Jay’s sermon from July 12 on John and Bree and other prophets

Mark 6:14-29

[Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits…They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.] King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Early on a Saturday morning, two weeks ago, a woman named Bree Newsome, carrying climbing gear and astonishing courage, arrived at the South Carolina State Capitol grounds, scaled the flagpole, and detached the Confederate flag that has flown there for half a century, a symbol of oppression for many US citizens. Police arrived during the action, and when she descended she was, as expected, arrested, charged with defacing a monument, and booked into jail. But when Bree Newsome walked away from that capitol flagpole in handcuffs, she did so calmly and with a smile, and she quoted Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”

This morning, two weeks later, I want to express my deep gratitude for this prophet, Bree Newsome. I am grateful for the urgency she conveys about our need for a “new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” I am grateful for the way she has, as Rev. William Barber has put it, arrested and imprisoned my conscience and for standing in a long line of courageous people of God called to similar prophetic action: “The Hebrew midwives who stood up to Pharoah; Jeremiah who put on an iron yoke in defiance of a king and unfit practices; Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks” and so many others even into our own time in history. And I am deeply grateful for the way she offers me such a powerful reminder of the alternative that a life of faith offers: where community takes precedence over divisive competition, abundance over scarcity, peace over injustice, love over hate, and freedom over every form of fear.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” Bree Newsome, as a black woman in the United States, along with so many of her family and friends, has countless reasons to be afraid, especially lately. Will they be safe in their church? Will they be safe when stopped by a police officer on the road or swimming in a pool or gathering in a public place? Will they have real opportunities for education and meaningful work without encountering either the subtle or overt threats so often directed toward people who are not white? And yet she said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”

Bree Newsome has no responsibility to teach me or anyone else these important lessons about faith and courage in the face of such overwhelming cause for fear. But in her freedom she taught us. And I am grateful.

I want to hold on to this gratitude because I know that it is not easy to remain grateful for God’s prophets. While they invite us into world of abundance and freedom, they also call us to repent. That is, they ask us to leave behind something that we have become comfortable with and attached to. The taking down of the flag in South Carolina forces me to reexamine matters closer to home: from the names we give to streets and lakes to the artwork in our own state capitol that is offensive to our Native neighbors, to all of the small and large advantages I personally receive due to my race—every day of my life. Prophets call us to reexamine, evaluate, and in fact, to put to death old systems and ways of life. And when that cuts too close, we tend to stop listening, or worse, we stop the prophet from speaking.

The Gospel story today of the execution of John the Baptist warns us of this reality. It would be easy to distance ourselves from it. What do we have in common with Herod, after all? He and his family were completely bound up with unjust death in the minds of First Century Gospel readers. His father, the Herod of the Christmas story, demonstrated such preoccupation with preserving his own power and domination over others that it drove him to slaughter innocents and even to murder his own family members, causing it to be said of him, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and this Herod was similarly dangerous.

The specific complaint at issue for John the Baptist had to do with Herod’s marriage. Now, I remember a few years ago when this passage came up I brought into the pulpit a genogram of Herod’s family tree to try to explain all the complicated relationships of murder, adultery, and incest, and how it came to be that Herod married someone who was both his niece and sister-in-law. I won’t go into all those details now. But understand that there was good reason for John’s public criticism of Herod and his wife, Herodias. There was a situation that they could not deny but preferred to keep hidden.

So maybe there is something we can identify with in Herod. Who of us cannot think of at least one truth about ourselves or our place in the world that we would rather just keep quiet? And then there’s that line in the Gospel that keeps jumping out at me: “When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

Now, who knows what was going on in Herod’s mind? Maybe it was just that he respected John’s popularity and said nice things about him once in a while simply to avoid an uprising. But maybe there was more, too. Maybe there was something in John’s vision of repentance, truth-telling, and starting again together in beloved community that appealed to something deep down in Herod’s gut. Maybe Herod was perplexed because he just couldn’t wrap his mind around what John was saying, having never been taught anything like this before in his life. But he was drawn to it. He liked the vision.

If only Herod had more courage. If only Herod had allowed himself to abandon the mindset of scarcity and dominance that he had always known and instead followed John’s vision. If only Herod had put to death his own fear instead of the prophet. But tragically, he could not find that courage. One night, while hosting a party with VIP guests, he was entertained by a special dance performance. They were all impressed by the dance. Then, since Herod had been taught to be politically shrewd, he seized this opportunity to demonstrate, in front of all the banquet guests, the power and wealth at his command, and he promised the dancer anything she wished for. After consulting with Herodias, the probably very young dancer asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. She was asking for a death. And it was no ordinary death but a death that would have ended John the Baptist’s ministry in great shame, discrediting everything he had stood for, burying his message.

What could Herod do? He had boasted about his ability to provide the young dancer anything she wanted. Well, she had made a request, and now it was time to pay up or suffer another even greater public humiliation. For someone like Herod, showing any vulnerability was probably worse than death. The girl’s wish was granted.

I read this story not as just about a particular prophet’s death but about pervasive, persistent systems of death: an imperial hierarchy that always feels threatened and needs to keep people under control, a culture of honor and shame that leaves little room for repentance.

Against those powerful systems, John the Baptist was one of many prophets called by God and courageous enough to speak up. He spoke truth to power. He pointed out the wrongdoing of Galilee’s leader, and he pointed to a third way out of the kind of dilemmas in which people like Herod found themselves—a way of repentance and forgiveness. But the powers that be of all times and places do not respond well to repentance, so John’s preaching came at great personal cost.

Of course, John did not preach only to leaders with great earthly power. He called everyone out to the river for a baptism of repentance. He recognized that no one is entirely free of the systems of sin and death that exist in our world. If we’re going to be prophetic as a congregation, as our mission statements calls us to be, we need to take a look at ourselves, too. We can recognize that we also get caught up in complicated situations where it is difficult to do and even know the right thing, despite our best intentions. Herod’s dilemma of trying to balance the expectations of others and preserving his own reputation and ego can be our dilemma, too. Herod’s reluctance to turn from past ways is not at all unique. We face these realities all the time.

And sometimes it seems that nothing will ever change. Good intentions go bad.  Might prevails over the right. The prophet’s head gets served up on a platter. Read on its own, this passage might lead us to despair.

But, thank God, the Good Friday kind of stories are never the last word. This is not the end of the story. It’s not even the end of chapter 6 in Mark’s Gospel. In fact, right after this, immediately after the burying of John’s body, Jesus said to disciples, “Come away with me to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They were busy with their good work of teaching and healing, and Jesus saw that they had no leisure even to eat. So they went out by the sea. And a crowd gathered there with them. And in that place—away from the city, away from the influence of the Roman Empire, far away from the horrible meal served at King Herod’s palace, there Jesus offered a much different kind of meal. Unlike the royalty at Herod’s table, his feast had a place for everyone, no matter what burdens they carried. Unlike the guests at Herod’s table, his guests brought very little by way of material wealth and possessions. But they all shared an abundance—bread and fish to satisfy their needs with baskets leftover to share with others. Unlike Herod’s banquet of death, the guests at this meal with Jesus feasted on the bread of new life.

There may be times in our lives when it seems that we have come to the end of the story, when fear and all its deathly powers appear to have gotten the last word. But God’s love is faithful. God’s mercy endures forever. And God offers us always, again and again, a new invitation to leave behind the old and to join in a feast of life. “Come away with me and rest a while.” Nourished by this meal, then, we can proclaim still another verse of that Psalm 27:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of God

   in the land of the living.

Thanks be to God.

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