clear. It’s not even always a very effective call. People will hear, and people will not hear, and we will stay or we will walk on.

But if we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ sent-out ones, then we are called like them to speak God’s word in our actions and our speech as best we can to the people around us. And if they hear it then we stay with them and practice the sacrament of gathering around a table together, and if they can’t or won’t or just don’t hear it then we move on, knowing that we tried and that God’s word will go on being God’s word with or without the crowds to hear it.

God’s word, in fact, is present simply in this action of going into the world depending on the hospitality of others. When the first apostles took no food or money with them, if they wanted to live they had to go find someone who would listen and then accept what they had to offer. Can you imagine how much humility that takes?

We like to think of ourselves as a hospitable congregation, and I think we are, as long as we’re talking about offering hospitality to others. But it’s a whole different thing for us to depend on the hospitality of people we don’t even know yet.

The call of God requires a fairly radical shift in how we approach the world, and how we approach people, especially those we don’t know well. We know God speaks through ordinary humans, especially people we wouldn’t expect. We know that God’s word is proclaimed when we sit with one another at this table and at other tables; when this food is not simply a liturgical snack on the first Sunday of the month but is the bread of life which sustains us.

When we can go out into the world knowing that we need one another to live, then we know God’s work is being done.

It is hard work; it is scary work; and it is the only work that matters.

Going West

Yesterday, I mailed this letter to my congregation. It’s time for a new chapter!!

Dear friends,

My time with you began as an experiment — a new staffing arrangement for a new era of life at Head of Christiana. First I was a guest preacher, then nearly a year as Outreach Associate, and then we set out a two-year contract for my position as Associate Pastor, which will conclude this August.

And what a time it has been! Together we have been through Vacation Bible Schools, worship services both familiar and new, Theology on Tap meetings, Girl Scout Sundays, congregational discernment times, bible studies, baptisms, funerals, weddings, harp concerts, an expanded choir, and so much more.

I have also grown a great deal during our time together. I have been blessed in my experience preaching and leading worship with you, stretched and strengthened in efforts at community outreach, continually challenged with improvement in administrative areas, and always moved by the ways you have let me into your lives and welcomed my pastoral presence in difficult times.

The time has come for me to grow in a new direction: I have accepted admission to the doctoral program in Systematic Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and will begin there as a Ph.D. student this fall. My last Sunday with you will be August 2, and I will use a few days of study leave and my remaining vacation days as I relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area and begin this new chapter.

I am not finished with pastoral ministry, but it has become clear to me that my calling exists somewhere in the intersection of the church as it has been with the articulation (and then practice) of what it means to believe in the contemporary world. Head of Christiana has been an invaluable place for me to begin formal ministry, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in this unique community and get to know you, the devoted and talented people of God who have called this place home.

As with many transitions, mixed emotions seem only natural at this time! Every beginning is also an ending, and I will miss you deeply. But for now, I will remain a member of New Castle Presbytery, and will be very glad to see Head of Christiana’s continued growth and vibrant community spirit from afar.

Thank you so much for all you have meant to me! From the bottom of my heart, may Christ’s peace be with you.

Love,
Kate LeFranc

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Ordination Invitation

Ordination Invitation

Please join me for my ordination service on August 4!

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Wild Goose 2013: “ReMembering the Body”

Wild Goose 2013: “ReMembering the Body”

What an odd and lovely coincidence – I’ve been planning on going to the Wild Goose Festival as a volunteer, and it looks like this year’s theme will mean a perfect time to get some serious thinking and writing done.  

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How to have style, from Beauty Tips For Ministers.  Great read!  I’m working on this.  The key for me was learning to have fun with clothes and accessories, and realizing that I have a lot of control over the way … Continue reading

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