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Sermon (2) and Reflections For Ordinary 15 - Proper 10 - Year B
II Samuel 6:1-5,12-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
"This Man is Disarmed and Dangerous"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Proper 10 - Year B
II Samuel 6:1-5,12-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
'This Man is Disarmed and Dangerous'

    King Herod heard of it, for 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." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded,
    has been raised."

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. In spite of violent setbacks to the cause and regular clashes 
with British authorities, which frequently landed him in jail, the founder of modern India
never gave up his vision that the British could be driven from India without shedding one 
drop of British blood; and he continued to walk his way back and forth across the country
preaching the gospel of non-violent resistance.

As he did so, his reputation began to spread throughout the Indian subcontinent such that 
both Hindu and Muslim villagers would come from long distances on foot, with their bedding 
on their heads and shoulders, on bullock carts, and on horse back 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 and received 
the homage of so many people.

Even the civil authorities had to sit up and take notice. Although they resented deeply 
what Gandhi was attempting to do, they could also not help but admire what he had come 
to represent. Eventually, the skeptical British Governor of Madras, who lost no love 
on Gandhi, was forced to declare that British Home Rule was now dealing with an entirely 
new political phenomenon.

   Gandhi is here with the whole of his gang. It is amazing what an influence this 
   man is getting. One of my ADCs came from Calcutta with them in the train and 
   was tremendously impressed with the huge crowds at every station, their 
   orderliness, and absolute devotion to their leader. . . . Now I admit the position
   is becoming one of extraordinary difficulty. There is no doubt that Gandhi has
   got a tremendous hold on the public imagination.

Because that is the kind of threat that the rulers of this world fear most.

                                           +

Mark plunks us down squarely in the world of Real Politik in this week's gospel. It is 
the only story in the Gospel of any length that is not about Jesus; and it is no accident 
that Mark places it where he does. Jesus has just finished giving instructions to his
disciples about how they are to embody God's love in the world. Expect opposition and 
trouble, he tells them, but the only thing you need to take with you is the gospel and 
a confident faith. And then, Mark, as if to "slam dunk" his point reminds us of the story 
of John the Baptist; and he does it in a very deliberate way. 

In the first place he does it by reminding him of the fear of King Herod. Now, you may
remember that this is not Herod the Great, who ruled Israel around the time of Jesus' 
birth.  This is Herod the Great's son by his Samaritan wife Malthace. He was called 
Herod Antipas to keep them straight and he was a chip off the old block. 

Mark calls him "King Herod", but the truth is he had only pretensions to be a king. He 
was the ruler of Galilee from about 4 B.C. to 39 C.E., making him the chief political 
authority, aside from the Romans, during the time of Jesus. His official position was 
really tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, a position made available to him as a result of 
his father's accommodation with the Romans. He never did get to be king of anything, 
although it was precisely this request to be called "King" by Rome and everyone else, 
the request for this title, that eventually got him sent into exile in 39 C.E. by a 
paranoid emperor Caligula. He was an ambitious, half-Jew, who, although he enjoyed great 
power and wealth, was despised both by his Roman masters and his Jewish subjects. He was 
the kind of ruler who thumbed his nose at Israel's religious laws, both by marrying his
brother's wife Herodias and by building his capital city, Tiberias, on top of a pagan
cemetery.

The story that the gospels, as well as the Roman historian Josephus, tell is that he is 
the Herod who got into deep political controversy with John the Baptist. John was mad at 
Herod for several reasons; but the one that really stuck in John's craw was Herod's 
marriage to Herodias.  John publicly accused this famous couple of "living in sin" and 
that was enough to turn Herodias practically purple with rage.  Demonstrating that she 
was the one who wore the pants in the family, Herodias convinced Herod Antipas into 
throwing John in jail until she could figure out what to do with him.

Well, apparently Herod feared John almost as much as he feared his wife.  He knew how 
popular John was with the people and how dangerous it could be politically if there was 
ever an uprising over whatever he decided to do to John.  At least in prison he could keep 
an eye on him, thought Herod, 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 
of the bedroom at night and wandering down to the basement just so that he could hear 
John ranting in his old, dark prison cell. 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, unless, of course, he had learned a few things from living with a schemer 
like Herodias. Apparently it was a banquet done in a fashion bound to impress all of 
Herod's political cronies and enemies and to offend the religiously scrupulous. The 
climax was when Herodias' daughter Salome, who was actually Herod's niece, danced an
apparently lascivious dance that was meant to arouse Herod and make him vulnerable to
suggestion. Whether the sexy Salome meant anything by it other than strutting her stuff, 
her mother saw it as the chance she had been waiting for. Caught up in the moment like a
dirty-old man and macho ruler, Herod gave in to both his lust and his pride by following
through on an oath to Salome to give her anything she wanted. Herodias made sure that it 
was John's head on a platter that "she wanted"; and that, as they say, was the end of 
John the Baptist.

