July 15, 2012 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

7 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Do you remember the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor? In it, a grandmother and her son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids go on a trip. And through a series of unfortunate decisions made by the grandmother, the car ends up in a ditch on the side of the road. Along comes a man who is nicknamed the Misfit. He is an escaped murderer, and the grandmother recognizes him, and blurts out who he is. He says something along the lines of “Oh, it would have been better if you hadn’t recognized me.”  Her son, his wife, and their kids are taken out into the woods to be murdered, while the grandmother and the Misfit stay behind to chat for a good bit. It’s clear from the whole story, but that conversation in particular, that the grandmother is quite hypocritical, though not maliciously, just ignorantly. Right before the Misfit kills her, she recognizes her common humanity with him. She says, “Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!” and she reaches out to touch him. Although it is a rather gruesome story - it is part of a group of literature called Southern Grotesque after all - for most interpreters, O’Connor among them1, it is a story filled with grace. That moment when the grandmother recognizes her common humanity with the Misfit and reaches out to him is a moment of grace - an in-breaking of the divine mystery - and the grandmother accepts it. It is also a moment of grace for the Misfit.2 The grace is offered to him also, but he rejects it. Even though he rejects the grace in that moment, O’Connor later said about this story, “I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart…”3

I have been thinking a lot about this gruesome story this week as I have been reflecting on this rather gruesome Gospel story. This story is unusually detailed for the Gospel of Mark. Mark is usually a barebones storyteller, light on detail, moving the action ahead, rarely lingering on any point, and yet here he pauses for a while, giving more specific detail than usual. Unlike most every other story in the Gospels, Mark’s version of this story is actually longer than Luke’s and Matthew’s. 

Herod thinks that Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist who he had killed. John had been critical of Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, and out of fear, Herod had him locked up. His wife wanted John killed, but Herod refused because he feared him, was perplexed by him, and attracted to his words all at same time. Yet, his wife’s opportunity arose when Herod made a foolish promise, after she successfully danced for his guests, to give their daughter whatever she wanted, up to half of the kingdom. Finally, his fear of being made a public fool by backing out of his promise trumps his fear of killing this holy man, trumps his attraction to his words, and trumps any moral sense he might have of what is the right thing to do. Going back to the beginning of the story, it now seems clear that Herod thinks Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist because he is afraid. He fears that he has made the wrong choice, and fears that somehow John or the people will be able to take away his power as a result. 

Flannery O’Connor once said, “There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected...”4 Herod is offered that moment of grace in this story, and he rejects it. In that moment, when the plumbline is set in his midst, the tool fails to find him plumb. We don’t know whether he ever accepted the grace offered to him. Herod disappears from the story in Mark’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel brings him back for Jesus’ trial, and although he mocks Jesus, he ultimately finds that he did nothing wrong and sends him back to Pilate. Maybe, like O’Connor’s hope for the Misfit, the grace offered can grow like the mustard seed, and eventually Herod will accept it. For God’s grace is constantly being offered to us. 

As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, through Christ, God’s grace has been “freely bestowed on us,” the “the riches of [God’s] grace [have been] lavished on us.” Paul offers us an over-the-top account of the abundance of God’s grace in our lives. Being over-the-top does not make it untrue. Rather God’s grace truly is that bountiful, that excessive. Unlike most things in this world, we can’t work harder or more efficiently to receive grace. God’s grace cannot be earned. And that is hard for someone like me, and perhaps it is the same for you, because I like to work harder and more efficiently to earn my way. That mentality is in our pioneer-stock bones here in Oregon. That mindset is what our ancestors needed to cross that trail and make a life here, but that is not the way God’s grace works. God’s grace simply is. It is a gift, freely given. This grace has already been lavishly, abundantly, bountifully, and excessively given to us, through no part of our own. 

The task set before us today, and every day, is whether we accept or reject that grace when it comes. The challenge is that we are not well-trained on how to see and recognize the grace that regularly rains down on us to nourish the soil of our souls. We have to practice. We have to trust. We have to put on the lenses of hope, and set our hope on Christ. And when we do, we might just begin to see all of the grace that comes our way each and every day. 

And when we do see it; when we do recognize just how utterly abundant God’s grace is, our only response is praise, “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory” says Paul. 

That old classic hymn that we sang this morning during our procession “Come, thou fount of every blessing” puts it best. I invite you to join me in singing the first verse again: 
Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace! 
Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! Oh, fix me on it, mount of God’s unchanging love.

“There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected.” Accept it. Amen. 

1 O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners, p.111-112
2 Madden, David. “Flannery O’Connor, Old Testament Christian Storyteller,” in Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, ed. by Sarah Gordon, p. 84.
3 O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners, p. 112-113.
4 Ibid, p. 118.