Courage in the Struggle

Romans 8:11–13; Mark 6:1–13, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on July 11, 2021

This week’s scriptures got me wondering . . . What does it mean to live with courage? I can think of many people whose extraordinary courage has made them well-known. Malala Yousafzai, who, even after taking a bullet to the head, continued to insist on education for girls in Pakistan. Youth climate activists like Greta Thunberg. Liz Cheney, opposing her own political party in order to stop the dismantling of our democracy. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and other survivors of the massacre in Parkland. Anishinaabe elder Tania Aubid who, with prayer alone, is opposing big oil and big banks in order to protect water, life and treaty rights. At the same time, I notice ordinary people who are courageous in quiet, everyday ways, including many of you. I won’t embarrass anyone by naming names. Other courageous people in my life include my children and their birthparents. My nephew, who navigates the unsteady gait of Cerebral Palsy with amazing grace and grit. The people I know who are in recovery. My transgender friends. I see courage in beings of the more-than-human world, too. Our twenty-year-old cat, Mattie, with her astonishing zest for life, our trauma-surviving dog, Ace. Old growth forests, and all the intricate ecosystems of earth who persist in surviving our human destruction.

What do you think? What does it mean to live with courage? Who are your exemplars of courage, whether they are famous for it, or known only to you? And how does living your life require courage?

Merriam-Webster defines courage as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”[1] I would expand that definition a little. To me, it feels important to know that the word courage is derived from the Latin root, cor, or heart. And one meaning of heart is the part that is “central or innermost,” that is “essential or vital.”[2] So courage is about identity. Living with courage means living with heart, from the center, of who we are. To paraphrase Paul, we gain the courage to be our truest selves through the guidance of God’s Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Today’s Gospel passage begins by mentioning, ever so briefly, the ministry of Jesus’ disciples. Sent out by Jesus to meet human needs for hope and healing, to build a community of love and abundance, and to provoke a movement toward justice, they have become well-known to powerful people like Herod. Most of this passage is a flashback describing Herod’s interactions with John the Baptist and his bold truth-telling. Herod immediately recognized in the disciples of Jesus the same sort of presence and power, the same brand of courage, he encountered in John. He declared them to be a re-incarnation of John. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

John had preached a hard truth to Herod: It’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Mark notes that Herod liked to listen to John, and that at the same time John’s preaching left him perplexed. Which leads me to believe that John had a lot more to say that didn’t get recorded. I suspect John wasn’t only criticizing Herod’s adultery, framed, in the ancient world, as the theft of another man’s possession. I get the sense that John was challenging Herod’s whole way of being. Herod lived by fear and greed. He built and maintained systems of oppression that used power in toxic ways. He was trapped in cycles of gluttony, jealousy, manipulation, vengeance, and violence. So in saying that Herod’s action was “not lawful” I think John was trying to show Herod that he was not living out of his true identity, as a Jew, guided by the Mosaic law, as a child of God, led by the Spirit. Herod was clearly in conflict with himself about John’s message. Mark says that Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man.” And yet, ultimately Herod’s courage failed. He did not dare to oppose his own family in order to protect John’s life.

Today’s verses from Romans compares God to an adoptive parent. As someone who belongs to a family formed by adoption, I find this intriguing. Adoption is a complicated reality. It begins with loss, the loss of a child’s first family. Love can’t fix or erase this loss, only help to process it. At the same time, forming a healthy, strong, loving attachment between adoptive parents and children is crucial work. Often there is missing information and unanswerable questions about birth families. Sometimes a relationship with the birth family is possible and helpful. Sometimes this connection can layer on new kinds of pain. The usual developmental tasks of growing up are there, as well as a whole host of identity issues to work through. Defining what it means to be a “real” parent, or a “real” family, is an ongoing project. Adding to all of this, there are deep issues of economic and racial justice that come up with adoption. In forums I belong to, there are plenty of adoptees saying that birthparents should not lose their right to parent simply because they are poor. Why is it, they ask, that we can’t support these parents, rather than turning so readily to adoption as a solution?

Perhaps the point of Paul’s adoption metaphor is to reassure us that it’s normal for our relationship with God, and with our own true self, to be complicated. We should expect to struggle when we set out to live courageously, to be who we really are. This process will involve confusion and pain. There will be grief. We will be dealing with a lack of information, asking unanswerable “why questions – about identity, about suffering, about equity and justice. Paul writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” What I hear in this is that God, as a parental figure, does not control or coerce us. God is a witness to our journey. God’s Spirit cooperates with our spirits, supports our spirits, nudges our spirits toward life, health, and wholeness.

The scene of John’s beheading is not only a flashback. It is also a flash-forward, pointing to what will happen to Jesus, as he persists in giving flesh to the movement of love, healing and justice John inaugurated. Jesus, too, will be brutally murdered. And, he, too, will be raised. Those who seek to rule through fear and violence cannot silence the voice of truth, cannot extinguish the Spirit of God in creation. A line from our United Church of Christ statement of faith comes to mind today: “God promises to all who trust in the Gospel . . . courage in the struggle for justice and peace.” How does living your life require courage? God does not promise an easy journey, as we become our true and full selves. But God does promise us courage. Amen.