Saturday, June 9, 2012

Throwing down the gauntlet

1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15; Mark 3:20-35

In Roman times, warriors often protected their hands with strips of leather and sometimes added some small iron plates to the leather bands. In the Middle Ages, warriors wore very heavy gloves called gauntlets. They were often layers and layers of leather; many of them had metal plates. They came in handy when the opponent had a sword trying to slice off a soldier’s hand. And they were very useful in hand to hand combat. A gauntleted hand made a bigger impact than bare knuckles on an opponent’s jaw.
The gauntlet had other uses, too. A warrior might object to the election or appointment of the next king, and he would express his objection by throwing down his gauntlet on the ground in front of the new king. At other times, two warriors disagreed over something, and one would throw down his gauntlet, inviting the opponent to a duel. The opponent accepted the duel by picking up the thrown gauntlet. 
Today, we’ll use the idiom metaphorically. Jesus, in Mark’s gospel in particular, throws down the gauntlet as he confronts his enemies. Samuel, also, throws down the gauntlet as he faces the elders of his community.
In our gospel readings, we return to Mark after a long absence. We are in chapter 3 today, near the beginning of the story. Even the beginning of Mark’s story is a sort of throwing down the gauntlet, as Mark declares to anyone who doesn’t believe that Jesus IS the Son of God. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
In our first reading each week, we’ll spend the next six months reading sort of sequentially from the Hebrew Testament. Last year, we read from Genesis – stories about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; and we read from Exodus – stories about the call of Moses, the escape from slavery, the wandering in the wilderness, and the entry into Canaan. Today, we pick up the story with the time of the kings, Saul, David, and Solomon.
First, the Gospel story. There are two stories interwoven in this text. In one story, Jesus’ family is worried. Mary’s son, her special baby, is acting crazy. Doesn’t he know he could get himself killed! Maybe, she thinks, she and Jesus’ brothers and sisters can talk him into a time out. “Come home and get some rest, maybe you’ll think through what you are doing.”
But Jesus rejects their efforts. “If you’re going to talk like that, you are not my family. The people who support me are my real family.” The gauntlet is thrown, even to his family.
In between these comments, Jesus speaks with the scribes, who travel from Jerusalem to Galilee to see just what’s going on with this Jesus. To accept that the things Jesus is saying and doing come from God would undermine their own authority and be an admission that the Jewish leaders have been wrong for centuries. So, they must claim that the healings and exorcisms have come from evil power.
 But Jesus says that just doesn’t make sense. Why would evil be casting out evil? If evil is divided against itself, it will destroy itself. Then Jesus says that if thieves want to steal something, they enter the house. It’s easier to take what they want if they bind up the strong man inside the house.
The key to understanding this text is defining just who the strong man is. He could be God and then the statement refers to the Jewish leaders invading God’s house and stealing Jesus, the strong man. They think they will win if they get rid of Jesus. They have thrown down the gauntlet. And Jesus has picked it up, accepting the challenge.
Another way to understand the strong man reference is to consider it as referring to evil and those who do evil. In Jesus’ first healing in Mark, he casts out a demon. By the time the scribes encounter Jesus in chapter three, Jesus has already thrown down the gauntlet at the demons of the evil one.
The term the “strong man” refers the evil that is inherent in nature and to the systems on earth that perpetuate the evil. In this case, the strong man refers to the temple and royal powers-that-be that are oppressing God’s people. So, Jesus is also throwing down the gauntlet in front of the scribes and the priests and the Sadducees and the Pharisees – and the Romans. And Jesus’ opponents are quite happy to take on the challenge and pick up the gauntlet Jesus throws, although they will bide their time for now.
When we look at the text from First Samuel, we can see that God anticipated that things would go this way when the people asked for a king. Samuel was a judge – a religious and political leader, like Deborah and Gideon and Samson. But he was getting old, and he put his sons in charge of some areas. They were corrupt, and the elders came to Samuel and asked him to replace himself and the sons with a king. “We want a king. All the countries around us have a king, and we want to be like them.”
Samuel prayed to God, who assured Samuel that this request was not so much a rejection of Samuel’s leadership as it was a rejection of God as their king. Samuel went back to the elders and said, “Are you sure you want a king? Kings have a bad reputation of taking land, crops, produce, and increasing taxes. Kings form armies and take young men for soldiers; and they take women as workers in their households – and more. ” In other words – Be careful what you ask for. You just may get it!
But the people were adamant, and Saul became king. Saul started out well, but soon became corrupt; David was next, and of all the kings he was the best, even though he was far from perfect. Solomon did lots of good, and he was thought to be very wise, but he enslaved thousands of people and had a huge harem. He used people, just as Samuel had warned. From Solomon on the kings were mostly terrible leaders, interested in the power and prestige related to being king. Herod, the king at the time of Jesus, was mostly a king in name only, and owed his position to the Romans.
Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet against the evil one and all demonic powers. He has thrown down the gauntlet against political and religious leaders and the evil systems in which they participate. The powers-that-be, both spiritual and human, will respond and take up the gauntlet, take up the challenge. They will put an end to Jesus’ life.
But God has the last word. Jesus is raised from death. God has the power – over death, and over all evil powers. In the end, evil will not win, love will. It’s hard to see that today, though, isn’t it? It sure looks like our leaders are no different than the leaders of Jesus’ time. It sure looks like there is evil present in our modern families. It sure looks like the powerful people still oppress the weak and poor people.
So what are we to do? First, we can remember that Jesus confronted evil and evil-doers with no violence. He was no pushover, but he was never violent. Well, except for that episode with overturning the tables of the money-changers. Another example of Jesus throwing down the gauntlet.
And, second, we can remember that Jesus reached out in love to heal what was broken. He fought against evil with the gauntlet of love.
So, an example. I spoke recently with a person who works at CREST, the school for students with special needs. I was struck by several of her comments, but there’s one in particular I want to share. Especially since the 1990’s, there have been strict rules about adults touching children and youth – whether in schools or in churches. That usually means that teachers never hug students. But at Crest, the touch of a hug is an essential part of the learning environment.
It is with our love, expressed in as many ways as possible, that we will confront the evil still present in our world. What evil do you see? How can you throw down a gauntlet of love? It may be as simple as sharing a hug. It may be as important as praying before casting a vote. It may mean helping a victim stand up to a bully. It may mean feeding hungry people, clothing those who have no clothes, and visiting those in nursing homes and in prison.

Please pray with me. Loving God, with your love we can confront evil wherever we find it. Give us the heart and the courage to throw down a gauntlet of love as often as we can. Amen