Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
Every spring a family of robins takes up residence in the tree just outside my door. Three years ago, I marveled at how these little ones survived a horrendous thunderstorm that took down a number of large tree limbs in the yard. Remarkably, on the morning after, I found that all of the babies had survived the beating rain and gusty winds.
Each season I await the day when mama scoots her brood out of the nest and they fly on their own power. While it is sad to see them go it is a sign that they have made it and will now navigate the skies on their own. This year’s nesting did not have such a happy ending. On Monday morning I discovered that the nest had fallen out of the tree and with it the lone fledgling occupant who clearly showed the effects of the trauma. At first I thought it was dead but then I noticed movement in the tiny wings. I resisted the idea of scooping it up because I knew it needed the care of its parents.
During the course of the day, it began to walk—ever so slowly—and by the early evening had taken refuge under my car, probably sensing that the rain predicted was, indeed, on the way. How would its parents find the wee one now? Then off to the left of the yard I spotted what was clearly the daddy bird, feverishly working at gathering worms. I remained as inconspicuous as possible as I watched the parent go under my car to feed the baby. Sadly, it did not survive and I found the lifeless fledgling the next morning.
You may be wondering why I shared this story. Well, for starters, in spite of the outcome, it’s a much nicer story than the gory one in the Gospel. There we find the account of how John the Baptist was murdered in the context of a self-indulgent banquet because of a whim of the narcissistic, wicked, vindictive Herodias. Her reason: the prophet had stood up to her politician husband, Herod, about this affair he was having with his brother’s wife. What a macabre scenario—presenting John’s severed head on a dinner plate!
There are a number of messages to be taken from this passage, not the least of which is the truth spoken by Lord Acton: “Power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts.” Powerful people can do great things that serve the common good but powerful people can also cause much suffering and be responsible for much malevolence. Herod’s choice was the latter.
The story is included to remind us that prophetic voices take a big risk when they speak truth in the face of the powerful. John the Baptist learned that. So did Jesus. This event was also a wake up call for his disciples. If they were going to preach a Gospel that humbled the powerful and exalted the lowly, it was going to cost them…their very lives. In our own day we have seen the similar fate of Martin Luther King, Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Harvey Milk.
What I think is the most revealing part of this entire Gospel is the very last line: “When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” In Jewish tradition, the sons of the father were expected to give him an honorable burial. John must have had no sons because the disciples stepped up and provided a burial for him. Government officials did not look kindly on people who came to collect the body of someone like John who had been executed as an enemy of Herod.
Remember that when Jesus was crucified his disciples scattered and it took a few women and a member of the Sanhedrin to bury him. It took courage to ask for the body of someone who had been executed by the ruling authority of ancient Palestine. That is, isn’t it, the gist of the Gospel—courage—courage to take on the risky business of subverting the old world and creating a new world by what we do and what we say and how we live.
Every time you speak up for love in the face of hate, whenever you tell the truth about injustice and oppression, in each and every thing you do on behalf of the Anawim, a Hebrew word for the poor, the afflicted, and the meek—you proclaim the Gospel with courage and you take a step into that new world.
On Tuesday morning I buried that little fledgling in my yard, covering it with a portion of the nest in which it began its short life. I know the little thing didn’t know what I was doing nor did its robin parents. I did it in gratitude and respect for the miracle of nature that I behold each spring and the lessons we learn from watching how God’s most insignificant, powerless creatures care for one another. It is, after all, even in small, ordinary, unseen ways that we bear truth to the witness of the ancients who said “see how these Christian love one another.” That’s where we find power, true power, the power of God which, paradoxically, is the peace that passes all understanding.