Some Prophets Won’t Die – July 15, 2018
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
A few weeks ago, we observed the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, a celebration of the birth of the figure who prepared the way for Jesus. On that Sunday, Mother Louise Kalemkerian preached a bold sermon that reflected on John’s identity as a prophet—as, in her words, “one who calls out inequities, wrongs, evil; one who tries to speak God’s words of justice and righteousness and love to the world; one who challenges religious and civil authority in the name of truth and integrity.” After reminding us of who John was and what John did, Mother Kalemkerian encouraged us to become prophets ourselves: “to raise our own voices and speak out against the injustices of our own day,” injustices like “children being wrenched from their parents, immigrants and refugees being arrested and imprisoned at the borders, internment camps being built around the country, black children being shot and killed by police, hate speech being normalized, the gun lobby preventing the enactment of sensible gun laws.” “We are called,” she declared, “to raise our voices and to speak out for the voiceless, for the left out, the marginalized and the discounted of our society.” It was a stirring sermon that I know resonated with many of you deeply.
Several hours later, I traveled to a parish in a neighboring town, where I heard a very different sermon—this time one preached by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, or head of the Church of England. Archbishop Williams’ sermon also focused on John the Baptist as part of an observance of his birth, but Archbishop Williams did not see John in the glowing and heroic terms that Mother Kalemkerian did. Archbishop Williams instead contrasted John the Baptist with Jesus, pointing to Jesus’ assertion in Matthew’s Gospel that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Jesus is the one we should emulate, Archbishop Williams told us, not John the Baptist; we should strive to be Christ-like figures, full of love and peace and gentleness, worthy of the kingdom of heaven, not angry, outspoken, earthly prophets like John the Baptist.
I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by Archbishop Williams’ opinions because I knew all about Archbishop Williams’ backstory. Archbishop Williams was the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, a global network of churches that trace their lineage back to the Church of England, from 2003 to 2012. During those nine years, the Anglican Communion struggled mightily with issues of human sexuality. American Episcopalians took the lead in ordaining lesbian and gay people as bishops and allowing same-sex marriage within the church, and theological conservatives all over the world went apoplectic, accusing the liberal Americans and whoever did not condemn them of heresy. A split within the communion became possible, even likely. Archbishop Williams, who up until the point had been regarded as a sensitive, highly intelligen, liberal scholar, had the tricky task of keeping the Anglican Communion together, of quieting the voices—both liberal and conservative—who were bent on advancing their versions of the truth, whatever impact their actions would have on the communion as a whole. It was a task that proved quite taxing for him, and ultimately caused him to step down prematurely, exhausted and disillusioned. It makes sense that Archbishop Williams doesn’t really like prophets.
Hearing the two sermons of Mother Kalemkarian and Archbishop Williams back-to-back helped me realize how much our perspectives on prophecy are often influenced by our social contexts and commitments. I’m sure that Archbishop Williams’ skepticism of prophecy had something to do with his experience managing a large and complex bureaucracy through a time of political conflict. Prophets aim to speak the truth, whatever the consequences, and, as a result, they can be threatening to those who have power, to those who are invested in maintaining the current system.
In the Gospel reading we heard this morning, John the Baptist dares to criticize the marriage of Herod and Herodias and finds himself first imprisoned and then beheaded as a result. I am not sure how sympathetic I am to John’s desire to function as the marriage and sexuality police (it reminds me too much of those who have sought to police marriage and sexuality in modern times) and I, along with several Biblical scholars, have serious doubts as to whether the depictions of Herodias and her daughter are historically accurate (it seems awfully convenient that two women get blamed for an act that was carried out by a man and offered significant political benefits to him). But the exact details of how and why John is killed seem to matter less than the mere fact that John—who dares to speak up, who presumes to hold those in power accountable—is killed in the first place. The story of John the Baptist’s beheading illustrates just how dangerous it is to challenge the powers-that-be; those who are in power, the story suggests, will not tolerate such challenges for long.
Ultimately, though, I do not believe Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s beheading primarily exists to serve as a cautionary tale for would-be prophets. Instead, I think, it aims to demonstrate how futile it is for those in power to try to silence the prophets who disturb them. Long after John the Baptist’s head lands on a platter, Herod is still haunted by the deed he had ordered to be done, terrified that John had been raised in the person of Jesus. Of course, Jesus is not John the Baptist literally reincarnated, but Jesus is a prophetic enough force that he might as well be, and, even if John the Baptist was not physically resurrected in the way that Herod fears, John is still alive and well in Herod’s mind. Prophets, Herod learns, have a way of never really dying. Try to silence a prophet, and you’ll begin to see that prophet everywhere.
Who or what are you trying to silence this morning? What pesky prophet are you intent on putting to death so that you can go about life at ease and unbothered, secure in your power? Be careful. Some prophets won’t die—and, even if they do, they might come back in another form. You can’t eradicate everything that upsets you. Prophecy has a way of persisting—and finally getting us to listen.