7-15-2018 – Proper 10
I know that it’s midsummer, that many of you are in vacation mode, and that many of you might be feeling quite virtuous showing up at church on a summer Sunday. So I therefore ought to cut you some slack and go easy on you in the sermon.
To tell the truth, nothing would please me more than to offer you some pretty little thoughts with some uplifting spiritual sentiments. And yet, as you know, we are here to submit to scripture, to talk about what the Bible wants to talk about rather than what we would like to hear. And here, midsummer, the lectionary slams us with one of the oddest, toughest, most gruesome moments in all of scripture, except for the moment of Jesus’s crucifixion. Today’s Gospel tells of the huge birthday party that King Herod threw for himself.
We meet John in all four Gospels. John is the great first act of the Jesus drama. And when we are given the content of John’s sermons, in Luke’s account of John, we can readily see why John had to do his preaching out in the wilderness.
You bunch of snakes! God is coming to burn you up like trash because of your wickedness!Can’t preach sermons like that at a big downtown cathedral.
Well, in this Sunday’s Gospel, John has been invited up to Herod’s palace, not for a worship service but for Herod’s birthday party. Yet, if you invite a truth-teller like John to the palace of a scoundrel like Herod, there will be trouble.
Herodstands for any brutal, out-of-control, violent dictator. Another Herod caused such bloodshed when Jesus was born. And a future Herod would put many Christians to the sword later. Well, Herod is having himself a birthday party with his new wife, Herodias. By the way, Herodias happened to be the wife of Herod’s brother whom Herod had jilted because Herod was supreme ruler and could do anything he pleased.
And he might have gotten away with it, having a party where nobody dared mention that the king is living with his brother’s wife! Except for Herod’s having invited a troublesome preacher, John the Baptist, to the feast. For some strange reason, Herod liked to hear John preach, even though Herod had difficulty understanding John’s sermons. (Herod, for all of his power, wasn’t the brightest candle in the box.)
So right there at the party, John launches into a sermon: It’s against the law for you to marry your brother’s wife!(6:18 CEB). There, in front of all of Herod’s generals and his hand-picked cabinet, press secretary, everybody, John the Baptist calls out Herod.
Herodias, Herod’s new wife, had her daughter come in and do a suggestive dance in honor of the king. Herod was so impressed he said,That was the best dance I’ve ever seen. Ask me whatever you want.
What should I ask for?she whispered to her mother.
John the Baptist’s head,Herodias replied.I’m going to shut up that politics-with-religion-mixing preacher once and for all.
Mark says that Herod didn’t want to honor her request; on the other hand, he feared looking weak in front of all his court officials, so he gave the order. John’s head was cut off, brought on a plate, and presented to the daughter, who proudly (and so gruesomely) presented it to her mother.
Wow. What are we to make of this tale, one of the longest that Mark tells, placed right in the center of his Gospel?
Please note: John the Baptist was murdered not because Herod didn’t enjoy hearing John preach but because John preached the truth to Herod that nobody else dared to utter.
As a preacher, I confess that this story of Herod beheading John the Baptist makes me nervous. Is this story here to warn me, If you are ever invited to preach at the White House, be careful!Or maybe it’s here to say, Hey, who cares what a politician does in his private life? The main thing is how he votes on the floor of the Senate. Or perhaps, You preachers stick to saving souls. Focus on purely spiritual matters and don’t get into private, personal stuff.
Or perhaps it’s here (and I’m thinking this is the true reason for this gruesome story to be laid on us this July morning) in order to make me ask, When’s the last time I’ve been threatened because I told God’s truth?
I confess that I see myself as a caregiver, a friend and support to those of you in the congregation, rather than a truth-teller. And yet, the world is dying for want of Christians who love God and God’s truth enough to tell the truth, despite the consequences.
This past fall many of us watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Vietnam War. I felt a whole host of reactions to the series, in part because it was my generation who was sent to fight that losing war and I was drafted and served in the Air Force during part of the war. My main thought was, How different this tragedy would have been if, somewhere along the line, more people had told the truth. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were caught in webs of self-deceit, and they made some tragic decisions that cost many lives. What if their advisors had found some way to tell them the truth? What if General Westmoreland had not inflated the body count?What if Henry Kissinger had stood up to Nixon’s scheming and said what he knew in his heart to be true?
There is a high cost attached to people in high places who combine power with lies.
John told Herod and Herodias the truth. Even at a birthday party, he was the one person around Herod who called Herod’s marriage for what it was. And Herod reacted the way the powerful often react. Fake news!Or, You stick with spiritual things and stay out of personal, private, political matters.
