The Beheading of John the Baptist
II Chronicles 24:17-21
Hebrews 11: 32-40
It takes courage to speak truth to power. There can be real consequences to boldly speaking the truth, especially when it challenges political, social, economic or religious systems that favor the powerful. Speaking the truth to powerful people can result in the loss of one’s job, the loss of one’s friends and allies, the loss of one’s liberty, and even the loss of one’s life.
We have a powerful example of this in tonight’s gospel lesson, which presents us with a shocking contrast. On the one hand there is the prophet John, the “voice crying in the wilderness,” now alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life; on the other, the king, surrounded by the ‘successful’ and powerful members of his court. John is in prison because he has dared to criticize Herod for marrying his brother’s wife; he is paying a heavy cost for speaking the truth.
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week and Easter, days that are full of interpretation and significance. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous in meaning. Jesus says to his followers: Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power. Why the wait? Because of fear. They were still afraid.
Sixty years ago the great Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, wrote in his diary in Ascensiontide 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 As for Jesus’ disciples, just as for us: God is waiting for us to say Yes, to keep saying Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel for God’s work within us and through us.
In your days I am doing a work you will never believe, even if someone tells you.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
Easter has always captivated my imagination—even in my days as an angry atheist, convinced that such miraculous events are of course impossible.
Yet, in this season of my life, marked as it is by bereavement, scarred by the awful and unanticipated absence of my late parents, Easter—with all its accompanying hope and joy—has been less a consolation and more a taunting insult, a vexation, a catalyst for all kinds of cynicism, doubt, and anger.
Of late, I have refused to be comforted, closing off the precincts of my heart to any touch of joy or hope. I have refused to be comforted, content only to bear my tears, anguish, and sense of injury. In your days I am doing a work you will never believe, even if someone tells you.
We hear proclaimed in our Gospel account that Jesus is resurrected. But one thing has not changed. Even though Jesus is resurrected, Jesus’ heart is still broken. Just several days earlier, from the Mount of Olives, Jesus had wept as he looked upon Jerusalem, grieving his own people’s neglect of “justice and mercy.”[i] That wound in Jesus’ heart has not changed. And Jesus is also still wounded by the betrayal and abandonment of his closest friends, the disciples, who literally left Jesus hanging. And Jesus’ resurrected body is still wounded by the scourgings that preceded his crucifixion, and the horrific piercing wounds from his hanging on the cross, and the wound in his side. None of these wounds is yet healed. Other witnesses are also wounded. The women who were there when they crucified their Lord, witnessed it all, a horrific experience, leaving the women traumatized. And the disciples, wounded by their own culpability. On that first Easter day the disciples are hiding – hiding in their own fear, and guilt, and shame.[ii] On this day of resurrection, everyone in the Gospel story is wounded.
And so for us: the wounds of life. We can acknowledge Jesus’ resurrection and, at the same time, acknowledge somuch woundedness around us and within us: woundedness from the residual trauma and ongoing suffering and loss because of COVID; woundedness because of our own personal experience of loss – be it our own loss of health, or our loss of security, or our loss of dignity; or our loss of loved ones who have meant the world to us. Jesus is resurrected; however meanwhile we witness such woundedness in our world because of the appalling wars and political upheaval going on right now on every continent of the earth; the woundedness for so many people who have been displaced, who have fled for their lives in terror, having lost their homes or lost their hope. There is also, in our own time, the woundedness of the earth, our common home, in the face of the climate emergency. Saint Paul is speaking to our own day when he writes about “the whole creation groaning in labor pains… and waiting for adoption.”[iii]
Perhaps you have heard the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These are the words of a famous 19th century English politician named Lord Acton, who was considered one of the most learned men of his time.
What Lord Acton was speaking about was the tendency of people who gain power over other people to succumb to moral weakness. Such people not necessarily innately evil. They may well begin as honest men and women whose motives are honorable and altruistic. They may want to “do good” for their people. But, over time, as they gain more power, as they experience its benefits, and as that power becomes more and more essential to their identity and self-esteem, the risk of corruption grows. Many will fall prey to its seductive influence. Their desire to maintain or increase their power will lead them to compromise their values and to sacrifice their integrity. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Despotic power,” Lord Acton warns, “is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” (italics mine).[i]
Power can be addictive. The more power people are given, the more they crave it. If they stay in power long enough, their ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient can be diminished. The lines become blurred. They do what benefits them politically, even if it means compromising their integrity and their moral standards. They may lie or distort the truth to get and keep their power. We don’t have to look far to find examples of this in our own political landscape.
Feast of Christ the King
Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14
I must confess that I find this feast, or at least the title of this feast, problematic. What are we to make, living as we do in a republic, with something call the Feast of Christ the King? In Canada, which is in fact a constitutional monarchy, and not a republic, this Sunday is now known as The Reign of Christ. Yet even there, images of royalty, inherited privilege, power, and immense wealth, raises hackles. At the same time, we see in the news how prime ministers are becoming more presidential, and presidents more imperial, as political power and authority become more localized and focused in one person, or office. It doesn’t help that the tabloids rely on people’s appetites for embarrassing tell all tales of the rich and privileged to maximize sales. All of this makes a feast dedicated to the kingship of anything, a complex and complicated proposition. Maybe it’s time simply to reclaim the Prayer Book tradition and refer to this Sunday as The Last Sunday after Pentecost, or The Sunday Next Before Advent, which is what we called it when I was growing up.
