Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, July 15, 2018 (Proper 10 - Year B).
St. Mark 6: 14-29
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Episcopal priests generally don’t preach topical sermons, like, "God Wants You to Be Rich!" That particular title, by the way, reflects the preaching of what we call the "prosperity Gospel," which is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but of the culture. Episcopal priests are bound by our ordination vows to "preach the Gospel," and by that is meant we set ourselves to the task of offering an exposition of the Gospel assigned for a given Sunday or Holy Day. And I dare say that more often than you and I would like to hear, is a message that is counter-cultural.
Of course, the "Good News" comes alive for you and me when the Gospel is related to the many and varied experiences of our daily lives. When the preacher addresses these issues the Gospel will surely commend topics that speak to these experiences. It escapes me, however, that the gruesome narrative of the beheading of St. John Baptist can be at all helpful! One could probe the theme of the "abuse of power," but that’s not where the Spirit is leading me today. In fact, on Friday when I came to this point in writing this sermon I still had no idea where I was going with it!
My wife was no help! Candy usually prints out a worship bulletin cover for me to approve on Wednesday of each week. She spends a reasonable amount of time searching the Internet for something appropriate to the Sunday Gospel reading, to which she often adds her own text. When she presented the bulletin cover for this Sunday for me to approve I said, "That’s an awful cover! If we have any children present it will gross them out at best and scare the livin’ daylights out of them at worst!" She said, "Don, I’ve searched this Gospel theme and its bulletin illustrations all over the Internet, and I honestly tell you they are all more disgusting than this one!" Then I thought to myself, "You know, the Gospel Story is built upon the foundation of the pain, the suffering - the bloody agony of the Cross. It’s not a pretty picture."
I wouldn’t change what you see in front of you for any other images of the Gospel narratives, but we’ve got it right in the Parish House: the largest item on any of the four walls in our fellowship room is what? You’ve got it, the Corpus hanging on a very large cross. The body of Jesus, very dead, on that west wall. It is the pure illustration of the substance of our salvation. By his death we are dead to sin and death. By our baptism our sins are buried with him in his death. By our baptism we are raised to eternal life in his resurrection.
Prior to Our Lord’s death there is the death of a mighty prophet of God, St. John the Baptizer. His death is a foretaste of the death of Jesus. We dare not trivialize John’s death. It has relevance for us. I once heard this Gospel story trivialized by a traveling evangelist. His abominable sermon on this Gospel reading focused upon the theme of the evil of dancing. (This was at a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky.) "Every time you dance," he said, "you reenact that evil which cost John the Baptist his head!" I wanted to say, "I’m outta here!" A few weeks later the Board of that church agreed to admit into the membership two Nigerian pre-seminary students, if they pledged to wear their native garb to distinguish themselves from the city’s African American population! I was outta there. It was a few weeks later, on a beautiful Sunday morning, that I was walking down South Broadway Street and entered Holy Trinity Episcopal Church - but, I’ve already told you that story!
We are told in our Gospel narrative for today that it is the wife of King Herod who wants John dead. John had preached that her marriage to Herod is invalid because his brother is still living. His brother had previously been married to her, and according to the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 18: 16; 20: 21) a man was forbidden to marry his brother’s wife while the brother was still living. The Jewish historian, Josephus, who also lived in the first century, writes that indeed Herod had John arrested and ordered his death, but according to Josephus John was executed for political reasons. Herod is afraid that the popularity of John the Baptizer will seal itself in a peasant uprising.
Well, I’m far afield, now, of any relevant tie in of this story with the struggles that you and I sometimes face in our lives! I will try to bring us closer. There is a connection between the death of Jesus and John that creeps ever so closer, first to the disciples and then to you and me. The deaths of John and Jesus were ordered by reigning powers. In the case of John, King Herod. In the case of Jesus, the Governor, Pilate. It is interesting that neither of these men really wanted to order the death sentence, but because of their own political ambitions and outside pressures, they give in. The disciples are taught a sober lesson in the deaths of John and Jesus: they will not be immune to the capricious orders of men who are more powerful than they. It would seem acceptable to draw a parallel between the martyrdom of some of the disciples and us, and thus complete the chain of events with our lives, but that’s not realistic. We are not likely to suffer death for our commitment to Jesus. Perhaps the lesson in this for us is that we must be on constant guard lest we trivialize Jesus, the likes of St. John the Baptizer, and the Gospel for which he and his Lord died. That trivialization is a constant danger as we sit in peaceful surroundings amidst beautiful art and carvings, and storied windows illuminated by warm light. It is a constant danger as we step back onto this spit of sand which many call "paradise." It’s a constant danger when our only welcome image of Jesus is his blessing of little children, or that very familiar portrait which shows a very white Jesus with soft, light brown, long-flowing hair. It’s a constant danger when we say Jesus doesn’t really mean it when he says, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." It’s a constant danger when he tells us to love our enemies and we don’t take him at his word.
Jesus says in another place, "I tell you, there was none born greater than John." That is a powerful accolade, coming from the Creator of all things! Had Herod believed the testimony of John our bulletin cover would have been far more tasteful! But the stark reality is that authority does not always regard righteousness, and unfortunately these illustrations bear witness to a humanity bereft of the image of God. James Russell Lowell says this well in his familiar hymn, which also defines our task to bear witness to a Godless humanity with deepest intent and a full awareness of the challenge of the task:
"By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, thy bleeding feet we track
Toiling up new Calv'ries ever with the cross that turns not back."
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that it is not e specially helpful to follow the text as printed since he preaches from memory of the manuscript and therefore departs from it with extemporaneous remarks - especially if he thinks of a good joke! The sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a professor of homiletics who often said, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"