Monday, July 16, 2012

Amy Bailey Preaches on the Beheading of John the Baptist

Yesterday Amy Bailey did a wonderful job taking the story of the beheading of John the Baptist and finding the resurrection narrative in it. If you missed it, or just wanted to read it again, Amy has graciously allowed us to reproduce her sermon below.

The readings for this Sunday were: Amos 7:7-15, Ps. 85:8-13, Eph. 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Mark and Father Tom inviting me to choose one of several available Sundays in the preaching rotation here at All Saints. They knew I was looking forward to an opportunity to preach, and I have been, and so I chose this Sunday, and then I looked up the Gospel reading for today, and realized that it was about a Baptist preacher who preached an unwelcome message and was subsequently imprisoned and (gulp) beheaded. 

This story of a birthday dinner party for the rich, famous and powerful, featuring entertainment by the host’s “princess” of a daughter, concluding with a vengeance plot against the personal enemy of the host’s wife – sound like nothing so much as an episode of 21st century reality TV. The marriage of Herod and Herodias, his half-brother’s wife, comes to you courtesy of Jerry Springer. Herodias’ plan to do away with the man who dissed her husband is straight out of “Real Housewives of Ancient Galilee.” And the lurid finish to the evening (and to John the Baptist), following on the heels of some delightful choreography by the house’s young daughter, may be the next episode of “Dance Moms.”

This story has in fact been co-opted – by artists and composers of centuries past. In perhaps its most famous incarnation, the originally unnamed “little girl” of the story is morphed into Salome, another member of the extremely twisted Herodian family tree, whose very grown up dance at her step-father’s birthday party adds yet another layer of dysfunction to the tale in Richard Strauss’ opera.

John the Baptist was a larger-than-life character from before his birth. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus paying a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, John’s mother. Both women were pregnant at the time, and when they met face to face, John leapt in his mother’s womb, recognizing the Messiah in utero. The next time we see John, he’s wearing his wilderness prophet garb and eating his prophetic diet of locusts and honey. He fills the role of prophet well, calling the people of ancient Palestine to repent of their sins and undergo baptism as a sign of their cleansing. John attracted a fair number of followers as he preached, enough that Herod was worried about the group fomenting a rebellion, which would have gotten him in big trouble with his puppet masters, the Roman Empire. The first-century historian Josephus writes that this is probably why Herod ordered John’s execution.  

No matter whether Josephus’ account or Mark’s account of John’s death was true, it sets our 21st century teeth on edge to read about an innocent (not to mention righteous and holy) man assassinated for political reasons. As a prophet of Yahweh, however, John probably didn’t expect an easy life. The whole tradition of Hebrew prophets told of men and women called and empowered by God to raise their voices and speak God’s Word. And in nearly every case, there were powerful people who were threatened, angered, and upset by God’s Word.

This morning’s Old Testament reading is a case in point. The prophet Amos lived during the time of the Divided Kingdom – after the death of King Solomon, when Israel’s power and glory under King David were just a memory. Amos lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, but was called by God to prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam was the king in Israel, and he was not ruling the people in a way that honored Yahweh. Amos preached against Jeroboam, and against the people and priests of Israel. This irked the “priest-in-charge” in Israel, Amaziah, so he made up a story about Amos, that he was “conspiring against the king,” and took it to King Jeroboam. Then he turned his anger on Amos himself. I love Amos’ response. He basically says, “Look, no one in my family is a prophet. I’m not claiming to be a prophet. But God told me to prophesy, so I’m gonna prophesy!”  

Prophets were one of the ways that God sought to draw Israel back into their covenant relationship with him. And while the Old Testament prophets often spoke of God’s wrath and vengeance, they also described God’s love and tenderness for Israel, God’s yearning for them to be in right relationship with him once again. John the Baptist was a card-carrying member of the prophet’s union, and God had given him a very special Word to speak. John’s father Zechariah explained his job description like this: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” 

John took his job seriously, even preaching to King Herod himself. Overall, Herod was favorably impressed with the prophet, and considered him a righteous and holy man. The Galilean ruler fit well into the long line of rulers that did not rule God’s people according to God’s ways. He was fascinated by John’s preaching, but found it “perplexing,” as well. Perhaps he was drawn in by John’s directness and passion for the message he preached, but puzzled when it came to thinking of himself as someone who needed to repent. “He doesn’t mean me, does he?” When Herod returned from a visit to his half-brother with his half-brother’s wife, the Baptist’s message became pointedly personal: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herod’s new wife Herodias was neither fascinated nor perplexed. She was enraged and wanted to kill John. But Herod protected John, even though he had spoken directly against Herod in a way that could be very damaging to his image among the Jews. Maybe Herod was still on the fence – trying to decide if he would allow God’s Word, spoken by God’s prophet, to have authority in his life. 

