July 11

A Conflict of Interpretations

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:14-29

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I worked as a lifeguard at the Wesleyan church camp in Central New York for two summers during my college years. The days were filled with long hours of sunglasses and smelled of a mixture of chlorine and sunscreen. The teen week was always a rambunctious time, which recalled my memories of teen camp with my cousin at that very camp. On one particular day while lifeguarding during the teen week, a camp counselor was looking to impress someone or just had some extra energy and asked if he could do a flip into the pool. Flips were strictly forbidden, even diving was for that matter. The pool was not very deep and it would only be a matter of time before there was a mishap if flips were allowed. To my surprise, my supervisor, the aquatics director said that he could do the flip. This seemed out of character to me because I knew her to be someone who cared deeply about safety. She was a person of great faith. I recall many a “how is it with you soul today” greetings at the morning pool chemical test or a “what are you reading in Scripture” while vacuuming the pool. She turned mundane maintenance tasks into opportunities of spiritual companioning.

My heart started to beat faster when she gave the OK for the flip. My mind started playing out multiple scenarios, none of which were good. I ran through a mental checklist noting where gauze was for a nose bleed or the backboard if something really bad happened. I watched as the counselor took his steps backward to prepare his approach, teenage campers all cheering with glee. He started to run and leaped into the air. By this time, I was holding my breath and my body was ready to jump from the lifeguard tower. Up into the air he went and down into the water with a splash. It went fine. There were no issues. He pulled himself out of the water. The tension in my body released. I sighed with relief. My aquatics director looked at him and said, “That was a bit of grace.” “That was a bit of grace.” … She didn’t mean the flip was graceful. It was ok as far as flips go. There was nothing particularly bad or good about it. I think she meant that the bending of the rules was a form of grace. The acquiescence to play in an unusual manner due to the expectation of success was a bit of grace. No matter what the original intent was, I spent the rest of the day wrestling with the naming of a pool flip grace.

Just what type of grace is a pool flip? Was it, prevenient grace, the grace the comes before? Justifying grace, of forgiveness? Sanctifying grace of restoration? Cooperative grace which calls us to participate with God as conduits of grace? None of these types of grace fit. Grace. Unmerited favor, acceptance, forgiveness, restoration, hope, none of this matched my expectations or experiences of grace. None of it matched the books that I had read in preparation for ministry or the theology lectures my professors gave. But it was grace nonetheless. In the recesses of my being, this memory recalls an experience of grace that defies expectations and stuffy definitions. Do not get me wrong, I like the safe sometimes stuffy definitions that sit in stacks on shelves in libraries. I take joy in reading and the expansion that occurs through the gift of written language.

But, experience is often different from well-meaning definitions. Sometimes definitions obscure as much as they reveal, especially with something like grace. Sometimes definitions make it hard to see what is happening before our eyes. Sometimes, what is stuffy needs to be taken outside where the wind blows a little more freely. When the creative Spirit blows in or over or above our experiences, grace abounds in unexpected places. Can a pool flip be grace? Can the grace to play be a Balm in Gilead, a cup for the thirsty, food for the journey, or the courage to be? Try it sometimes and see. See if jumping into cool water on a hot day offers more than just relief from the heat. See if watching children take joy in play is a source of healing in a broken world. By grace, I hope it is so. Beloved, there is transforming freedom in recognizing when events are moments of grace. In our present age, we desperately need grace. To find this grace, to see this grace, even to risk being found by this grace may require us to search differently, to see differently, and to think differently. Beloved, there is orienting hope in being found by grace in unexpected places.

I have pondered the memory of the pool flip most recently as the father of a 16 month old. My son is at the stage where he loves to point at something and he waits for me to name it. Whether it is the animals on his placemat at the dinner table or trees on our walks, the pointing never seems to end. He points, I name, he points somewhere else, and I name something else. Because of COVID, this toddler has not traveled more than 25 miles from Boston, but he is soaking up the world around him. Recently, there has been the joy of recognition on his face more frequently. He sees a cat in a book and points to the cat in the room. On our walks, he remembers and points to the street grandma and grandpa stayed at when they came to visit. He is learning about the world and his place in it all the time. Occasionally, he even says a word or two.

