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Newsletter: Unarmed and Dangerous 

"Unarmed and Dangerous"

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Deana Dudley

at Christos Metropolitan Community Church, Toronto, Ontario

and Holy Fellowship Metropolitan Community Church, London, Ontario

July 20, 2003

King Herod heard of Jesus? miracles, and Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:14-29

Well, now THAT?s a sordid little tale, isn?t it? A little palace intrigue, a little dirty dancing, a little murder. And they say reading the Bible?s good for your character.

And in spite of its sordidness ? or perhaps because of it ? today?s gospel lesson has been told and retold, in plays and ballets and operas and movies. Those of you who watched our "Jesus of Nazareth" film fest last Lent may remember this scene vividly. Actually, they showed the dancing, but kind of finessed the beheading, which was fine with me.

How did John come to get his head on a platter? Well, basically, he wouldn?t shut up. And this is a story about the dangers of telling the truth, of speaking truth to power. But if that?s ALL this account was about, it wouldn?t be very good news, would it? Because John kind of gets it in the neck.. So in order for us to find good news, the good news of Jesus Christ in this, it has to be about something more. And it is.

This account comes with after Jesus has just finished giving instructions to his disciples about how they are to embody God's love in the world. And he told them to expect opposition and trouble. It?s gonna come, he tells them, but the only thing you need to take with you is the good news and your faith. And then, Mark, as if to kind of "slam dunk" the point about opposition, reminds us of this story of John the Baptist; and he does it in a very deliberate way.

In the first place he does it by reminding us of King Herod?s great fear. Now, you may ? or may not ? remember that this is not Herod the Great, who ruled Israel around the time of Jesus' birth. This is the son of Herod the Great, who was called Herod Antipas to keep them straight, and he was a chip off the old block, just as cruel and evil and just plain nuts as his old man. And according to Mark?s gospel, Herod had a serious political controversy with John the Baptist. John had any number of reasons to be ticked off at Herod, but the one that really got John's goat was Herod's marriage to Herodias, who was actually Herod?s brother?s wife, and that just wasn?t kosher.

Actually, the marital entanglements of this whole family of Herods are incredible. They started with Herod the Great, who married five different wives, and had children by all of them. Then the children began to marry each other, and each other's children! So there were cousins marrying, and, in the case of this Herod, Herod Antipas, he married his niece, Herodias, who had been the wife of his half-brother, Philip. And to further complicate the story, there was another half-brother also named Philip! So John wasn?t just CONFUSED by all this, as I am, he was also incensed by it. John publicly accused the couple of "living in sin" and that turned Herodias practically purple with rage. And being considerably butcher than her husband, Herodias basically forced Herod Antipas into tossing John into the dungeon until she could figure out what to do with him.

Well, apparently Herod feared John almost ? but not quite ? as much as he feared his wife. He knew how popular John was with the people and how dangerous it could be politically if he just got rid of John. At least in prison he thought he could keep an eye on John, as well as keep peace in his own bedroom. But it wasn't just fear that motivated Herod. He was fascinated by John and couldn't help sneaking out at night and wandering down to the basement just so that he could hear John ranting in his old, dark prison cell, with a kind of morbid fascination.

You know how, sometimes, you don?t really want to see or hear something, but you just can?t help yourself? You can?t NOT watch. It was like this song I heard on the radio yesterday. Somebody thought it would be a great idea to do a kind of a jazz/hip-hop version of the song "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" from the movie The Sound of Music. And it was, as you rightly imagine, unbelievably horrible. But I couldn?t stop listening to it. I just HAD to hear it out, to see if they could really do it. And I guess Herod was like that with John. He just had to keep going on down to the dungeon to hear him out. Maybe not really WANTING to hear him, but listening, all the same. The portrait Mark paints is of a man who is transfixed with the very thing he fears and despises. "When he heard him," Mark says, "...he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him."

Unfortunately this fascination was not enough to convince him to change his life; and the day Herod decided to throw a birthday party for himself to end all birthday bashes, he unwittingly set in motion forces the consequences of which he could never have foreseen. And this was a big bash, a banquet bound to impress all of

Herod's political cronies and enemies and to offend the religiously scrupulous. The climax was when Herodias' daughter, or niece, whom we know as Salome, though the gospels never name her, danced an incredibly lascivious dance, sort of a dance of the seven veils, that was meant to arouse Herod and make him vulnerable to suggestion.

So Herodias saw her chance. When Herod offered her anything she wanted for her dance, Herodias got Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And caught up in the moment like the dirty-old man that he was, Herod gave in to both his lust and his pride by following through on his oath to Salome. And that, as they say, was the end of John the Baptist.

Or so everybody thought.

