In the Holy Land during the eighth century BCE all was not well. While simple farmers and shepherds struggled to make ends meet, the elite ruling class exacted heavy taxes and enjoyed lives of lavish and debaucherous luxury. Some threw banquets, lived in tiled houses, and had ivory-decorated furniture as their neighbors withered before them. The prophet Amos, a shepherd and agriculturalist who lived not far south of Jerusalem, took furious note. Then, emboldened by prophetic and fiery words given him by God, Amos walked the twenty miles north to the sacred sanctuary of Bethel and burst forth with a divine prediction of destruction.
His words were not well received.
And why should they have been? Amos had crossed a national border, walked up the steps of its prized cultic monument, and told all in his hearing, including the priest overseeing the royal sanctuary, that their days were numbered. When this priest, Amaziah, exercised restraint in inviting Amos to go home rather than killing him on the spot, Amos got angrier, even predicting that Amaziah’s wife would soon become a prostitute. It really wasn’t a tactful showing. Worse still, he was ignored -- the status quo was preserved -- and the Assyrians flattened the kingdom a few decades later.
Some seven hundred years after, a similar pattern of economic and religious injustice plagued Israel. This time, Roman legions served as the trustees of the status quo. But within this occupied life, there was still an elite that thrived on the backs of the poor. Indeed, in today’s gospel we find King Herod Antipas throwing a fine birthday banquet for his chief officers and supporters while families like Jesus’ and Peter’s worked hard just to make ends meet, and John the Baptist was eating locusts in the desert. Now John, who it appears had been schooled in the art of prophetic rhetoric by Amos, had also decided to bring a ruler’s spouse into his larger societal critique; and Herodias, Herod’s half-niece and his new wife, made sure John would be arrested for his gaff. And at the birthday bash, Herodias ensured that John would be permanently silenced.
The silencing of prophets, through inattention or extermination, has a long and storied history. Time and again, the powers of this world have believed that they could quiet God’s words by cutting down God’s messengers, but they are mistaken, for the courage and the forthrightness and the faith of such as these still reverberate across the centuries. Our sacred scriptures still sizzle and crackle with the power of these prophets today!
The position of today’s gospel reading of John’s death is particularly intriguing. Last week we heard Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth and the sending out of his twelve disciples to proclaim God’s good news to the surrounding villages. Apparently the disciples generate quite a buzz doing all they did in Jesus’ name, because Herod heard of healings and it reminded him of the people’s excitement around John the Baptist. This abruptly transitions the narrative to today’s reading. After relating John’s death, St. Mark scoots us back to the disciples, who are now gathering around Jesus to tell him of their missionary adventures. They go to a deserted area to pray, the crowds follow, and Jesus feeds the five thousand.
Why place the story of John’s death in between such dramatic scenes? Surely St. Mark wants his readers to realize the risks that Jesus was running by stirring up the crowds just as John had. But this point could have been made without interrupting the story of the sending out and the return of the disciples on their first divinely-backed expeditions. There must be something about the movement-building enterprise that is especially threatening to the powers that be. In other words, it is the peacemaking and truth telling and good-news-proclaiming mission at the heart of the Christian life that is most worrisome to those who are quite fine with the world the way it currently is. And when we Christians do this missionary work together as a church, and work alongside many churches doing the same, then the results can be life- and world-changing! But what is good news for the marginalized may be first heard as bad news for those in power.
For God’s mission is this: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Church joined in on God’s mission when it participated in the Underground Railroad, the Montgomery bus boycott, the sanctuary movement to shelter unauthorized immigrants, and the divestment campaign against apartheid. St. Paul’s joins in on God’s mission when it participated in the No on Prop 8 effort, gives showers to our neighbors who sleep on the streets, and visits the children of the poor and incarcerated at Dorcas House/Vida Joven in Tijuana.
We are all called to be missionaries. I know this can be hard for us to hear, but try living with and praying about this in the upcoming week: We are all missionaries of God’s loving and healing and restorative grace-filled mission in the world. “Missionary”: it’s a term with a lot of baggage for many of us. But can we reimagine and reclaim its Christ-commissioned biblical meaning? Can we accept the challenge and the blessing of joining with God to proclaim Christ’s good news through our words and actions in our daily lives?
Now, as St. Mark has reminded us today through the story of John’s death, this missionary work is tough on and threatening to the status quo. It can rub the rulers of this world the wrong way, especially the evil one who perches on the steps of our nation’s venerable institutions and in the recesses of our own hearts. And so we pray for strength and courage each Sunday as we are sent again back into the world, struggling for another string of days to make God’s love and grace known in this hurting place and time. And we look forward to returning here to share our stories of joy and grief, to reconvene with our beloved Savior, and to experience once more the miraculous feeding of the thousands and thousands.
The story of the silenced prophet is nothing new. Indeed, God’s beloved Son and eternal Word would be silenced, too. But not for long. There was too much work still left to do, and Christ “co-missions” each of us, as his missionaries, to “do the work [He] has given us to do” “with gladness and singleness of heart” (BCP pp. 365-66)