The beheading of John the Baptist is an unusual subject for a beautiful summer morning. However, from time to time the lectionary takes us where we are reluctant to go. Our readings included: Mark 1:1-11, Mark 1:14-15 and Mark 6:14-29
Listen to the sermon here
I can’t exactly tell you how it felt after a wonderful week of summer vacation to return to work on Wednesday morning and discover that there was a beheading on the menu for this morning. I was sorely tempted to forget about the prescribed reading for this particular morning. I mean, who among us has the stomach to gaze upon John the Baptist’s severed head on this gorgeous summer morning? We could all be relaxing on our various patios and sun decks enjoying a leisurely breakfast, listening to the birds sing, tending to our gardens or catching up with friends. I’d much rather head up to the lake for a swim than contemplate the fate of a radical like John the Baptist. Summertime and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high! At first, I thought just crank up the tunes and maybe our love of singing together will get us through and help us to ignore the horrors of the main course. But the image of John’s piercing eyes staring up from my imagined silver platter made each hymn-choice seem trite. So, I opened up my sermon files to see what I’ve done in the past when this horrendous gospel reading has come up. It turns out that I’m rarely here at this time of the year. I’m either at convention or on vacation and some other preacher has had the privilege of this particular main course. Oh, there’s one sermon that I preached years ago, but when I read it, I couldn’t help wondering what I was thinking; I told a cute story about bears in the mountains being dangerous and moved on to insist that Jesus wasn’t some cute cuddly teddy bear, but a wild radical bear who if taken seriously is far more dangerous than any wild bear we might meet in the woods. It wasn’t a bad sermon really, but I just couldn’t bear to preach it a second time. So, I started playing around with other readings. I thought I’d find something more fitting for a lovely summer morning; maybe preach on the beauty of creation and encourage us all to enjoy the pleasures of life. But John’s eyes wouldn’t stop looking up at me from the banquet table, taunting me to prepare the way for our God. I tried to avoid his gaze by promising to do him justice when Advent rolls around and the lectionary goes on for 3 consecutive Sundays about John the Baptist, but John’s severed head sent my mind to the Garden of Gethsemane and I ran into that Jesus fellow down on his knees begging to God to spare him, to take this cup from him and I couldn’t help hearing John in the background yelling, “You brood of vipers as we tried to enjoy this beautiful morning. So, here we are sisters and brothers, gathered around the table with the vision of a main course served up on a silver platter, encouraged by the traditions of the church to partake of the radical fare that lies staring up at us. Prepare the way for our God. Now we could prepare the way simply by exploring the text.
I could lead us through the historical details of John the Baptist’s life and we could speculate on the role he played in the early history of the followers of Jesus. We could look at all the ways in which the ministry of John differed from the ministry of Jesus. We could speculate on how the followers of John and the followers of Jesus competed with one another and the ways in which the various gospel writers tried to make it clear that Jesus was far more important than John. I could do what I did in that old sermon and encourage you to be prepared to emulate the radical ways in which both John and Jesus challenged their contemporaries to repent, to change their ways. I could encourage you all to be the kind of radicals that both John and Jesus were by listing a whole host of injustices that need righting and calling upon each and every one of us to get out there and stand up for justice. But that severed head would still be lying there on the table staring up at us and proclaiming the reality that radicals are not welcome at banquets or sunny, summer mornings precisely because radicals get themselves into all sorts of trouble. Just look where it got John, yeah sure it we’ve dressed it up and now there’s a silver platter to serve him up on, but it is still a severed head and that Jesus fella he was every bit as radical as John and look where it got Jesus, executed on a cross or having one’s head lopped off aren’t prospects I want to entertain on a glorious morning. Please don’t ask me to be a radical. Sure, I can talk a good line, but when push comes to shove, I’d much rather play with my grandchildren, or fire up the BBQ. Sunday is after all a day of rest, so please don’t put any ugly images into my head. I don’t want to know about all the injustices in the world. I don’t want to hear the cries of the lost and forsaken. I don’t want to think about the dangers out there. I don’t want to worry about the environment or the poor. As for the violence and the wars, please just give me a break. I’ve had enough. I’ve heard enough. Even if I did muster up the will to listen for a few minutes, what can I actually do about any of it? I mean, are we really expected to be like John? We’re not Jesus after all. We’re just good people, just trying to make the best of what we have. Can’t we just enjoy what’s in front of us? Let’s make hay while the sun shines.