Or so everyone thought.

By the time Mark tells us this story, John has 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.

	...when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

This is what Mark wants to tell us. 

This is not just a story to remind us of the dangers of preaching the truth, although that 
is certainly true. It is a story to remind us of the delusions of the powerful. Herod's 
own actions have engendered in him a deep-seated fear about the results of his deed.  He
interprets what he hears about Jesus "and his gang" by imagining John having come back to 
get him. Nor is this merely a story to tip us off about what is likely to befall Jesus in 
the end too. Of course, a similar fate is going to befall Jesus, as it befalls anybody 
with the courage to speak truth to the powerful. But that is not something Mark's church 
would ever have questioned. What they would have had doubts about was the effectiveness 
of such truth-telling. Would following Jesus and speaking the truth to loveless power 
ever make any difference in the end?

Mark says that even defenseless, unarmed, de-capitated, dead men, like John the Baptist, 
come back to haunt the powerful of this world. They do.

                                           +

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, but that evil would defeat itself.  "When I despair," he said, "I 
remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end. 
Think of it. Always."  And you and I, dear friends, are part of what the prophets called 
a "saving remnant", that is to say, those who are content to cast our lots with the 
courageous victims of this world if only because, from the point of view of human survival, 
it seems better to do so. The very nature of the predators of this world who must, by 
force, disturb the balance of nature in order to survive, eventually becomes too big 
to survive. They fall on account of their own monstrous weight. Resurrection, therefore,
belongs to those who want it badly enough. So does extinction.

                                         ------

II Samuel 6:1-19 - It is the kind of story that has inspired Hollywood movies like Raiders 
of the Lost Ark. The Ark of Yahweh symbolized tribal unity in ancient Israel and was 
believed to be Yahweh's actual throne whenever he sat down to judge Israel.  As long as 
it remained outside David's city Jerusalem, it was a focus of power that resisted his 
control.  In essence, it was a very heavy, ornate, portable religious shrine.  The story 
of Uzzah, who seems to be zapped by whatever power the Ark has and is left dead and 
smoking in the dust just for trying to steady the Ark sounds magical and superstitious.
David's ecstatic dance before the Ark as he brings it into Jerusalem also seems just as 
bit too contrived.  If David had actually been affected by what the Ark stood for - the 
love of God - throughout his monarchy, perhaps he and his house would have fared better. 
As it was, David pursued power more insistently with consequences that proved ultimately 
tragic for himself.

1.   What does this story of the Ark tell you about the prevailing religious and 
political mentality of the time?
2.   In what ways have you observed Christians treating religious objects in 
incongruous and even tragic ways?


Ephesians 1:3-14 - This opening summary of the letter to the church at Ephesus is in the 
form of a eulogy or prayer of blessing. God's work of election of believers is set forth.
God's grace is lavishly bestowed on believers through Jesus Christ. God's saving work is
conceived as a mystery that is now revealed. The church thus becomes the means by which 
God's manifold wisdom is displayed.

1.   In what ways does this prayer speak to what you believe?
2.   In what ways have Christians abused the notion of being "destined" for 
"salvation"?


Mark 6:14-29 -  Mark recounts in sordid detail the death of John the Baptist in order 
not just to explain the fate of John but to foreshadow that of Jesus. The portrait of 
the Herodian court takes on the character of a medieval morality play: an impressive 
political gathering, a dancing girl, a drunken oath and a scheming wife determine the 
end of one of the great prophets of Israel. But, as this week's reflection also 
suggests, perhaps Mark's larger purpose is to encourage Jesus' disciples and members of 
his own church with a reminder of how the rulers of this world are always haunted by 
their own dark deeds, thereby giving hope to all who dare to wear the prophetic mantle 
that their work is not in vain.

1.   What does Mark's story indicate about what Herod was not able to do?
2.   Of this gruesome event, Chrysostom remarked, "He cut off his head, but he 
did not cut off the voice.  He curbed the tongue but he did not curb the 
accusation."  What did he mean? In what way does this give you hope?
3.   Why are the disarmed and morally courageous - dangerous?


HYMN:  Be Thou My Vision  (Voices United 642)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2003
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2003
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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