Homily for Ordinary Sunday 15B

In Uncategorized on July 12, 2009 at 9:59 am

You know that as a preacher you’re in trouble
when you come across commentators who say things like:
I have never heard nor preached a sermon on the passage, and for good reason.
Things don’t improve greatly when you read on and are told:
You can put your ear to the ground and listen as hard as you can,
but you will not detect a single note of authentic joy or hope
anywhere in the vicinity.
What you will hear is a sordid tale of anger and revenge, resentment and death.

The Lectionary, the Sunday cycle of readings
that takes us through the Gospels and other parts of Scripture
every three years
doesn’t let us off difficult passages, hard sayings, sordid tales.
The discipline of the Lectionary is that sometimes we have to mine a little deeper,
work a little harder,
to hear “what the Spirit is saying to the Church”.

On the face of it,
the story of the beheading of John the Baptist is hardly uplifting.
It is a story that seems to intertwine inappropriate relationships
with manifest injustice.
None of the protagonists looks good from beginning to end:
Herod has imprisoned John
for his criticism of his affair and marriage with his sister in law.
She, Herodias clearly wants and wanted John terminally silenced.
Herod vacillates, partly afraid and partly captivated by his prisoner:
his peculiarity, his piety, his popularity.
The step-daughter, niece, also called Herodias, dances –
in what manner we can only speculate
– for Herod and his guests,
and the ruler bombastically promises her anything she desires,
up to half his kingdom.
And on mother’s demand, she asks for John’s head.
Herod is clearly torn, but a promise was a promise
and a ruler could have nothing without honour before his friends.
The Mediterranean world was built on a system of honour and shame.
The irony should not be lost on us that,
just as a prophet was without honour in his hometown last week,
so it is on honour’s account that Herod has John murdered.

On a very simple level, it’s a cautionary tale.
Bad behaviour, ignoring the call to repent and re-order relationships,
painting yourself into a corner
and having your hand forced by a foolish promise…
We have little but contempt for Herod.

But that whole story merely sets the scene.
Because nearly all that gospel reading is actually the back-story.
The more powerful message is that in death, as in life,
John the Baptiser is a parable at work,
a prophet, and a pointer to the truth of God in Christ Jesus.

Herod, racked by guilt and fear, sees Jesus as John come back to haunt him.
John has huge power over Herod.
The weakness of the would-be powerful is profoundly exposed.
The emperor, petty local variant though he may be,
has no clothes.

Even from beyond the grave,
it is the witness and the truth of John’s words
that have Herod looking over his shoulder.
So much so that he sees in Jesus, John.

The truth will not die.
If we dare to speak it.
And whether it is in the guise of John or Jesus or Elijah
or a thousand political prisoners, or you and me,
the truth of God demands to be told.
Is the “truth” something we are committed to?
Or is it a malleable, pliable, blurry substance
that can be created and reshaped as our context and our conscience let us?
How many of us live in a world were sometimes the easy lie
is more acceptable than the hard truth?
A little lie can be so much more seductive that the big truth.

We. You and I,
are the heirs of John and the disciples of Jesus.

We are called to be critical, to be engaged,
to be listening for and even to be speaking truth.

And not just a narrow, spiritualised, morality-based truth.
I believe – and I see in John and Jesus
and the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament this absolutely played out –
that we are called to stand before the powerful
and talk not just about personal relationships and peccadillos
but about justice and economics and the values of the Kingdom of God.

And do all of that, knowing that that will not endear us to them.
But, remember that other soundbyte from the gospels
on the subject of truth –
and it applies both to the dispossessed and to the powerful –
“the truth will make you free”.

There are people in our midst who are not free,
because of truths they cannot tell about themselves,
because of structures and prejudices that belittle them,
because of words we are too afraid or unwilling to utter in their defence.

There are countless peoples in this world
whose captivity is economic or literal,
sometimes cultural or in the apprehension of others.
To all those languishing in prisons of their own or others’ making,
dare we have the courage to make the legacy of the prophet our own?

Dare we discover how subversive our faith really is?

The truth will not die.
Rather it resonates in history and in heaven,
with the one, the only Truth, the “I am” of the Godhead.


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