Message July 11

Friends, a squirrel mistook our transformer for a nut on Sunday morning and prevented us from holding public worship. Here is the text for the sermon on Mark 6:14-29, and the novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens.

Gospel Mark 6:14-29, NRSV

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Message, by Rev. Marguerite Sirrine

It seems the Spirit keeps the lectionary focused right on where we at Mt. Bethel find ourselves – back in the sanctuary for the first time, happy about being here, for sure, and grieving the losses we’ve sustained, both, and here we have a Scripture passage that reveals that at the same event, some are happy and some are grieving. It’s good to remember that today, even as we have to endure a Scripture passage of particular horror. Reminding us that people are complicated, life uncertain, outcomes beyond our control. And yet. John’s disciples came and retrieved his body. His love for them continued to inspire – and perhaps contributed to a gain in the followers of Jesus, John’s cousin. We cannot know all of God’s intentions in the face of tragedy. We can only trust that God does intend for resurrection redemption to overcome every tragedy.

That is the kind of arc we find, too, in the New York Times bestselling first novel by Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. It is not great literature. But it does have the triumphant victim, the natural world as most of us do not see it today, a story that raises the question of who’s truly guilty. It starts as the girl Kya grows up dirt poor in the marshes of North Carolina’s coast, abandoned first by her abused mother, then her defiant brother, and finally her alcoholic father. Scorned by the middle class inhabitants of the nearest town, she survives in the marsh by hiding from all who would hurt her – mostly, white people, and especially, as the book is quick to point out, nice middle class white people who go to church. Kya’s safe space is the natural world, not the human world, not manmade communities but communities of waterfowl and tidal ecologies. She is like the shells we find on our coast, coats of armor that hide and protect the mollusks within. If you’ve ever taken a hermit crab home you know the function of many of these shells on our beaches.

As Kya grows up she cannot avoid encounters with boys from town. One shares her love of the marsh and one mistakes love for the desire to possess. The first abandons her and the second takes advantage of her. But her marsh helps her heal and adapt to the disappointments and hurts that human relationships inevitably bring. Only when the second boy robs her of her hiding place – finds a way inside the shell – does Kya react like a threatened wild animal. He does not survive that encounter. When he took away her hiding place he took away the only safety she had ever had. Other abuses she was willing to overlook. Not that one.

The redemption in this story is hers – a publishing career that arises out of her love of the marsh, a will that allows her to own and preserve at least a portion of the coast which will fall to development, the boy who loves the marsh coming home to love her too, and last but not least, a verdict that goes her way, partly because the jury feels guilty about the way the town has treated this girl. She was guilty too, but she was not found guilty by those influenced by their own guilt. The victim’s family is left to grieve; she and her brother and boyfriend rejoice. At the same outcome. And we, the readers, are left to judge the guilty – which is every character in the book.

Why do a sermon series that looks at works of fiction? They are just stories. But my mentor Art Ross did a summer fiction series when I was a member of White Memorial Raleigh, and those were some memorable sermons. Fiction reading may have made somewhat of a comeback during the pandemic, but probably has not overcome Netflix binges.

And yet, written stories read at our own pace in our own inner voices connect us to our humanity as few other things do. After all, don’t we tell ourselves stories all the time? Our thoughts tell stories about what our future is going to be – whether it might cause us to grieve, or to rejoice, and we can believe in these works of fiction so much our beliefs can impact what we do today. We tell ourselves stories about our past which also cause us to either grieve, or to rejoice, as we look for reasons to justify what we have done.

All these things are present in Where the Crawdads Sing. The story is to our human lives as the marsh is to Kya’s fictional life. We make a safe home in the stories we tell ourselves; a beautiful shell that wraps around our most cherished and vulnerable hopes and fears. We hide in these stories we tell ourselves – sometimes we might share some of it with others, but so many remain hidden within our shells, never told except to our minds in the middle of the night or in moments or fear or exultation. They create a dense marshland of inner beauty – and tragedy – where, if others threaten our hiding place in that story, we may react like a cornered animal.

Scientists tell us that studies of empathy show a correlation between the amount of ficion read and the amount of empathy shown to other people. Our own stories terrorize and comfort us; they run almost non-stop, except when we concentrate, or when we sleep. I think reading fiction resonates with the inner story telling we do every day, the task of finding the safe place in our minds of who we are and how to keep out those who threaten that.

John’s preaching threatened Herodias and her safety; he did not survive that encounter. Perhaps Jesus’ preaching threatened Jerusalem and her safety, and his bodily life did not survive that. But the resurrection stories did.

If we look closely at stories that others tell, at the tragedies that accompany every life, at the stories that continue after death, maybe we will understand again how important it is to share family stories with our children, even if they have both happiness and grief. To focus our minds on the words of a written story is to get us deeper in touch with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, when we can’t sleep at night, when we feel guilty, when we need to justify something we want to do or something we have done. And as we get in touch with that, maybe we learn to value not just the stories we tell ourselves to feel safe, but the stories others tell – even the people who would grieve at the same outcomes we most desire. And find that as readers, and writers, it is always God’s transformative grace writing the ending. Amen.