Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Hard to Hear." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"St John Reproaching Herod", Artist: Il Cavaliere (1662-1666)

"Hard to Hear"

Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29

The prophets Amos and John the Baptist spoke truth to power in these hard-to-hear texts... and how that turned out. 

            Prophets are unpopular, and Amos is no exception.
            Amos prophesies to the Northern Kingdom-- Israel-- during the long and expansive reign of Jeroboam. This was a time of prosperity for the North. Amos is concerned about the concentration of wealth among the urban elites, and he repeatedly talks about their luxury goods as signs of their moral decay. He openly mocks their luxuries and calls them out for their failure to act justly.[1]
            This material prosperity seems to have come at the expense of the poor, and points to the growing gap between the rural poor and wealthier landowners:  “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals -- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.”[2]  
            God’s deep concern for human justice is a theme throughout Amos’ prophecy. As Amos kept proclaiming, God is not indifferent to human suffering, oppression, and injustice. In Amos chapter 3, we hear the prophet proclaim, “The lion has roared; who will not fear?  The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”   
            Amos and other prophets tell us that God’s love demands righteousness. Breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.
            In today’s lesson, Amos sees a vision of a “plumb line” beside a wall.  This “plumb line” is a symbol for God’s judgment for Israel’s failure to fulfill their call to justice and love.
            Amos preaches that King Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will go into exile. He anticipates the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria.
            Amaziah, the high priest, is a religious authority who speaks on behalf of his temple as well as his King.  Amaziah is an insider, and he has a vested interest in institutional stability.  He’s outraged by how Amos is threatening the status quo.
            This is a king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom,” Amaziah says. Amaziah is supported by the king, so Amos’ prophecy is a threat to position and his way of life. Amaziah tells Amos to go away and make his living as a professional prophet somewhere else.
            But Amos insists that he isn’t a professional prophet. He’s an outsider-- “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” whom God called to prophesy to the people of Israel.

            Amos’ message is hard to hear.  But he lived to keep on prophesying.
            The gospel story we heard today from Mark is also hard to hear. It’s a terrible story.  Don’t you wonder:  Why on earth does Mark include this story in his gospel?
            Overall, Mark’s gospel is very concise. And yet, Mark gives a 16-verse account of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod. This is the longest anecdote in Mark’s gospel, and the only flashback. Other than the discovery of the empty tomb, it’s the only story in which Jesus doesn’t appear.
            So, what’s so important to Mark in this gruesome story?
            When we look at this story in context, we see that it comes after the sending out of the Twelve. Jesus had been going around among the villages teaching, and he called the Twelve and began to send them out two by two. He gave them authority over the unclean spirits. The Twelve went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick, and they cured them.[3]
            Herod heard about this, and that some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” Some others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”[4]
            This is where the narrative flashes back to how Herod had beheaded John the Baptist.
            Herod remembers that he had sent men to arrest John and put him in prison on account of Herodias, because John had been telling him that it was unlawful for him to marry his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive.
            Now, these relationships are complicated. This Herod is Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born—the Herod who ordered the killing of all the babies in and around Bethlehem when the wise men told him the Messiah had been born. 
            The son, Herod Antipas-- the Herod in today’s story-- divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, who at the time was married to his brother.  Mark calls Herod Antipas’ brother “Philip,” but the historian Josephus calls him “Herod,” which seems to be a family name.  To make things even more complicated, Herodias the daughter was also Herod Antipas’ niece.[5]
            As N.T. Wright says, if this had happened today, it would be all over the newspapers—and I think the internet and TV as well.   As Wright says, “It’s sordid, shabby and shameful—exactly the sort of thing that everybody likes to hear, however much they pretend otherwise.”[6]   You can imagine how people would react to the news of the scandalous goings-on at Herod’s birthday bash.  The lecherous Herod is so aroused by the dancing of his young step-daughter--who’s also his niece--that he promises to give her anything she wants. 
            The young girl can’t figure out what to ask for, so she leaves the banquet to ask her mother.  When she comes back, she brings her mother’s request for John’s head on a platter. 
            Mark tells us that the king was greatly distressed by this request, but he didn’t want to refuse her, out of regard to his oaths and the guests.  The guests have witnessed his oath, and he doesn’t want to lose face by reneging on his rash promise.  So, he has John executed and has his head brought in on a platter, like food for the feast.
            John, like Amos and God’s other prophets before him, spoke truth to power, at great risk to their safety.  It cost John his life.

            Mark gave all this space in his compact gospel to tell this story. So I think Jill Duffield is right that we need to sit with the ugliness and ponder where we find ourselves in the story.
            I doubt that many of us here would find ourselves identifying with Herod, or with either Herodias.
            I wonder if some might find ourselves with the guests at Herod’s party.  If you were invited, would you turn down the invitation? Even if you don’t agree with his politics or policies, he is the ruler, and it’s an honor to be invited. If you refuse to go, would Herod be insulted? What might that cost you?
            Would we have spoken up and said, “Herod, you don’t have to do what the girl is asking. You have a lot of power. You can show your strength by sticking to your principles, rather than giving in to your ego or your passions.”[7]
            That would be hard for Herod to hear.  It could cost us to speak up like that, to question Herod’s authority. 
            Maybe we find ourselves among the twelve disciples in the gospel story. We were sent out on a mission. Jesus told us to travel light, to teach and carry out a ministry of healing.  We’d hoped that following Jesus would lead to greatness--to power and influence. But, when we look around, it looks like the Herod--and Herodias-- are winning. They have the wealth. They call the shots. They even control the executioner.
            We’re not great people in our society. So, how can we believe that God is going to work through us to bring in God’s Kingdom?
            Jesus’ message is hard to hear, hard to believe:  God will bring the redemption of the world through the One crucified, dead, and buried. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it. But whoever loses their life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will save it.
            The gospel demands our life, our all.  Speaking God’s truth has real life consequences.  As Jill Duffield puts it, “Engaging in God’s work of defeating evil doesn’t gain you worldly favor.  But rest assured, despite all the evidence to the contrary, God’s will and God’s Word will not be thwarted.”

            Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the words of a song that’s an affirmation of faith. Those of us who attend Taize probably know the words by heart, and I invite you to sing along:
Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate. 
Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.  
Victory is ours, victory is ours,
Through God who loves us. 

            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
July 15, 2018

[1] Amos 6:4-6
[2] Amos 2:7
[3] Mark 6:6-13
[4] Mark 6:14-16
[5] New Interpreter’s Bible: Mark, Vol. VII, p 598.
[6] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Books, 2001), p. 75.
[7] Jill Duffield, ‘Looking into the Lectionary,” in The Presbyterian Outlook.

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