14 July 2009

Proper 15 B - A not nice Gospel

Mark 6: 14-29

St. Luke’s, Burlington

12 July 2009

By Stuart Pike

Every once in a while, the Revised Common Lectionary gives us a Gospel reading which might not naturally be my first choice.  Sometimes the readings don’t seem to fit the context of the particular Sunday. The preacher might be tempted to preach on one of the other readings for the Sunday, or simply pick another “nicer” Gospel reading. We know that the word, Gospel means “Good News” and we think that this means a nice story.

And so this Sunday in July, just when the weather is getting beautiful, the kids are out of school and people are getting into relaxation mode for the Summer, we are brought up short with this incredibly brutal and sordid story of the execution of John the Baptist. It’s not a “nice” story.

The story reaches inside and yanks us out of our Summer reverie and makes us sit up and listen! And then the reader says “The Gospel of Christ” that is the “Good News” of Christ. And we all respond, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!” What could possibly be thought of as good in this story? And why are we praising Jesus in response to this story?

This is the sad ending of John the Baptist, a cousin to Jesus himself and considered to be a great prophet among the Jews. Another interesting fact about this story is that it is the only Gospel story we have which is also recorded in the secular history of the age, written by an important Jewish historian who became the historian and advisor to three Roman Emperors. His name was Josephus. 

Josephus appears to have been a man who greatly admired John the Baptist. Perhaps this is because Josephus, as a young man spent three years – between the ages of 16 and 19 living the life of a desert hermit, much like the Essene community did in Qumran.

There are also many scholars who believe that John the Baptist might have been a member of this Desert Essene sect before he began his prophetic ministry and baptized the Jews who came out in droves to the Jordan river in order to ceremonially wash away their sins as they turned their lives around to align them with God’s way.

But John the Baptist didn’t just baptize people – he was also a great prophet. He didn’t mince words and he wasn’t afraid to even take on the powerful. John was a truth-teller. Perhaps you know the type. They are the ones who tell the truth no matter the risk. Many of the martyrs were like this. Most people just want to keep the peace. We don’t want to offend or upset the balance. It’s so much safer to keep silence. Often it seems “nicer.”

The martyrs, like John the Baptist and Jesus himself had the courage to tell the truth – even though they had to give their lives for it. The stories of the martyrs have continued down the ages even to our own time. From Stephen, the first Christian martyr all the way to Martin Luther King, the champion for racial equality in the United States and to Bishop Oscar Romeo, the voice of the voiceless poor of El Salvador.

And just like this story seems so out of place on a beautiful mid-summer day, so does the violence which continues to overtake the lives of people to this day. This violence doesn’t take a vacation. The story of great evil continues in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Afghanistan and in so much more of the world.

And closer to home, violence in our own cities, in our schools, and sometimes, within families continue today. You cannot open and newspaper or turn on the local news without finding out about some story of violence and tragedy.

What could our role be as Christians?

The most obvious thing which connects John the Baptist with our Lord, Jesus and with each one of us is the sacrament of baptism.

Baptism is a choice to follow in God’s way even when it isn’t popular. When Jesus accepted his baptism by John at the Jordan River he was accepting his own ministry which would lead to his death. He went down under the waters of baptism – it was a kind of death. He was dying to simply following his own will, and instead following his Father’s will.

Our baptism is about that too. It is a kind of death. It is realized in our lives as we live out God’s will for us. Our lives most essentially are not just about us. We have a purpose that is bigger than our own egos and selfish desires. When we understand that we come to realize that we are worth so much more. People are worth so much more than meets the eye.

Taking our baptism seriously means that we will find the courage we need to be a truth-teller, and to stand against that which opposes God’s love.

Two of the important promises which we make in our baptismal covenant are: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

This was the way that John lived his life, and it was the way that Jesus embodied God’s love on earth. These baptismal promises are what transform our lives with purpose. It means dying to self, and living for God and it will fill our lives with meaning.

Yes, we go down with John and with Jesus under the waters of baptism. And we die to our selves. But, of all miracles, we burst back up out of the waters to a new life, raised with our Lord. This new life in Christ – it’s what we’re for.

Today we didn’t get a nice little Gospel story. We got a story about violence and courage and about death. But it’s also about life. Amen.

