Heavenly Places

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Good morning.

It is a tremendous privilege to be here with you again for a second Sunday. I’m truly enjoying my trip back to beloved BU, again from rural Maine. My parents get back from their trip tomorrow so I had yet another week of mucking barns and caring for chickens and keeping track of gardens in this heat, which we’ve had up in Maine as well. It’s lovely to be back and to be a city girl for the day and to be here among you with my dear friends new and old. Nice passage right, I mean did that have to come up during the lectionary when I was preaching. Ok anyway here’s the sermon.

It’s nearly blueberry season in Maine again which is just about my favorite time of year. My son Leander took the kayaks over to the little pile of boulders we call Blueberry Island this past week. And sure enough the first blueberries had just started to turn that lovely purple blue that promises a delightful morning of blueberry picking from the canoe followed by blueberry pancakes made in a cast-iron pan at the camp, wonderful. If I could pick what heaven is like, I would defiantly choose Blueberry Island on a calm hot summer day in late July.

But Blueberry season also reminds me of another less happy blueberry story, one that points out that we are not quite in heaven, yet. I usually tell this story for a laugh because really if we weren’t laughing we would have to cry. So I guess I’ll tell it that way here to.

One summer, the last summer my grandma Jean visited Maine before her death, blueberry season came early. For my mom blueberry season means a flurry of activity. She bakes pies, she makes muffins, she boils mason jars and puts up blueberry jam for the winter. As she would explain to my grandmother, if there are blueberries, all other activities must and will stop. There will be a full day in the kitchen. My grandmother however could not abide with this nonsense.

You see Grandma Jean had left her own farm behind as a young teenager and never looked backed. Her family lost their farm in Iowa during The Depression, piling up all their worldly belongings on the back of their old Ford and trekking across the country to seek a new life in California. These were hungry times and the family barely survived. I can only guess at how wrenching this loss must have been for my grandmother, she dealt with it and with her new life in California by refusing to have anything to do with farming ever again. Her cooking reflected this decision; she never met a can of cream of mushroom soup that she did not like. And the idea of spending a day making jam seemed preposterous to her.

So there was my mom in the kitchen boiling jars and picking through the flat of blueberries as she removed the little leaves and green berries that inevitably get caught up in a blueberry rake. And there was my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table and offering a running commentary about the fruitlessness of making homemade jam during the modern age when you can just as well go to the grocery store and by blueberry jam for three dollars.

This argument masquerading as a discussion and hiding within it decades, if not a lifetime of mother-daughter pain and frustration finally ended with a daring repost of the part of Grandma Jean. “But Mom,” my own mother said, “I like to make jam and besides tonight we’ll have a fresh homemade blueberry pie.” “Blueberry pie,” Grandma said, “I hate blueberry pie.” Ok then, no blueberry pie for Grandma and no love and approval for Mom who had somehow and perhaps not entirely accidentally chosen to live on a farm and to therefore emulate her grandparents rather than her mother. As for me observing this whole exchange, I just tried to make myself disappear.

Thinking about blueberry pies, blueberry season, and the heavenly place that is Blueberry Island this past week while also hearing these lectionary readings brought this family fable to my mind. Reminding me about how unlike heaven even earthly heavens can be, especially once people and families with long memories get involved. And really we were and are such a lucky happy family. At the end of the day we love one another, we show up for one another.

By contrast, as I’m sure you noticed, the Herods were indisputably a mess, as Mark points out in this long digression on the death of John the Baptist. Mark is a decidedly ungenerous critique of the Herodian family, although few surviving writings have much that is positive to say about the Herods and the lengths they took to secure their Roman sponsored dynasty.  Nevertheless, in this story the gospel writer goes through exceptional lengths to embellish a set of unsubstantiated rumors about Herod Antipas, Herodias and an unnamed daughter that upon further inspection don’t quite hold up. But never mind the facts, by the time Mark was written the Herodian dynasty had lost much of its influence, crushed, Mark implies, by the weight of its own corruption. And he certainly does give us a tabloid shocker version of their history complete with a degraded, sexually suspect puppet king, a wicked bloodthirsty and conniving queen, and a beautiful young princess willing to do just about anything to please her father, or her stepfather-it depends on which manuscript one is reading-and her mother, or her stepmother, see above, including luring her father into executing a righteous man, Mark’s hero John the Baptist. Who needs a hot, thrilling, and violent summer blockbuster when one can simply read today’s gospel lesson.

