The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
Tomorrow, dear friends, I begin my sabbatical – 3 ½ months of rest and renewal as I spend time with family and friends, time in wilderness and in the city, and time in solitude and prayer. I have been ordained a priest for 21 years, and this is the first time I have taken such a break. I am eager for some time to step back and renew myself with the big picture, to think and pray on how we are living our lives as individual people of faith, and as a community of faith. At very least I hope to come back to you in November rested and with new energy – but I hope also with new perspective and a better sense of proportion. Maybe you’ve heard that saying that goes, Don’t sweat the small stuff – and it’s all small stuff. I need some time off to understand what that really means. If I could wave a wand and grant every one of you this same time for rest and refreshment, I would. I hope and pray that somehow in this summertime, you find some of that. I think we’re all needing it this year.
I scheduled myself to preach today so I could offer you my wise parting words – which is ridiculous, because I’m so tired and crispy that I don’t have much wisdom left. Talk to me in November, hopefully. And maybe it’s God’s weird sense of humor that the gospel on my last Sunday with you is the story of John the Baptist’s beheading – a story I have always found overly sensational and distracting. In 21 years of priesthood, I have never once preached on it – I managed to avoid it. And yet here it is. One thing I suppose you could say: that Herod really needs a sabbatical. His priorities are clearly out of whack.
John’s death is referred to in all of the gospels as happening before Jesus’ crucifixion – in large part as a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus writes of John’s death also, saying, ‘Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.’ (Jewish Antiquities, Book 18, Chapter 5:2).
Seems reasonable enough as a political act of despotic power. Get rid of this guy before he causes any more trouble. It echoes what will happen to Jesus in due time. So why in two of our gospels is the story told with all this added baroque detail, the lurid scene of the dancing girl and her scheming, adulterous mother, and John’s head on a platter? Mark’s gospel really paints it up, complete with the inner feelings and motivations of both Herod and Herodias – all the more notable because in general, Mark doesn’t go for details. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and his favorite word as the narrative speeds along seems to be ‘immediately.’ Jesus does a lot of things ‘immediately’ in Mark, without a lot of inner thoughts and details.
But Mark does go into detail in one other part of his gospel: the passion and death of Jesus. The quick pace slows way down towards the end, as we see Jesus betrayed and arrested, and put on trial before a bored Pontius Pilate, who sees no reason to crucify Jesus but does so in order to appease the crowd. John the Baptist’s story is similar: arrested for stirring up the crowds, but killed by the bored King Herod simply to appease his wife.
The details and the characters in both stories bring out how meaningless these deaths are, how power is abused by the lofty for their own ends, how what matters to Herod and Pilate is ultimately just protecting their own status and position. What clearly doesn’t matter in the story are the lives of those in their power. Herod doesn’t care about John’s life, the full human beloved child of God that is John. John is disposable, a nuisance, an award passed around among rich depraved people. Mark’s hearers would have heard the same storyline applying to Jesus. A nothing, a nobody, a gadfly irritation disposed of like any other common criminal. But Jesus’ storyline doesn’t end there. Jesus is raised in three days. The God-filled person, Jesus the incarnation, does not come to an end in the courts of the wealthy and powerful, even if they disregard God. Life is greater than the powers of this world. Despite the worst we see every day, there is a deeper truth at work than salacious news and the machinations of the rich.
During my sabbatical I am planning to do some reading and thinking about the concept of Sabbath, the practice of setting time aside to rest, be with family, reconnect with God. One of my colleagues, Ryan Bonfiglio, offered a forum here a few months ago to talk about what a sabbatical is, and what the commandment to observe Sabbath might be about. I’ve been talking to him further since then, and now have a tidy stack of intriguing books lined up to read over the course of the next few months. One of the most compelling things Ryan pointed me to is the idea that Sabbath can be a form of resistance. The world values work and more work, telling us that we find our meaning in what we can accomplish and produce. If we’re busy, it shows we’re important. If we’re idle, it means we’re of no use, marginal. To intentionally stop working for a time and be idle, produce nothing, can be a statement: we are more than what we produce. Our meaning is found in being God’s children – not in the things we get done or wealth that we generate. Furthermore, the commandment to observe the Sabbath also tells us to give that same rest and realignment to others who depend on us – servants, animals, foreigners living in our midst, in the biblical terms; today, we might say employees, service workers, children, neighbors, and so on. The right to take rest is not just for the privileged few; it’s for everyone, and it’s our responsibility to make sure everyone has that opportunity. We are commanded to do it because we’re made in the image of God, and God takes that rest, and because God freed us from slavery to Pharaoh and all the forces of this world that say we are only as good as what we produce. It’s our responsibility to make sure everyone is treated first of all as a child of God. No one is disposable.
It’s certainly not the treatment John the Baptist gets, or Jesus. And it’s not what most of us are used to either, I dare say. We aren’t often known and loved for who God created us to be; usually we’re all in too much of a hurry living our lives ‘immediately’ to know and love others this way. But the implications of living differently are enormous. ‘Resistance’ only begins to get at what it would look like to live this out fully.
Yet this is what we say we believe. Every Sunday we recite together the creed, our statement of faith, which begins with the assertion that God created everything, seen and unseen. Everything, including us. Did God create us just to spin our lives away in productivity? Did God create others just to use for our own devices? Or aren’t we all of us meant for more? I think we know the answer to these questions. So what will we do with it?
I’m not promising I’ll be back in November with it all figured out. Nor will you return from your vacation time with that either. But I pray that something in our hearts and spirits is able to be nourished during this time, to grow a little bit and to change a little bit of how we live. Or as our opening collect today says, that we will know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. May we be part of the resurrection – part of God’s work bringing life to this world. Amen.