So, I took myself out of my office, away from all my books and I went for a walk in the sunshine. There was a lovely gentle breeze as I headed down toward the park. Folks were out enjoying the fresh air. Children were swing on swings, kicking balls around and a group of adults and their kids were fully engaged in a softball game. I headed out of the park and down by the pond and the noise was sublime; birds were singing, and frogs were ribbiting. A big beautiful grey heron swooped down low over the pond and splashed gently into the water. In my mind, I could hear Louis Armstrong singing, and I think to myself, What a Wonderful World. As I circled the pond, I couldn’t help wondering, as you do on a summer’s evening, what’s it all about? Why do we come here on a Sunday morning? What are we doing? Why do I puzzle over ancient texts? What does it matter really? Beyond the pond there’s a cornfield where the corn is struggling to grow; too much standing water from all the rain we’ve had. I began to think about the drought in British Columbia, and then about the fires that are burning; and then my mind took me to all sorts of places where all sorts of severed heads lay scattered about, I could see poverty, disease, drought, violence, war, unkindness, sadness, hopelessness, and I wondered why I bothered to trouble myself and all of you with the words in some ancient texts. Beyond the pond, there’s a building site; the beginnings of a new subdivision, roads being created, lots of dirt, red and yellow flags fluttering in the breeze; markers of new homes to be built. Visions of all sorts of families moving in, filled with hope and anticipation about the lives they will lead in this place and as I stared at what in just a few short months will be new homes, I wondered about the what the future holds.
Slowly, but surely visions of life, of lives being lived, began to appear, I heard the flutter of the grey heron’s wings and I heard the words of John prepare the way for our God. As I stared out at the dirt I could hear the earth groaning giving birth to something new and I couldn’t help wondering about that newness and what it might become. Prepare the way for our God means more than just following a couple of radicals to their death. It means dying and rising again and again.
Death and resurrection. Dying to an old way of being and being raised, reborn, into a new way of being. Following Jesus means not only following him to Jerusalem to confront the authorities, it means following him on the way to death and resurrection as the pathway of personal transformation. Christ crucified is about more than simply opposing the way things are in radical ways, it is about personal transformation; being born again and again into new ways of being in the world; ways which open us to new possibilities ways that include justice and peace for us yes, but also justice and peace for those we love and for those we have judged to be our enemies as well as justice and peace for the earth herself.
Following the Way is about living with visions, visions of the future which require us to die to old ways of being in the world so that we can be reborn to new ways of being in the world. “After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at Hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News!”
The reign of God is at hand; these hands, your hands and my hands, these are the hands that will usher in God’s reign of justice and peace, so that everyone can live fully, love abundantly and be all that they are created to be. The pleasures that we will all enjoy on this glorious summer morning will feed our visions of the reign of God which in turn will strengthen us to prepare the way, the way for a new way of being in the world; a way of being that requires radical social change if we are to clear a path for justice so that peace can flourish.
Yes! Our visions are idealistic, some of our visions look impossible from where we are standing right now, and the only way to prepare the way is with changes so radical that they scare us, and I dare say they scare the powers that be. But we have been blessed with visions of a way of being in the world that challenge the powers that be; anti-imperial visions of what the would could become if love is allowed to thrive. What better day than a beautiful summer Sunday to dream of such things? We come from a long line of radicals whose visions of the future have changed the world in oh so many ways. We stand upon the shoulders of all those radicals who used their hands to work for justice and peace in the world. These radicals used their hands to prepare the way so that the reign of God could burst forth in the world and open others to new ways of being in the world; ways that provided fertile ground for love to grow. These radicals dreamed dreams that seemed impossible from where they stood. Dreams that we have seen come to fruition. We gather together to dream, to dream of what seems to all the world to be the impossible. Together we dream dreams and share visions of a world where love inspires justice and justice creates peace. The reign of God is at hand; our hands. So, let us take our rest on this Sabbath. Let us sing in the sunshine, for we have important work, vital work to do. The reign of God is at hand; our hands. Dream dreams, prepare the way of God! Let our hands be about the work of LOVE in the world.
Together we dream dreams and share visions
of a world where love inspires justice
and justice creates peace.
The reign of God is at hand; our hands.
So, let us take our rest on this Sabbath.
Let us sing in the sunshine,
for we have important work,
vital work to do.
The reign of God is at hand; our hands.
Dream dreams, prepare the way of God!
Let our hands be about
the work of LOVE in the world.
The power of
Our LOVER, BELOVED, AND LOVE ITSELF
IS OURS, NOW AND ALWAYS.