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Text: Mark 6: 14 – 29
So, lately, the sort of religious liberal Twitter I follow has been abuzz, because of a recent study from the Public Religon Research Institute in the US, a survey of how Americans identify religiously, that seemed to show the start of something we’ve so long been hoping for: White conservative evangelical Christianity is starting to decline, non-religiousness is no longer growing but has plateaued, and mainline liberal Christianity is no longer declining but starting to grow again.
Oh my God! Finally, no more closing churches! No more of those evangelicals gloating over us saying that it’s because we’re accepting of LGBTQ+ people and women preachers and other religions that we’re declining, no more insisting that we don’t really know Jesus here! No more looking at budgets with despair! We’re going to grow again, and have vibrant active churches again, and have full bank accounts again, and be able to pay our ministers what they deserve again! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
And while I think there is hope there, I admit I feel a little bit of unease about the air of celebration around it. Relief, I get. I don’t want to be constantly stressing about whether I’ll have a well-paying job in the future, whether what I do is relevant, but at the same time . . . I never grew up in a full church. I have never known when the church was the centre of social life. I have always looked at the nostalgia for that kind of church, the church that was a dominant social force in society, with a bit of scepticism.
To me, that kind of church wasn’t really following Jesus. It was more concerned with its own position and power. To me, it seems like that was a church full of social cliques you had to fit into; it was the church that rejected people if they didn’t measure up to standards: if you weren’t the right social class, never mind the right race or sexuality or whatever. That was the church that ran the residential schools.
Whereas a church that follows Jesus is on the outside; it tells truth to power; it gets into trouble. So, logically, it isn’t going to be very popular. At least not with the “right kind” of people. John the Baptist gets beheaded for telling truth to power; Jesus gets crucified.
I did my undergrad in English literature, so I’m often wondering about the way the gospels go about telling the story, what kind of literary devices they use and why. This story, the story of John the Baptist’s execution, is told in a very interesting way that no other story in the Bible is told: as a flashback. We can imagine Herod sitting on his throne, being told about what Jesus is doing and how people think he is John the Baptist come back to life, and then Herod says, “But I killed John!” And harp music starts playing in the background while a wave effect happens on screen and we see Herod and Herodias at the feast.
It’s interesting this story is told as a flashback because it makes you think about what’s happening in the present and comparing the past to the present. As always, the lectionary leaves out some crucial context; this flashback is shown after Jesus sends out the Twelve to go around to villages preaching and healing.
Jesus sends out his apostles to villages, to common people, to the poor and outcast, to the sick and the dying. John, by contrast, finds himself at the centre of power. He preaches in the court of the king (okay, a puppet king of the Romans, but still) and angers the people with privilege: Herod’s wife and her daughter.
The text says that Herod actually liked listening to John, and so John finds himself in an interesting position. He could tone down his message to appeal to a wealthy patron; he could start telling Herod and Herodias and the wealthy and powerful people they have gathered around them the things they want to hear. He could be a society prophet, an approved preacher; he could be popular and he and his disciples would not have to worry about money ever again.
But no, he calls out Herod’s debauchery, because that is what he is supposed to do. He tells truth to power and gets executed for it.
If we live in a world full of injustice, of inequality, and the powers that be seem perfectly okay with it because they still get to have their feasts, marry their brothers’ wives, watch their step-daughters dance and lust after them; we cannot be the society church. I would hope that any political leader who came to my church, no matter what political party, whether I personally voted for them or not, I hope that I would annoy them enough to stand up and leave by never letting them have a moment’s peace. I promise you that neither John Horgan nor Justin Trudeau nor Donald Trump would ever hear me praise them, publicly or privately.
So, in a way, part of the church’s mission is to make powerful enemies. If we’re authentically preaching the gospel, the gospel of liberation for the oppressed, the prisoner, the poor . . . if we’re going out as Jesus’ apostles do to the towns and the villages, not to the cities and the halls of power, we will not be that church of the past ever again.
One of the core themes of the gospels is how the Holy Spirit does her work in unexpected, unsavoury places. She works in the heart of an unwed teenage mother, of a poor carpenter, of a raving man wearing a hairshirt, in fishers and farmers, in the outcasts and the sinners, not in the heart of those who are at the centre of society; not in the priests, the lawyers, and the rulers.
One of the criticisms of liberal mainline Christianity is that we’ve abandoned the “real gospel” because we don’t follow all the rules, or we’re not strict enough, or we don’t talk about sin and sacrifice enough. But an honest church following the gospel is a church for those who have been excluded. For people with mental illness, disability, LGBTQ+ people, “sinners” (whatever that means). They are God’s people.
Jesus sends out the twelve to those people. John tells truth to power. These are the stories of the true gospel, stories of good news. God heals and defends the lowly, not the powerful.
Let us be faithful, authentic Christians and not worry about whether more people will come to our churches. Let us simply do, and leave what’s left in the hand of God. We’re sent out by Her command, so let us simply follow, in hope, faith, and love. Amen.