By the time Mark tells us this story, John?s been dead for some time and Jesus has been actively preaching his own message throughout Galilee. Although Herod apparently didn't know Jesus, he knew that something equally as powerful as John was stirring out there among the people, and it made him nervous. Mark reports that "...when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."" And he was afraid, very afraid. As well he might be. The ancient church patriarch John Chrysostom said of Herod?s murder of John, "He cut off his head, but he could not cut off the voice." So I think Herod was right to be afraid.

See, the powerful, like Herod, may look like they have it all together, they may look like they?re invincible, but they don?t and they?re not. And the powerful and truly EVIL, like Herod, are more vulnerable still. It?s a bit of a paradox. But I think this story is in Mark?s gospel to remind us of the delusions of the powerful. They have a delusion of power.

You think not? Case in point, a little closer in time. In the early 1920s, Gandhi and India's National Congress Party began moving more and more towards civil disobedience as a chief political strategy in order to achieve independence from British colonial rule. The British tried to repress that movement, sometimes violently, and repeatedly jailed Gandhi. But he never gave up his vision of a free and independent India. And more to the point, he never gave up the vision of achieving his goals without shedding one drop of British blood; so he continued to walk his way back and forth across the country preaching the gospel of non-violent resistance.

And as he did so, his reputation began to spread throughout India, such that both Hindu and Muslim villagers would come from great distances on foot, just to catch a glimpse of him. Never before, it seemed, had any political or perhaps religious leader, in his own lifetime stirred the masses to their very depths throughout the country. The powers that be had to sit up and take notice. They deeply resented and feared what Gandhi was trying to do, but they also couldn?t help but admire what he represented. Eventually, the British Governor of Madras, who lost no love on Gandhi, was forced to declare that British Home Rule was dealing with an entirely new political phenomenon. Here?s what he wrote in a contemporary account:

"Gandhi is here with the whole of his gang. [I love that: "his gang"] It?s amazing what an influence this man is getting. One of my assistants came from Calcutta with them in the train and was tremendously impressed with the huge crowds at every station.... Our position is becoming one of extraordinary difficulty. There is no doubt that this Gandhi has got a tremendous hold on the public imagination."

Yeah, I?d say his position had become one of extraordinary difficulty. Because someone who gets a hold on the hearts and minds of the people, that?s the kind of threat that the powers, the tyrants of this world fear most. One of the things that kept such moral and religious giants like Gandhi going in the face of such overwhelming odds was the profound conviction, not just that love would eventually conquer, because it will, but that evil would, in the end, defeat itself. "When I despair," Gandhi said, "I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end. Think of it. Always."

I?ve done some work with a group called Soulforce, which is an interfaith movement committed to ending spiritual violence perpetuated by religious policies and teachings, in other words by the religious powers that be, against queer people. And it gets its name, Soulforce, from one of the names that Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave to the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance. Both civil rights leaders believed that we were created to do justice and that when we take even one little step in that direction it renews our spirit (releases our own "soul force") as it helps transform our society. That relentless, nonviolent resistance creates those shifts in power.

You know, I performed my very first legal wedding of a lesbian couple last night. It felt really good. Really, really good to be able not just to affirm God?s blessing of a relationship, but to make it legal. When I got to the point at the end, where I pronounce the couple legally married, and say "by the power vested in me by the province of Ontario and the laws of this land...." I choked up a little. Because I realized that because of the relentless justice work of so many people, there?s been a shift in power. A little shift towards justice. And that kind of power shift STILL makes people afraid.

So, in the end, this story about John, and Herod isn?t just a tale to tip us off about what is likely to befall Jesus in the end too. We know the end of the story. We know that the powerful got him in the end, too. That?s often what happens to anybody with the courage to speak truth to the powerful. We know how the story ends. Truth keeps on speaking to power, until power lashes out to destroy it. Power's attempts to destroy truth are ultimately futile, but their brutality can be spectacular. Just look at the cross. So Mark is writing to people who legitimately wondered about the effectiveness of such truth-telling. Who legitimately wondered whether following Jesus and speaking the truth of love to loveless power would ever make any difference in the end.

Mark says yes. Mark says yes because Mark knew, and we know, that in the end they could kill Jesus, but they couldn?t kill his message. Like John, you can cut off the head, but not the voice. Mark says that even defenseless, disarmed, de-capitated, dead men, like John the Baptist, will always haunt the powerful of this world. And they do. Like Gandhi. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if we are true to our own calling, like us, too. We need to keep on speaking truth to power. Because, the good news is, in the end, it matters. In the end, the power of evil overthrows itself. In the end, the truth of love wins.

Resources gratefully acknowledged: Barry Robinson, "Keeping the Faith in Babylon: A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile;" Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill Uniting Church, "Living the Truth".


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Holy Fellowship Metropolitan Community Church
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