Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29 (The Rev Steve Sturgeon)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
Our gospel reading today is certainly one of the less uplifting ones we hear as part of our Sunday lectionary. Jesus barely makes a cameo appearance in the text, and instead we hear the story of the unjust execution of John the Baptist. The backstory to this execution is a mixture of palace intrigue worthy of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and the carnal soap opera of the TV show Love Island. The King Herod in today’s reading is one of the sons of the King Herod we read about every year in the Christmas nativity story, the one that ordered the massacre of the infants in a failed effort to kill Jesus in the cradle. Being a despotic ruler was the family business, and Herod Junior also was quite willing to slaughter innocent people to maintain power. In the context of today’s reading, Herod had just recently divorced his wife in order to marry the newly divorced wife of his own brother—a divorce that Herod had apparently encouraged. John the Baptist had publicly denounced this marriage, which led to his arrest and Herod’s new wife having a grudge against him.
Now, given the fact that we are members of a church denomination that was founded when King Henry VIII of England decided that he needed to divorce his first wife and the Pope got in the way, it might be tempting simply to skip over this gospel reading entirely. (And I will confess that in all the years I have been giving sermons, this is the first time I have actually ever preached about this particular passage.) But I think there is a compelling reason why we hear this story on a reoccurring basis. This gospel reading provides a powerful example of the ways of the world—of how corruption and decadence seem, so often, to have all the power and the final word. We might try and create false comfort for ourselves and pretend that what happened to John the Baptist was just an isolated incident a long time ago in a place far, far away—but let’s get real—it still happens all the time right now. We need think no further than the actions of people like Robert Durst, Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, or Bill Cosby, to know that this type of story is still very much a current event. It may not involve the literal death of a person, but the exploitation and destruction of the poor and the marginalized by the rich and the powerful can be a form of death in its own way.
We know that this type of behavior pre-dated John the Baptist’s era. That is what the Old Testament prophet Amos was warning about in our first reading this morning. The book of Amos holds a distinctive place in the scriptures, and has had far more influence that its short length might suggest, because it represents a pivot point in the Old Testament writings. Amos is the first to introduce a new theme that runs throughout the writings of the later prophets. Whereas much of the first half of the Old Testament focuses on the idea of increasing success and glory for Israel, with God fighting on their behalf and vanquishing their foes, Amos instead announces that they have betrayed God’s laws, that God is no longer on their side, and that they will soon lose everything, including their very own nation. No one prior to Amos had proclaimed that God would bring about the destruction, rather than the success, of Israel. What was especially surprising about Amos’s message is that he gave it during a time, around 750 BC, when Israel was nearly at the peak of its territorial and economic power. His message would have struck his listeners as completely crazy. Yet, less than three decades later, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed, and its people carried off into exile.
The great sin that Amos accused Israel of committing had nothing to do with offering the right sacrifices, or worshiping in the right place, or being ritually pure. Instead Amos accused them of being hypocrites. The wealth and prosperity of Israel was built in large part upon exploiting the poor. There was, at that time, a growing economic disparity between the elite and the poor. As one commentator writes, “Through manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small [landowners]. The smallest debt served as the thin end of a wedge that lenders could use to [foreclose on property and drive people into the equivalent of bankruptcy].” Does any of this sound familiar? Amos argued that because the people of Israel were the people of God, they would be punished for their exploitation of the poor, since in doing so, they had strayed from God’s commandments. Being God’s chosen would not protect Israel from punishment; instead being God’s chosen would cause Israel to be held to a higher standard—a standard which they were failing to uphold. (Oxford NRSV Bible, 2001, p. 1302.)
So we have our gospel reading from Mark and our Old Testament reading from Amos showcasing how the ways of the world are corrupt and immoral, a pretty depressing way to start off our Sunday. Where then are we to look for hope? According to today’s passage from the letter to the Ephesians, our hope rests in God—who from the beginning of time has been seeking to secure our salvation. As is often the case with New Testament letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, the writing can be tricky to unpack due to run-on sentences and ambiguous pronouns. Today’s passage, however, can be summed up in two proclamations and two responses. The two proclamations are: 1) Christ is our salvation, and 2) This has always been God’s plan. Our responses to this good news are 1) to recognize that this gift of salvation applies to all of humanity, not just a special few, and 2) to offer our praise to God in return—and not just a shallow, forced, self-interested
praise, like was offered by the followers of Herod, but a genuine expression of joy. (Paul J. Achtemeier, “Exegetical Perspective on Ephesians 1:3-14,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 233.) As always, we have to remember that the gift of salvation is exactly that: a gift. It is not something we have earned through our actions; something that God owes us. Instead what we hear in this passage is about God’s extravagant love, God’s willingness to go any distance for us. This love for us is not dependent upon our having those things that the world deems important and valuable (power, wealth, or appearance); it is a love with no prerequisites and no strings attached. It is a type of love that in all honesty we rarely, if ever, experience in our own lives, and in fact may not even believe actually exists.
When we hear the words ‘blessed,’ ‘chosen,’ ‘adoption,’ and ‘grace’ in this passage, we may be silently replacing them in our heads with the words ‘rejected,’ ‘failure,’ ‘shameful,’ and ‘guilty.’ The rejection and victimization that John the Baptist experiences in our gospel reading may well echo in our own lives, when we have experienced betrayal or even violence at the hand of/at the whim of someone else—either by another person or an institution. (Karen Chakoian, “Pastoral Perspective on Ephesians 1:3-14,” p. 234; Edwin Searcy, “Homilectical Perspective on Ephesians 1:3-14,” p. 233; both in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3.)
How then are we to place our trust in this offer of love from God, to believe that it is genuine, to believe that it is not conditional, to believe that it is not a one-dimensional, naïve love incapable of bearing up under the weight of the world? We are able to do so because it is a love grounded in Christ. Over and over again in this passage we see that everything originates ‘in Christ,’ and we know that Christ himself experienced everything this world has to offer, both the highs and the lows. And because of that, we know that the love of God, expressed in Christ, is completely rooted in the shared, lived, messy experience of our daily human lives. God meets us right where we are.
As we seek to reconcile this gift of love with the trials and tribulations we face in our own lives, a key thing for us always to remember is that we are not condemned to struggle through life on our own. Just as God is with us, so too we are called to be there for one another. The language we hear in today’s passage from Ephesians is not individualistic but communal; we are called to be a community in Christ. The prayer of blessing that is offered in this reading expands in three concentric circles. The first is the blessing of God upon the congregation, the community of believers. The next is the blessing of God upon the whole world and universe. The third blessing reverses direction, for now it is those who have recognized the blessing of God that in turn are offering their praise and blessing to God, and in so doing are bearing witness to the rest of the world. Not a smug “we’re saved and you’re not” sort of witness, but by offering praise to a God who gives the gift of radical love to everyone and everything, we are bearing a testimony against the Herods of the world and all the false values and idols that they represent. (This is what we were doing earlier in the service with the litany of healing and thanksgiving.) (Chakoian, p. 234; Searcy, p. 233, 235.)
This is not to say that the Herods of this world have been vanquished; you need only watch the news to know that this is not yet the case. We continue to dwell in the ‘in between time’ of knowing God’s love for us in Christ and awaiting the gathering up of all things into God, both “things in heaven and things on earth.” But just as we draw strength from one another in our times of adversity, so too we draw strength from the Holy Spirit, which Paul tells us “is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people,” and our assurance that God will prevail. (Achtemeier, p. 235.) Amen.