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Beheading of John the Baptist – Br. Curtis Almquist

Mark 6:17-29

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her.  For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not,  for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.  But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.  When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”  And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”  She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”  She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”  Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”  The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.  Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison,  brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.  When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I grew up in a church tradition which consistently and confidently produced full-color Bible pictures.  There were colored pictures in Sunday School flyers, in Vacation Bible School tracts, and in religious “comic books.”   By a young age I could very clearly picture old Moses with the Ten Commandments, and young David’s meeting up with Goliath, Jesus’ feeding the 5,000, and Mary and Martha’s entertaining in their home because these full-color drawings were embossed in my memory from an early age.  (I grew up in the Midwest, and I have to admit that most of these Bible characters looked Swedish, amazingly enough!)  But I was spared the picture of John the Baptist’s beheading, what we remember today in the calendar of the church.  It is not one of those scenes that I could have or can easily picture.  And it would not seem to be an experience that many of us here will likely face, at least not today.

And yet I was stunned, just a couple of years ago to hear a report from the compilers of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.  These researchers reported that, in the year 2002 alone, more than 159,000 professing Christians were martyred in such countries as the Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China, and Vietnam, among others.  Were we today among the hearers of this gospel story in an oppressive country, we would be likely be very attentive.

The English word “martyr” comes to us from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” being translated as “witness,” the ultimate witness to Christ being the offering of our life’s blood.  I suspect that for most all of us here, we won’t likely face some kind of blood-red martyrdom, at least today, nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give witness to Christ.  There will most likely be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for a brother or sister, even today… not in some kind of ostentatious showings of heroism and notoriety, but in some very mundane and rather hidden ways.

Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we’ll be invited to forgive.  We’ll be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience, the withholding of our judgment, the readiness to be helpful and not retiring, the opportunity to bless and not curse.  Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but I would say that all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once a day, even today, to die, like a grain of wheat.  Something great or puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs, some thing – some image of our selves, some impression or decision or resolution or right or fear or time that we feel is our possession – will get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t give it up, don’t let it die.  Today will be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and claiming this “abundant life” promised by Jesus.

In the SSJE brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak about an identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks but because we are baptized.  In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.”   We do say in our Rule that “…from the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own life commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God.”  And we remind ourselves that “the witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.”  But we as monks recognize that our identification with martyrdom, which gives us the grace to surrender our lives to God through our monastic vows, comes from our the grace of baptism, where we – all of us here who are baptized –  “have died with Christ and are raised with him.”  What would that mean to you?  That you “have died with Christ and are raised with him?”

Surrender.  The surrendering of our lives.  Surrendering any notion that we “possess” our own lives.  My life does not belong to me.  That is how I would speak about having died with Christ and being raised with him.  We don’t possess our own lives.  I would say we are stewards of the life that God has given us, and for however long God continues to give us breath.  I think of it as being loaned back into life after baptism.  And so I would say that our life is not about hoarding or about conserving itself for its own sake but its opposite: about giving.  Our life is about willingly giving up our life and our life’s energies as we see in Christ’s own self-emptying.

A wonderful way to think and pray about the life you’ve been given to steward is to face into the certainty of your own death.  The only thing uncertain about death is how and when we will die.  Death is a part of life.  By facing into the inevitably of death you may find enormous freedom and clarity in the moments of life which are still ahead for you – be it as much as another day or week or month or year or perhaps many years.  (We brothers make our funeral plans and keep them up to date.  Your survivors would sure find that helpful if you did that… and in the meantime it might prove enormously helpful for you personally.)

So we say that in our baptism we give up the delusion that we possess our own life, and we acknowledge that our life needs to be salvaged by Christ.  And then we are loaned back into life for a little while with Jesus’ promise that he’s going to use us, he’s going to use you.  You will re-present Christ to this world – your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions, beyond which you could ask or imagine, and in ways that Christ will set up.  Channel it.  Channel that power, that light, that life, that love of Christ.  Channel it, generously, don’t hoard… and don’t worry.

As you leave the chapel this evening you might find it meaningful to dip your fingers in the holy water basins near a doorway.  This is baptismal water, placed there at the doorways as a reminder of our own baptism, where we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.”  We give up both the delusion and the burden of possessing life.  We acknowledge that we are neither the author nor finisher of life.  We’re a steward of life, a participant, a player, an agent, an ambassador on a short-term, mortal assignment by Christ.  Who knows for how long?  Give it your all; you will be given all you need.

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13 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Witherspoon on September 12, 2016 at 08:48

    A remarkable new way to look at the gift of life. Thank you.

  2. Lorna Harris on April 14, 2014 at 10:10

    I wonder how Salome felt as she made the request and then, likely to her horror, found it had been carried out. She was a child being manipulated by adults in a court full of violence and intrigue into which she was introduced as a step-daughter. I always feel for her.
    http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/uc_salome_herodias.htm

  3. Pam on April 14, 2014 at 09:10

    I hear what you are saying that I do not ” possess my life”. This is so hard and surrendering seems so impossible. To give generously, to love generously to those who have as you say “killed us” seems so impossibly hard today and yet this is what I have to do. I sometimes wonder if we ever get a breather, if there is a place of peace. Does it get any easier this surrendering I wonder….. Is true transformation possible? I hear Him say nothing is impossible for me and yet it still remains difficult….. But thank you for this.

