Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
July 12, 2009
Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6: 14-29
Pastor Mary Blessing,
Vicar, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley CA
Where is the Good News in this tragic story of John the Baptist, beheaded by a capricious King? Mark is uncharacteristically detailed in reporting this gruesome story of John’s violent death. John, as the prophet who literally put his life on the line, calling EVERYONE to repentance, is, like the prophet Amos before him, willing to challenge even the so-called King of Israel to repent, to admit his sin of adultery.
Herod Antipas violated Jewish law, found in Leviticus 18:16; 20-21, that a man cannot marry his brother’s wife while the brother is still alive—even if the brother has divorced his wife. If John the Baptist had publically criticized Herod Antipas for this violation of the Law of Moses, and if John the Baptist was continuing to gain popularity, instigating an uprising against Herod, one could see why John could be arrested. However, the story of John the Baptist and Herod Antipas is complicated, as Mark tells us that in spite of his wife’s hatred of John, Herod actually sees him as “righteous and holy man”, and that Herod “protected him.” When Herod listened to John he “was greatly perplexed, AND YET HE LIKED TO LISTEN TO HIM.” (Mark 6: 20)
Herod Antipas was man conflicted. John the Baptist was the voice of God revealing to Herod the “plumb line of justice”, as Amos the herdsman-turned prophet, revealed to an earlier King of Israel. The 20th C. Jewish scholar and prophet, Abraham Herschel, says it was an act of HIGH TREASON for Amos to declare that “King Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.” (Amos 7: 13)
Similarly, John the Baptist’s challenge to Herod Antipas could have been seen as an act of treason—threatening the power and authority of a King, even if one is telling the truth, even if the King in question somehow HEARS that truth in his soul, yet cannot act on it, because he is thrown into a state of drunken foolishness at his birthday party.
I have to be honest with you, as an Episcopal priest, ordained by the church that was founded by a King who had 6 wives---who truly did have adulterous relationships, and beheaded some wives to be free to marry others—And whose church allows for divorce and remarriage—I find it awkward to speak of the “justice” which John attempted to bring to Herod’s court as he sought Herod’s repentance for adultery. However, I would like to consider the impact of the PROPHET on bringing about public awareness of the mis-use of power of RULERS.
Abraham Hershel, whom I mentioned above, was a prophetic Jewish Rabbi of the 2Oth C. He helped to bring about JUSTICE in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Born in Poland, he was studying in Frankfurt, Germany in late October 1938, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and deported back to Poland. He spent ten months lecturing on Jewish philosophy and Torah at Warsaw's Institute for Jewish Studies.  Six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel left Warsaw for London with the help of president of Hebrew Union College, who had been working to obtain visas for Jewish scholars in Europe.
Heschel's sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps. He never returned to Germany, Austria or Poland. He once wrote, "If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated."
Hershel did make his way to the United States in 1940, where he went on to become a pre-eminent scholar, beloved of not only Jewish but many Christian scholars—in the 1960’s he aligned himself with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was even on the front lines of the march on Selma, linked arm in arm with black brothers seeking justice. Abraham Herschel, like Martin Luther King, was a prophet willing to put his life on the line to bring about God’s righteousness for those who are oppressed and abused by those in Power. Hershel is quoted as saying, “"When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King, Jr. (4th from right). Heschel later wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying." [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Joshua_Heschel]
In his book, The Prophets, Herschel reveals that the purpose of a prophet is to remind the Ruling Power that “sovereignty was not unlimited, that over the kings mishpat [justice] stood the mishpat of the Lord – an idea that frequently clashed with the exigencies of government.” (quoted from Feasting on the Word, year B, vol.3, p. 218).
Herschel’s thesis regarding how we understand God comes down to this: that the prophetic view of God is best understood not as anthropomorphic (that God takes human form) but rather as anthropopathic — that God has human feelings. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Joshua_Heschel]
Interestingly enough, Herschel’s theology of God is complimentary to our Christian understanding that the Good News of Jesus Christ includes the understanding that in the person of JESUS, we saw in one being, fully human and fully divine, the completion of God’s creation in humankind. What John the Baptist did as he laid his life before God, insisting upon the JUSTICE of even a King, to live a RIGHTEOUS life, was to lay the foundation for TRUTH that would be lived out in the life of JESUS, that one whom we call Son of God, revealing not only God to humanity, but also, revealing the TRUTH that God shares humanities FEELINGS.
And when I turn to look at the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 21st Century, the civil rights of Gays and Lesbians, I wonder how God feels about what some say is an injustice, and others say is an abomination. What challenges me is that the guidance I seek from Jesus as revealed in the gospels, is SILENT. And I am torn between what my intellect knows about other aspects of scripture and its condemnation of homosexuality, and what my heart yearns to believe, that Jesus would have been accepting of ALL PERSONS regardless of their sexual orientation, and invited them into fellowship and full acceptance into God’s holy kingdom.
But I am not a courageous prophet, willing to march along the front lines against the tide. I do not wish to “lose my head” over this, and thereby lose my ability to pastor people who come to this table, who have different understandings regarding marriage and our civil rights. And so I look to Jesus, and remain silent, seeking his love and asking his forgiveness. AMEN.
Back to sermons