Category Archives: Prophets

Herod’s Choice. Mark 6:14-29

“The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for his 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.”

He didn’t want to do it–that much is clear. The Gospel writer is at pains to tell us that he “was deeply grieved” over the prospect of having that good man John executed. Herod’s problem was that he knew full well the difference between good and evil. And when you know what is good you are equipped to make a righteous choice and responsible to do it. But upon one little word–“yet”–this whole lurid story of human weakness and evil hinges.

Herod was saddened, and yet there were other considerations that came into play–political considerations, personal ones too. There was the rash and impetuous oath the king had sworn in front of his guests, a promise to give a spoiled child virtually anything she wanted. And like every petty politician of his sort, Herod felt the need to appear strong. And like every parent, even the worst, he felt the pressure to keep his promises, no matter rash and ill-considered. He had gotten himself into a corner, and now there was the devil to pay. The right response to the girl’s viperous request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter was obvious, as most right responses are. No. But he said yes instead, to his eternal regret.

This story would be just a salacious footnote in Mark’s Gospel story if Herod’s problem were not ours too, beloved. Too often we also let our value as human beings be determined by the worth we have in the eyes of others. It is an immature way of thinking; it is the way teenagers think. In many ways this is as much a story about immaturity as about weakness and evil. Way too often our choices like Herod’s are determined at what others think and not by what we know to be right.

So we have two men contrasted here, the king and the Man of God. One powerful but weak, the other powerless but strong. The king was governed by his fear of consequences. The Man of God who wasn’t afraid of them—when Herod took his brother’s wife, Herodias, John openly said it was adultery according to the Law of Moses. He told the truth regardless of the cost. So St. Mark tells us that “Herod himself sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison.” Herod took John’s freedom away, but the king didn’t do anything more because, although his wife, Herodias, had a deadly grudge against the prophet, yet—and there’s that word again—“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

And why was that? Herod was not a righteous or holy man himself—by no means!–but he did recognize the real thing when he saw it. That he protected the Man of God only goes to prove what my father used to say—“There is some good in the devil’s cat.” There was a spark of goodness in King Herod. Every good thing, no matter where we find it, comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit was at work even in Herod, the corrupt, scumbag politician, whose old man of the same name had ordered the massacre of the infant children of Bethlehem, according to St. Matthew’s gospel. King Herod was a man born, raised, and graduated in the school of evil.

Yet—and there is that word again—“when he heard [John the Baptist talk] he was greatly perplexed.” People like Herod don’t understand the language of God, but they are drawn to those who speak it. He was a murderer and a petty tyrant and yet. . . and yet he liked to listen to him. The Holy Spirit is at work in the worst of human beings, just as in the best of human beings the devil is alive and well and doing his worst. It goes on like that—push and pull–but eventually a choice has to be made.

Herod’s choice came on the night of his birthday, appropriately enough. He gave himself a sumptuous birthday party. It was a stag affair. It probably wasn’t an orgy, but at a Roman dinner party there would be a lot of booze. Then at the climax of the evening, there was a special birthday surprise. It wasn’t a birthday cake with Roman candles on it, but it was certainly something hot. The daughter of Queen Herodias, Josephus tells us that her name was Salome, danced for the guests.

Which she must have done well, because when she had finished Herod said to the girl—“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you, even half my kingdom.” The girl ran to her mother to say—“What shall I ask for.” And her mama told her—“Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” And that is what the girl requested—the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things because we don’t know any better. These mistakes are still bad, and occasionally they have disastrous consequences, but the danger to our souls is not great. They are in the end just mistakes.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things by accident, intending to do the right thing. These accidents are still bad, and we suffer the consequences of them, but the danger to our souls is negligible. Things like that happen. We make mistakes as long as we try.

But Herod’s choice was not like that at all. He knew the choice he was making was evil, yet he let other people’s opinions determine his decision. He was not quite a monster, but he did a monstrous thing, for which the Gospel writer does not forgive him. Because when we know right from wrong, when the Holy Spirit tells us clearly the difference, then we are in the greatest danger, beloved. Those are the choices for which we are fully accountable.

