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Pentecost 7 July 12, 2015 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
July 12, 2015 Pentecost VII
Mark 6:14-29 ▪ The Rev. Samuel Torvend
At first glance, it is nothing more than one sad and pathetic story of a middle-aged man, newly aware of his creeping mortality and loss of control, who imagines that he can somehow recapture his virility by giving a young and talented dancer whatever she desires. Of course, it is complicated by the fact that this particular man has broken the Law of Moses and married his brother’s spouse, a marriage intended to solidify a political alliance yet a marriage forbidden in Jewish law; complicated by the fact that John the Baptizer has pointed out Herod’s hypocrisy – “You, Herod, claim to be a Jew when it conveniently serves your purposes and yet you scorn the Law of Moses.” This sad story is complicated by the fact that Herod fears the Baptizer because John is supported by the many who suffer the injustices of Herod and the Roman emperor. For you see, Herod would rather party with court officials, the officers of the dreaded Roman army, and Galilean business elites than spend any time with the impoverished and hungry people who are his subjects. “Oh, I’m working for the laboring class,” says our Herod, “it’s just that I prefer to spend my time with billionaires.” It is complicated by the fact that Herod’s illegally wedded wife, Herodias, has a grudge against John, and as Mark says, “wanted to kill him.” Thus, at a birthday party intended to celebrate life, the head of John the Baptizer is served on a platter. Herodias must have sighed with relief because her drunken husband had made a promise in public and could not withdraw it. The voice of the public critic – this man from the wilderness who made the mistake of mixing religion with politics – was finally silenced. Or was he?
As young boy, I was taught that a prophet is a person who can see into the future and predict what will happen: the prophet as one who gazes into a crystal ball. Looking at Time magazine cartoons in high school led me to think that prophets were those bearded, crazy-eyed men walking city streets with poster in hand proclaiming the end of the world. But neither of these caricatures does justice to the Bible’s understanding of prophet. My physician serves as a prophet to me. She carefully observes my behaviors, weight, and test results. She tells me that if I continue on a particular path regarding diet and exercise, I will likely encounter undesirable consequences. She is annoying and pesky in her email reminders. There are times when I would rather not hear her concerns and yet – and yet – she observes, criticizes, and offers another path for me to take in order that I might live a healthier and longer life.
In Judaism and Christianity, the prophet is the person who carefully observes the behaviors and values alive in his or her culture, community, or group, and then asks if such values and behaviors reflect or embody the life God intends for all of God’s creation, for you and for me. In other words, the prophet is the woman or man who is deeply concerned about the immediate future. Thus, the prophet, after careful observation of the values enacted in behaviors will, if needed, ask for a change of course and will point out the probable outcomes should the group not reconsider its values and the behaviors shaped and guided by those values. At first glance the prophet may sound like a crank, the bearer of bad news. But, in fact, the prophet is profoundly committed to life, to life-giving relationships, and to a living, growing, healthy world in which all, not just a privileged few, enjoy the free gifts of God. The voice of the Baptizer – this prophet who mixed religion with politics – was silenced thought his detractors. Or was he?
As an infant, I was baptized on the feast of St John the Baptist, June 24, two weeks after my birth. In that older baptismal ritual, millions of people were baptized into the priestly and prophetic life of Jesus Christ. I want to say that any and every baptism today, and every renewal of our baptism in the Holy Eucharist celebrated here, is a consecration in his priestly and prophetic life: priestly in that you and I are called to be wise stewards of the church’s gifts: the Word of God, the sacraments, the community of faith, the daily round of prayer and meditation, learning and study, honest and loving relationships, and service to our neighbors in need. But this, too: you and I are baptized into, communed from this altar in the prophetic life and ministry of Jesus Christ; prophetic in that you and I are called to observe carefully the values and behaviors promoted within our culture by the media, by business elites and political leaders, by professional athletes, pundits, and entertainers – by all those individuals and groups who powerfully shape the values of our culture – and then, to ask, if these values complement or contradict the vision of life set forth by Jesus, to ask if we are being pushed on a path strewn with undesirable consequences.
But what the baptismal ritual asks is no new thing. It is already taking place here among us when some of you gather monthly to read a challenging book that may well prompt you to reconsider your cherished convictions; already taking place among us when the equitable sharing of the Eucharist prompts us to ask Why it seems so difficult for our state and our nation to provide adequate nourishment for poor school children; already taking place among us when our baptismal vow to strive for justice prompts us to serve economic refugees detained, incarcerated in prison conditions not far from this church; already taking place among us when together we raise our voice publicly and ask why our taxes are not being spent on providing safe and secure housing for homeless mothers and their children who, temporarily, are sheltered in our hall; already taking place among us when we engage in anti-racism training here and commit ourselves to God’s vision that each and every life matters regardless of race or ethnicity; [[[ already taking place among us when we sing “Let justice flow like streams of sparkling water” and these words and melody are welcomed into your soul and mine and there begin to grow within our consciousness, guiding our actions in daily life; ]]] already taking place among us when the sacrament of healing, offered freely at this [church] altar to anyone in need, prompts you and me to ask why God’s desire for health and wholeness throughout the creation is continually thwarted by powerful forces that view this earth and many of its inhabitants as simply expendable in the march toward increasing profit.
For many years, my mother would gently and firmly advise us – her children as well as her spouse – that at the upcoming family reunion, it would be best to avoid discussion of politics and religion and by no means to mix the two. Perhaps this may have been sage advice, yet it does not reflect the vital Christian conviction that God is profoundly interested in every dimension of human existence, be that biological, economic, political, psychological, racial, or social. After all: Jesus the prophet was not put to death because he avoided difficult questions or failed to criticize those forces that damaged or destroyed life; and he was not raised from the dead, into your life and mine, for you and me to remain unaffected by the suffering of this world, to let someone else ask the tough question and do the work to which God invites us this day.
Fr. Samuel Torvend