July 12, 2015
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Good morning everyone. It’s wonderful to be here, and it’s wonderful to have the chance to share this morning. When Peter Bankson asked me to preach, he gave me the lectionary readings for this week and then suggested that since I’m a guest new to this community, it would be nice if I could share some of my story as well. So, I said, “sounds great.” Then I looked at today’s gospel reading and I thought hmm…beheading of John the Baptist…my life story… I thought about preaching on the Psalm. But I’m glad I wrestled with this text, because I found resonances in places I didn’t expect.
Today’s gospel story is an odd interlude in the midst of Jesus and his disciples’ amazing works of healing and teaching. For just a moment, we step into the point of view of the “other side,” King Herod. But in this very epic story about Herod, in the middle of all the ill-fated oaths and drunken parties and beheading that goes on, what stands out to me about Herod is that he liked listening to John. Huh. He had already thrown the guy in prison, but he liked to listen to him. I imagine Herod’s interest in listening to John might have been a little bit the way my husband likes to listen to conservative talk radio—he finds it interesting, the motivations and personalities and assumptions behind certain extreme views, even though he doesn’t much buy into it.
So even though Herod likes John in some way, he keeps him in prison. He may have an inkling that John’s words are something of truth—I imagine that part of Herod DID sense the voice of God in John’s words, but another part of him sensed it was dangerous to listen. He benefits too much from the status quo, from the way things are, to really give heed to John’s words about repentance and baptism and the kingdom of God. He may be grieved at the thought of beheading him—but he does it anyway, because of the way he might look to the folks at the party. He waffles.
This doesn’t sound so unfamiliar to me. For any of us—individuals, communities, churches, even whole nations—who benefit from the world’s systems of power, keeping an open heart towards God can be a challenge. We listen to the words of prophets, we study the way of Jesus, we pray for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and give us an alternative way of being in the world. But like Herod, sometimes we display inconsistency in our approach. We may like to listen to the words of Martin Luther King Jr, or Wendell Berry, or Dorothy Day, the words of Jesus. There is something compelling in the words. But listening seems about enough. We wouldn’t actually be expected to give up technology for the sake of the earth and our souls. We wouldn’t actually participate in a hunger strike. We wouldn’t actually want to follow Jesus all the way to the cross. These prophets are interesting to listen to, but in the end they’re a little crazy. When our power or comfort is challenged, it’s too easy to get pulled back into accepting things the way they are.
Perhaps there is a similar tension going on in our Old Testament story. When David marched into Jerusalem with the ark of the covenant dancing and offering sacrifices, I imagine there was a part of him that was truly reverent and worshipful and grateful to God—just as there was probably also something in him that knew by associating with the most powerful religious symbol in Israel, he could consolidate his power.
Don’t we so often live in this same tension? It’s hard to navigate our addiction to the world’s systems of power. It is hard to confront this reality, that even those of us who have desired to listen to God’s voice, may also be pulled away so easily.
This back and forth with power—what I’m calling the “way of Herod”—has been a kind of persistent presence in my journey. When I was eighteen years old, I had a sense that God was telling me to go serve the poor and feed the hungry and share the light of God with the world. In that moment I felt a deep conviction to reject certain ways of power in the world. At the time I understood it as being willing to give up money, security, comfort, and possibly marriage in order to be some kind of missionary in Africa. Of course, that understanding of my call to follow the way of Jesus has been complicated over time, but it did lead me to teaching English in Tanzania and to teaching adult literacy here in Washington DC. Even so, I have never learned to let go of my power and my ties to the world’s systems. In my mind, I am attracted to a radical life of following Jesus. In my heart, I also want safety, comfort, friendships, the security that comes from my privilege.
Inconsistency with regards to power is not just an individual problem. Sadly I have found it in the church as well. For most of my life as a devoted, justice-minded Christian, church didn’t seem like the place where real spiritual movement or real social change started. It seemed like more of a club that liked to come listen to Jesus for an hour, and then go back to places of comfort and security. Into my early twenties, my experiences of spiritual vitality and radical trust in Jesus had mostly been outside the church—at camp, among close college friends, in my family and a community of family friends.
Which made things interesting when, about three or four years ago, I began to feel a call to pastoral ministry. At the time, I was living here, working for a nonprofit adult literacy in northeast Washington and wrestling, like any 25-year-old with a save-the-world mentality, with my sense of vocation in life. I loved working with the adult learners in my agency just as I’d loved working with at-risk girls in Tanzania, but I felt a spiritual dimension to my work was missing. As much as I wanted my clients to be empowered to better their lives through education, employment, and independence, I simply didn’t care that much about teaching them how to balance a budget or sound out words with the “oy” sound. What I cared about were their stories, their relationships. What I wanted to know more deeply were their struggles and their journeys and God’s presence in their lives.
As I asked God one night, for the eightieth time that year, “what do you want me to do,” I sensed the same question coming back to me from God, “what do you want to do for me? Do you want to take this step towards ministry, or not?” and for the first time I acknowledged my own desire. I wanted to be a minister of God’s Word. I wanted to be one who met not only material needs but spiritual needs, one who helped folks see God working in their lives, one who pointed us all towards the cross.
“I want to be a pastor,” I wrote in my journal. And what flowed next from my pen was one major concern: fear that being a pastor would mean I’d be stuck in a status quo, middle class club seeking to preserve its own influence and survival in the community. I’d never go back to east Africa. I’d miss out on the kind of ministry I was doing in Northeast DC.
