SERMON Lectionary 15B 2018
Decapitation of St. John
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
One has to wonder why this story is in the gospel at all, and why it is appointed for preaching. Jesus is not in this story. God does not appear. It belongs in the National Enquirer rather than the bible, more TMZ than New York Times. It has colorful characters … the wild and crazy prophet, the wicked queen, the hot babe … it has palace intrigue, conspiracy, entrapment, power, sex and murder. It would make a great episode in GAME OF THRONES. When it comes to entertainment value, nothing tops power, sex and death.
But of course that’s not why we are here, and it is not for entertainment that we read this story together. For us as God’s people in the world, it provides a shamefully common example of what happens when one speaks truth to power in this world. The same thing that happened to John happened to Gandhi in India, Bishop Romero in El Salvador and Dr. King in America. (Luther survived because he had friends with armies.) John only did what many others have done before and since.
What interests me, though, is not so much what John did, but the fact that Jesus never did it; Jesus never approached power that way. Though he denounced hypocrisy with withering scorn throughout his ministry, Jesus never took on the rulers by name, never plotted revolution, never jumped into what we might call today the political process. Eventually, of course, Jesus was a victim of politics and executed for a political crime. But it is essential for us to remember that Jesus, the disciples, the early church just didn’t engage with the political movements and intrigues of the day. Where John the Baptist was all in, our Lord and the church were all out.
This is because Christians – especially Lutheran Christians –
have a different understanding of power and place. Though we live among the kingdoms of this world, Christians live in, live toward, another kingdom. Jesus preached the kingdom of God; his miracles and healings were signs of that kingdom. Jesus lived and died to open God’s kingdom, a kingdom of perfect justice and peace, a kingdom that, unlike any political arrangement we may make here on earth, is eternal. In that context, all the political arrangements of this world, much less the marital shenanigans of a wicked, adulterous queen – or a mendacious, sexually abusive president for that matter – count for very little.
No, rather than seeking a political voice such as the Jews were so anxious to raise against the Romans, early Christians lived under the radar, trying their best to avoid engagement with an evil empire dripping with pagan religiosity. Now, it was very important for early Christians, in strict obedience to the first commandment, not to acknowledge the Emperor as a God, even though doing so wasn’t much different from just rattling off the pledge of allegiance. When push came to shove, Christians went to the stake or to the cross or to the lions rather than say that Caesar was God. So because of these martyrs – there were many thousands of them over two centuries – the public witness of the church was amplified, not by anything that might have been said in the Roman Senate, but by what ordinary Christians were willing to do and how far they were willing to go for the integrity of their faith in Christ.
Here’s my point: in the first place, as God’s church, we need to understand ourselves as a kingdom that is IN the world, but not OF this world. The church is like the Estonian Consulate: though located at 305 East 47th Street, New York, New York, the consulate is Estonian national territory. When we step through its doors, we are in Estonia. So it is here, in church: when we cross this threshold, we are in another country, subjects of that country’s King. We are on holy ground. Our first allegiance is not to any flag, but to the living God.
That, incidentally, is why the national flags are where they are at Trinity: by the doors. In the United States of America – unlike, for instance, Saudi Arabia or China – our constitution and our laws protect our right to gather and to worship God. That is a magnificent and precious privilege which we are proud to claim. But we do not put the flag and the cross on view together; we do not conflate the law of God with the laws of nations. Seven out of ten commandments would be unconstitutional if enacted into law, and I believe that our attorney general is profoundly wrong when he uses scripture to justify the appalling cruelty of current immigration policy. Lutherans acknowledge the necessity and goodness of government, but we do not confuse state power with the faith of Jesus.
When John the Baptist denounced the Queen Herodias’ moral turpitude, he took the political arrangements of this world with much more seriousness than Christians on this side of the cross need to do. Jesus doesn’t command us to control the government and make laws about other people’s behavior. On the contrary, the experience of God’s people from one end of the bible to the other demonstrates that morality cannot successfully be legislated. Love cannot be legislated. In this world, we do well to approximate simple justice and social peace.
So how are we Christians to live in this world? Jesus has a clear, unambiguous answer: we to be servants of human need. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, help other people or go straight to hell. Help means food, shelter, clothing, medical care, forgiveness and concern, in the here and now, as signs of the kingdom that is coming. Right now, as we sit here, Lutheran Social Services of New York is quietly caring for 56 of the thousands of children taken from their parents at our Southern border. No matter where they come from, no matter where they end up, we as heirs of God’s kingdom have the duty and privilege to be a blessing to these children. Praise the Lord.
It is still perfectly possible that by doing what Christ commands, by being servants of human need, eventually we will have our heads handed to us on a platter. Being in the world but not OF the world is hard work, holy work; it ignites the enmity of the world, the flesh and the devil. This is the story of John the Baptist, and Jesus, and Gandhi, and Bishop Romero and Dr. King among many others; indeed it is an old story, all too familiar and still all too possible.
But it is OUR story as Christians, a story that God is still writing in our lives. And the best part of the story is how it ends. All the stories of the kingdom of this world end with death, whether we are beheaded in an ISIS video, or wither away quietly from cancer. But God has written another ending for us, an ending that doesn’t end, an ending that is the real beginning of our lives. That is why we can not only face down the injustice and cruelty and falsehood of the world and its rulers, we can stand at the grave and sing Alleluia. We know something that Herod and Salome and even John the Baptist didn’t know, something that most people in the world still don’t know: in the midst of the vanity and stupidity and cruelty of this world, the universal kingdom of Divine Love is being revealed, and we who by God’s grace are the heirs of that kingdom and citizens of Heaven, live in it and live toward it now.
Let us pray.