We are all faced with choices we know are between right and wrong. We think that some of those choices are personal—no one else’s business. But there is no such thing as a purely personal choice—every choice is made in reference to other people, judging our worth. It is easy enough to make a decision because of the opinion of others, but it takes the courage that comes only from the Holy Spirit to make a decision in spite of their opinion. Yet those are the only decisions that can be called good or right.

Faced with the biggest moral decision of his life, Herod made it not on the basis of right, but out of regard for a vicious teenager and her still more vicious mama and the opinion of a brunch of drunken cronies. Like Pontius Pilate on another occasion, Herod was more concerned about the judgment of insignificant players than on whether he was putting an innocent man to death. Both men had their excuses. Tyrants always make excuses. They never want to take responsibility for anything. But no excuse ever really works. And we need to keep that in mind as we face Herod’s choice, whether to do the right thing and face the consequences–because the right thing always has consequences–or to do the wrong thing for the sake of other people’s opinions.

 

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Filed under Discipleship, Gospel of Mark, Gospels, Holy Spirit, Life in the Spirit, New Testament, Prophets

Minor, Minor Prophets based on Psalm 141

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.

Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds

in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

Let the righteous stroke me; let the faithful correct me.

Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head,

for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.”

There is no more appropriate way to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist than to be a prophet a little like John. Not exactly like, of course; we each have another life. And forth-telling was seldom a fulltime occupation for the prophets of the Bible. John the Baptist was exceptional in this as in many other things. He was a professional prophet literally from the womb. St. Luke tells us that as a child he “grew and became strong, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publically to Israel” (1:80). Most prophets in the Bible were other things before—and after–God called them to speak his word—farmers, mothers, fathers, priests, and carpenters. Some were called to speak just one prophetic word of warning to the powers that be before they dropped back into their former lives.

And so each one of us who have the Spirit of Jesus in us are given our prophetic moments, I am convinced. We may be only “minor minor prophets,” beloved, but that does not mean that when confronted with evil we are not called to speak out in the tradition of John the Baptist. We have a sacred duty to do so, because unless we speak out against evil when we see it, we are a party to it and responsible for it.

In a strategy recently announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it is the stated policy of our government that anyone who enters the country illegally—including those who come here seeking asylum from Central American violence and drug gangs–will be prosecuted to the limit of the law, with their minor children taken from them and placed in separate custody as a form of deterrence. It is a controversial policy. Everyone more or less admits that forceably separating parents from their children is an inhumane practice—even the president doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.  But that doesn’t matter to those who are enforcing a policy that is callous even for this administration.  “If you don’t like that,” Sessions said, “then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

More than 700 minors, including toddlers and babies, have been separated from their parents at the border between last October and April of this year; another 600 since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced in May. The kind of pain and anxiety and trauma these numbers represent is unimaginable. This is not the rule of law, this is intentional cruelty. There is no other way to describe a policy of a government that criminalizes desperate people, and uses children as a way to punish their parents. It is a national sin—there is no other word for it.

There are some people who simply cannot cut a deal with evil, and they are the “major prophets” of every time.  John the Baptist was like that. With evil he was like dog with a snake—he could not leave it alone. He could not keep his mouth shut; that is what cost him his head.

But most of us are not possessed with that passion for justice that John had. We are not “a voice crying in the wilderness.” We are able to accommodate ourselves to the little injustices around us quite neatly and live with the living. If we do not find ourselves and ours in jeopardy, it is easy enough for us to resign ourselves to the suffering of others, and to deplore life’s small cruelties, but do nothing about them.

It isn’t very nice, perhaps, but that’s how we ordinary people are.

