sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B, July 12, 2015
I once knew a high school girl who carried her Bible around with her a lot. She had put a sticker on its cover—a sticker that came into existence in the late 1980s thanks to musicians like Guns N’ Roses and the 2 Live Crew. The sticker on her Bible read, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.”
So I hope you’ll laugh with me that on the Sunday when we look back and celebrate that annual super bowl of children’s ministry, Vacation Bible School, what happens in our gospel reading? A king ogles his own daughter and awards her sexy dance routine with a severed head. Great. But this reading carries even more frightening connotations for us now, connotations we can’t laugh at, with the over-sexualization of young girls in the entertainment industry on the one hand, and so-called ISIS frequently beheading people as a political tool on the other. Our instincts urge us to shield our children from all that is risqué and violent in the world. But the Bible is about real life, and real life is rarely age-appropriate. So, then, the Holy Spirit may have something else in mind.
|Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Titian)|
Some of you may ask, “Why this reading? Couldn’t you have used something else?” And the answer is no—we Episcopalians believe strongly in sticking with the readings we are given in the centuries-old lectionary cycle, not because we cannot change, but because we believe it’s not up to us to dictate all the conditions of our worship. Indeed, we share these readings today with millions of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Reformed Christians, Moravians, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Univeralists, and a variety of other Christian denominations all over the world. So the weekly lectionary is a rare and strong sign of Christian unity, one that shouldn’t be thrown out.
In the Episcopal Church, we love the Bible, and we try to hear and to absorb whatever message it sends us today. And then it’s the preacher’s job to try to find the good news in the reading—no matter what it is—and to use it to connect to God’s good news at work in the lives of all of us.
So what is the good news here? What could possibly be good news in the grisly execution of John, one of the true heroes of Jesus’ time? Believe it or not, I think it has something to do with the theme we used for Vacation Bible School last week. And it has everything to do with the questions: “To whom do we listen? And based on what we hear, what do we decide to do?”
First, “To whom do we listen?” The theme of our Vacation Bible School this year was “Message Received: Hearing God’s Call.” Throughout the week, we sang, played, created, and told the stories of Samuel, Esther, Mary, Jesus’ disciples, and Lydia. Today we add the story of John, a homeless man who dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts. John used harsh words to pronounce God’s judgment on all those who would stand in the way of people’s relationship with God. And then he announced that the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of the world, was on his way.
When Jesus did show up, John’s job was to baptize him and get out of the way. Judgment, no matter how correct, needed to stand aside to make way for mercy. Both John and Jesus listened to God. Both John and Jesus were eventually murdered. Why? Because to people who assume they’re in good with God, the only thing scarier than God’s judgment is God’s mercy. Of course, Jesus did have harsh words of judgment for religious insiders who abused their power and their privileges. When we are given ears to listen to God’s judgment, we have to admit that we’re guilty of a lot of bad behavior. But Jesus’ judgment was also charged with mercy and forgiveness. And if we are forgiven, then other people are forgiven as well—people we’d rather see punished!
So that means that when we listen to God, we have to be ready to open our hearts ever wider. In order to be citizens of God’s kingdom, we have to let go of condemning people, and giving up on people, and insisting that people be punished. We have to want health and healing and wholeness for everyone—even those who hate us. And if that’s too hard for us, it means that we’re still working on becoming citizens of God’s kingdom.
In this work that is, in many ways, a letting go of unnecessary work, prayer is our greatest tool. We taught the kids this week that prayer is something we need to make time for every day. We can bring all sorts of feelings into prayer: joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust. We are able to bring all of these feelings before God because Jesus felt them, too. So when we pray, no matter what we are feeling, God is there to help us through it. We might hear God speak to us in the silence of our hearts, and many of the kids told us they understood what that is like. We might even hear a real voice in our ears—a couple of the kids at VBS spoke of having had such an experience, and I’m not prepared to disbelieve them.
Yes, God is already speaking to our children and has been since the day they were born. That goes for us, too. So … “to whom do we listen?” Do we spend more time listening to human voices—to voices that promise quick fixes and easy answers, to voices that pander to our worst instincts, to voices that insist on keeping us busy and distracted at best, and judgmental and hateful at worst?
Or do we clear away the clutter and make time and make space to listen to that still, small voice inside us? When and how do you pray? If you are part of a family, do you pray together? When and how? Do you read the Bible and make connections between those ancient words and whatever is going on in your life right now? Are you ready to receive gifts from God through prayer, even if those gifts are not at all what you had requested?
All week at Vacation Bible School, we sang a song that names gifts God gives us in prayer: “Listen! Listen, God is calling/ Through the Word inviting/ Offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy.” Forgiveness, comfort, and joy are gifts that God gives us—hopeful gifts, even if such gifts mean we have to do the hard work of changing and growing. God is always speaking love into our hearts, if we have ears to listen. As we grow and change throughout our lives, God is there to help. And so, this week, we also sang the old spiritual: “Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit/ Moving in my heart, I will pray.”
Then comes the second question: “Based on what we hear, what do we decide to do?” Learning to understand what we hear in prayer is called discernment, and it’s a skill we never finish developing. In the first letter of John, it’s called “testing the spirits.” John the Baptist listened to the voice of God and spoke the truth. He let people know that change was coming—change in the way God relates to all of us. Then John began to take his marching orders from Jesus. He baptized Jesus, and we know he kept working after that, because his work got him thrown into prison, where he sat on that fateful night when Herodias (who, confusingly enough, seems to have had the same name as her mother) danced for her father.
Sometimes listening to God and taking our marching orders from Jesus leads to dire consequences. At the very least, it will sometimes make life more difficult. It will inspire us to give of ourselves for others, to deepen our compassion for every human being, and sometimes to speak truth to power … to take an unpopular stand. Sometimes it will leave us feeling disoriented and lost, because only God knows the way. And then, as we follow that way, we will find that it leads us to places we never could have imagined. Eventually we will learn that even death is no barrier to God’s love for us. Jesus demonstrated this most powerfully for us on the cross, where he hung in agony and simultaneously forgave his enemies. Such hard-won strength takes practice. Such unconditional love comes through years of prayer.
Christianity is about real life, and real life is rarely age-appropriate. If you have children in your life, don’t hide this fact from them. Share your own struggles—in ways they can understand, to be sure, and without unduly overloading them. Don’t make them responsible for your feelings, but do keep finding ways to connect them with the larger world into which they are growing, and to look upon this world with eyes of compassion.
Indeed, that kind of work was happening this week at St. Paul’s. On Thursday morning we all gathered in the Great Hall: the entire group of children, along with teen and adult helpers, and along with various parents who were arriving to take them home. Together we sang “Here I Am, Lord,” the chorus of which goes: “Here I am, Lord/ Is it I, Lord?/ I have heard you calling in the night/ I will go, Lord/ If you lead me/ I will hold your people in my heart.” We sang the final chorus a cappella, and as the last note faded into silence, the silence lingered in the air. Yes, a group of sixty children ages 3 to 10 was completely silent for a number of seconds, until I finally broke the silence to dismiss them to their homes. In retrospect, I wish I’d let the silence go on longer, because I perceived that God was speaking through that silence to every one of us. Amen.