July 15, 2012
Sometimes being a prophet means getting your head handed to you on a silver platter.
Bishop Oscar Romero was an El Salvadoran priest. He is considered a saint of the church, and we often hear his name in connection with All Saint’s Day. Bishop Romero was made Archbishop of San Salvador to the disappointment of many of El Salvador’s priests who were working for the liberation of the poor and promoting the work of liberation theology.
Romero was a conservative choice; the powers that be in the El Salvadoran government saw him as a safe choice. He wouldn’t shake things up or cause any kinds of problems for them. I’m sure that certain people in that government saw him as an easy, malleable mouthpiece for their ideology. In other words he wouldn’t get in their way.
But then another Jesuit priest, a good friend of Romero’s, was assassinated for his work with the poor and his stand against the government. This was a defining moment in Romero’s life. When he saw his friend’s dead body, he knew that was being called to walk that same path.
So he took up the cause of the poor. He spoke against the government. He was unafraid to call into question the injustice of those in power and with privilege. In March of 1980 Romero was assassinated as he presided over mass. The gun shots were fired as he raised the chalice during the Eucharist.
Sometimes being a prophet means getting your head handed back to you on a silver platter. Sometimes being a prophet costs you your life.
I don’t say that lightly or in jest. Being a prophet, speaking prophetically to the powers that be, especially when you are speaking against the powers that be, is a dangerous thing to do. Bishop Romero is just one example. Certainly there are many, many others. Answering the prophetic call is a dangerous thing to do.
Studying our passage today and studying the verses around it, I wonder if the twelve disciples didn’t feel at least a little hesitant about going out on their own when Jesus sent them. Were they being called to suffer the same fate as John the Baptizer? Would they have to sacrifice their very lives for the message of good news that they shared?
At the end of the passage we read last week Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples to go out two by two into villages and towns. He gave them the authority to cast out unclean spirits and heal the sick and the lame. And this is what King Herod heard about in our passage today. Jesus’ name and fame had been spreading. Now even his disciples were going out into the countryside, healing and proclaiming repentance.
That made Herod nervous. He was scared. Because maybe this fellow doing all these things was actually John raised from the dead. And if it was John, would he be coming after Herod?
King Herod imprisoned John because John told Herod that he was wrong in marrying his brother Phillip’s wife, Herodias. John never hesitated to proclaim to Herod that his marriage was unlawful.
Surprisingly enough, Herod wasn’t angered by this as much as he was frightened. Herod was actually scared of John. He knew that John was righteous and holy. Maybe he was scared of John’s authority or strangeness or complete conviction that he spoke the truth of God. Maybe he was scared because he knew that John was right in what he was saying about Herod’s marriage. Whatever the reason, Herod protected John. He protected John probably as a way of protecting himself.
But Herod’s wife, Herodias, felt differently. Her grudge against John ran deep. She wanted to see him dead but was thwarted in her desire because of Herod’s protection. Her chance finally came, however, during Herod’s birthday party. The dance that her daughter, often called Salome, did for Herod and his companions pleased him so much that he promised her anything she wished. When she asked her mother’s advice on how to have Herod fulfill that promise, the response was instant, “the head of John the Baptizer.”
This story sounds like something out of a crime story, doesn’t it? A little Law and Order in the gospel. And it seems more than a little strange that Mark goes into such great detail about it. Matthew’s gospel tells the story, but it doesn’t seem to have as much emphasis placed on it. Luke’s gospel mentions it in only a few verses and then moves on. But Mark seems to find it very important.
It certainly presents a pattern as to what happens to prophets. John’s story parallels in some ways the story of Jesus. And this story also serves as a cautionary tale that discipleship is not easy. It’s not always pleasant and it certainly wont’ be profitable. The twelve disciples, heading out in different directions, certainly had to realize this and we have to realize it as well. Discipleship isn’t easy because we are called to do difficult things and speak difficult truths. We’re called to love and care for difficult people. We’re called to reach out to others, to step outside of our comfort zones. And we’re called to speak the truth to the powers and principalities – even if speaking that truth means great risk to ourselves. Even though speaking that truth and calling people and institutions to accountability may mean that we literally or figuratively receive the same fate as John – our head on a platter.
The telling of the story of John’s beheading is done through flashback. Mark writes that the reason Herod is nervous about Jesus and his disciples is that he fears a return from John. The use of flashback means the disciples probably knew John’s story. They knew what happened to him. They knew that what they were doing carried great risk and danger. John’s story is a reminder about what can happen when someone steps outside of the status quo. Teaching and preaching outside of the social, cultural and religious lines was a dangerous and risky thing to do. It cost John his very life, and we, the readers and the hearers of this gospel can see that John’s story is also a foreshadowing of another death yet to come.
I have long been fascinated with John the Baptist, the baptizer. The prophet who one day appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming the need for a baptism of repentance. He was a strange and charismatic man. His clothes were strange, his words were strange, even his diet was strange. He stood out. And he never shirked from saying what he believed God was calling him to say. Just before Jesus begins his public ministry, we hear of John’s arrest. Now we know the rest of the story.
But what does it mean for us? What does it mean to hear about this terrible death of a prophet? Maybe we read this story so that we can answer a question. When the time comes for us to stand up, to speak the truth, to act prophetically, what will we do? What will we risk?
A few years ago, I heard about a woman named Leymah Gbowee. Leymah is a woman from the African country, Liberia. Her work for peace in her country has gained her international recognition, including winning the Nobel Prize.
Describing her work in that way doesn’t really do justice to what this woman, along with hundreds and hundreds of other women, did to bring peace to their troubled country. Liberia had lingered in a civil war for many years under the dictatorship of President Charles Taylor. In that civil war, children were forced into being soldiers, women and children were raped and tortured and thousands of innocents were killed. Leymah said in an interview that from the time she was 18 until she was 31, she lived in fear. She admits that she never wanted to put herself at risk. She never wanted to put her family at risk. But she felt that she was called, as a Christian, to speak out against the violence that was happening all around her. Along with other Christian women, she began a peace movement. They began to protest with sit-ins, sitting in a field on a route that the president would have to pass by twice a day. Their sit-ins brought attention to the atrocities that were happening to their children and their country.
Like any movement it started slowly, but it gained momentum. Leymah and the women who stood with her even had a chance to confront President Taylor in front of the other leaders of the government and a large assembled crowd. It was Leymah and the other women who kept the peace talks going between the differing groups at a peace summit in Ghana.
Leymah, this woman who had once been so afraid and so scared to speak up and speak out, become a prophet. Her story ends well. But it could have been much different, and I suspect that she is still in danger because of her willingness to confront the evil in the powers and principalities around her. I suspect that she could still wind up with her head on a platter. But she did it anyway. Just like John. Just like the disciples. Just like Jesus.
We know that what we are called to do will not be easy. We know that being a disciple is about taking risks. We know that at some point we all may be called to be prophetic. But we also know that no matter what, we are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of all those who have gone before us. And through faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, we know that when our time comes we will have the courage to stand up and be counted. Amen.