But there are times when we stand in the presence of self-righteous evil and are forced to make a choice. This policy of separating parents from their children as a form of punishment and deterrence is manifestly wicked, but it is only the beginning of what will be done. If we want to call ourselves followers of the crucified Lord we have to resist it now, and become minor minor prophets.

Cruelty is not an unintentional byproduct of the White House immigration policy, it is its objective. Its intention is to cause pain and agony for parents and trauma in young children for the sake of vague policy goals, which are not succeeding anyway. It is revenge upon the poorest. It is cruelty for its own sake, beloved, and we cannot ignore it without adding to the suffering of Christ.

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Filed under Church, Life in the Spirit, Old Testament, Prophets, Psalms

Letting it Go 1 Kings 19:1-8

Letting It Go   A sermon preached August 9, 2015

In 1 Kings 19:1-8 it says that “the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched [the prophet Elijah] and said. ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

This day to day world we are living in right now is actually a school, beloved, a school in which we are enrolled for a few years to acquire the lessons we need to prepare ourselves for what is coming next, for our graduation into Eternity, into that life that really is Life. And the lessons we fail to absorb in this one, we will have to mug up in the next life. Here or there, they must be learned.

So if going to church doesn’t help us absorb those crucial lessons we need to learn before we die, beloved, what good is it? If we aren’t here to learn something eternally useful, why on a Sunday morning you and I could just as well be at Dunkin’ Donuts drinking coffee and eating those plump donuts filled raspberry jelly we used to call Bismarcks. But we can’t sit around eating Bismarcks our whole lives long; we need something more substantial. So we come here to listen to the Spirit of Jesus who says—I am the living bread that came down from heaven. The Spirit has a lesson to teach us this morning, beloved, so let’s get right down to business.

We have before us a part of the life’s story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. At the moment when we catch up with him, the prophet is caught between a rock and hard place. Obedient to what he regarded as the LORD’s command, Elijah had first defeated and then slaughtered the prophets of the pagan god Baal. Now Baal had an awful a lot of prophets. They were even greater in number than those who have announced they are candidates for the presidency of the United States.

There were four hundred and fifty of them, the Bible says, and they were under the protection and patronage of Queen Jezebel of Israel, who made the wicked queen in Snow White look like Betty Crocker. So when Jezebel found out that Elijah had put all her prophets to death, she sent a message to him saying—“So may the gods do to me and more also, you wretched, disgusting little man, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (I added in the “wretched, disgusting little man” part so you would get the idea that Queen Jezebel meant business.) She was not a woman to be trifled with. Elijah knew it, and it says, “He was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life.”

So it is against this background which our story takes place. Elijah is between a rock and hard place, almost literally. He is out in the stony wilderness all alone. He sits down under a solitary broom tree and says, “It is enough, now, O LORD, take away my life.”

So what is enough? Well, you and I both know perfectly well what enough is. Enough is a place, a wilderness place where we have all been at one time or another. Elijah had reached enough. He was oppressed by his own violent past and sapped by the hatred of the wicked queen Jezebel. She was strong, and a hatred like hers drains the life blood out of you. And at the same time Elijah was disgusted with himself, ashamed because in the face of her threats he had turned tail and run. “I am no better than my fathers,” he says. Furthermore he was alone and hungry, and hunger and isolation always make everything seem worse even than it is. But most of all Elijah was just mortally tired, tired of trying to be stronger than he really was, tired of trying to change the things that resist change, tired of trying to do the will of the LORD in the face of overwhelming evil. And you and I can certainly identify with that. We too have been to the place called Enough.

“LORD, take away my life,” Elijah says. He just wanted to die. Now whereas suicide demands a particular sort of person with a despairing courage few of us have, and relatively few people seriously contemplate it, all of us get to the place where the prophet was, the place called Enough. It is a wilderness where we can’t see any reason for going further, where we look back on our lives and see only failure, where are so dead tired all we want is just to lie down and die.

