July 15, 2018 The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3–14, Mark 6:14–29

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:14–29)

The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a gruesome and perplexing story that seems, at first glance, to come out of nowhere, interrupting the flow of Mark’s narrative. Just prior to the story, Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his hometown and both amazes and offends those who heard him, presumably relatives and childhood friends who ask incredulously. “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” In frustration Jesus must answer, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” The text then tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief and could do no deed of power there except to heal a few people. It is important here that Jesus seems to define his ministry in prophetic terms, which is to lay out God’s vision for the creation, living that vision in word and deed, and calling people to do the same. There is grace offered when a prophet speaks: the grace of life lived abundantly in God. But as Jesus discovered in the experience with his hometown, not all will respond to the grace offered. In fact, often not only is the grace offered by the prophet rejected, but the prophet him or herself is also rejected. Jesus is quite aware of the fate of prophets. He knows that there are two reasons why prophets are often stoned: they must tell the truth to reluctant and often recalcitrant hearers, and they don’t apologize for their truth telling for it is from God. To lead a prophet’s life is difficult, and yet it is to such a life that Jesus is called and to which Jesus calls his followers.

And so, despite the failure of the preaching tour of his hometown, Jesus sends his disciples out two-by-two to enter into prophetic ministry on his behalf, giving them authority over the power of evil that would thwart the vision of God in the world, to call people to catch God’s vision and live it in their lives, and to heal those bound by whatever keeps them from living fully human lives filled with dignity and hope. Further, they are called to do all this trusting in the generous provision of the God who calls them. Take no bread or bag or money, Jesus instructs. Stay where you are welcomed and leave those places alone that will not welcome you. In fact, shake the dust from your feet as a testimony against those who are unwelcoming. Stay focused always on speaking and living as God calls you no matter how that is received. Keep offering grace to the people.

In this context, we come to the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Mark tells us that because of the work of the disciples done in Jesus’ name, Jesus was becoming widely known, and people were speculating about Jesus’ identity. Some thought he was John the Baptist brought back to life. Others thought he was Elijah or another prophet from of old. In either case, all recognized the prophetic nature of Jesus’ ministry and that of his disciples, including King Herod, who believed that Jesus was John the Baptist, whom the king himself had beheaded, raised from the dead. In fact, I think Herod hoped that it was a resurrected John who was again out and about preaching and teaching and healing, because if this were so, then perhaps Herod could respond differently this time to the grace that John offered him; perhaps Herod could listen to John once again because, even though John’s message baffled and perplexed him, and in fact accused and convicted him as well, Herod liked to listen to John. Herod liked their conversations. But all this possibility was cut off from Herod as soon as the head of John the Baptist was cut off at Herod’s command.

And there was grace offered to Herod by John. John the Baptist, the last of the prophets of old and the first of the prophets of the new age who pointed to Jesus, the bearer of the new age, invited Herod to embrace God’s vision of life, including God’s vision for political life and leadership. But embracing God’s vision necessarily means first letting go one’s own vision and submitting all to the will of God. For the king Herod, this meant considering the needs and concerns of his most vulnerable subjects before his own and tending to them, as has been the call of God to political leaders for thousands of years, and then going about this business in direct contradiction to the goals and wishes of his Roman overlords who were, after all, rivals with God for Herod’s allegiance. For the man Herod, this likely meant putting his personal and moral life in order by learning how to conduct himself as a man of God driven by a desire to follow God’s way in the totality of his life rather than a man of the world driven by his own twisted lusts and desires. I imagine, in their conversations together, John and Herod discussed these things and much more. I imagine that Herod was intrigued by the grace offered by John and drawn to the vision of God expressed there. I imagine that Herod wanted to embrace it, wanted to live it, motivated, I suppose, by a sense of fear of the judgment of God if he didn’t, but drawn even more, I think, by the abundant life of God possible if only he could let go of himself. But in the end, he couldn’t. Driven finally by his fears—his fear of going back on his word spoken in the heat of the moment, his fear of losing the adulation and respect of his people, his fear of the crushing presence of Rome, his fear of domestic strife and hostility—he caved to the powers and principalities of his world and cut off the head of John the Baptist…cut off continued conversation…cut off the grace offered him…cut off the invitation to embrace God’s vision for the world and live it in his own life. No wonder Herod hoped that Jesus was John resurrected. He longed for redemption, but none came.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I am a passionate person. Theologically and pastorally, my passion is for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the throw-aways of church and society. I write and preach about this often. My passion for those on the margins does not come from my political beliefs, as some may think. No, my passion for the marginalized arises out of my experience of being marginalized myself, both by church and society, and by having to navigate that marginalization and try to make sense of what in truth is senseless. But despite it, I came to affirm myself as a human being worthy of dignity and respect, and a beloved child of God. Rising, then, from my own experience, I have a great heart for others on the margins who are bound and yearning to be liberated, and I wish for them also to feel valued and worthy of dignity and respect, for they, too, are children of God. Even more importantly, I believe with all my heart that helping the vulnerable achieve such liberation is the work of God in Christ to which we are all called.

My pastoral letter in the summer newsletter was a further attempt on my part to share my passion with you and invite you to walk with me in the work of liberation to which we are called. It was written out of deep concern that at this time and place in our world the most vulnerable among us are being targeted, dehumanized, scapegoated, and victimized for political and social gain. It was written to name the ways that this is happening, from my vantagepoint, and to suggest that what is happening is not consistent with the vision of God for the world as handed down to us through scripture and tradition. It was written to be a reminder that Christians—individually and corporately—must keep themselves from being too closely wed to those in power, whoever they may be, so that they can retain their responsibility to speak truthfully and prophetically when need be, and as a warning that a large segment of American Christianity has ceded that responsibility for political gain. It was written as a testament that while the Gospel of Jesus certainly speaks to the personal challenges we face in our lives—illness, grief, relationship issues, financial troubles, spiritual malaise, or natural disaster, to name a few—the Gospel also speaks to the challenges of our public life together and must not remain silent amid such challenges. Finally, it was written in the hope that it would spark discussion about what it means for us as individual Christians to be faithful amid these challenges and how to respond to them as a community of faith.

I write, as I preach, always in the belief that our identity as Christians does not come from our agreement politically or socially, but from our baptism into Christ. I know that my words were received by some in our community with open and welcome arms, and I know that my words were met with perplexity, challenge, anger, and hurt, perhaps by many more. I also know that my words, like the words of John the Baptist to Herod, hold within them the possibility of grace and an invitation to catch the vision of God for the world and live it more deeply in our lives. But accepting the invitation into deeper discipleship means continuing the conversation. If we don’t talk to one another despite our disagreements or differences and seek to surround ourselves with only those with whom we agree, or if we reject challenge out of defensiveness or fear, or if we distance ourselves from the community out of offense or outrage, then we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters in the faith, and like Herod cutting off the head of John the Baptist, we cut off the possibility of receiving the grace offered, of deeper insight into the way of Jesus in the world, of deeper fellowship with those God has given to walk with us in the world.

We do not all agree on the way forward given the dangers and challenges of our time, or even as to whether our time presents any real dangers and challenges at all. We do not need to be united in our political solutions, or our social solutions. People of good will can have honest disagreements concerning the best solutions, the best policies, the best ways forward from their particular perspective. But we must never forget to continue the dialog even if it leads to passionate argument and disagreement, for we owe that to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.

John has been beheaded in our culture and meaningful conversation has there been cut off. I pray we let John live in our community of faith so the same fate doesn’t befall us. Amen.

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