A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul Minnesota
July 15, 2012
When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:20-29
The tabloids would have had a field day: lust, violence, blood, a sexy dance, a vengeful mother, a clueless king, a martyr executed for speaking his truth.
(A word about names: There are two Herodiases in the text, a mother and a daughter. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the daughter’s name actually was Salome, so that’s what we’ll call her.)
It’s a story that has caught the fancy of dramatists, from a 1920’s opera by Richard Strauss with its climactic scene where Salome declares her love for John the Baptist and kisses his severed head to a 1945 Hollywood western loosely tied to the frontier town of Salome, Arizona (the poster proclaimed: “She made guns grow cold…and hearts Burn Hot – as she set the West afire!”) and, most notably in the 1953 movie starring Rita Hayworth as Salome – sixty years later, her Dance of the Seven Veils lives on, on UTube.
What cost John the Baptist his head was speaking truth to power, to use an old phrase.
He tells Herod (son of the Herod that tried to kill the infant Jesus) that his marriage to his brother’s wife breaks Jewish law, since the brother is still living. Herod ignores this (although he likes John) but his wife Herodias harbors a bigtime grudge, so much so that when given the chance, she demands John’s head. On a platter, And thanks to Salome’s dance and Hered’s lust and cowardice, she gets it.
So we move now from the party at Herod’s place to parties of a political sort. The irony in the story is that John the Baptist, a political leftist, if there ever was one, is the conservative here, defending tradition; Herod the king is the liberal, who wants to broaden the law.
The political terms Left and Right were coined after the French Revolution in the 1780’s, and initially referred to the seating arrangement in the court of Louis XVI: those who sat on the left of the king generally supported the radical changes of the revolution, while those on the right supported the traditional institutions of the Old Regime. The terms arose from the seating arrangement. In the Biblical tradition, power on the Right is symbolized by kings and Pharisee, and power on the Left is symbolized by the prophets.
It would be hard to argue that our faith calls us to be on the political right or left. Sometimes Jesus condemned the leaders of the day because they were breaking Jewish law, A the Right was chastised for not being traditional enough. This is what John did with Herod. More often, Jesus tells the powers that be, the kings, Pharisees and other rulers, that there are other factors that override the letter of the law, namely justice, love, charity and the needs of “the least” of society.
So “speaking truth to power” is complicated, but it IS what we are called to do, as did John, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Gloria Steinem, Desmond Tutu, Harvey Milk, Mother Theresa, and maybe even the brave sixteen-year-old next door who speaks out for the civil rights of her gay friends at the family dinner table.
We each have a realm of influence that is ours alone: the co-worker in the next office battling depression; our lonely, confused nephew; the young family we know whose finances have tanked because of job loss. Speaking truth to the powerless may be just as important as speaking it to the powerful. The truth we offer may be not only a letter to the editor or a statement at the ballot box, but also the truths of the heart: presence, hospitality, empathy, listening, and time. Iris Murdoch observed, “Goodness is necessary, for always somebody is hungry and somebody is crying.”
Our truth must be an informed one. Election season is here, facts are being twisted; exaggerations are the order of the day, and good programs that truly help people are suspect. The Right and the Left are perhaps farther apart perhaps than at any time in our history, and the spirit of compromise, the wise elders who have held the middle, are disappearing.
We need to find our way through this intelligently and not just emotionally. I’m very proud of the Episcopal church who just last week at its Triennial Convention in Philadelphia, affirmed liturgies for the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships as well as the full inclusion of transgenedered people into all roles in the church. These are the truths upon which your church is brave enough to stand.
Summer is a busy time at a church as we plan programs for the fall, making assumptions and guesses about what you need and want; what will coax you to contribute some of the most precious coin of the realm: your time. We need your input, your ideas, your presence as the lay and clergy leadership works to assemble programs and events that will make us rich in spirit and in service. There will be phone calls; there will be emails, there may be begging, there will be opportunities to speak your truth to each other, as each of us move more deeply into community with God and each other.
There was an article in yesterday’s Star-Tribune about the widespread phenomenon of church-hopping. A growing number of Christians nationwide don’t attend the same church every week, but attend services at multiple churches, often at different denominations. Some say that their needs can’t be met by just one church; they like the music here and the preaching there and the Bible study across town. One person likes it because “I just can’t be narrow anymore.
Let’s face it, this is an approach to religion that is strictly consumer-oriented, and if you keep hopping forever, it is problematic for everyone. One pastor asks “At what point do you say ‘Where are you going deeper (not only broader and where are you serving and were are you giving and where are you connecting with people?” At what point are you op-en to let a specific religious identify shape your life?
Rabbi Kushner relates an old Jewish folktale about the village that was planning a gala New Year’s Eve celebration: “Every inhabitant of the village was asked to contribute a bottle of wine, pouring it into a giant vat in the town square. On New Year’s Eve, the vat would be available to everyone to drink and usher in the new year. At midnight, the town fathers opened the spigots and invited to everyone to share the wine, but when they raised their glasses, they found them filled with water. Everyone in the town had had the same idea; if all my neighbors bring wine, nobody will notice if I bring a bottle of water instead.”
Every contribution, every voice, every act of kindness, every effort to become informed, every vote for a decent society, every bottle of wine, counts.
Sometimes, I like to read Christian Evangelicals to help me get less esoteric about being Christian. In his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren says bluntly: “You were put on earth to make a contribution. You weren’t created just to consume resources, to eat, breathe and take up space.”
He goes on: “If you’re not involved in any service of ministry, what excuse have you been using? Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Joseph was abused, Moses stuttered, Gideon was poor, Samson was codependent, David had an affair and all kinds of family problems, Jeremiah was depressed, John the Baptist was eccentric to say the least; Naomi was a widow; Peter was impulsive and hot-tempered, Martha worried a lot, the Samaritan woman had several failed marriages, Zaccheus was unpopular, Thomas had doubts, Paul had poor heath, and Timothy was timid. God used each one of these misfits in his service and he will use you, too. if you stop making excuses.“
It’s hard to preach a sermon like this. It feels so, well, preachy. It’s hard to know how to motivate people – motivate myself—in any way that we haven’t heard a thousand times before. But it helps me to remember that I’m not called to do things I can’t do. It doesn’t’ call me to run a marathon, jump out of a plane, or sing a solo on Christmas Eve. It doesn’t call you to work in a soup kitchen if you hate soup, to use your resources recklessly, or to speak to large groups if you are terrified of public speaking. It does call you to align your gifts and passions with what the world needs.
The late Henri Nouwen, one of the great religious writers of our time, once acknowledged how he often felt frozen in the exercise of his gifts and how devastating that was. ‘The more I think about the human suffering in our world and my desire to offer a healing response,” he wrote, “the more I realize how crucial it is not to allow myself to become paralyzed by feelings of impotence and guilt. More important that ever is to be faithful to my vocation to do well the few things I am called to do and hold on to the joy and peace they ring me.
“Do this,” Jesus said, not believe this but “do this, say this, give this – in remembrance of me.”
Living a Life that Matters, Harold S. Kushner
The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren
The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen