Posted by: smstrouse | July 15, 2018

Bring Me the Head of John the Baptist!

head-of-st-john-the-baptist-1600-1650-cleveland-museum_of_art-300x194A SERMON FOR JULY 15, 2018

It’s not the kind of thing you want to think about on a beautiful summer day. But the beheading of John the Baptizer shows up today as our appointed reading – so here we are. I was tempted to make a switch, to substitute another gospel story. Maybe a nice miracle, like turning water into wine. Or how’s this for a summer’s day: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  Tempting, indeed.

But that gory image of the head of John the Baptizer on a platter wouldn’t go away. There was something strange about those sixteen verses in Mark 6:14-29, something puzzling. Now I love solving puzzles, so I started looking more closely. But the more I looked, the more curious it became. Here’s the thing: Mark’s gospel is the shortest one of the four. You could say that it’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the Jesus story. There’s no unnecessary information, no extra details. It would be up to Matthew and Luke to later add their own material to this bare-bones account.

So what’s up with sixteen whole verses about the beheading of John? Notice that Jesus isn’t even mentioned, nor is there anything about the message Jesus had been preaching and teaching about – the realm of God. But if we’ve learned one thing about the gospel writers, it’s they crafted their accounts with intentionality and purpose. So the puzzle here is why this gruesome story pops up now – just about midway through the public ministry of Jesus, just after he has sent out the disciples to carry on the work.  What’s going on here? What’s Mark trying to tell us?

The picture that began to emerge was a study in contrasts. Up to this point, Mark is all about the realm of God, which meant the liberation and welfare of the people in the here and now, which Jesus was proclaiming now to be in effect. But suddenly the image shifts like one of those optical illusions and now what we’re seeing in these sixteen verses is the reality of empire, of the brutality of the Roman occupation. Taken alone, this picture looks like very bad news: empire trumps gospel. But then, immediately following this passage, the picture shifts again and Mark gets us back to the realm of God with the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Very curious.

I’ll be honest; this story really spoke to me this week. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling lately to process all the bad news from our own version of empire. There’s even a word for it: outrage fatigue syndrome. Day in and day out, the nefari-ousness just keeps coming, so fast that there’s no time to absorb one disaster before we’re confronted with another. The heady enthusiasm and hopefulness after the Women’s March in 2017 and vows to join the resistance have turned to weariness –sometimes even despair. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel it; I hear people talking about it all the time.

So, in a powerful way, the story of John’s death is a reality check. It reminds us that going up against empire is not quick and easy, it’s dangerous, and it’s soul-wearying. When we tell the story of Jesus, we often forget that his story is set smack-dab in the middle of Roman occupation. But everything that Jesus said and did has to be under-stood in the context of Roman imperial order and resistance to it. Jesus consistently contrasted what life is like when we live in the realm of God with what life is like under imperial rule. And of course, he was killed by imperial power.

However, we know that his execution was not the end of the story. So, while Mark gives us a heavy dose of reality today, we know that there’s still good news to be found. For us, as we live in our own version of imperial rule, the question then becomes: how do we live faithfully, according to God’s realm, without succumbing to outrage fatigue syndrome?

As I thought about all this, I remembered that I wrote several blog posts last year at the beginning of the current administration and looked back to see if any of it still made sense. And I rediscovered the book I read on my way to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. It’s called Spiritual DefianceBuilding a Beloved Community of Resistance by Robin Meyers. It actually came out in 2015, which reminds us that the “empire” we are called to resist is not limited to the current regime. The realm of God is always at odds with the powers-that-be and the church should return to its roots as a community of resistance.

This is what he says about being a community of resistance: by resistance I mean that the church of Jesus Christ should be, as it once was, an “embodied force opposed,” a beloved community of defiance, a joyful but resilient colony of dissenters from the forces death (both physical and spiritual) that destroy and marginalize creation. The assumed premise here is that compliance with the unacceptable, even through apathy or indifference, is a sin. The body of Christ was born to resist in love all that is the enemy of love.

I think I can safely say that St. Francis, as well as many other congregations, have indeed been beloved communities of defiance. We don’t need to be convinced to join the resistance. What we do need is encouragement for the struggle, for those times – like the beheading of John was in Jesus’ day – when it seems like the powers of death are winning. We need to be able to see the big picture of the gospel and know that ultimately, love wins.

So here’s what I had to say back in March of 2017 –with some updated commentary:

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that our resistance against the dismantling of our democracy is going to be a long haul. I hate to use war imagery, but it seems appropriate to say that we’re waging a war with innumerable fronts: health care, the environment, the rights of women, immigrants and refugees, transgender people, Black people, Muslim people, scientists, etc., etc., etc.  (little did we know then the extent of attacks on all these fronts).