In terms of facts here’s what we do know. Herod Antipas had John the Baptist executed. Herod Antipas was married to Herodias who had been previously married to his brother, another Herod whom Mark confuses with Phillip the tetrarch of an area north of the Sea of Galilee. Antipas himself had also been married to a Nabateaian princess who may or may not have been named Thalamus. According to the historian Josephus Herodias had a daughter named Salome by her first husband, though the young women in this story may also be a daughter of Antipas from his first marriage named Herodias like her mother or stepmother as some manuscripts of Mark suggest and as the NRSV would have it. At any rate Herodias’ daughter, Salome, she really did have a daughter named Salome really did eventually marry Phillp, the tetrarch another half-brother of Antipas sometime around 33 C.E.

Whatever the details of this sordid family history might be, and however fishy Marks version the gospel story makes one point clear the dynastic aspirations of the Herodian family were not only fruitless they also produced nothing but trouble, either for those sympathetic to Jesus and John the Baptist or for their own heirs. Indeed their attempts to secure their privileged position both at home and with their Roman patrons came at a high personal and familial cost; dividing brother against brother, mother against daughter, and wife against husband.

I’m not a huge fan of how Mark chose to deliver this message today. Did he really have to provide so much ammunition for future purveyors of erotized Orientalizing representations of the Herods? Oscar Wilde had a lot to work with. Did he really have to take the oh so obvious narrative tact of blaming political corruption on out of control male lust and the wilds of a bloodthirsty women? Tell me something else. But clearly all was not well, either in Judea or in Galilee during the latter Herodian period, and no amount of political, ideological, or familial intrigue had improved the situation. Both John the Baptist and Jesus were killed, at least in part, because of the extremely difficult political circumstances there. And by the time Mark was writing another of their followers had certainly been caught up and killed by the disastrous rebellion that changed the Judean and Galilean landscape forever. How sad that this little earthly slice of heaven, the chosen land of pomegranates and fig tress and honey, had become and still has often remained a home not of peace and harmony but of conflict and pain. Did the Harrods know what they were bargaining for when they sought to displace the Hasmonean, those heirs of the brothers Maccabees who more or less ruled the area before they did. Did they sometimes regret their palaces, their power, and their influence? I guess we’ll never know, because beyond their building projects and the coins they minted what remains of them are literary depictions that are largely unfriendly. For obvious reasons the gospel writers really had nothing at all nice to say about them. And larger public opinion, Mark suggests, was also openly critical.

Whatever led to the beheading of John the Baptist, the Judean and Galilean public were outraged, as the rumor about John’s possible resurrection suggests. It seems that this rumor was in fact historical and it followed the following logic: since Antipas had unjustly killed a righteous man he would certainly be haunted by the act. He was doomed to face what he had done, when the resurrected John justly returned to accuse him and give him his due. Part of what the theory of the resurrection could do for first century Jews, many of whom believed in it long before Jesus ever entered the scene, is promise that horrific murders would be avenged and that in the end God would not allow the righteous to suffer. John had won in the court of Judean and Galilean opinion. And Antipas would not easily live his decision down.

Our epistle lesson in its own way refers to this promise of resurrection, extending it to include all of Jesus followers and emphasizing not the revenge that resurrection offers, but the many good gifts that accrue to those who are faithful to the hope of its coming.  As was also the case with the Herods, dynastic succession is in view in Ephesians. But in this case the dynasty envisioned is described as a gift of god, rather than as a result of human effort. Writing to a wide circle of Paulean Christians, Ephesians promises that he followers of Jesus can rest secure in a divine heritage given to the whole adopted family. We have been chosen since before the foundation of the world, Ephesians writes, we are wanted children, destined for adoption, though Jesus Christ, and we have attained an inheritance given to us by divine will. Our belonging is made visible with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit which serves as a sign of the coming fulfillment of our family-centered hopes.

The relatives of Herod may have gone through extreme lengths to keep their wealth in the family to secure their rather tenuous position as Roman client-kings. But according to Ephesians, the followers of Jesus have simply received every spiritual blessing from the only ruler who truly matters. One family’s dysfunction led to the death of John the Baptist, another adopted family’s confidence in a purpose granted them a home in the heavenly places while they awaited the redemption to come.

Reading these visions of heaven the last two weeks, I am struck by how often images of family and belonging appear. Defending his apostolic credentials to the Christ followers in Corinth, which is the context of the story of the man who viewed heaven that we read last week, Paul calls himself their parent proclaiming that he would gladly spend all that he has for the Corinthians, wouldn’t any parent do the same? In his letters his regular labels for them include, holy ones, brothers and sisters in Christ, and children of God. And he concludes his second letter with an admonition to agree to live in peace and to greet one another with a kiss, just like any happy family would. Ephesians takes the family metaphor even further; believers are recipients of a divine heritage written in God’s will as it were, and they are a part of God’s household knit together in love. These visions of paradise and disclosures of the heavenly secrets lead both writers to exhort their audiences to find a way to  embody and live out that most elusive of human arrangements, the happy harmonious family.

