Called to be Prophets – Br. James Koester

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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  1. Donice Gilliland on January 20, 2023 at 10:59

    This is a wonderful, powerful message. The thing I most wrestle with in our vow to see Christ in all persons is that it raises the question of how to best do so – not in the the downtrodden and persecuted – but how to extend this to the racists, sexists, homophobes, and self-proclaimed Nazis in our midst; a group of angry and hateful people who have strayed far from the image of their creation in the image of God. I would love to hear your guiding voice on this.

  2. John G. on January 20, 2023 at 08:58

    This sermon raises the perennial question for me. What and how much am I prepared to risk for the Lord?

  3. Rick Trites on January 20, 2023 at 05:45

    Br. James, I have heard this message a few times now. Truth ages well! Thank you,

    St. Matthew’s, Ottawa

  4. -suzanne robinson on January 27, 2022 at 07:34

    This sermon has indelibly printed the words “Behold the Image and Likeness of God.” on my soul to re-heart me so that when encountering the human Miracle of God’s creating on my path or I theirs, this Truth will rest, by God’s grace in a spirit of mutual transformation manifested by Corrie Ten Boom, who, when lecturing on Forgiveness, recognized the man standing before her, with outstretched hand, as the guard who took her beloved sister to her death in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. “Christ in her, the hope of Glory”, filled and empowered
    Corrie Ten Boom to extend her hand and Spirit, in genuine, heart wrenching forgiveness, to take the hand of the man who stood before her seeking God’s mercy in repentance. To God be the Glory!

  5. Bonnie S Matthews on January 12, 2021 at 10:16

    Thank you for posting this sermon today. It is so appropriate given the events of this past week and for the weeks to come. This has certainly called me to speak truth in my vocation and to let it be heard that we were all made in God’s image. And that in speaking truth Love is the way..

  6. Deita Batteau on January 12, 2021 at 09:38

    Thank you for these stirring words of truth. We so need to hear these words.

  7. SusanMarie on January 12, 2021 at 08:23

    The timing of posting this sermon now is appropriate for the events of the past week. And once again, as a follower of Jesus, I must recognize and acknowledge that the man who riled up the crowd toward the insurrection of the Capital as well as the mob of insurrectionists — all of whom did horrible, hateful things — are children of God and made in God’s image. And as our baptismal covenant proclaims, I must respect the dignity of all those people. Many of us find ourselves in that far too familiar place again: struggling to do what we are asked to do as Christians, what Jesus demanded of his followers. Sigh. The road wasn’t easy for Jesus, and he said it would not be easy for us. And so, I will put away my self-righteousness and stop trying to claim the moral high ground (because I don’t have it) and see the image of God in people who make it very hard to see…….remembering also that sometimes it is very hard for some to see God’s image in me. Lord, have mercy.

  8. Rhode on August 29, 2019 at 11:57

    Powerful message. My Family sailed by the statue of Liberty April 1961 as part of the first wave of 50,000 grateful Dutch-Indo refugees awarded green card entry into the USA. To follow the words inscribed on Lady Liberty reminds me, just as following Christs words, to do so will cost us comfort, sometimes greatly. To turn our backs on, or ignore what is happening now at our borders and within this Country, is placing children of God in economic and psychological peril for life. Perhaps, also, our national soul.
    Her lips may be silent but ours should not be…
    Here is the excerpt from the poem The New Colossus by Elizabeth Lazarus
    “….. A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    • Liam See on August 2, 2022 at 10:46

      Great to read this entire inscription. Thank you.

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