But instead of dying we lie down and go to sleep. And that’s exactly what the LORD’s prophet did. Depressed and exhausted, he lay down under the broom tree and slept. What happened next was strange, but it was real, and not a dream. An angel touched him and he awoke to discover that the LORD had provided him with food, not coffee and jelly-filled donuts, but something more substantial–bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And the messenger from God said, Get up and eat. No please. Just a simple command. Get up and eat something. You’ll feel better. I can hear my mother saying it—It’s not that important. It doesn’t matter. Let it go….

When you are in a foreign city your ears are always alive to the sound of your own language being spoken. We were in the lobby of our hotel in Paris a few weeks ago when I caught the sound of two women speaking English. They spoke, as Americans often do, just a little too loudly not to be overheard. They were discussing some problem they had had with their baggage. Something was broken or missing or hadn’t shown up when it should have. It wasn‘t clear what was wrong exactly, but something surely was. One woman was angry and she all for going back to complain and seek some sort of restitution—an apology at the very least. “It isn’t right!” she kept saying. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that sort of carelessness!” The other woman heard her out, but she was equally determined to let the matter go. “We’re in Paris,” she said. “We may never be here again. I don’t want to waste our time here with things that’s don’t matter. Just let it go.”

So they went off together, still arguing about their baggage. It didn’t sound like a resolution was in sight. Now I love to travel, but I am convinced that the best way to travel is carelessly. Bad things are going happen along your journey. It’s inevitable. Your baggage will sometimes get misplaced, lost or damaged. You can’t always ignore the bad things that happen, but the best way of dealing with them is by just letting them go and moving on. The journey is so much more important, beloved, than the baggage we take along on it. So let it go.

Let it go. “Get up and eat,” the angel had to say to Elijah a second time, “otherwise the journey is too great for you.” The command has two parts: First of all–Get up–and then—eat something. In life, which is the journey we are all taking, we are constantly being presented with a choice whether to fret and brood about our baggage and cling to it like grim death or get up and let it go. Our anger and our guilt, the memory of our past failures, the pain of our present heartaches, and the anxiety of our future fears are nothing but dead weight. If we drag all that baggage along, the journey will be too great for us. So what are you carrying, beloved? Whatever it is, let it go.

There is a story told of two monks, a master and his disciple, who were on a journey. It had been raining for the past two weeks—we can identify with that!—and there were deep muddy, greasy puddles everywhere. As they passed through a town along their way the monks saw a richly dressed woman trying to cross the street. She had apparently been shopping and had gotten caught by the rain, and now she stood there, looking very cross and impatient—like Donald Trump in a frock–scolding her servants. But she couldn’t step across the deep muddy puddles in the street without spoiling her beautiful yellow silk dress. And her servants were so loaded down with parcels and packages that they couldn’t help her. So without further ado the older monk picked the woman up, put her on his back, and carried her across the muddy street, setting her down gently on the other side. But she didn’t bother to thank him. She just pushed him aside and went on her way.

The younger monk saw all this happen and all that day he brooded on it. Then at last he could contain his indignation no longer. “Master,” he said, “that woman back there was very rude to you. You picked her up and carried her across the street, and she didn’t even bother to thank you.”

“I set that woman down hours ago,” replied the master to his disciple. “So why are you still carrying her?”

So, beloved, why are you still carrying whatever—or whoever–you are still carrying? This is the place you need to set your baggage down. And now is the time to get up and leave it behind. Each week the Lord says to us–“Arise and eat.” We each have excess baggage we are dragging along, but this is the place to leave it, and Holy Communion is the time.

We can’t set our baggage down once and for all, not in this life. It is always being restored to us. It is always being returned to us out of the Lost and Found. That’s why we have to come back here each week to leave it behind again. And here the Lord provides us with a meal, not of donuts and coffee, but of his own self, the bread of heaven. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” the psalmist says. Holy Communion gives us a place to set our baggage down and the strength to do it. So hear the Lord saying to you, “Arise and eat, otherwise your journey will be too great for you.” Then come and let it go.

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Filed under Old Testament, Prophets