This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 15, 2018. It is based on the Revised Common Lectionary lessons for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29.
I know what you’re thinking. How is he going to wrestle a sermon out of the beheading of John the Baptist? I agree. This is hard stuff, these lessons. Give me a good text full of promises, the kind that brings peace and comfort. Give me a story about the way God loves us, a story full of that unconditional grace. Give me something that I can walk away from feeling good.
Instead we get a prophet who is sent to speak harsh words of judgment to those in power and another that gets beheaded for answering the same call. This is hard stuff, these lessons.
The beloved John the Baptist is executed by beheading. King Herod, the powerful ruler of Judea, gets stuck in a complicated relationship with John, with his wife, and with his stepdaughter. Herod is at odds with his wife over John the Baptist and at odds with John the Baptist over his wife. When he throws a party, has a few too many, and loves the dancing of his stepdaughter a little too much, he makes a boast to the crowd. “As payment for her fine dancing, I will give Herodias anything in my kingdom.” His boast brings more than he bargained for. Goaded on by her mother who was, of course, Herod’s wife, the fancy-dancing child, Herodias, asks for John’s head.
Or consider Amos, the farmer, the keeper of the fig trees, not a prophet by vocation, but called to speak to the halls of power. His word of judgment threatens the religious and political establishment of Israel. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, reports to King Jereboam that Amos has conspired against him and prophesied his death. For being true to his calling to follow the Lord, Amos is branded a threat to homeland security.
What binds John and Amos together is their mutual commitment to doing what God asked of them without qualification, without reservation, without question. Even when it meant going against the cultural grain, against popular opinion, and even when it had to potential to bring them great harm.
This is hard stuff, these lessons. It’s hard to be that kind of Christian, to be that kind of church. It’s easier and safer just to accept the status quo, to look around and say, well, that’s just the way it is, and to excuse ourselves — the problems are too big, the power too great, and like they say, you can’t fight city hall.
Will Willimon is a contemporary theologian who has written a ton about the church in these days. He used to be the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and then went on to serve as a bishop in the Methodist Church. As bishop he used to get around to visit a lot of congregations. He’d often ask folks what they thought the work of the church is and what they thought the work of the pastor is. Invariably, people would answer that the purpose of the church is directed at their own needs — to bring them comfort, to help them in their struggles, to let them know they’re loved and valuable.
That’s what we want. And knowing what some of you are going through, it seems perfectly logical to proclaim a word of comfort and leave it at that. It’s a whole lot easier than speaking out and taking action against all that rails against God’s justice and God’s righteousness, against God’s intentions. This is hard stuff, these lessons.
They’re hard, in part, because they challenge us against our own self-absorption and complacency.
Self-absorption is a cruel and sinful disease. The relative prosperity and prestige with which many of us are surrounded can be crippling to our relationship with God. In this beautiful room, we can begin to think that our ministry begins and ends here. In our lovely homes with their beautiful Door County address, we can begin to believe that it is we who have provided for ourselves. In the vast variety and abundance of this world, we can begin to believe that somehow it all belongs to us. And we can so easily forget that we are called to be a part of God’s people for the sake of God’s intentions and purposes.
Complacency is the disease of sleep-walking through life, of believing that nothing I could do would ever matter in the big picture. Complacency is to sing “Jesus love me, this I know” without ever getting to the part which asks, so where would he have me go.
That’s why we need a savior. Not a cheerleader or a pep-talk, but a savior. One who can free us from our bondage to self-absorption and complacency. John’s execution is a foreshadowing of the death that Jesus would face at the hands of the misguided powers of empire and church. His body would be nailed to a tree and placed into a tomb. In his body, he would carry our own self-absorption and bury it. His death and resurrection bring our own dying to self and rising to new life in God. God has come among us in Jesus; God has delivered us from the tyranny of the self and freed us to live for God and for others. What God has made us to be is described in poetic paeans of praise in the lesson from Ephesians. Listen: God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing; God has made us holy and blameless; God has adopted us as God’s daughters and sons and provided us redemption, the forgiveness of our sins according to the richness of his grace.
In this grace, we have been predestined for works, so that our lives and our work are part of the purposes of the One who has called us. It’s his power, not ours, that enlivens our work as church. We are not just do-gooders; we are the body of Christ through whom God intends to work. Viewed apart from the eyes of faith, we have nothing to offer when speaking to power or facing the big problems of our community and our world. But wrapped in the death and resurrection of Christ, we offer ourselves for God’s use. We are called to be a threat to the worldly powers that perpetuate the status quo of injustices and oppression. Like Amos, we are amateur prophets, injecting tension into the status quo because we know the way thing are is not the way things should be.
The great rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the office of the prophet in Israel was to remind the king that his sovereignty was limited, that over any pronouncements that the king might make, the pronouncements of the Lord and the justice of the Lord have the final say. When our sole focus is on our own need and our own place in the world, we lose sight of where are are placed in the greater creation and who has places us here. We already know we are cherished and will be cared for; from that vantage point, we keep our eyes peeled for the surprising ways God may be at work in the world.
Ordinary people like us do God’s work and enact God’s vision of the kingdom. In 1976, Millard and Linda Fuller worked with Clarence Jordan and began a project to build 42 homes for low income families outside Americus, Georgia. Since then Habitat for Humanity has built over one million homes, touching the lives of five million people. Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Illinois was begun in 1882 when Pr. E.J. Homme opened an orphanage in Wittenberg, Wisconsin with a vision to take care of orphaned children. Today, LSS touches the lives of over 100,00 people through 263 programs at 188 sites in 115 communities throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. A weeks ago, 30,000 ELCA youth and adults descended on Houston, a city ravaged last summer by Hurricane Harvey. High school students — teens — touched a city with the love of Christ.
This is hard stuff, these lessons. They are a reminder and an encouragement that our lives are not our own. When I bless children at the communion table, I tell them, “You belong to Jesus.” Christ has made a claim on you for the sake of the world. We gather in this room to be sent out — as prophets, as the hands and feet of Jesus. No one is exempt. All are called. As the Lord said to Amos, so the Lord says to you, “Go.”