However, having said that, today’s feast is not a promotion of some kind of imperial portrait of King Jesus, although there are lots of pictures of Jesus crowned, seated on a throne, holding orb and sceptre, wearing imperial robes. Nor is today an attempt to advocate for some kind of divine right of kings (or presidents!) ruling from Pennsylvania Avenue or Buckingham Palace. Rather, today’s feast is an antidote to all of the images, real and fanciful, we associate with the word king. It is an antidote to King Anyone because the world has in fact never seen, except once, the kind of king we mean, when we speak of Christ the King.
The Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist
Today, we observe the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. There are two biographical bits of information that I think are important to understanding Luke’s theology.
First, Luke was likely a Gentile convert to belief in the Israelite God. He rejected his surrounding culture of Greek paganism, but probably had not fully adopted Israelite religion as a convert Jew. Instead, Luke was probably a God-fearer, a class of participants in Israelite religion that was not bound by the law of Moses, but was bound by the much simpler law given to Noah after the flood for all humanity. God-fearers were, then, on the margins: not quite Gentile, not quite Jew. In other words, Luke knew what it meant to be an outsider.
The second fact about Luke is that he was a physician. In this line of work, he would have treated patients from a wide variety of cultures, social standings, ethnic backgrounds, economic circumstances, and religions. Everyone gets sick. Everyone dies. The frailty of human bodies is a universal experience, something Luke would have been intimately familiar with. In other words, Luke knew that, when it comes to universal human experiences, there are no outsiders.
These two facts, Luke’s status as a social and religious outsider, and his work with universal human sufferings, seem to have worked together to craft a particular theological outlook. In his account of the Gospel, Luke focuses very much on outsiders, those ranking low in the social hierarchy. Maybe the best example of this is Mary, a young woman in a patriarchal society who acts as a direct, even priestly, mediator between God and humanity and a virgin who gives birth. This is not simply Luke expressing social concerns; he paints a picture of Mary bearing Christ in the world, and, in doing so, from her position of social weakness, encountering God more fundamentally than those in positions of high social status, and wielding great power and authority in doing so.
or Galatians 6:14-18
Psalm 98 or 98:1-4
I was a teenager when I found it. A simple silver cross only about an inch and half tall. Plain, unadorned, simple slightly rounded arms smooth and finely wrought. I found it in a little silver shop in an old mining town in Colorado. I wore it for years, first on a little box chain, then re-strung a few times, leather cords, braided hemp, wooden beads, but always that simple silver cross around my neck. It was, beyond language, a token of great importance for me. Something that I couldn’t articulate at the time, an attraction, a reminder, an anchor. This constant companion that would make itself known to me on a cool day when I might slip it under my shirt and I feel the cold metal pressed against my breastbone. Or in a daydream I’d find myself toying with it with my fingers, sometimes compelled to bring it to my lips for a kiss. It was precious to me.
And one day, after returning home from travel I noticed it wasn’t around my neck anymore. It wasn’t in my pockets or my suitcase either. It was gone. I had lost it. And, truthfully, I was heartbroken. For months I checked other coat pockets, inside shoes, anywhere it might have ended up but I never saw it again. Now, it’s not that it was such a costly item that I missed it; nor was I somehow superstitiously clinging to it for luck. It was simply because of the joy and delight I had found in it, all the things that I couldn’t speak it spoke to my heart in close proximity. Ineffable strength and peace. That’s perhaps one of the first times I found the power of the cross.
In our lections the past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. This Letter, I think, presents one of the most important themes that we of modern times need to consider closely: that of integrity of speech. At the outset, it reads like a collection of lessons straight out of a book of social etiquette. James’ words recall in my memory my mother’s admonishment: “Jimmy, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect most of us would consider this maxim to be good and sound. But, I also think to the days of my childhood when someone would speak to another person ungraciously, perhaps calling them a name. You may know the famous playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unlike my mother’s advice, this saying I find questionable at best.
What is striking to me about James’ wise council, is that it goes deeper than just manners and childhood retorts. Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, James’ Letter draws a correlation between word and action. And, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to identify yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
Following the death of our beloved Brother David Allen last summer, I became the senior member of our brotherhood – both in years of age and in years in the Society. My Brother Superior James Koester dubbed me the “Brother of collective memory.”
Over the thirty-seven years that I have been in the Society, I’ve come to see how entirely our particular monastic vocation – vowed love, community life, and service – is rooted in the baptismal vocation shared by all Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why so many people are able to find transformative wisdom in our monastic Rule of Life. We created this text to shape, inform, and inspire our community quite specifically. Yet by God’s grace, its reach has proved far more expansive. Over and over again, we hear how others have found illumination for their lives in the same forty-nine chapters that shape ours.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer here a collection of some of the teachings from our Rule of Life which have most struck and stayed with me over decades of living and learning with this text. Of all its many topics, the Rule is particularly rich in its teachings navigating the challenges and rewards of life in community. These teachings point the way ahead for all of us who are trying to live together in recognition of the fact that we are bound to one another by Christ’s loving authority.