Right and Right

Sermon for Sunday, July 12, 2015 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29

rightandrightI’ve never liked horror movies. I don’t understand the appeal of being scared out of my wits by things that go bump in the night or by gory chainsaw-driven bloodbaths. I don’t want to be afraid or disgusted, so why would I ever pay eleven dollars to subject myself to those emotions at the movie theater? I know that a lot of people out there enjoy horror movies, but if you’re anything like me in this regard, then the story I just finished reading possibly stirred in you the same feelings of fear and disgust that A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the Thirteenth might. The plot is truly dreadful: Herod throws a party to celebrate his birthday, but in the end, it is John the Baptizer’s death that is mourned. But even in the midst of these discomfiting emotions, I think we can still find something of value in this story.

To start, we must remember that Herod is a bad guy in the Gospel, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this flashback doesn’t end well. But we might be surprised that the story begins at least in shouting distance of the realm of good. Herod arrests John, it seems, for John’s own safety. We might call it “protective custody.” After all, Herod’s wife, Herodias, has a grudge against John and wants him dead. But Herod is intrigued by John. He thinks John has guts, and while what John says often bewilders Herod, the petty king likes having the prophet around.

Such is the status quo until Herod makes an ill-advised promise to his daughter (whose name is also Herodias, to make matters more confusing). “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom,” Herod proclaims. The girl conspires with her mother and then asks for something really grisly: the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. What happens next is what I find especially interesting.

“The king was deeply grieved,” Mark narrates, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests he did not want to refuse her.”

This is the moment of decision for Herod. I can hear in Herod’s mind, the petty king telling himself: “I have no choice. I don’t want John to die, but I gave my word!” However, Herod does have a choice. He can keep his promise or break it. Breaking a promise seems to me like a small price to pay to save a life, but Herod disagrees. He chooses to keep his word, despite the fact it means John will die. (Just so you know, for the sake of argument, I’m ignoring right now the fact that the promise Herod made was stupid and uninformed.)

Let’s dwell here for a few minutes and put ourselves in Herod’s shoes. Herod has a choice to make, and both options uphold a “good” of one type or another. Both can be defended as “right.” On the one hand, there is the good of keeping a promise. On the other, there is the good of saving someone’s life.

Now choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy in most cases. If you throw your baseball through the living room window just to see what breaking glass sounds like and then lie about it to your father, you’ve made two wrong choices. In general, if you have to keep your actions secret, you’ve done the wrong thing. So choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy. But choosing between right and right is much harder.

Here’s an example I used at a forum on this topic earlier this year. It’s 3 a.m. You’re on your way home from the airport, bone tired from a day of travel. You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. Here we have two goods in conflict, and I hope you’ll agree the good of respecting the law overrides the good of expediency.

Let’s add a wrinkle. It’s 3 a.m. Your wife’s contractions are only a few minutes apart. You hear her groaning and panting in the back seat. The baby is coming any minute now! You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Now do you run the light? The good of respecting the law is in conflict with the good of protecting the safety of your family.

Choosing between right and right has a way of helping us clarify our values. Our values define us and guide us on the path of our moral lives. Each of us has a particular hierarchy of values instilled in us by our families and society at large, and our own life experience molds those values into certain shapes. Being followers of Jesus adds another dimension, as we seek to conform our values to the ones he displays in the Gospel. We’ll get to some of those in a minute, but first, we need to get back to Herod.

Herod has two goods in conflict: keeping a promise and saving a life. The narrator clues us in on Herod’s hierarchy of values: “Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests” he acquiesces to his daughter’s grisly appeal. For Herod, protecting John’s life ranks lower in his list of values than both upholding a promise and saving face. In the end, Herod cares much more about his own image than whether John lives or dies.

But remember, Herod is the bad guy. Let’s substitute Jesus in for Herod and see what happens to our hierarchy of values. While Herod was supremely concerned with his own image and standing, Jesus routinely ignored his image because rubbing shoulders with the least and the lost was more important to him. While Herod made outrageous oaths, Jesus said simply, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ ” And while Herod was willing to let John die to save face, Jesus himself was willing to die to save us.

We can start to see Jesus’ hierarchy of values unfold here: Humble service over popular image. Simple honesty over dramatic protestations. Self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.