Mark’s narrative about the death of John the Baptist purposely calls up the story of another prophet, the “Superman” of Jewish prophets, Elijah. Elijah also found himself in hot water with a temperamental queen, and many of Mark’s readers would recognize this allusion. If this morning’s gospel isn’t enough dysfunction for you, you can read the story of Elijah, King Ahab and Jezebel in I Kings when you get home. Jewish tradition held that Elijah was the forerunner of the Messiah – God’s chosen king who would rescue Israel from all her military and political enemies. In fact, earlier in Mark’s story, we learn that some people were saying that Jesus was Elijah. But by evoking this tradition in his story of John the Baptist’s death, Mark was signaling his readers that Jesus was the real deal -- the long-awaited Messiah. And in narrating John the Baptist’s imprisonment and execution by the political powers of the day, he also signaled what was in store for Jesus at the hands of those powers.

Mark also purposely places the story of John’s death in the midst of stories of Jesus’ growing ministry in Galilee, and by doing so, tells his readers something about the nature of God’s kingdom, and something about the nature of human kingdoms. Jesus’ ministry is itself a foreshadowing – an embodied and enacted prophecy of God’s reign. The contrast between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of God is a vivid one: In Mark 5, a woman turns to Jesus, is healed of her hemorrhage, and regains her place in community; a father, crazed with grief, watches in awe as Jesus restores his young daughter to him from her deathbed.  In the story of John’s death, a woman uses her daughter to manipulate the political power she needs to commit murder.  In chapter 6, Jesus gathers his working class disciples and sends them out to continue his work of healing and anointing the sick and casting out demons. He instructs them to take no provisions of food, money, or even a change of clothes, instead relying on God’s provision. In the palace, Herod gathers the wealthy and powerful, seeking their support to prop up his tenuous rule, currying favor with an invitation to witness the riches and splendor of his rule. When the disciples return from their mission, Jesus tries to take them away for a quiet retreat, but ends up instead hosting a picnic for several thousand of Galilee’s least and poorest and powerless. He gives thanks for the simple meal, breaks the bread and fish, and feeds everyone there, nourishing their bodies and spirits. In the palace, the celebration banquet features tables groaning with savory dishes and cups overflowing with wine, and for dessert, a platter bearing revenge, corruption, and death.

Thus ends the larger-than-life life of John the Baptist. The call of God to speak God’s Word of righteousness and repentance upset the balance of power in John’s world. John did not seek out conflict, did not measure his faithfulness by how many people he had offended. Neither did he shrink from speaking truth to power when the Spirit led him to do so. The call to prophesy is a tricky thing, and often involves telling people and institutions things they don’t want to hear. But underlying this difficult speech is the impulse behind it – God’s desire to draw humanity into right relationship.

This week the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis raised a prophetic voice, speaking God’s radical Word of inclusive love into a society of division and incivility and fear. I was following a couple of Convention blogs, and read some “blowback” by one Episcopalian which was probably echoed by more: “That’s just what we need to draw young families into our churches. I can’t wait to get home and throw the doors open and wait for the crowds to arrive.” One way we could understand this response and responses like it is that it’s a response like Herodias’ when the Word of God threatened her status quo. A response of fear and anger. Prophetic speech and actions almost always get blowback, and it’s unpleasant and hurtful and sometimes even hostile.

In the face of this reality, let us remember that God calls prophets to speak God’s Word to prepare the Way for the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Each person who hears the Word must wrestle with how much authority they will allow it to have in their life.

Now I invite you to join me in a reading from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 93. As we read these words that link us to John the Baptist, think about the prophets God has raised up in your life, and give thanks. We’ll begin with the words, “You, my child.”

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, * 
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, 
To give his people knowledge of salvation * 
    by the forgiveness of their sins. 
In the tender compassion of our God * 
    the dawn from on high shall break upon us, 
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the 
                               shadow of death, * 
    and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

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