I have come to enjoy the pointing and naming. When my son points, he does so with the trust that the words his mother and I say are correct. His understanding of the world and reality itself is forming through this naming. While it may seem a game to him at times, it is a game of ultimate importance. For eventually, the naming will be more complex. Terms like love, God, and grace will appear. I sometimes wonder, how will these be named for him? I can tell him what Calvin, Wesley, and Tillich said. I can read Cone and Thurman, along with creeds and confessional statements. I can provide a reading list that will keep him busy for years to come. But, these ultimate questions, these ultimate concerns cannot be fully understood through books and in minds, they also have to be experienced in life and in the heart. So, I have come to hope that as we move through life, experiences will come that can be named as grace. Experiences can come that reveal God’s presence in the now. Opportunities to humbly see God at work through people who bear one another burdens. Through people who take up the mantle of justice, faith, hope, and love. I also hope to see grace in other places like sunsets, ocean waves, and learning a new language. The joy of rapidly melting ice cream cones on a hot summer day or traveling to see family. The hope that a new day will come in times of trouble.

Naming and framing what is going on around us is a key part of understanding the world. But events do not come with labels. We are not given an omniscient Hollywood narrator who offers much-needed guidance and perspective. Surely, we are not empty-handed. We have the Spirit, Scriptures, and the wisdom of others as we interpret. We engage in competing interpretations of life and being.  Paul Ricoeur marks the time as one involving a conflict of interpretation. Who is to say whether a pool flip is just a pool flip or something more meaningful? How we interpret makes a big difference. How we respond matters to life and the world.

We bring many voices with us when we interpret events. Voices from the past, some good some not so good. We bring the echoes of favorite teachers, parents, good books, sacred texts, and hopefully the Holy Spirit. Faith communities are an important place where we learn to interpret with care and love for one another. Faith communities are a place where we name these realities for those around us. Just as my lifeguard supervisor expanded my understanding of grace, so can you. We might fumble through at times in our communal efforts to name grace but we fumble together. We tend to the sacred in our midst for the sake of our souls and for the sake of those around us. This is holy work. It is the work of actualizing the Gospel. The Gospel is not merely words on a page, it is experienced in the here and now as radically transforming love. It is experienced as the liberating love that allows all of Creation to co-exist in mutual care.

Mark wrote as one seeking grace in Jesus Christ, amid conflict. Mark wrote when newly formed traditions were in conflict and required careful interpretation. Mark wrote as one looking to discover Jesus and the continuing significance of the Christ event of Jesus. On the one hand, the situation is very different now, and on the other hand, the situation bears remarkable similarities. Throughout the Gospel account, various encounters with Jesus reveal his authority, power, and identity to those who met Jesus and significantly to us. In a very real way, the Gospel is addressed to us. We are not the original audience of Mark’s gospel account, but we are included in the original audience of the Gospel for the Gospel is addressed to all. It is not bound by space, time, or circumstances. The Gospel is a thread that runs the course of history, inviting us to see Christ. Inviting us to be with Christ. When the Gospel is unhindered by the confines of pages, its power to include us in God’s unfolding story is radically realized …When the Gospel is unhindered by the confines of pages, its power to include us in God’s unfolding story is radically realized.

Through grace, the Gospel draws us closer to Jesus and reveals to us the Christ. Mark records many significant encounters with Jesus in his Gospel account. Today’s Gospel story takes place after Jesus sent out apostles who preached and proclaimed healing. These apostles ministered in the name of Jesus and the word spread. The word concerning Jesus spread to the point that it reached the ears of the ruler, Herod. Marks says that Herod did not know what to make of it. It seems that some discernment went on to figure out with this guy was that people followed. Mark’s narrative portrays a conflict of interpretations. Perhaps because he was religious, some associated Jesus with the prophets of old, people like Elijah, others even claimed he was John the Baptist back from the dead. Same person, different interpretations. Mark’s story says that these people were asking just who this Jesus was. Presumably, they were trying to access what it meant for them. People in power generally do not like disruptions and variables in their equations. People in power have a stake in maintaining the status quo and Jesus was disrupting the status quo.