In that moment I worried that the church was less like Jesus and more like Herod—finding God interesting, but not really interested in following God’s voice.
Someone in a bible study earlier this week mentioned that John the Baptist, in this story, almost seems reduced to a court jester. He’s in prison, but Herod can pull him out at any time for a little entertaining prophecy, then throw him back into the cell and/or behead him if he ventures too far and calls out Herod’s marriage. When I said yes to taking the leap of faith and going to seminary a few years ago, I still feared that in being a pastor, I would become a little bit like that court-jester version of John the Baptist. I saw myself reduced, like John, to a kind of cell. The people of the church would pull me out of my cell on Sundays. They would say, “tell us a story, make it good and interesting. You can talk about God’s kingdom, you can even be challenging or prophetic as long as you don’t hold us to it, as long as you keep it in the pulpit.” Then they’d put me back in my little box where I couldn’t say anything to ruffle feathers, where I couldn’t engage the world as I did in my nonprofit life, and where I certainly couldn’t challenge those in power in the church or community.
I grieve that my understanding of church had been fashioned in that way. I grieve that that is how I had come to see the church. There is some truth in it, yes. All of us in the church, as we seek to listen to God’s voice, come to a point at which we balk sometimes. Perhaps it is good to ask ourselves, What are the challenges to our power that make us close our ears, build walls, and stop listening? I know I’m preaching to the choir here—to a church that has sought to follow God’s leading even into frightening places, even at the detriment of its own power, to a church where several folks are missing this week in their pilgrimage to find God’s voice among the least powerful, the folks in Guatemala. So I share this part of my story not only as a challenge to us all but also as a kind of confession. I’m embarrassed that I would think of myself as a prophet of the ilk of John the Baptist. That I would think of the body of Christ in such a limited way.
What I didn’t count on—what I am learning this summer in my internship with Church of the Saviour—was that there might be prophets and channels of truth within the very Church I was afraid of, calling the Herod inside me to let go of power, to listen.
This summer, I have been spending lots of time participating in the initiatives of Becoming Church—which include the Church of Christ, Right Now and a nonprofit called Reunion which was birthed by their mission to dismantle mass incarceration through relationship and commitment. I have learned from this group what it might look like to let go of power, to listen to the voice of God coming literally from within a jail cell, just like John the Baptist.
Reunion and CCRN’s have weekly Freedom Circles—these were formerly called Spiritual Support Groups when Gordon Cosby worked with them. FCs are the center our mission and the building blocks of community. We meet weekly to recognize, confess, and recover from our addiction to the world’s systems of power. In our opening litany, we confess that we are cultural addicts who too easily accept the status quo, especially the walls and divisions of our culture. After introduction of some topic, there is a chance for open sharing. Everyone’s voice matters. In everyone’s voice there is a chance that we could be hearing God’s voice. And often the voice of God comes from the least expected place—what Paul in 1 Corinthians calls “the weak things of the world, the foolish things, the lowly things, the despised things.”
Among CCRN and the FC, one thing I’m hearing from God is that we need to break down walls. The status quo tells us to preserve divisions, walls, to keep enemies. It tells us that we will have more power, no matter who we are, if we stay among people who are like us. We will have more comfort and security if we are known and understood. We will have more control. If I am write, I should not love those of other races, and I should stay out of their neighborhoods. If I am rich, I should not share my life with the poor. If I am straight, I should avoid the LGBT community. If I have a clean criminal record, I should avoid “felons.” If I am a progressive Christian, I should not work together with conservative Christians. And on it goes. We are all guilty of these divisions. It is not easy to walk the complex roads of cross-cultural unity, especially if we’ve bee hurt.
But the voice of God tells us that these walls are ultimately not to our benefit, that we are truly ALL connected to each other, that the divisions do not allow us to live into God’s kingdom, that we need to be in relationship in order to grow in love and freedom.
That is why CCRN is working on initiatives to transform the criminal justice system in partnership with a broad coalition which even includes support from a board member of the largest for-profit prison corporation in the world. That is why each week in freedom circle, I sit at a table next to a man with mental illness and a woman who was released from jail last week. That is why on Tuesday afternoons, I sit in the DC Jail, in the belly of the beast of power, and hear men in blue jumpsuits calling me to listen to God’s voice from the margins.
Because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. Because God’s ministry is a ministry of reconciliation. Because the death and resurrection of Jesus breaks down the walls that divide us from God and from each other. And we are called to live into this beloved community.
That is why I must wrestle with my addictions to the power system that tells me to stay divided, and learn the difficult task of living without enemies. It is certainly a terrific challenge, and there will be many more terrific challenges on each of our journeys to follow the way of Jesus over the way of Herod.
That is why I want to end today with a prayer I learned from a man on the reentry unit in the DC jail. He wrote his prayer request simply on our sign-in sheet for the week he was to be released: “Pray I make it.” This prayer makes my heart ache, for him and for all of us. Because we are all that vulnerable. We are all that close at every moment to returning to the easy way, to our addictions, to beheading the prophets who are showing us an alternative way. And so all we can do is pray such a simple prayer, for mercy enough to make it, one day at a time, closer to the way of Jesus.
I’ll end with this hope: Our Ephesians passage this morning reminds us that we have been chosen, we have been blessed, we have been lavishly showered with grace, we have been given a glimpse of the mystery of God’s will which is to reconcile all things in Christ.
And so, carrying these promises, we believe that the mercy we need will come to us, and we pray together believing that with God’s help, we will make it.