If we are paying attention, even just a little bit, during our day to day lives, we’ll start to notice how often we make choices between right and right. Do you read the whole book for class or do you take a break to keep from burning out? Do you work longer hours to put more money away for your kid’s college or do you make sure to see all your daughter’s dance recitals? Do you keep a friendship intact by not speaking up or do you risk the friendship by letting your friend know you’re concerned about his alcohol consumption?

If all our decisions were between what’s right and wrong, life would be so much easier. But that’s not the way it works. The path of our moral lives stretches before us. Our values are guideposts along the path. And Jesus is walking that path with us, pointing out which values he believes are most important. This sermon’s almost over, so I’m not going to tell you which values those are. Instead, I invite you to spend some time this summer reading the Gospel. Pick Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – or read all four. They won’t take you too long. As you read the stories about Jesus, write down what he values. And ask yourself how his values fit into your hierarchy. What is his highest good? What is Jesus prompting you to shift around?

Pocketing the Sunglasses

During the summer, I am preaching without notes or a text; as such, what follows is the unraveling of my thought processes for a sermon, not the actual words I spoke.

I was riding the T on my way to Mass General when I noticed a young fellow across from me pick up a pair of sunglasses that had fallen out of the pocket of the man sitting next to him. The man was reading a crumpled edition of the free newspaper that seems to germinate in subway stations and hadn’t noticed his glasses fall. The fellow looked at the sunglasses for half a minute and then spent the rest of the minute attempting to get the attention of the man with the free paper. Finally, he poked the man in the knee with the glasses, and the man pocketed them with a grateful smile to the young fellow.

The fellow could have easily put the sunglasses into his own pocket, the complimentary bounty of the inattentive man. Rather, he confirmed my sometimes flagging faith in the human race and handed the glasses back. Of course, there is a clear right and clear wrong in this situation, and to his credit, the fellow chose the right.

Now (and this is for posterity, so be honest) how many of you would have taken the glasses for yourself? How many of you would have seen the (perhaps expensive) shades and decided that the man with the paper didn’t really need them anymore? Finders Keepers, right?

Owing to what were (I am sure) fine upbringings, I hope none of you raised your hands. We spend a goodly amount of time teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. “Emily, I’m glad you’re sharing your jelly beans with your brother. That’s the right thing to do.” “Jimmy, stop hitting your sister. That’s wrong!” Distinguishing between right and wrong is easy. If you have to keep your action a secret – say, for example, you cut the hair off all of your sister’s Barbie dolls – then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing to do. From an early age, we learn right from wrong, and we hopefully also learn to choose the right, although the actions of recent Wall Street executives disprove the unanimity of this childhood lesson.

While we spend a good deal of time on this lesson, we spend much less time teaching our children the much trickier ability of choosing between right and right. How do we decide when the choice is not between a good and a bad, but between a good and another good?

Let’s look at an example. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. It’s only 35 seconds after all. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law should override the good of you arriving at your destination a few seconds sooner.

Now let’s add a few more variables. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. Your wife is in the backseat; her contractions are only a few minutes apart. The baby is coming any minute now! You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Respect for the law tells you to wait, but the biological instinct to protect your wife and unborn child by getting to the hospital as soon as humanly possible tells you to go Go GO. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law falls short of the good of getting your wife to a medical professional.

Choosing between right and right is a tricky business because both choices are good. So, how do we followers of Jesus make these choices? This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides some clarity. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then goes about her tasks. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him speak. When Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.

Does this mean that Martha has chosen the wrong thing? Has she done something bad? Of course she hasn’t. This isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Martha has done the same thing that Abraham does in the accompanying reading from Genesis. Abraham bustled around preparing a meal for the three men, who tell him that he and Sarah are finally going to have a child of their own. This bustling isn’t right in the Hebrew scripture and wrong in the Gospel. Martha does the right thing: she provides hospitality for the gathering, which is arguably the highest good in the Hebrew law.

But Jesus says that Mary does a better right thing. She listens to Jesus when she is in his presence. She is not distracted or worried, but attentive to his words. This is the better good, which does not erase Martha’s attempt to do the right thing. Rather, Mary displays the fundamental action, of which Martha’s welcome and hospitality are secondary outcomes.

When I am worried and distracted by many things, how often do I actually stop, take a deep breath, and listen? Not often enough, I’ll tell you. Even when I am engaged in good things, my busyness often drowns out that voice, for which I should be listening. Choosing between right and wrong is easy, but choosing between right and right is difficult. When I have so many good things clamoring for my attention, I first must sit down at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen.