Strength in Need
The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams- July 12, 2015 – Proper 10, Year B: Mark 6:14-29
So I have managed through over twenty-one years of preaching in this place to have never preached on this gospel passage. And I consider that one of my greatest scheduling victories. Now this story only comes up in this form once every three years so I’ve only had to avoid it about seven times, but I’ve managed until now. This congregation has heard Tom, Bill, Henry and Dennis preach on this gospel at least once each and this morning I offer my apologies to both Jodi and Christian for not offering either of them this “learning opportunity.” Somehow in the midst of General Convention’s calendar and the Barons’ vacation timing, I slipped in what I’ve relied on as my scheduling mastery. And so here we are with John the Baptist’s head on a platter and me here in pulpit, praying with hopes of avoiding a similar fate.
It is without argument a horrible story. We’d all avoid it if we could. It’s a horrible end to a powerful prophet’s life. But often stories like John the Baptist’s do end this way and I actually think that’s what we need to wrestle with this morning. Prophets’ stories, at least in a temporal sense, rarely have a happy ending.
And this theme of the lives and deaths of prophets has been in the air now for a couple of weeks. Last Sunday we heard our Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry preach his closing sermon from General Convention, but the gospel passage that day was about prophets and it was about how prophets can’t be heard in their hometowns. Even Jesus “had no power” when he preached in his own family’s synagogue, the gospel said. He was stripped of something there. And then this week we heard about the death of John the Baptist who had already been stripped of his freedom. He was in jail the story recalled. And then from there John was stripped of his life. Now he was killed for complicated reasons, the gospel said, but they all had to do with John’s speaking the prophetic truths that he’d been given to speak.
So prophets are powerless at home and they’re often destined to meet a painful end. But we need prophets and they play a critical role in the unfolding of the story of God’s people. And so this morning I want us to ask two questions about prophets: First, if you’re called to be one, what keeps you grounded and strong? What keeps you going if you’re a prophet? And then second, how can we be open to receive prophets in our church, in our world better than we tend to do.
First the question about grounding and strength. What (given other attractive options like “keeping quiet”) what keeps a prophet going?
Well remember that there was nothing about John the Baptist that was overly attached to the things of this world, to put it mildly. He wore camels’ hair. He ate locusts. He hung out in the wilderness. So, no fancy house. No overstocked pantry – probably not even a hidden stash of honey. And obviously, no extensive wardrobe. John the Baptist clearly did not seek his comfort, his grounding in any of the potential trappings of this world. He wasn’t in this world to fit in it – he was in it to change it and so he didn’t get lost in the temptations that can suck us in.
John was preaching repentance and forgiveness for a living, or maybe better put is that he was preaching repentance and forgiveness to be alive, truly alive. Remember John was out there at the river every day offering new beginnings for those who had never been offered new beginnings before. And John knew in his heart and in his soul that he was preparing the way for the one who came after him, preparing the way for the one who would be the way for many.
And my guess is that John got his strength from a couple of places. First from God, from faith in something larger than himself. (Perhaps this is a given, but it’s worth noting.) Remember that it was clear that John had a calling from his very beginning. He was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah when they were well beyond childbearing years and no doubt John had heard the family story endless times about how he’d lept in his mother’s womb when Mary, the Mother of Jesus had come for a visit to their home.
So John knew all along that he was called by God and so he had a lot to lean into when he hit the tough patches. Faith was woven into his very bones and he undoubtedly found strength there, even when the walls were closing in around him.
But in addition to his faith, I bet John also found strength from the people he met down by the river. And I think this is an essential dimension in the work of a prophet. John kept going not only because he’d been called, but because that calling was continually inspired, and re-inspired by the people whom he encountered every day.
Those people down by the river were the kinds of people who were hungry for what the world could be, because the world as it was, wasn’t feeding them. They weren’t fitting in either, either because of their own sins, or because of something more broadly systemic or both. And remember that the River Jordan attracted an incredible diversity of folk – there were “the outcasts” and “the sinners,” but Pharisess, religious leaders who had questions came there too. Even Herod was listening to what John had to say! I find that an intriguing part of this gospel story: “When Herod heard him he was greatly perplexed,” the gospel said, but Herod “liked to listen to John.” Herod was even moved in his own limited and lacking way to “protect him.”
So what happened was that over time, John got to know the stories of the people who came to the river. He knew their pain and he knew their hopes; he knew what pulled them out there, or what had pushed them out there. John knew what they longed for and he knew what the water revealed in them.
And so I think John probably found strength in their need; he found strength in “them” as prophets do. Prophets come to realize that they have nothing to lose themselves but they also recognize that there are people in this world for whom truly gaining is nearly impossible.
And so John spoke prophetic truth first to them – the truth of God’s forgiveness and the promise that there was more to come. And then he spoke the same truth on behalf of “them” to those whose power was stifling the world, rather than loving those in it.
I believe that in the hearts of prophets like John the Baptist live the stories of those who long for more. And within those stories, and in God they find their strength.
Which brings us to the second question I wanted us to ask today: How can we receive prophets better than we do? Well, I think the answer is clear; in order to receive the prophets, we need to carry the stories too. We need to know the stories of the river people, those who hunger, those who thirst, those who question, those who doubt, those who are on the outskirts due to their own searchings or their own sins or the sins of others or some of all of the above.
We need to know the stories, because when we carry those stories in our hearts and then we see or hear prophets speaking on “their” behalf we become cheerleaders rather than threats. We become the ones helping to clear the way, rather than those who are blocking it. When we carry those stories, those people in our hearts, we become the ones who dance at the breaking in of the new day rather than those who fear what we have to lose when it happens.
And so one final piece for this morning. I think that we can be the river, or at least a place that the river runs through. I think this is the collective calling that we share. We can be that place where prophets meet hurts, meet sins, meet Pharisees, meet questions, meet forgiveness, meet new beginnings, meet God. We can be that place that helps weave faith into our very bones, however young or old our bones happen to be.
In this place we’ll see not only the needs of the world, but our own needs too and through a grace bigger than any of our callings, the stories will come together and be held as one. And in these moments of story telling, water sharing, vision bearing, and prophet making – a new day will begin to take hold.