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7th Sunday after Pentecost - July 11, 2021




I will confess that I had a pretty good pun—maybe two pretty good puns—with which to begin this sermon. I found I could not crack a joke and then talk about an execution. Go figure. So instead, I am going to discuss the gospel reading before turning to issues raised by that passage that particularly concern me. I hope you will struggle with those issues too.


While Herod is called a king in Mark’s gospel, he actually never carried the title of king. He was a tetrarch, the ruler of a quarter of the kingdom his father, Herod the Great, an actual king, had ruled. Like most rulers, the younger Herod worried about his legitimacy. To begin with, he was not the first choice for the job. It was only after three other sons of Herod the Great were executed that his father allowed Herod to inherit any portion of the kingdom. Herod threatened his own legitimacy by divorcing his first wife to marry his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist’s criticism was not the only problem with this marriage. Herodias was also Herod’s niece, so the relationship was incestuous. Little wonder Herodias was a bit sensitive about criticism from a religious figure as popular as John.


The story of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist appears as a flashback in Mark’s story. Herod feared John, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man.” Although he had imprisoned John on his wife’s account, Herod had protected John from his wife. Herod even liked to listen to John. Herod nonetheless executed John for the most arbitrary of reasons: a rash oath Herod swore to his daughter. Herod’s pride kept him from breaking that oath, even if a man dedicated to God would die as a result.


In the Gospel, the execution of John the Baptist foreshadows the execution Jesus will suffer later. For John, death came from the capricious whim of a minor ruler. For Jesus, death would result from a conspiracy of the chief priests, elders, and scribes, aided by Pilate’s concern about the mob. Both deaths were sudden and unjust. Both arose when the powerful were threatened by calls for repentance, calls for a change in how people live in relationship with their God and with each other.


Does Mark’s story of John the Baptist’s execution have more to offer us than a history lesson and a literary device? From it, what can we learn about our relationships with God and with our neighbors? How can this story help us live more faithfully and genuinely as followers of Christ?


For me, the most important part of the story goes undescribed. It is the part where John the Baptist realizes he is going to be killed without trial, without fanfare or ceremony, without dignity. I wonder if the soldier told John why he had to die. I wonder if the soldier, being in a hurry to comply with Herod’s order, gave John a moment to prepare himself. I wonder if John had anticipated or even expected this moment or if he was surprised, having been confident that God would rescue him from his confinement. Did John cry out to the Lord with his last words? Did he blame God? Did he accept his fate as God’s will? Did he even think of God in that terrible moment?


Sadly, our world’s history and our present are full of these moments: violent purges, ethnic cleansing, elimination of witnesses, political or religious killings, just to name a few. The deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus show those faithful to God are not shielded from this violence. They are likely among the most vulnerable.


Not all these moments arise due to violence. Similar ones exist when buildings collapse, deadly diseases spread, and storms rage. People are lost, trapped, or adrift, beyond the help of family, friends, and strangers, facing injury or death alone.


Not all such moments are so sudden or dramatic. Drought, famine, and environmental destruction seal the fate of many. A cancer diagnosis can be a death sentence with the wait expressed in years, months, or days. Hope slips away as a person needing a transplant waits for a new kidney, liver, lung, or heart. This last year we saw how few COVID patients survived once incubated, traumatizing health-care workers and families who realized the futility of that last-ditch effort to save the lives of the sick. For all of us, we know that our time in this life is finite.


In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” As adopted children of God, we do what children do in moments of crisis: we cry out to our parent for help. Although I went to an Episcopalian elementary school, a Quaker middle school, and an Episcopalian high school, I skipped going to church for most of my years after high school until I came to St. Andrew’s. I was young, and they were mostly fun years. There were times I went to church, but never consistently—except in February 1987. For that month, in a rare desire to accommodate my wishes, the Army sent me to Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia. There I learned the little I needed to know about jumping from an airplane and the lot I needed to know about landing on the ground. I kept my head shaved and my boots spit-shined to try to escape the attention of the black hats, the sergeants who were our instructors. Their mission was to train us, keep us alive, and eliminate from the course all those not physically or mentally tough enough. I desperately wanted to be tough enough.


I never missed a Sunday church service that month. In the last week, I successfully completed my jumps and got the parachutist’s wings I coveted. Certified as tough enough with those wings on my uniform for all to see, I let God fade into my background. Fortunately, God does not let me decide where he will be.

Our cries are not limited to our own moments of crisis. We remember we have a God when those we love are in danger or suffering. We appeal to that God to rescue them, to “drive away all sickness of body and spirit,” to bring them back to us as they once were. We pray to God, the God who can do all things, for a miracle. We even will try to bargain with him, making solemn promises in exchange for God’s almighty deliverance.


Whether our prayers are for us or for others, we look to God to make it right, to spare us pain. But our experience, like the experience of John the Baptist, is that God does not always intervene to spare us. Our loved ones hurt. Our loved ones die. We suffer.


We then may look at God in anger or frustration. We are not unique. I strongly recommend reading the psalms when you are not feeling appreciative about what God has done for you. The psalms reveal a range of emotions, some of which we do not expect from the bible, including expressions of despair and anger. The honesty of the psalmist’s words to God is refreshing. In one of his protests, the psalmist wrote:


I prayed with my whole heart,


as one would for a friend or a brother;


I behaved like one who mourns for his mother,


bowed down and grieving.


* * *


O Lord, how long will you look on?


rescue me from the roaring beasts,


and my life from the young lions.


***


Awake, arise, to my cause!


to my defense, my God and my Lord!


But if God is not a miracle-worker for us, if he is not going to reward the faithful with a pain-free life, what is our relationship with God? For me, that relationship starts with an awareness of the love God has shown us, beginning with our very creation, the miracles that are our lives and that is this complex and beautiful world. Whatever life throws at us, we respond to this love by being faithful to God and by loving one another. God gives us this relationship in which we know that God is always with us, through the wonderful days but also into the valley of the shadow of death. Like the psalmist, we can rejoice with God, but like the psalmist we can also share our anger and our fears with him. Through it all, God is our companion.


We don’t know the final minutes of John the Baptist’s life. We don’t know if he struggled, cursed, cried, or prayed. Maybe he didn’t have time to do anything. But I think John never would have lived the life he did if he had not known that God was walking with him throughout his life, even at the last, terrible end of it. And looking at it from that perspective, what happened at that end was of little importance in light of how John had lived his life with God. Those last moments did not define John the Baptist and did not limit his relationship with his God.


In all ways, there is no better example for us than that of Jesus, including how he modeled a relationship with God when life is at its bleakest. On the night of his arrest, he shared with Peter, James, and John that his soul was overwhelmed to the point of death. Jesus spoke honestly to the Father:

Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.

As with all that Jesus modeled, this prayer challenges us. We are more inclined to beg like the psalmist, “God, hurry up and fix things,” than accept whatever happens to us. But how would we be different, how would we be healthier for ourselves and healthier for those around us, if we both asked for God to heal and asked God to help us accept whatever happens—healing or no?


Our relationship with God serves as a model for how we should treat our neighbors, those whom we encounter in our lives’ journeys. For those neighbors, we can be their companions for however long or short a time we journey together. That means daring to have a relationship with them. That means exposing ourselves and giving our time, our most precious commodity. We can listen to our neighbors’ triumphs and frustrations, to their happiness and their fears. We may not be able to pull them out of their crises, but we can let them know that there is a human and there is a God who both care about them. Like God’s companionship, sometimes our mere presence, even or especially our silent presence, is the greatest gift we can give.




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