The Bible is dotted with stories that are painful to hear. Stories that we sidestep if we can.
This morning’s gospel lesson is one of these. When this story shows up in the lectionary, most pastors avoid it like the plague. They scurry over to see what the psalm for the day might be or what the epistle is saying. Anything but this passage. Anything but this ugliness and horror.
In seminary a professor asked me to do a presentation on a passage that was every bit as violent and troubling as ours is today.
The morning of my presentation I was terribly sick to my stomach, not simply because the passage I was speaking on was reprehensible and revolting but because I knew it was likely that the story could trigger someone in class. Someone who, unbeknownst to any of us, had grown up around violence. Someone who had witnessed or experienced the unthinkable. Someone carrying a mark none of us could see.
Just the thought that someone in class might be debilitated because my story rubbed up against their lived experience grieved me so deeply I could barely proceed. Which is why I began my presentation by saying: you are free to leave if this is too much to bear. No judgments made, no questions asked.
And I would say the same now. Guard your well-being, beloved ones. Turn off your camera and even the sound if our conversation gets to be too much; rejoin us later in the service or sign off all together and circle back next Sunday. No judgments made, no questions asked.
We never know who is suffering an invisible injury or how. Several summers back when I was hosting Airbnb, a woman interested in staying over the Fourth of July week-end messaged to ask whether my neighborhood would be quiet. Not any quieter than any other block, I replied not at all sure what to make of her inquiry.
My guest ended up staying the better part of a week. Partway through her visit she explained that the reason she had asked about fireworks was because she was actively recovering from a trauma and didn’t want to get triggered so far from home. She didn’t want to become dysregulated, disoriented, or disabled by a rush of terrible, terrifying feelings and memories rooted in a past that, under certain circumstances, could come rushing forward without notice.
In my own way I could relate. I remembered what happened when I hit an elk that bounded out in front of my vehicle one dark Arizona night. I’ll spare you the details and simply say it was nothing if not traumatizing.
For years after that, whenever I was in the car after dark—even when I was a passenger—if there was any sudden movement along the side of the road, any little flash of fur or feathers, my whole body would flinch and adrenaline would rush through my veins—and well before my conscious mind registered what I had seen.
Trauma leaves traces on our minds and emotions…even on our bodies and immune systems, writes Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk in his bestselling book on the subject, The Body Keeps the Score. Trauma cheats us of our usual experience of self-mastery and inward freedom, leaving us at the mercy of responses over which we have very little control.
Mark gives us a scene this morning that is nothing if not grotesque and violent. How could it not have been traumatizing for those who witnessed the unthinkable? How could this event not have later found its way into the dreams of Herod’s guests, into the unconscious reflexes of those who were subjected to the perversity on display that night Herod hosted a birthday banquet? How could it not have had lingering effects?
And how could it not have left its indelible and debilitating mark on John’s devoted disciples, hoping and praying for his release from prison? How could it not have lodged in Jesus’ body and mind when he learned that his cousin, his spiritual mentor, his way-maker, his baptizer, had lost his life to the depravity of a weak but powerful man, his broken family, and his silent but complicit court?
We often think of trauma as something experienced by an individual. A tourist is mugged. A hunter mistakes his companion for a buck. An avalanche swallows up a skier.
Or we think of trauma as affecting a circle of people—a family, a church, a close-knit community. Some have argued—and I’m inclined to agree—that the reason Jesus’ disciples did not recognize him when he was newly resurrected was because they were severely traumatized by his crucifixion, their whole beings trapped in the high alert that keeps bodies and brains from functioning normally after horror hits.
Anyone who remembers what happened in New York City on a perfect early fall day knows that an entire nation can suffer a debilitating trauma together—and in a matter of seconds.
What we are only now beginning to understand is that along with the traumas that hit us quickly, other traumas creep in like fog in a valley or wildfire smoke in the summer air.
These long, drawn-out traumas wreak a different kind of havoc on our nervous systems, nervous systems that are not prepared to endure sustained stressors.