His association with prophetic figures tells us something about the people he hung around. Jesus was clearly an advocate for the poor and powerless. His association with prophetic figures tells us something about the message Jesus proclaimed, that he came to free those in need of freeing and heal those in need of healing. Rather than go investigate further, Herod and the people in power pontificated. People in power tend to believe they can name reality accurately, regardless of whether or not their assertions are true. We all have opinions and interpretations, hence conflict, but privilege and power afford undue dominance to certain positions. They said, he is Elijah, he is a prophet. He is John the Baptist back from the dead. Imagine that, Mark tells us that Herod believed that Jesus was his cousin raised from the dead. This would have been no small thing for Herod who ordered John’s head be placed on a platter. In a certain sense, Herod’s wealth and position of power impacted what he saw and what he was willing to see about Jesus. Herod looked at Jesus as a threat to the status quo.

When we look to Jesus, we also look from our own positions. This is not bad in and of itself, but it necessitates caution. Our positions are not the whole story. Schleiermacher says avoiding misinterpretations is a key to good interpretation. We have to weed out bad interpretations to arrive at good ones. Our voices are one part of a greater song. It takes care not to limit Jesus to our positions and to be open to expansion. We grow in grace with others and through others. Like grace, Jesus is more expansive than pithy definitions. Jesus avoids being domesticated by checkboxes, voter registration cards, and fill in the blank answers. Interpreting the significance of Jesus to our lives and in the modern world necessitates weighing through a conflict of interpretations. Mark and the Gospel accounts are helpful guides in this work. They are a witness to history and in history. They are a key part of our tradition. They are prototypes for naming the mysteries of God and grace in our time.

Along with Mark, let us also hear from former Dean of this Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited. This work invites us to consider Jesus from the perspective of those with their back against the wall. Thurman used the phrase “backs against the wall” to talk about those in need. The poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. Those with their backs against the wall are in a very different position than Herod; therefore, when they look to Christ, they often see more than Herod did. Thurman was the grandson of American slavery. Thurman was the grandson of people who called Jesus friend, despite learning about Christ through white slaveholders and white preachers who used Christianity as a tool of oppression. Thurman knew a different Jesus and engaged in a conflict of interpretations to insist Jesus is among the disinherited.

Despite the harm done in the name of Christ, Thurman was unwilling to give up Jesus. Thurman rejected Herod’s definition of Jesus and those who used Jesus for harm. Thurman was unwilling to allow Christ to be defined by those who do harm, when he knew Christ to be a poor minority Jew who lived under military occupation. This Christ is the one who identifies with those who have their back against the wall because Christ had his back against the wall and continues to be with those who have their backs against the wall. Because Thurman was the grandson of American slavery, he saw something in Jesus that the powerful Herod could never see. Thurman looked to Jesus and saw life. He saw survival for the oppressed. Thurman looked to Jesus and saw existence itself as possible for those who are told day in and day out that they do not matter. For those who hear every day in a million ways that this world is not for them, Thurman heard a different melody from the mouth of Jesus. A song of Gospel love and liberation for all.

At times, I wonder with preacher Fred Craddock, whether it is possible to know the words of this Gospel song but to be singing the wrong melody. In the conflict of interpretation of Jesus, the words of the Gospel need to match the Spirit’s sacred melody for this time. We discern the words and melody together. Sometimes there is conflict in this discernment. Sometimes there is agreement. Let discern together for the sake of love and liberation for all. Let us listen for the Sacred Word to match the sacred melody in our time and for our time.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

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