Proper 14 B - The Prophet's Honour

SERMON for 5 July 2009

Mark 6: 1-13

by Sharyn Hall

Today’s gospel reading is surprising and problematic. The first part of the reading, which describes how Jesus was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, may at first surprise us; but on the other hand, we can understand how people are quick to be resentful when someone seems to place himself or herself above family and friends. Afterall, the people of Nazareth grew up with Jesus. They were ordinary folk, tradesmen and fishermen, not scribes and Pharisees. Why should Jesus be favoured by God and preach to everyone in the town? We can imagine the thoughts going through the minds of the townsfolk.

What is a little surprising is that Jesus seems surprised. Perhaps he thought that people who knew him from childhood would be pleased to have a prophet among them.            In this incident, he learned another aspect of human nature and it dismayed him. Sadly, their attitude dismayed him to the point where he could do little for them. He cured a few who came to him, but he had little power to help many. This incident re-enforces what Jesus had said to others who came to him for help and healing. ‘Your faith has made you whole.’ The faith of an individual, and in some cases, the faith of people who pleaded on behalf of someone else, enabled Jesus to call on God’s healing power. This is an important reminder to us that our healing FROM God is also dependent on our faith IN God.

This does not mean that God will always answer our prayers as we wish. Healing is not only a matter of physical health. Healing is about well-being of spirit and mind and body. Each Sunday we pray for God’s healing for people who are ill, or grieving, or fearful or in any kind of distress. They ask for our prayers because they believe in God’s power to heal and to comfort them. We pray for them and for ourselves because we have faith in God’s compassion for all people, but we are human like the people of Nazareth. Sometimes we are not willing to listen to Christ’s message of healing and wholeness if the message requires repentance and change.

After his experience in Nazareth, Jesus was more aware of the problems his disciples might encounter as he sent them out to preach and to heal in his name. People claiming to possess healing powers were common at that time. Many men and women claimed to cure illness and to cast out demons. Would people believe that his disciples were preaching his message of repentance, and healing the sick and the lame in his name? People may not believe that ordinary folk like fishermen could have miraculous powers. This may be why Jesus gave specific instructions to his disciples. Without money or extra clothing, the disciples would appear to be missionaries devoted to the work of Jesus, and in this way seem more trustworthy than someone who had a comfortable living.

Does this fit with our idea of mission work today? Do we react more willingly to people who come to us with the message of Jesus if they have few possessions and are in need of our generosity? Or do we react with suspicion of their motives? On the other hand, would we be more willing to listen to someone who is well-dressed and has credentials from a large organization? There are many kinds of people in our world today preaching the message of Jesus, and claiming to heal people in the name of Jesus. There are people who give up a comfortable way of life so that they can bring God’s love to poor and destitute people in many areas of the world. Also there are preachers who have accumulated considerable wealth for themselves and for their huge organizations.

In today’s world, what does it mean to follow the example of the disciples in our gospel story? How many of us can give up all we have, take no provisions, and go out into a hostile place to live the mission of Jesus? Taking no provisions seems foolish. Giving away all we have seems irresponsible. However, amassing a large organization of financial resources for property, assets and sophisticated communication networks does not fit the image of what Jesus had in mind for his disciples.

Fortunately there are many ways in which we can be disciples of the mission of Jesus within our own means, in our neighbourhood and in our global village. Our means of living the mission of Jesus is hampered only by our lack of will. A disciple of Jesus does not need money or possessions or even the proper clothes. The only real asset on the mission of Jesus is a companion, at least one other person who shares our belief in Jesus and our faith in God. The only real asset of Christ’s universal church is the people who have faith in God’s universal love, and have the desire to make the peaceful mission of Jesus a reality. In today’s multi-cultural, multi-faith world, that mission can be challenging and discouraging. Even Jesus was discouraged at times, particularly when he preached to people who knew him but would not listen, like the people of Nazareth. Jesus did not give up. He went to the next town, to the next challenge, and to the next opportunity to bring God’s healing and hope to any one who would believe in him and in the power of God’s faithful love.

May God strengthen our resolve to carry the mission of Jesus into our time and wherever God is calling us to go.   Amen.