During our Annual Conference this year, Bishop Bard gave a sermon that focused on road maps…. The ones he would get every week from the gas station, until the manager told him firmly they were only for paying customers, the ones we believe we are following as we move through life, the ones we want to ignore and the signs and detours and roadblocks that get in our ways.
As a child I grew up with Ordinance Survey Maps. I loved the feel of them beneath my fingers, the symbols they showed, the way you could tell exactly where you were by looking around you. We did a lot of hiking, and it was these maps that mainly kept us on track. They would show where phone boxes were, where a church with a steeple and a church with a tower were, each uniquely marked, where the post office and the pub were as well as the foot paths through the farmers fields. They didn’t tell you which fields had bulls in, or which foot paths were through corn taller than your head. But they did lead us from one youth hostel to the next as we walked for the whole day, and, when you paid proper attention, you rarely got lost.
In our scripture this morning, Herod thought he had a map…. He arrested John the Baptist. He arrested John as he didn’t like the thought that he would dare to tell him he should not be married to his brother’s wife. And John, true to his calling, continued to preach and tell Herod about God…. And, surprisingly, Herod enjoyed listening to this wild man who liked to wear camel cloths and live out in the wilds. So Herod’s road map included keeping John around so he could learn from him. Yet Herodias, Herod’s new wife, had a different route she wanted to take. She was unhappy with this man who, in her eyes, was turning her husband against her by telling him they should not be married. Her map included getting rid of John, and she saw her chance when Herod promised their daughter anything she wanted after she performed for his birthday. She ran to her mom and her mom, Herod’s wife, told their daughter, also called Herodias, to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod, a weak man who wanted to prove his worth to his guests, his wife, and his daughter, agreed and had John the Baptist beheaded, giving his daughter the head on a platter.
Herod’s map was re-routed and so was John the Baptist’s as they both got caught in Herodias’ detour and road block.
Our Psalm today said,
Who shall ascend the hill of God?
And who shall stand in this holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
This would certainly not be Herodias or Herod himself, the one who is so easily swayed to do something horrendous…. But is it any wonder when his father, Herod the Great, was the one to order the slaying of all the boy children born at the time Jesus was born. A vile man from a vile family. And now, there was more blood on the hands of this family. Maps redrawn, paths changed, contours re-focused.
Bishop Bard said, in his sermon, “Maps are both helpful and limited. Maps provide some sense of where we are and where we want to go, but they are simplified and we ought never confuse the map for the fullness of reality. “Moving into the future, strategies will need to be devised and decisions made, We need to offer our best thinking and deepest imagining, and we also need to be open to the possibility the map with which we began the journey may need to be re-imagined and re-drawn.”
As Jesus and his disciples heard of the beheading of John, they needed to do just this. They had imagined a future with this wild man, John, journeying with them…. The one who had baptized Jesus and declared his importance to the world. They had a place for him at the table. And now, they needed to change course and bury his body instead… a fore taste of the killing of Jesus. With this, the map suddenly turns toward Jerusalem and Jesus’ crucifixion in Mark’s gospel with this story. What was once a clear direction of healing and teaching and miracles, now has a shadow cast. And all because Herod followed in his father’s footsteps and followed the route marked fear… for King Herod, fear that he may loose power as this new baby king, in the form of Jesus, may take over from him. Fear for this Herod that he would lose his wife and daughter, who he had an unhealthy obsession with. Fear of loss is a huge highway on the maps of our lives, and is destructive when it causes us to turn to anger and violence and hate.
James Baldwin said, “it is certain, in any case, that ignorance and fear, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” And this was true in the case of the Herods!
But what if, instead of traveling on this highway of fear, we choose the highway of love? What if we find the exit ramp that leads us off this destructive path and travel through the roads of grief and heartbreak and facing trauma and loss and healing until this path of love can be trusted and travelled with ease.
