Sermon for Pentecost VII
July 11, 2021
The Reverend Emmanuel Ato Mercer
The gospel begins with some confusion about the person of Jesus. His reputation has risen to the heights where King Herod has heard about him. Who is he? Amid the confusion, Herod concludes that John whom he beheaded, has been raised from the dead. Mark then tells the story surrounding the death of John - a prophet who spoke truth to power without counting the cost. The gospel has four main characters: a vain king, an avenging woman, an innocent pawn, and a fearless prophet who spoke truth to power without counting the cost. Which of these are you?
The interesting bit about Herod was that he found John’s preaching to be both fascinating and challenging. He was eager to hear John preach but unwilling to accommodate his teachings. The one guilt which made him a coward to John was his marriage to his late brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. John spoke on the basis of Leviticus 16:18- “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife. It is your brother’s nakedness.” But the powers that be weren’t happy about what John said and so they held a grudge.
In a moment of enthusiasm at a banquet, possibly drunk, Herod makes this reckless promise to his daughter who had danced to everyone’s admiration. Because Herodias had a grudge against John for daring to speak truth to power, this seemed like the seminal moment she’s been looking for - she took her revenge on John, prompting the daughter to ask for John’s head. It was as if his life didn’t matter. To what extent can your desire for revenge go? Although Herod liked John, his desire to appear strong and mighty kept him from breaking his word to the little girl. And so the girl got the head on a platter and didn’t even know what to do with it.
This story is uniquely placed in the gospel of Mark because of the danger that awaited Jesus and his disciples as they shared the good news. According to Mark, they will have to contend with powerful political forces in a society saturated with pawns and anger. Unfortunately, the consequences will be death.
Mark also reminds us that the danger of confronting powerful political forces, a heartless king or corrupt system wouldn’t be peculiar to Jesus, his disciples, or John alone, but that so long as you and I live in a society far removed from living the will of God, that danger will be inescapable.
We owe it to ourselves and our prophetic calling to speak God’s truth to the powers that be-and that in itself is the danger we face.
According to Mark, you and I have to come to terms with the reality that in so far as we speak truth to power by expressing the deep wisdom of God, in so far as we seek to be holy and blameless before God in love, and encourage others to do so; in so far as we proclaim, like the psalmist, that only those who have clean hands and a pure heart may ascend the hill of the Lord, we will face some danger and some rejection from those who believe that some children of God can be treated like John, as conveniences, impersonal objects rather than human beings.
Unfortunately, that was how the girl, the mother, and the king looked at John. A prisoner who was as dispensable as any object that you and I can buy at the store and simply put in the trash bin because we find no need for it. The sad reality is that this is how some people see some of God’s children.
And that is why we have to speak truth to power. When we speak truth to power, we do not only confront the systems that diminish us and treat us like John, but we also hold the mirror to our faces because we ought to know whether we are supporting an abusive system, whether we are being used as pawns to support that system or whether we are so full of rage that all we care about is to revenge on behalf of that system.
A few days ago, I shared with a parishioner an article about a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti Slavery Society by Frederick Douglass in the Corinthian Hall, Rochester, N.Y. on July 5, 1852. Frederick had little to no formal education and escaped from Slavery in Maryland. But here he was, not only speaking truth to power but figuratively holding the mirror to our faces and asking this important question “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He answers, and I quote: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
But, as gloomy and horrific as the life of the Slave was, Douglass was incredibly hopeful. “I do not despair of this country.” He said. “There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain,” he says. “I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” His hope was for a future where no human being would be treated like John, a commodity that could be disposed of without any care.
Over the years, many are those who have called out the king for having no clothes on. Many are those who have perished for daring to speak truth to power. Abraham Lincoln spoke truth to power, even though he was the face of that power. Susan Anthony spoke truth to power. Martin Luther King spoke truth to power. Countless others have spoken truth to power, and continue to speak truth to power.
The unique quality of those who speak truth to power is their belief in Paul’s words to the Ephesians, that we are all adopted as God’s children. We are adopted as individuals into a community and been given prophetic roles to speak like John, we have been given a prophetic task, as Walter Brueggemann says, to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope, in a society that lives in despair. That’s the hope that Frederick Douglass talks about. Those who speak truth to power are empowered by love to speak even on behalf of those within the community who cannot speak for themselves.
As children of God, God has gifted us with every spiritual blessing. This is not a promise of future gifts to be enjoyed in heaven, but a present gift of spiritual blessedness. It is this gift that makes it possible for us to refuse to hold on to grudges and to find more than enough reason to even break a promise we know to be detrimental to the value of another person. Those who speak truth to power are always mindful of the violence of revenge. They know that there’s never any healing in revenge. And so with words of comfort, they always seek reconciliation, they strive for the mending of all of God’s creation, and they bring healing to the broken places of our lives.
The one who speaks truth to power confronts and denounces any system that thrives on being unaccountable. And the one who speaks truth to power doesn’t count the cost in doing so. That is what Mark wants us to know - that despite the danger of speaking truth to power, don’t count the cost.
And so wherever you find perversion of justice, speak up. Wherever you find wrongdoings, speak up. Wherever you find ills that diminish the dignity of others, speak up. Whenever you come across people so bent on vengeance, speak up. Whenever you come across people being used as pawns to further another person’s agenda, speak up.
If there was some confusion as to who Jesus was, there shouldn’t be any confusion about who you are. Speak that kind of truth that is rooted in the gospel of God’s redemption.
Speak truth to power, speak the truth that binds us and builds up.
Speak the kind of truth that breaks down barriers and offers hope to dispirited people.
Speak, and do not hold back.
Speak and don’t count the cost.
You can hear Father Manny's Sermon in today's livestream video, which is below.