The trauma of refugees living in abject poverty and uncertainty in tent cities far from home.
The trauma of young children separated from their families at the border and the parallel trauma of parents and grandparents who had no idea where their children were or whether they were safe.
The trauma of living through an administration with a president whose only loyalty is to himself.
The trauma of bearing witness to the slow concerning creep of climate crisis.
The trauma of enduring a poorly handled, death-dealing pandemic and with it, discovering how many around us were unwilling to exercise simple precautions to keep the rest of us safe.
These long, drawn out traumas affect us in ways we don’t always notice. They leave us cranky and lacking creativity, numb and indifferent, agitated or anxious, wide awake at night or needing hours of sleep during the day.
These sustained traumas lurk in the darkness; they bury themselves like a shingles virus, troubling and terrorizing us when some combination of stressors opens the door to their presence.
If we are slow to appreciate how trauma can and does affects a whole people, we are even slower to appreciate how a shared trauma does damage not only to those who first endured the unthinkable it but also affects subsequent generations.
This is what our indigenous and Black siblings have been trying to tell us—that they are carrying within them the traumas endured by their parents, grandparents, and even ancestors. They pay the price for injury they did not directly experience.
I’m talking about trauma this morning because it is something we often don’t give ourselves permission to acknowledge; our silence around its crippling power leaves many isolated and alone, suffering silently, often with a deep sense of shame.
Unnamed, unresolved trauma cheats us of the freedom and joy God intends for us. It holds us captive and controls us in ways that God surely grieves.
Failing to notice and name the trauma or traumas that we have endured, places of injury and suffering that may well still be affecting us, we are also unlikely to acknowledge trauma’s persisting influence in the lives of those around us. And we are not likely to identify with and be compassionate toward the generational trauma affecting our brown and black skinned siblings.
I once worked with a man who was more than a little bit cynical. Life is hard and then you die, he would often say.
But if life is hard—and it regularly is—God is not unmoved by the forces that make it difficult. God is not unaware of the ways we suffer or the ways we cause suffering.
God is not ignorant of the tragedies that befall us and the marks those tragedies leave on our psyches, souls, and even our bodies. God grieves our griefs. God suffers our suffering. God moves in every possible way to move us toward the healing and wholeness that is our birthright.
If you are not certain of this, consider the life of Jesus.
Jesus sought and sought and sought those who were broken, bruised, and battered. He reached toward those whose mental and physical health cheated them of the fullness of life. He met these men and women, these children and elders, with the utmost of compassion.
And he touched their wounds, he listened without judgment or hurry, he showed the human family the face of God, the God who is with us no matter what and who grieves our injuries and the ways we injure others.
But more than this, he focused his energies on the big picture, aiming to shift and change the way his culture, his religion functioned. He challenged the presence and power of the Roman Empire whose violent, destructive ways were nothing if not traumatizing to Jesus’ people.
“I came that you might have life and have it abundantly,” Jesus tells us in John’s gospel. A life that is a banquet for all to savor and share. A banquet filled with dancing, laughter, and delight.
Not the kind of banquet Herod hosted. A gathering where power is abused, where perversity is on display, where everyone goes home paying the price for having been invited.
God be with us when we suffer for having attended the wrong banquet. God be with us when trauma finds its way into our lives. And God be with us as we begin to reckon with the inheritance of trauma running through the human family. God help us be a help and never a hindrance.
Let us pray:
Your will for all people, O God, is health and salvation. Health and healing. Health and wholeness.
We pray for all those who are held captive in their bodies and minds by experiences that caused lasting injury.
We pray especially for indigenous communities in Canada now discovering mass graves outside residential schools and for communities of color who have for too long had to walk and drive past statues lauding Confederate leaders.
We pray for every home and hometown where the unthinkable has happened and healing has not yet come.
Use us—our hearts, hands, and prayers—to usher in your healing and to advance your realm of love. Amen.