I recently watched a documentary series out of England that was called Bad Habits, Holy Orders. In it five young women, between the ages of 19 and 22, were invited to go on a month long spiritual journey to try to change their lives. Others had nominated them, but they had each accepted to do this. Most were heavy drinkers, many would go to night clubs every night and often leave with a different man every night, one was addicted to posting pictures of herself in underwear trying to get a job as a underwear model, often spending hours posing and taking selfies and only feeling like she was worth anything if she got a certain number of likes. One was addicted to shopping, often spending 500 pounds on a handbag or 1,000 pounds on a pair of shoes. Each of the five was lost, felt unworthy and thought the only love they could receive was from men paying them some kind of attention or from material possessions. The women were not told what their spiritual month was going to be as they are dropped off in a small village in the middle of the countryside. They are shown dressed up as if they were going out for a night of partying, dragging three or four suitcases behind them. To their surprise they are being sent to live with a group of nuns. There are a dozen sisters living in this convent, ranging in age from 25 to 95, and their order still wears habits. The sisters peer out the window as the women begin to arrive, laughing at their suitcases and shocked by their outfits, yet each woman is greeted with a warm hug by the sister opening the door.
They are shown to their small rooms and soon participating in the life of the convent… expected to go to prayers, to help with the work of the convent, to dress in regular clothes, to not be drinking or partying, to give up their phones, to be in bed by 10pm,…. About the time that they would just be getting ready to go out in their normal lives. And the sisters show them nothing but kindness and love, talk to them openly about whatever they want to know or talk about, and set loving boundaries that these women seem desperate for. The second day they are taken to a thrift store to buy clothes more suitable for their time at the convent, and a couple sneak away to buy a bottle of vodka. The sisters see them doing this and call a meeting, and the women easily hand it over to the sisters and this leads to a conversation about their need for alcohol and what masks it helps them wear. Another time one woman decided she want to not wear makeup that day, and the struggle with her insecurity over this was painful for she had worn heavy makeup every day for a decade. She is scared by what the others will think, what the world will think. The others all decide to go make up free with her, and the sisters encourage them to go for a walk around town…. And no one in town calls them ugly! By the third week, the women are sent to three other convents to live and work with different groups…. They volunteer at a homeless shelter and a nursing home, spend some time in a youth center and a convent where no speaking is allowed. And their original sisters pop in to check up on them, giving huge hugs to each and every women, their love for these young women evident. And their encouragement for these young women to be themselves, really themselves, rather than trying to hide the beauty of who God had made them to be, begins to take hold… with no subject off limits the women open up about what led them to their behaviors and the sisters relate from their own experiences.
At the end of their time, the documentary follows them back into the first days of being home. One begins to work for a charity, one goes to school to become a care giver, and all of them settle down into a more stable and less outrageous lifestyles.
James Baldwin says, “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
These women had been trapped in behind their masks, wearing drinking or partying or selfies as their true selves. The sisters saw the beauty of each one beneath this and helped the women find and believe in it themselves. They helped them discover what happiness was to them. They held their hands as they followed the exit ramp from the highway of fear though the roads of self discovery, of pain, of grief and heartbreak until they came to that great highway of love.
As humans we each long for this kind of love…. One that is not based on what we do or the superficial masks we wear, but sees and accepts and loves us for who we are at the core of our being, someone who is able to truly bring out that inner truth of who we are. It can be rare to find this, but when we do we recognize and respond to it by allowing our masks to slip just a little, to allow more of our true selves to come forth, to allow that love to penetrate through the layers of protection we have built up over the years.
I wonder what highways King Herod and Herod from todays story would have taken if they had been on the receiving end of this kind of love. What protective layers he had built around himself and what masks he wore to appear a certain way to his wife and the world he moved in.
I wonder what highway you will take as you allow this kind of love to remove the layers of pain from your life? To choose to move to that great highway of Love, even when it means following the roads of grief or pain or heartbreak or self reflection.
For this is a love highway freely available to each and every one of us who follow Christ. His love is never ending, has reached out to touch our lives from beyond the cross, the tomb, the resurrection. The map of our faith offers us symbols and markers along the way, orienting us, showing us the trails that lead us in the right direction…. Sometimes wide, sometimes footpaths winding their way through the corn that stretches over our heads. It reaches out to us through prayer, and people and hope coming from nowhere and comfort in pain and grief and surprising delights in nature.
Will you accept the invitation that asks you to exit the highways that keep you in fear and take all the roads and trails and footpaths that lead you to the great highway of Love. Your masks will fall away and your true beauty will shine forth so that other will see your true humanity breaking forth. SO reach out your hand, let Jesus take it and lead you to the paths of love!