  4. Leslie on April 14, 2014 at 08:17

    Thank you, Brother Curtis. For four years, everything has been “fine” as I live my life with an unhealed wound dealt by a friend. Reframing that as an opportunity to “lay down my life in a mundane way”, may at last be the cure.

  5. DLa Rue on August 29, 2013 at 07:57

    I’ve always been puzzled by the charge John places against Herodias since, according to the principles of Levitical marriage, widows were supposed to be married to a surviving brother (unless her husband had not yet died? But I don’t recall seeing that noted anywhere either.)

    Those of us who study gravestone iconography often acknowledge the irony of spending large parts of our lives thinking about the dead and their memorials. But it does focus ones thinking more–as it was meant to do: the early Roman phrase, translated and used in NE and elsewhere, “as I am now so ye shall be/prepare for death and follow me,” says a lot about that.

    Pondering ones death. Its gone from something I never thought about to something I do occasionally wonder at. How will that be, and will I be ready?

    DL

    P.S., Wasn’t it Salome who was the daughter and Herodias the mother? Depictions of her dancing on Rouen Cathedral

    http://a401.idata.over-blog.com/780×344/2/01/43/65/Balades/Balades-31/Balades-31-7515.JPG

    and elsewhere

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/Fra_Filippo_Lippi_-_Herod%27s_Banquet_-_WGA13286.jpg

    name her so; this presentation on Western uses of the story to introduce ideas about Eastern dance and costume up to the 1920s is also well-done:

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCwQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpeople.uncw.edu%2Fdeagona%2Fraqs%2FSalomes%2520d1f.ppt&ei=XDIfUujwKqqtsQSf7YDoBw&usg=AFQjCNGiTNsb7vYQh19CwRMUPcOqYqk1Ng&sig2=0ijWfVx9LaLuz5ps-m6dXA&bvm=bv.51495398,d.cWc

    (safest is always to download the file after ones security software has vetted it, rather than open it directly, although I did so with no problems). – DL

    • Christina on February 5, 2014 at 10:22

      I too have wondered why John the Baptist castigated Herod for marrying his brother’s widow. I understood that that was a given.

      I am just re-reading a book by Lesley Hazleton, “Mary”. In her book she presents a completely reason for Herod’s assassination of John! It has nothing to do with Herodias but is political.

      The more I read the bible, the more confusing it becomes.
      Christina

      • David Cranmer on April 26, 2017 at 21:56

        I believe that the reason John criticized Herod is that his brother was still alive. Herod took his brother’s wife, who was not a widow because her husband was still living.

  6. Ruth West on February 16, 2013 at 00:14

    Br. Curtis, this is a powerfully great sermon. I disagree with one of the former comments that there is prejudice shown in the scriptural passage.
    I think the writer simply told it as it was. Sadly, there are even today more
    women in seductive roles than are men, prostitutes, strippers, etc. I find
    the story as told in the gospel as factual.
    When I was a child I learned a little chorus which has spoken to me through the years: “I surrender all; I surrender all; All to Him, my blessed Savior,
    I surrender all.” I am facing the fact that I might not be on this earth much longer. But I pray,
    by His grace and strength, I can be faithful to the end.
    Thanks for your good homilies.

  7. Clarice Boyd on February 13, 2013 at 07:19

    The wallpaper on my computer is a picture of a peaceful, misty morning beside a stream. I have added the prayer of Brother Charles de Foucauld on this picture so that I read it whenever I enter my computer. It is a prayer of total surrender to the will of God; an acknowledgement that the Father in heaven is always with me. How can I describe that peace that flows over me with the reading of these words? It is the same feeling of presence and warmth that engulfs me when I read Isaiah chapter 43, “Thus says the Lord who created you, who formed you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” Yes, Lord, I am yours, sent forth to do your will and serve you always.

  8. Paul Hoffman on February 12, 2013 at 13:14

    wow – thank you – that’s a liberating message

  9. Sandi Mizirl on February 12, 2013 at 11:17

    Curtis,
    What I hear you saying in today’s reading is, “Don’t ride the clutch!”
    How wonderful it is to hear your words this morning as I finish my first rounds visiting patients on the floor I have been assigned at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in the Medical Center, Houston, TX. Your kindness and loving words continue to comfort and encourage me. Thanks

  10. Jean Ann Schulte on February 12, 2013 at 08:43

    Thank you, Br. Curtis, for this wonderful, centering mesage as we enter into Lent.

    When words fail in prayer, I repeat these three petitions:

    Make me a good steward of my life.
    Help me to understand my purpose and how to use the imprints on my soul.
    Give me the courage to hear what you are saying in this season of my life.

    They seem to reflect the spririt of the word offered to us today – how to minister in the context of this life, with these talents and energies.

  11. Anders on February 12, 2013 at 07:34

    The text disturbs me because it speaks of Herod in favorable traits and women in negative ones. First Herod feared and protected John then killed him out of regard for his oaths and for the guests. It is the women–Herodias his sister in law/wife and Herodias his daughter–who have the grudge against Herod that makes his head become the centerpiece for dinner conversation. Herod comes off as a leader of relative integrity and respect, and the women as evil.

    How often do I kill or allow something I recognize as righteous and holy to die due “the system”? How often to I give away my power of choosing right due to apathy and giving in to manipulative, seducing dances (think media)?

    It’s easy to take the righteous path and see myself as the the one who has died with Christ and is raised with him. Today I am reminded that I’m part of the system, nailing his feet to the cross so I know where they have him, feasting at the banquet. Am I channeling the of Christ’s love or passing the chocolate cake?

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