So maybe I ought to prayerfully ask myself, When have I ever stood up and told the truth that people didn’t want to hear? This church is meant to be not only a place of comfort and care but also a place of truth. Here is truththat is tied not to the concerns of the political right or the political left but to Jesus Christ. Here is where God convenes us on a weekly basis to hear what the world doesn’t want us to hear, to see ourselves and our leaders for who we really are: people who evade the truth, who wish that truth-tellers would keep silent, and who sometimes make the truthful pay a high price for telling us the truth.
Aristotle defined an immoral person as a person with no friends because only friends care enough about us to tell us the truth other people help us avoid. Perhaps what we need, in our attempts to be truthful, are people who are such close friends with Jesus that they refuse to let us live in our lies.
Surely Mark gave such prominence to the death of John the Baptist because, in just a few more chapters, Jesus will suffer a similar fate. For Jesus, there will be a trial of sorts. (Pilate will at least make a show of going by the book and doing things decently.) Jesus’s death will be premeditated rather than the result of things getting out of hand at a party. And yet, Jesus and John the Baptist will be put to death by the government for much the same reason: these preachers told the truth.They spoke truth to power, and they both willingly suffered the consequences.
Speaking truth to power: Amos (Hebrew Scripture reading for this morning) and John the Baptizer, two of an endless series of such prophets in the Bible – forerunners of Jesus of Nazareth.
Amos and John are the plumb line. God says, just put this plumb line next to the wall I have built – the wall being a metaphor for Israel, for God’s people, and as far as we are concerned, the Church and this country. Does it look plumb to you? Are the walls still as I built them? Or, are they out of line?
It is interesting that between these two lessons lies the letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians might be said to be the plumb line. It talks about our sole purpose: that we might live for the praise of God’s glory.
That’s it. The rest is all about God’s doing, not ours.
And what God does is substantial.
God blesses us with every spiritual blessing. Not some, not many, but every spiritual blessing.
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Before “In the beginning…”
God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will!
God freely bestows his glorious grace making us his beloved!
God forgives us our trespasses.
God makes known to us the mystery of his will set forth in Christ.
God has a plan to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In Christ we have also received an inheritance, as we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit in Baptism.
God does all this so that we might live for the praise of his glory.
With cases like Herod, Herodias, Jeroboam and Amaziah, like all the well publicized cases of our own time, it is easy to see that they are out of plumb.
Hang the plumb line in the midst of our own parish community, and what would we see? Are we in line with the God who has done all this for us without our asking? Do we live for the praise of his glory? If so, Alleluia! If not, what need we do as a community of God’s people to live for the praise of his glory?
We say our mission is to Our mission is to be a welcoming, prayerful, caring community
actively sharing the love of God.
In our Baptismal Covenant which we repeat several times a year…. We say everything we say and everything we do will proclaim the Good News of God in Christ. We say we will seek Christ in all persons. We say we will strive for justice and peace for all people.Our catechism (BCP 855) says according to the gifts given to us we will continue Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. Not in the parish, not in the church, but in the world. Does our engagement with the world show that we are a people who live for the praise of God’s glory? How are we doing?
Perhaps it is time to look at the plumb line, repent and follow Jesus.
Will you help me to risk being not only a relevant, understandable, caring preacher but also a truthful preacher? Will you pray for yourselves, that you will be people who come to church not only to be confirmed in your faith but also to be confronted by the truth? And if, on occasion, I slip up and become not only a preacher who gets your attention but also a preacher who tells you the truth, then will you please try not to play the role of Herod and hand me my head on a platter?
Lord Jesus, help us to be more courageous in following you. Correct us when we flee the conflict that sometimes occasions your life-giving move into our world. Give us the strength to stand up to the world’s censure and resistance. Above all, help us to be bold in speaking the truth and living the truth as you give us the truth.
In a world where the powerful maintain their power through falsehood and deceit, in an age when we love our security and comfort more than we love sometimes painful truth, help us to be people who tell the truth because we are in service to you, we pray in the name of the Lord who is not only the way and the life but also the truth. Amen+
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,
who destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
who has forgiven our sins according to the riches of his grace,
and has made known to us the mystery of his will. This is our God! Let’s worship him together.
Offertory Perhaps the most joyful and challenging of all the commandments is to generosity and mutual care: to love one another as God loves us. Let us gather our gifts together and offer them to God in gratitude, heartfelt commitment, and praise.
Benediction It is time to go out and share God’ secret purpose which has been disclosed in Jesus Christ. Share that secret with others by the way you live: with the words on your lips, by the deeds of your hands, with the prayers in your minds, and through the love in your hearts. and we do so with the Blessing of God Almighty….. Amen!