Sermon, 7/11/21: A Downer becomes our Challenge!

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7 Pentecost

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

With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will… Ephesians 1:9

As I have remarked on several occasions, so do I repeat here: The writer of the Gospel according to Mark is a great storyteller.  Clearly, the ultimate goal of Mark is to record for his readers the events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but with Mark there is no linear progression, no straight timeline that can be followed.  On occasion, Mark seems to interject a story into the main narrative, which would, on the surface, seem to have little or no bearing on the central story.  That would seem certainly to be the case in the gospel appointed for today, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. 

In literature, we often use the term “back story,” in order to clarify the inclusion of something that happened prior to the current time in the main story itself, perhaps even something concurrent to the main dialogue, but unknown to the protagonist, but which is essential, in order that the reader may all the better come to understand the central narrative.  In literature when that happens, we propose also that the author uses the insert as a means of creating a sense of the passing of time, or to digest what has just been said.  I save you from the literary terminology that explains all this.

So, right in the middle of the dramatic story of Jesus being rejected by his own family, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the story of a leader of the synagogue in Jerusalem who seeks Jesus’ healing powers for his daughter, in the middle of that riveting tale, another story, that of the women who touches the garment of Jesus, right in the middle of the story about the disciples who were sent out two by two to heal the sick and their return to give him a report of their success so far—in the middle of informing us about the heady ministry of the Nazarene, Mark inserts this story about the beheading of John the Baptist.  Now for those of us in 2021 who long for something, anything that is positive after the long months of isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic and now hearing of an equally dangerous variant, what do we hear?  We read of the beheading of John the Baptist.  That insertion is, in [modern] vernacular, a downer!

John the Baptist, at least according to Mark, had long before been assassinated, killed without trial, merely at the whim of Herod the king.  Herod could and he did, in order to keep his word to his wife via their daughter.  But, I repeat.  That coldhearted, ruthless execution had already taken place before Jesus set out on his own ministry.  In fact, it was John’s beheading that prompted the urgency in Jesus.  I am certain that the writer of Mark’s gospel saw the direct tie to that rejection and the commissioning of the disciples, and therefore inserted it in at this point of the narrative.  Agreeing with Mark, I, too, read this insertion as essential to understanding the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, for this insertion has bearing on who we are as people of faith under the banner of Christ.

We are stuck with a story, which on the surface would appear out of place.  Learned theologians have insisted that the story of John’s beheading is the precursor, a preview of Jesus’ own crucifixion, when an innocent man would be put to death.  Good! But may I suggest that this is an essential story, because it raises for us in 2021 a challenging question: Do we really mean it when we say, we want to live the life of Christ?  The neighboring question to that question is articulated by changing a simple two-letter preposition, from O F to I N, namely “what does it mean when we say, we want to live a life in Christ?  Is this a meaningful testimonial which we are willing to make and to carry out?

What moves you to remain a Christian when, as it often appears, everything seems to challenge your faith?   Seeking an answer to this question is what drives us in our daily lives and what brings us back each week to this holy place.   Even during our lockdown, or lockout, I suspect that we visualized being here, in this space, as we said our prayers privately, in the confines of our homes, seeking still an answer to the question, how far we are willing to go to fulfill the testimony “I wish to live a life IN Christ.”

At least, I did!  And why?  Because we recognize that the world around us is constantly shifting and does not fulfill that inner longing to be one with the universe and our fellow beings, and because if we are to be truly Christians, we must examine continuously who we are and how we should respond appropriately to the shift.  What better place to reflect on a life IN Christ, than on holy ground and remembering why we celebrate Mass, the Eucharist, the Last Supper, Holy Communion?

The story that we have in the beheading of John the Baptizer lays out an extreme example of rejection.  We know, do we not, that non-physical assault can have a similar deafening and deadening effect, as we seek to live out the Good News in Christ, as we participate in God’s promise made at Creation.  Is it not our life in Christ which encourages us to speak truth to power, as did John the Baptist, even knowing what his fate was?  Is it not our life in Christ which encourages us to address wrongs done our fellow travelers in The Way, as did Jesus of Nazareth and knowing what his agony and pain he endured?  You see, you and I have access to the back story.  Still our faith pushes us onward.

If we were fearlessly honest about “life IN Christ” and in the church, motivation and courage to confront the Herods of our day would emerge unexpectedly and we would be the richer and more fulfilled.  We cannot predict the exact time, for neither for us is life linear.  But, girded by our faith, we place one step in front of the other, while holding our heads high.  And as we go, we begin to discern what living a “life in Christ” demands in our own individual instance.

It is highly unlikely that Paul knew John the Baptist personally.  Nothing in our Book of Records points to that possibility.  Indeed, elsewhere Paul, formerly Saul, confesses and laments that he did not have the privilege, as did the original twelve apostles, to have known Jesus personally.  Still, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians speaks to that which led to the rejection that Jesus himself experienced, that which caused John the Baptist to be killed while in police custody, and which caused Jesus to caution his disciples to be wary of those who would refuse to receive them in his name.  Being a member of time, so taught Jesus of Nazareth, could, and probably would, cause rejection. 

Lacking was the basic sense of belonging to someone and something beyond ones self, of belonging the broader human family.  God, so writes Paul to the church at Ephesus, regardless of our social origin or status, or our tribal affiliation, because of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, offers us membership in a family, gives us a name, and assures us of an inheritance that is irrevocable.  There are no privileges in this family, no deferential treatment based on order of birth, into which we of faith are adopted.  There is no eldest child; no one receives a greater or lesser inheritance.  Conversely, through the indwelling Spirit of God, to use a phrase from our older Prayer Book, if I am to live a life in Christ, I recognize and cherish to be sure my own uniqueness, but so must I acknowledge and cherish the uniqueness of every other adoptee in the family of God.

God restores our standing among fellow humans, even when some would designate us as fringe elements and not holding membership in a select group, would make us cringe on the outer edge and not dare to dream of touching the garment of the One who makes all things new.  Belonging to God’s family, even when, like the people in Jesus’ hometown, we question his intentions for us, we are restored to wholeness.  Belonging to God’s family means accepting into God’s family those people and members of other tribes who make us angry or anxious or frightened, whose behavior irritate us to no end.  As adoptees, we receive traveling papers, a passport as it were, into a whole new world of unlimited possibility and excitement.

This promise of inclusion by adoption into the family of God delights me.  If in the end, God lays claim to all people, God then assuredly wants to claim me and hold me forever fast in love.  This is comforting: it makes me feel wanted, chosen and valued.  This reassures me that the risk of being a Christian is not without reward or benefit.  God’s will for us is to live our true selves, for each of us is uniquely made and each of us is made in the image of God, if we accept the testimony of the Book of Records.  This is an extravagant and generous promise.

Even in the unnerving tale of John the Baptist then, we see the mystery of God’s consuming love for us.  The story is not a downer!  For we learn that being Christian, living a life in Christ, if taken seriously, is not always a comfortable place to be.  But we have assurance that God the Creator does not cease to reshape the creation; that God the Redeemer comes, again and again, to heal all things broken by our clumsy, sometimes cruel human ways; and that God the Holy Spirit shows and supports us in our communal longing for God: creation, renewal, and connection.  And so it is, that we come each week to receive the Holy Sacrament which reminds us of that promise.  Amen.