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Called to be Prophets – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

Feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist

2 Chronicles 24: 17 – 21
Psalm 71: 1 – 6, 15 – 17
Hebrews 11: 32 – 40
Mark 6: 17 – 29

It was over thirty years ago, while I was still serving in parish ministry, that a couple from one of the congregations in the parish came to me. They were concerned, on my behalf, that I might feel constrained in my preaching. It’s not that they had a complaint about the content, or my style, although that may have been true as well. What they were concerned about was the use of a lectionary. Having come from a Baptist tradition they were unfamiliar with the use of a lectionary. They were worried that by using a lectionary Sunday by Sunday, and basing my sermons on the appointed lessons, I was somehow not free to say or preach about what I might otherwise want or need to say. As a lifelong Anglican, I was a little surprised by their question. I think that they were equally surprised by my answer.

Preaching from a lectionary is both a gift and a challenge. It’s a gift because the selection of the lessons isn’t up to me. It’s a gift because the lessons, and thus the sermon, isn’t about me, my most recent musings on a given subject, or my current hobby horse. It’s a challenge because sometimes preaching from a lectionary forces you to address really difficult and surprisingly immediate topics. Today is one of those days.

The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is as current and topical today as it was when it happened nearly 2000 years ago. And the Church retells this story each year on this day, not by accident, but on purpose, because the retelling of this story is a reminder of something at the very core of our vocation as Church. That vocation is both uncomfortable and at times dangerous. So much so that we would like to forget it.

It would be much easier today to preach about something else: the experience of generosity and hospitality that we Brothers had on our pilgrimage to the UK; new beginnings as we watch flocks of new undergraduates arrive to begin their time in university; the grace of Sabbath as we all reflect on the summer that is now almost over. But this feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist forces us to come to terms with the prophetic vocation of the Church that by its very nature is both uncomfortable and dangerous.

John the Baptist belongs to a long line of biblical prophets whose job is not so much to foretell the future, although at times prophets do just that, but to tell the truth regardless of cost. Telling the truth, and especially telling the truth to power is both uncomfortable and at times dangerous. In fact it is so dangerous that some truth tellers, especially biblical truth tellers, loose their freedom, their reputation and sometimes their lives. John the Baptist lost all three.

We live in an age that has an aversion to the truth. From the most powerful people in the world to those who chant racist, sexist, homophobic and Nazi slogans in the street, people do not want to hear the truth, especially about people whom they regard as somehow less than themselves. In this area, the Church must never lose her prophetic voice when it comes to speaking of equality, dignity and justice.

This prophetic voice, which is ours, is rooted in our common creation and anchored by our Baptismal Covenant. In our creation everything, including our humanity that has been made in the image and likeness of God, has been declared good. We read at the end of the first chapter of Genesis: Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness*.’ So God created humankind* in his image, in the image of God he created them; *male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.[1] There are those who would deny the dignity of another simply because they are different. To do so is to deny the truth of the goodness of our creation. The Church must use her prophetic voice to speak truth to any power that denies the inherent goodness of another.

Just as the Church’s prophetic voice is rooted in the biblical story of creation, so it is anchored in our Baptismal Covenant. Each time we renew our baptisms we affirm our commitment to a Christ-like life of faithfulness, repentance, proclamation, service, justice and the care of creation. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?[2] I will, I will, I will, with God’s help.

Such a life as imagined by the Baptismal Covenant is a prophetic life because it boldly proclaims the truth that all life, indeed all creation, has worth in the eyes of God, and that to live with integrity we must live in mutual relationship with God, our neighbour and the creation around us. Those who would chant racist, sexist, homophobic or Nazi slogans, or who would appear to endorse them, deny the very goodness of God, in whose image all things have been made, and who has declared all things to be good. Such people deny the truth that by our baptisms into Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.[3]

Although we may not share a common baptism with everyone, we do share our humanity with women and men the world over. To deny the goodness or the dignity of another is to deny the goodness and dignity of God, in whose image and likeness we have all been created. Such a denial of God’s goodness is nothing short of blasphemy.

It would have been easier for John the Baptist to remain in the wilderness, and keep to himself, and eat his locusts and honey, but his prophetic vocation demanded that he speak truth to power. Such a vocation, in the end, cost him his life.

It would be easier, especially in this day and age, to erase the memory of John the Baptist; to forget his prophetic vocation; to skip the story of his unfortunate ending; to preach about other things; to turn our gaze to more pleasant and less dangerous topics than speaking the truth to power in all its guises, but the lectionary and our cycle of feasts and fasts won’t allow that to happen. This feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist forces us, especially this year, to come to grips with our prophetic vocation as Christians and as Church. To fail to understand that we too are called to be prophets who speak truth to power it to fail to understand what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. To fail to understand that we too are called to be prophets who speak truth to power is to fail to understand, not only our goodness, but the inherent goodness of every person. To fail to understand that we too are called to be prophets who speak truth to power is to fail to understand what it really means to be baptized into Jesus Christ.

Today, perhaps like never before in this generation, the world needs the Church to lay hold of her prophetic vocation. Today, perhaps like never before in this generation, the world needs Christians to lay hold of our prophetic vocation. Today, perhaps like never before in this generation, the world needs to hear truth spoken in the face of racist, sexist, homophobic and Nazi slogans, that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and that just as sure as God is good, so too are all those whom God has made.

John the Baptist came into the world to remind the world of the truth of the righteousness of God. That was his prophetic vocation. Perhaps our prophetic vocation, as Christians and as Church, is to remind the world of the truth of the goodness of God and all that God has created. That is the truth of God. That is the truth of all that God has created. That is the truth the world needs to hear. That is our prophetic vocation. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good![4] If the Church has a prophetic mission in the world today, it is to declare over and over again that all who have been made in the image and likeness of God have been declared by God to be good, not matter what.


[1] Genesis 1: 26 – 31

[2] BCP 1979, page 305 and 305. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church and the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada recently added the promise related to the care of creation.

[3] Galatians 3: 26 – 28

[4] Genesis 1: 31

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