My email inbox overflows with petitions, calls for letter-writing and phone-calling – and of course, requests for donations. I’m approaching burn-out. And from what I hear from others, I’m not an isolated case. (and this was over a year ago!) So here’s the thing, members of the resistance: we have to develop a strategy for the long haul. I’ve been giving this some thought, and here’s what I’ve come up with for both my own activism and my own sanity.

1. Choose your battles. It will be impossible to sustain energy for every one of the fronts under attack by the current regime. I suggest picking one, two, or three (however many you have the ability to make an impact) and put your efforts into those. I find that I am most passionate about women’s issues and countering Islamaphobia. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about all the other despicable actions being taken in other areas. I’ll join in resisting those as I’m able. But my main focus will be in my two primary choices. This also means that I’m going to have to trust that people of good will are stepping up and putting their effort into the areas they’re most passionate about. And I will give them my full endorsement and encouragement We are truly all in this together.

(What I find helpful these days is seeking out stories of people and organizations who are doing really good and important work. Like RAICES, an organization working to reunite children and parents separated at the border. Like The Religious Institute, helping people of faith express their support for the health care provided by Planned Parenthood. Like the United Religions Initiative, which seeks to bridge differences between people of all beliefs, to create community, and to solve local and global challenges. There are many, many people and groups doing amazing things. It’s a valuable spiritual practice to seek out their stories and to consciously express gratitude for the hard work they’re doing day in and day out.

2. Find your community. The resistance can’t be waged solely on an individual basis. Collaboration is the name of the game. Not only is it more effective in getting things done, it’s also better for morale to be among those working for the same goals. As Robert Fulghum wrote inAll I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

(I’m reminded of last week’s gospel when Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs. I imagine them encouraging each other on the way. When one became discouraged, the other could give emotional support. When they had an exciting encounter, they could share the exhilaration together. Now, church can – should – fulfil that function. The sad irony today is that so many people are rejecting the church, yet are searching desperately for community, a place to be accepted, supported, and encouraged.)

3. Be positive. I know, this is a hard one. But Michelle Obama had it right: “When they go low, we go high.” We need to keep our language civil and stop hurling epithets at those with whom we disagree. As a Christian, I need to continually remind myself of the belovedness of each and every person in the eyes of God. That doesn’t mean I have to condone their behavior. But if I truly believe that the presence of divinity in each person means that there is always the possibility of transformation, then I must include even He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

(I know there’s been controversy about this lately, brought on by a restaurant’s request for a member of the administration to leave, and other recent incidents. I think there’s a wonderful opportunity here for us in the church to have a conversation about how to do civil disobedience and civil resistance. It can be done).

4. Rely on your spiritual practice. This might be Sunday worship. It might be your own private prayer or meditation. It might also be getting out into nature, immersing yourself in writing, music or art. This isn’t an escape from the world; it’s part of how we are called to be in the world.  

Take the example of Vedran Smailović. During the brutal four-year siege of Sarajevo SarajevoCellist_VedranSmailovicin the 90s during the Bosnian War, Smailović, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, came to the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace where a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food. For twenty-two days, in the midst of bombed out buildings and often under the threat of snipers, he played. I can’t think of a more powerful expression of prayer. His example is a reminder to me of the power of beauty and wonder in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.

So whatever gets you in touch with something bigger than yourself and inspires your soul – do it. It will be the fuel that will fire your imagination and energize your resistance. We don’t have the luxury of burning out.

The beheading of John the Baptizer did not end the Jesus movement. Neither did the crucifixion of Jesus himself. The gospel lifts us up when we are tired. The realm of God sustains us in the struggle. Our congregations can be communities of resistance which will keep the fire of liberation and freedom burning.



Mark 6:14-29
Meanwhile, Herod, the ruler of Judea, had heard about Jesus, whose reputation had become widespread. Some people were saying, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead, and that is why such miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Others said, “He is Elijah.” And others: “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”When Herod heard of Jesus, he exclaimed, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen from the dead.”

Now it was Herod who had ordered John arrested, chained and imprisoned on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom Herod had married.For John had told Herod, “It is against the Law for you to have your brother’s wife.”
As for Herodias, she was furious with John and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be good and holy, and kept him in custody. When Herod heard John speak, he was very much disturbed; yet he was moved by John’s words.

Herodias had her chance one day when Herod on his birthday held a dinner for the court circle, military officers and leaders of Galilee.When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, this delighted Herod and the guests so much that he told the young woman, “Ask me anything you like and I will give it to you.”And Herod swore an oath, “I will give you anything you ask, even half of my entire realm.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

Herodias replied, “The head of John the Baptizer.”
The woman hurried back to Herod and made her request, “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.”

Herod was deeply distressed by this request, but remembering the oath he swore before, he was reluctant to break his oath to her. So Herod immediately sent one of the guards with orders to bring John’s head. The guard beheaded john in prison, then brought the head on a platter and gave it to the young woman, who gave it to her mother.When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and took the body away and laid it in a tomb.







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