The problem of course is that happy harmonious families can be less like paradise for their members then Paulean metaphors suggest. As sociologist Cindy Patton points out, the love identified with family feeling can turn out to be, “an insidiously structured form of obligation, rather than an expression of mutual recognition and regard.” One must submit to the point of view of the family and thereby serve the family’s needs, an obligation that can come at a very high cost for some members. Just think about the scenario Mark was imaging for the daughter of Herod or Herodias, whether or not these events happened as he described them. A young preteen aged girl, the Greek word used to describe her suggest that she had not yet hit puberty, dances before her father and as a reward for pleasing him is asked to participate in a plot to execute a troubling critic of her family’s regime and in a particularly horrific way. Her love for her family requires that she debase herself and become a party to murder. Or what about Herodias passed off from brother to brother, well actually from uncle to uncle, so that family wealth can be retained?  What about Herod the Great’s sons Herod Antipas and Phillip, the tetrarch who had witnessed the execution of their three elder brothers on the order of their very own father? Or what about the followers of Jesus in Corinth that knew a little family of about a hundred believers already competing over which of their leaders could boost of the best heavenly vision? How long did it to go from new believer in Christ to competitors for God’s and the rest of the adopted family’s affection? And don’t even get me started about David who I’ve managed to avoid the last two weeks. Now obviously these are extreme examples of what families, actual or adopted, can do to one another, and to their children in the name of preserving the family name. But perhaps that is the point. Whatever heaven is like, and whatever paradise looks like, surely those who belong there do not and cannot behave like this. Surely God intends something else for God’s children. Surely there is some other way. Surely, it is possible to intimately love one another without causing one another harm.

When my mom and my aunt Donna were little girls my Grandma Jean would make them matching dresses by hand. On the wall in the little room in the farm house where my son sleeps when we visit there is a picture of the three of them dressed in matching outfits.  My grandmother is so sophisticated with her elaborate necklace, velvet top and perfectly coifed 1950s hair. My aunt Donna and my mother are wearing coordinated velvet jackets and white button-up shirts with peter pan collars. My aunt, the elder of the two girls has her hair combed to look just like her mom. My mom, the little one has her hair parted on the side; all three are smiling the broadest smiles you can imagine. All three are so lovely, so beautiful really, that my heart breaks. Why couldn’t my grandmother honor my mom’s choice to live on a small farm in Maine? Why can’t my mom forgive my grandmother for being, well, so very very, difficult? Why did it take more than thirty years of buried pain and stony silence for my mom and her sister to speak to one another again? Does the loss of an ancestral farm in Iowa have to reverberate forever, if that’s what caused the whole mess? Why couldn’t Grandma Jean have pretended to like blueberry pie?

Blueberry season in Maine is the perfect antidote to apocalyptic visions of doom and destruction; with every purple berry gracefully adorning every improbable blueberry bush, a bush that has somehow eked out its survival on a pile of granite boulders in the middle of a wild pond., a tiny delicious bit of heaven arrives to greet the summer once again. My sons and I paddle out to see the bushes just like we have every year since they were born. We watch the king birds chattering to one another as they flit from branch to branch of the stunted hemlock trees on the Island. Their young have newly fledged. If we are lucky the loon comes back, sometimes with a baby on her back. We spend the morning glad to be alive, glad that we too belong to this wild pond and to one another.

Adopted by the world, secure in the spiritual and material blessings that have marked my own life, I think about the family of which I am a part and the families I have chosen. What sort of heritage am I passing on? To whom do I belong? I suspect that I have made my own mistakes, that I too have served as a reminder that we are not yet in heaven. I am confident that I have. To paraphrase Ephesians, I may be destined for adoption and have forgiveness through Christ and have the grace that God has so graciously extended to me. In the meantime I am human and to be human means to fall and participate both knowingly and unknowingly in the fullness of all our human heritages for good and for ill. Nevertheless I too have a vision of paradise. In my paradise Grandma Jean loves blueberry pie. Her red hair, a color that never faded sparkles in the sun. And she sees my mom and loves her for who she is. In my paradise I would also like to imagine that Herod Antipas, Herodias and Salome are together with John the Baptist dancing even now.  Mark’s battles are no longer mine. In my paradise, having cast off the sin that clings so closely and found myself blameworthy and blameless, both at the same time, I discover that we are all family and I am very very glad.

May all of us know that we really do belong

May we be glad for the blessing of being here.

And may we all find a way to enjoy a delicious blueberry pie.

Amen.

 

~Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust

Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins,

Boston University

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