Revised Common Lectionary
Note: I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 15, at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, Virginia. Grace Lutheran is my home congregation, and I was invited to preach as part of their celebrations of their 125th anniversary.
It is good for me to be back here at Grace Lutheran in Waynesboro after several years. I bring you greetings from the people of Salem Lutheran Church in Oberlin, PA, and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Steelton, PA, where I am currently serving. I want to thank you for inviting me to preach as part of your 125th anniversary celebrations. It’s amazing to think about Grace having been part of the Waynesboro community for 125 years, and the impact that you have had both on the community and on individual lives. In my journey from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to ordained ministry in the ELCA, you were here for me at just the right time, offering me love, healing, and encouragement as you helped me to discern the call that God has placed upon my life. And I want to give you a profound thank you for all that you have done for me.
I want to tell you what happened when I found out what the Gospel text appointed for today was. In my congregations, we have been following a different lectionary, that is, a different series of appointed readings, and the last several weeks I have been preaching through the letter of 1 John. When Pastor Paul first let me know what the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary were for this week, I was in the middle of other things, and I glanced at it and said, “Oh, yes, it’s something from the Gospel of Mark,” and went on about my business. When I said, “OK, I need to sit down and really look at what the appointed text is,” and found out that it was the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, my reaction was one of shock and dismay. I’m coming back to Grace as part of the 125th year celebrations, and I get one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels to preach on? Really, God? But, I trust that the Holy Spirit knows what she is doing, so my prayer is that the words that I speak to you today are words that the Spirit believes you, and I, too, need to hear.
So, let me start with this idea: when we hear this story, we remember the gruesome details. The daughter of Herodias, Herod’s stepdaughter, dancing in front of Herod and his guests. Herodias prompting her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head, because he had been saying that it was not lawful for Herod and Herodias to be married. The daughter of Herodias then going back in to the assembled party and asking not only for John’s head, but for the head to be delivered on a platter. Herod, more willing to save face by following through on his promise than to do the right thing, ordering John’s execution and having the head brought to his stepdaughter as she requested. These are the things we remember, because it is a very horrific story. But I think we need to take a step back from this story for a moment and ask what Mark is doing here and why he placed this story in his gospel. And if we look at the first few verses, we discover that this story is a flashback, and it is told in response to what Jesus and his followers are doing. Jesus is going about the villages teaching, and then he gathers the twelve together, gives them authority over the unclean spirits, tells them to take nothing with them, and go out and proclaim the news of the kingdom of God. And apparently word is spreading of what Jesus and his disciples are doing, and people are trying to understand what is going on and interpret it in light of past events. And then we get the flashback to John the Baptist’s death.
And so I think one of the things that Mark is trying to do with this story is to give us a warning: this is the kind of mission field that Jesus is sending us into. For every person who joyfully receives the good news, repents, and enters the kingdom of God, there will be even more people, very often the powerful ones, who, while they see what we’re doing and may wonder about it, will be more concerned with saving face and holding on to their power than they are with doing the right thing. With his story of the beheading of John the Baptist and how that happened, Mark is also foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus when powerful men decide that it would be easier to execute Jesus than it would be to do the right thing. And he is warning us that being a disciple of Jesus is not going to always be happiness, goodness, comfort, and light, but that we will be asked to confront the darkness, speak the truth to the powerful, and be willing to suffer the consequences, even if it means we will die because of them.
This is hard for us to fathom here in the United States, because we don’t expect that we will have to die for our faith in Jesus. But, that doesn’t mean that we can get out of speaking truth to the powerful, and in so doing, we may have to die to ourselves, even if we’re not being asked to literally die. John the Baptist boldly told Herod that it was wrong of him to marry his brother’s wife, and was imprisoned and eventually executed for it. In our Old Testament reading today, we hear Amos speaking the truth to the people of Israel in the king’s courts, and being told to go back home. And even just a quick glance through the stories of the prophets of the Old Testament will show that these men, and in some cases, women, who spoke truth to power did not have an easy time of it: they were heckled, killed, thrown into muddy wells and left to rot, called upon to do all sorts of difficult actions to demonstrate visibly to the people what God was trying to tell them, and so on and so forth. Last week we heard about Jesus himself having a difficult time of it in Nazareth, where his hometown family and friends took offense at him. If Jesus himself was heckled for speaking the truth, how can we who are disciples of Jesus expect anything different?
We live in a country where we expect faith and politics to be separated. In some ways, this is a good thing. It’s good to have a government that, in theory, treats all faiths equally and does not favor one over another. But somehow this has translated into being afraid to speak about things that are going on in the country and the world in our congregations, and even speaking to those things from a faith perspective. When the news about immigrant children being separated from their parents hit its peak in the media, and when the attorney general used Romans 13 to justify it, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to speak to my congregations about it in the sermon that Sunday, and the knot in the pit of my stomach that day was very large. Because, even though we should all agree that, no matter what position we take about immigration, it is morally wrong to separate children from their parents, our society is so polarized that I was afraid someone would yell at me after the worship service that day. By and large, our congregations are not trained to speak to one another civilly about political differences of opinion because most of us believe politics should stay out of church life.
But here’s the thing: there are certain issues that we, as the church, can speak to out of our faith and out of what Jesus has taught us. For example, while we may disagree on what immigration laws should look like, we should agree that it is absolutely reprehensible to separate children from their parents and we should call on our elected officials to fix this problem. Or, on environmental issues, since we are called to be good stewards of the environment, we should be able to speak out against coal companies being allowed to pollute our waterways, or we should be able to speak for everybody having access to clean drinking water. And, since we are called to feed the hungry, we should be able to speak in favor of people having access to good, nutritious food. We are called to not only help the hungry by giving them food in food pantries and such, but we are also called to advocate for changes in the system that we have that results in unequal distribution of food and in food deserts, where people do not have access to affordable, nutritious food because of a lack of grocery stores in their neighborhoods.
Our faith is not solely focused on what will happen to us when we die. Jesus died for us, Jesus loves us, and Jesus has got us safely in his hands. In the meantime, our faith should be compelling us to announce the kingdom of God not only in words, but also in deeds. Jesus has redeemed not only our souls, but also our bodies, and so that means that God loves this physical, created world just as much as the heavenly world. And sometimes, what that means is that we as Christians, compelled by our faith, need to get involved in the politics of this world when our leaders become so drunk with power that they need to be reminded that they are created beings and they should be treating other people as they would want to be treated, rather than saving face and holding on to power. Jesus has given us authority over the spirits of this world, and rather than arguing among ourselves, we need to use that authority to confront the powers of darkness that are loose in this world.
Rather than focusing on our differences of opinion or avoiding those topics completely, let us speak among ourselves this week and practice listening to one another. Where we disagree on issues, let us remain civil as we discuss them and pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us in the right direction. And then let us find those issues that we can agree on, and speak the truth to the corrupt powers around us. Imagine how God’s love and authority would shine through us if we spoke as one on issues that affect the lives of the people around us. Imagine what it would look like if we proclaimed, together, that the kingdom of God has come and urged all to repent and believe in the good news. And imagine what it would look like if we did this with no fear of what the powers that be could do to us, but if we were instead focused on doing what God has called us to do, regardless of what might happen. This is what God, through the prophets, including John the Baptist, is calling us to do. Let us heed that call without hesitation. Amen.